The Ultimate Guide to HSK Victory (2019)
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So you want to take the HSK? Here are my best tips and answers to frequently asked questions regarding the HSK.
The HSK (汉语水平考试/Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) is a standardized testing system for non-native speakers learning Chinese. It is administered by Hanban, an agency of the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China.
The HSK comprises six levels, which take you from very simple words and phrases to comprehensive written and spoken Chinese:
- HSK 1 – 150 Words / Beginner
- HSK 2 – 150 Words (Cumulative 300) / Beginner
- HSK 3 – 300 Words (Cumulative 600) / Intermediate
- HSK 4 – 600 Words (Cumulative 1,200) / Intermediate
- HSK 5 – 1,300 Words (Cumulative 2,500) / Advanced
- HSK 6 – 2,500 Words (Cumulative 5,000) / Advanced
Who can take the test? All non-native Chinese speakers, as well as Chinese people who live overseas.
How much does testing cost? It varies by testing location and country. Just check with your test center before registering.
When will I get my results? Test results can take up to one month to become available. Contact your testing center directly for assistance receiving your certificate if it does not arrive.
What if I fail? As the adage says, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Thankfully, there is no limit to the number of times you can retake the test.
How quickly can I reach Level 6? My husband is notorious for taking the long way whenever we travel. We dubbed this the “long cut.” When you set out to learn Chinese or any other language for that matter, there is no short cut. It takes hard work. Your level of dedication will directly affect how soon you are fluent.
With that said, Haban provides guidelines of the amount of study you should have completed before you attempt the tests:
- HSK 1 is intended for students who have studied Chinese for a semester (half an academic year), with 2-3 class hours in each week. These students have mastered 150 commonly used words and basic grammar patterns.
- HSK 2 is intended for students who have studied Chinese for two semesters (an academic year), with 2-3 class hours in each week. These students have mastered 300 commonly used words and related grammar patterns.
- HSK 3 is intended for students who have studied Chinese for three semesters (one and a half academic years), with 2-3 class hours in each week. These students have mastered 600 commonly used words and related grammar patterns.
- HSK 4 is intended for students who have studied Chinese 2-4 class hours per week for four semesters (two academic years). These students have mastered 1,200 commonly used words and related grammar patterns.
- HSK 5 is intended for students who have studied Chinese 2-4 class hours per week for more than two academic years. These students have mastered 2,500 commonly used words and related grammar patterns.
- HSK 6 is intended for students who have mastered 5,000 or more commonly used words.
REASONS TO TAKE THE HSK TESTS
A common reason is employment opportunities. If you can demonstrate your proficiency in Chinese, more jobs will instantly become available to you. Perhaps even your current employer may promote you. For example, a bilingual flight attendant will be more appealing to airlines looking to hire.
If you are a student desiring to study in China or you want a college application that has a higher chance of standing out, the HSK may be for you.
Like me, however, you may want the “stamp of approval” that comes along with that gorgeous certificate you get when you pass.
WHAT CAN I EXPECT ON THE TEST?
That depends on what level test you plan to take.
For beginners, you will be taking either the HSK 1 or 2 test. These tests require listening and reading only. You are not expected to write at these levels; all characters and pinyin are provided.
At the time of this writing, HSK 1 consists of 20 listening questions made up of true or false and multiple choice questions; and 20 multiple choice reading questions.
HSK 2 consists of 35 listening questions made up of true or false and multiple choice questions; and 25 multiple choice reading questions.
Things get a little more challenging beginning with HSK 3. For starters, no pinyin is provided, and you are required to write. To pass, you must have a command of the related vocabulary, and be able to use it to express yourself both orally and in writing.
PLAN OF ACTION
To pass any test, you need a good plan of action. My formula for victory starts with regular study, combined with “study/life” balance. Just as too much salt spoils a recipe, hitting the books too hard can cause burn out. Also, be sure to mix up study materials and locations to fight off boredom.
Focus on Quality of Study Not Quantity
Set aside time each day for study, and make it part of your routine. A quiet, well-lit area is best. Focus on the quality of your session by making sure the time you set aside will be free of distractions. A 2-hour session interruption free is more productive than 12-hours filled with children running in and out.
During your study, make sure to include regular breaks. These will keep you refreshed and ready to tackle your next hurdle.
You Must Know the Vocabulary
First and foremost, you must know the vocabulary words list. There are a lot of apps and programs out there to assist you in this vein. I highly recommend Anki Flashcards. As you study, Anki learns how well you know the information and then prioritizes it accordingly. Gone are the days of wasting time focusing on things you have already mastered.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The best part of the HSK is that it is highly standardized. What does that mean? If you take enough mock exams, you will most likely pass.
MandarinMandarin.com has the official sample tests and audio available here. There are also many books available in bookstores and online that contain sample tests. Get some.
Take as many sample tests as you can stomach. After completing a test, review your errors with your teacher, study partner, or a friend who speaks Chinese natively. Your goal will be to understand where you went wrong.
Make sure that you will not crack under pressure, by timing some of your mock tests using the official test times:
- HSK 1 – 40 minutes
- HSK 2 – 55 minutes
- HSK 3 – 90 minutes
- HSK 4 – 105 minutes
- HSK 5 – 120 minutes
- HSK 6 – 135 minutes
It can’t hurt to simulate a testing environment as well (i.e. No screaming children, or a begging dog).
Don’t Want to Go it Alone?
A mixture of self-study and a test prep course may be the ideal route for you. One plus of a quality teacher is that they can make recommendations applicable to you personally. Mistakes may also become apparent more quickly.
Classes that focus specifically on HSK prep can be beneficial as well in that you can ask any specific questions that you may have. This will ensure that there are no surprises on test day.
A quick google of “HSK test prep” found quite a few offerings. Just be sure to focus on reviews first, and then find the best choice within your budget.
Your listening ability will only improve through immersion in the language. If your area has a Chinese community, get out of your element and into it. Attend events and listen, listen, listen.
Don’t have a Chinese community in your area? There are still ways to accomplish immersion; here are some of my favorites:
- italki.com provides a platform for free language exchange. Look for a partner who is a native Chinese speaker looking to learn your mother tongue. The very day I signed up, I was overwhelmed with the response I received. After you’ve found a quality partner, set aside regular time to practice, practice, practice listening, and speaking for that matter.
- Viki.com and similar sites. Chinese television and movies can help you get used to the sounds of Mandarin. I like to mix up my viewing with features made in Taiwan to help me get used to varying accents.
- Apple Music subscription or similar music service. I create “radio” stations that focus on Chinese music. While I don’t consider this study, it is immersion.
- YouTube.com has a plethora of Chinese language shows, music, movies, dramas, and more.
- Podcasts – There are many Chinese podcasts out there, including ones specifically designed for Chinese language learners. It will not be hard to find podcasts that suit your level.
- Attend a Chinese religious service. Okay, I know this isn’t for everyone, but hey it worked for me. Jehovah’s Witnesses provide meetings in the Chinese language all over the world. You can find a location here. I went for about six months last year. Although I did not understand half of what was said, it was immersion, and I got to practice small talk before and afterward. I even made a few “native” friends.
Let me know in the comments below what immersion methods you use that are not included here. The more ideas the better!
WHEN CAN I TAKE THE TESTS?
Each year, Haban releases the test dates for the next year on its website. Although there is a link to convert the chart to English, it does not always work. However, the University of Nottingham is always happy to assist with English: Click Here to jump to the English schedule now.
IM READY, WHERE DO I SIGN UP?
You can search for a testing location near you using Hanban’s Global Test Center Search Tool. There are testing sites in many countries, including the United States, Canada, England, Australia, France, Japan, Germany and many more, so your chances of finding a convenient location are good.
What HSK level test are you shooting for this time? Let us know in the comments below.