WHAT IS THE JLPT ANYWAY?
The JLPT stands for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. It's a timed, paper-based standardized test designed to gauge your reading comprehension and listening skills in Japanese with five difficulty levels.
Who do we have to thank/blame for this? Well, it was devised by the Japan Foundation and Japan Educational Exchanges and Services (what a mouthful!) in 1984. Hundreds of thousands of people take it around the world every year, so it's currently the most common test of Japanese language proficiency.
The test was revised in 2010 to be more difficult — looking at you, N1 — and thus was born the current version of the JLPT we know and love today. And you don't have to be in any special Japanese program or classes to take the JLPT; it's open to anyone who signs up. While the JLPT is intended to test non-native speakers, native Japanese speakers can take it too. The exam's five levels go from N5–N1 in order of increasing difficulty, with test-takers choosing which level to take.
WHY DO PEOPLE TAKE THE JLPT?
Why would people voluntarily subject themselves to standardized test-taking, you ask? Believe it or not, there are actually all kinds of reasons why people sign up, depending on their Japanese language goals.
According to a survey by the Japan Foundation in 2018, overseas applicants take the JLPT for two major reasons. One reason is for work — to get a job, promotion, or salary increase, inside or outside of Japan (33.4%). The other is simply to measure their level of proficiency in Japanese (33.2%). Another big motive is to gain admittance to a Japanese university, for those want to enroll in a program taught in Japanese.
LEVELS OF THE JLPT
So now you should have a pretty good idea of what taking the JLPT is like, but part of the experience will depend on your level. So, what level of the JLPT should you take?
The JLPT has five levels: N5-N1, with N5 being the easiest and N1 being the most difficult. As mentioned, N2-N1 are often regarded as qualifying a person to be able to work in a business-Japanese setting or get by in an all-Japanese academic program. About 90% of international students looking for jobs in Japan are reportedly N2–N1 level, according to Jump Japan Media. Conversely, N5–N3 are geared more toward basic, "everyday" Japanese.
Your mileage may vary, of course, but here's a rough breakdown of what you might be able to do at each level:
To determine which level you might want to take, I suggest looking up videos and resources of study materials for each level to help gauge your knowledge. You can also refer to this official "JLPT Can-do Self-Evaluation List" of comprehension tasks based on what examinees who passed each level of the exam reported they can do (e.g. read novels, understand TV dramas, etc.).
Choose the level that speaks to you, or that you have to take in order to meet any school or work requirements. Keep in mind that you can retake the same level whenever you want, as long as you pay to apply again. You can also start low and work up to a higher level over time. Just know that if you have N1, N2 won't be of much use to you, so you can skip from N3 to N1 if you want to go for it without worrying about failing. Even if you don't do well, you'll gain the real-life experience of taking the test in person, which can give you a much better idea of what you might need to do to pass it next time. But it all depends on your priorities and situation. I took the N2 instead of the N1 because I valued passing the first time over gaining experience. So it's up to you!