I first took the Japanese Language Proficiency test in July of 2010, in the city of Fuchinobe, about an hour out from Tokyo by train. It was the first time the new N3 test was being offered, and about 500 people were at the women's university in Fuchinobe for that one test (250 each in 2 lecture halls). I have no idea how many total test locations there were around Tokyo, but there must have been several. N2 and N1 were also being held at the same time. It was easy to find the test rooms, because the line of people stretching from the train station to the campus was about 1 kilometer long, and broken only at the intersections where dedicated police were directing traffic. Along the way, there were other officers holding signs pointing where to turn at the corners. I just barely passed that one, with 60% (minimum passing score was 60%).
The next N2 test was held that December, and I applied on a whim just before the September 30th deadline to get a feel for how hard it would be. I got the vocabulary, grammar and kanji study books from ASK publishing, and read them on the train during the 1 hour rides to and from work in Akihabara for 2 months leading up the the test. I was again assigned to Fuchinobe, and there were again 250 people in the lecture hall where I had the exam. I really got lost with the questions, and scored 28%, which was a lot lower than I'd thought I'd gotten. The 700+ kanji and 2000 combinations, plus grammar kept throwing me for a loop.
I'd planned on taking the N2 again last July, but with having to move to a new city after the March 11 earthquake, I figured that it would be better to wait. I'd brought the kanji book with me, and got a new copy of the grammar book. This time, instead of bothering with vocabulary, I got the reading practice book from ASK, and started some pre-study at the end of August. Thinking that the application deadline was at the end of October, I almost missed out of the Dec. 2011 test. On Sept. 25 I discovered my mistake and ran to Kinokuniya bookstore only to find that they'd sold out of the test application forms ($7 USD) weeks earlier. Unlike in Tokyo, there are only two stores in Kagoshima authorized to sell the applications. Luckily, the second one was Junko at Maruya Gardens, and they still had 20 copies left. I got everything filled out with the $60 entry fee and 2 passport photos and in the registered mail by the 27th. At the end of November, I got the test voucher back, and I took the test on Dec. 4th.
Remembering the setup in Fuchinobe, and having a Google map showing the test location at the Kagoshima University 2 miles away from my apartment, I didn't really think I'd need to scout out the campus in advance. Fortunately, I took the tram out on the 3rd, and spent 15 minutes looking around for the building. The next day, I left the apartment at 10:45 AM, picked up the next tram just before the light changed, and got to the campus by 11:15 (stopping at a grocery store along the way to get some canned coffee and doughnuts). On campus, there was no indication of a test being held at all. Most of the signs were just pieces of paper taped on the building doors stating which floors each test was on. No police, no one holding signs along the way, nothing. No lines. Very few people walking around, either.
The test started at 12:30. N2 was held in 6 small classrooms, 3 on 2 different floors, 24 people per room. Rather than being just 500 people at one among many test sites in Tokyo, this time it was only one site for 150 people in the entire prefecture. We had to wait 10 minutes during the instruction phase so that everyone in the entire country would start answering the questions at the exact same time, and it takes longer to hand out the question sheets in Tokyo than anywhere else. There was a 30 minute break in the middle where we could go outside and rest. The majority of the test takers were Asian. Several that I talked to were from Taiwan. My room had 3 other people from the U.S., and I only saw one black woman, who sounded African-American. The one American guy I talked to was an English teacher on his second year in the JET program, from Michigan. (I know that there were at least 2 women from Indonesia taking the N3 test, because they're in my Japanese conversation class on Wednesdays.)
The common consensus from people that had failed the test before was that it was much harder this time. It certainly felt that way to me. At least half of the kanji made no sense to me, and during the listening section, several of the questions went by so fast that they didn't even register. I'm hoping that at a minimum I fail with a higher score than I'd gotten last year. I'd settle for 50% (passing is still 60%).
What's interesting though is that this time, my attitude at the end of the test had changed. It doesn't feel like an arbitrary exam with a bunch of needless memorization and a pointless test score at the end. A lot of people will cheat on the test to get a passing score, either for school or to get accepted for a job. But, to me, it really is a measure of language comprehension. If you know Japanese, and you use it in daily life, you'll get at least 60% on the listening test. You still need at least 60% for reading, kanji and grammar as well, but that's doable if you focus on harder reading materials (one American I met at the test, who was going for the N1, said that he likes practicing with the Japanese version of the National Geographic magazine because the language used is so pretentious).
The question then becomes, are the available study books useful for self-study for the N2? I'd say, "no". They're not focused on what shows up in the test, there's not enough examples for the grammar points, and the books from ASK seem to be better suited for use in a classroom with a dedicated instructor, since they don't have enough explanation. Another thing I dislike is that the ASK books have the hiragana pronunciations right next to the kanji, which makes it harder to memorize the kanji on later re-readings. Ideally, the books should be in software format, with the ability to turn furigana on and off at will, and the practice questions randomized so I can't be allowed to memorize answers based on the order the questions are asked. I'm seriously considering writing a software version of the book in Java just for my own use. In any event, I won't be getting the official results of the test back until Feb., 2012. With luck, I'll finally pass it next July.