What is the HSK?
HSK (新汉语水平考试) is a Chinese language exam measuring the taker’s language proficiency according to six standardized levels. The test is a good opportunity to see how well you are doing with your Chinese, to challenge yourself into a more intensive learning mode and to compare your level with those of other learners. I took the HSK 5 after one year of intensive language classes, because I just wanted to see if I could do it and to prove to myself that the classes were really useful; then sometime later I passed the HSK 6 after doing half a year of self-study as the HSK certificate was one of the university entry requirements and my first one had already expired by that time – the HSK certificate is valid for two years only. Even though the sixth level requires better language proficiency, the first exam was the hardest one for me, since it was my first acquaintance with the exam format and I didn’t know what to expect.
For those who have to take HSK as a school or work requirement, it may be a stressful experience. That is why I offer some tips as to how to make the best of your preparation time. Many thanks to our Hutong School teachers for providing useful insights.
The six steps to passing the HSK
- Make sure you know the words list
There is a standard vocabulary list for each level, which the test taker needs to know. Of course, a good score is not guaranteed by knowing this list only; besides, memorizing vocabulary lists may seem a boring and old-fashioned way of language learning, but with the HSK you are not really learning the language, but rather demonstrating to the test-makers what you already know. And one of the things those guys want to know about you as a test-taker is whether you can use a certain number of vocabulary items. When it comes to the HSK exam, the list is really very helpful to familiarize yourself with the vocabulary expected of you. Most of the items on the list are sure to appear on the listening and reading parts and it will be a plus if you use them in your writing section (which does not appear until the level 3). Words which are on the list will also be very useful props to understand the general meaning even if other details of the text escape your attention. The questions will be likely to target the list words. Download the vocabulary lists for every level. Use flashcards to memorize the necessary words: I wish I knew when preparing for my HSKs that there are flashcard apps with the ready word lists, like Anki, for example.
- Speed is key
Do not waste your time on carefully reading the whole text in the reading part; this recommendation is especially useful for HSK 4 and higher. And it is a piece of advice every HSK-taker I know gives. “There is just not enough time to pore over every line in the text. You are not going to need all the details anyway,” says Daniel, one of the students of the Hutong School Intensive Chinese Program, who passed the HSK 5 this winter. You may even try the strategy of first reading the questions and only then proceed to the text. See in advance, if it works for you. That’s how I coped with the reading section in the HSK 6. While in HSK 5 there is 40 minutes for 45 questions, HSK 6 allows 45 minutes for 50 questions, which means that there is just a bit more than one minute per question. So I read the questions and then looked for the answers in the text without actually scanning every line. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had enough time to finish all the tasks in the reading section. Always make sure you keep the countdown timer running while practicing. Get the feel of the test pace as soon as possible in your preparation.
- Practice is yet another key
HSK test is one of the most standardized tests I have ever seen. The structure of the test is very rigid and there are only slight variations in the topics covered. If you do enough mock tests you will encounter all the vocabulary and grammar structures that you will need during the actual test. That is why it is absolutely possible to cram for the level you need even if your actual knowledge is a bit lower. At the same time, those with a very good Chinese level may fail or get a low score compared to their actual proficiency just because they were unfamiliar with the exam format. Find books with mock tests ( 新HSK模拟试卷) and do as many of them as you can. There is quite a variety of mock test compilations on Taobao (淘宝) or in any bookstore in the section “Chinese for foreign learners” (对外汉语).
- Get ahead of what is expected of you
Try to look through the questions for the listening part before the recording starts. While doing the drills you will get the understanding of how many questions go for one recording in each listening part. In the HSK 1-3 there are usually one to two questions per each recording, in HSK 6 there may be up to 5 questions. Briefly looking through the questions will let you understand in advance what the text is about, find the keywords which will be your “understanding hooks” while the speaker is talking. See in advance if you have the time to make notes while the recording is running, especially if you hear colors, prices, dates or numbers. The questions will definitely target some of these.
- Combine HSK preparation classes with self-study
The teacher will give you a number of insightful recommendations and explain your mistakes, while your own constant drills with time restrictions will let you feel the quick pace of the exam, augment the number of vocabulary you can understand at first glance and make you more confident during the actual test. Want to know more about the Hutong School HSK preparation courses?
- Improve your overall Chinese
Read more trying to develop your feel of the language and reading fluency. It may seem daunting to struggle with the pages of characters, but trust me, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Just remember that you do not actually need to be able to pronounce the characters and know its tone in order to understand what the text is about. As for the listening, try making scripts of what you hear during your listening practice. Find some podcasts, TV shows or films in Chinese and write what you hear leaving gaps for what you don’t know and then fill them with the help of subtitles or your Chinese teachers or friends. Eventually, the gaps will get smaller and fewer in number. While improving your overall Chinese, you will also familiarize yourself with Chinese popular and traditional culture, the knowledge of which will be needed to understand the texts of HSK 5 and higher, as they include a lot of cultural references.
All in all, HSK is a very learnable and passable test if you do enough preparation. How much preparation you need depends on your current level, the amount of time you can devote weekly (or daily) to the studying for the test and the availability of the resources. Hutong School will help you on every step of your HSK journey!
Interested in learning more about Chinese characters? Take a look at our blog post about one of the world’s most enigmatic writing systems! Or check out our list of the 5 Most Common Mistakes When Learning Chinese.
Ready to get serious about Chinese study and the HSK? Apply now for our internationally recognized Chinese programs in Beijing or Shanghai!
Written by: Victoria, marketing intern at Hutong School and HSK 6 certificate holder