Studying towards the HSK test

The thing about the HSK tests is, they’re kinda easy.  Or, at least, your level does not need to be anywhere near as good as the test descriptions would lead you to believe.  For example, the official website says:

Test takers who are able to pass the HSK (Level V) can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, enjoy Chinese films and plays and give a full-length speech in Chinese.

I’ve passed this level, and cannot read Chinese newspapers and magazines, and struggle to enjoy Chinese films and plays (I’m guessing it doesn’t count if you do these things extremely slowly and have to consult your dictionary every few seconds).

As for the “full-length speech” – well, I can probably do that, though it seems a bizarre point to include in that description since the HSK test, unlike the HSKK test, does not test speaking at all.

The truth is, the vocabulary that they test is actually quite limited; the speakers in the listening section speak very clearly and slowly compared to “real life”; the sentence structures are quite simple and clear; and the your understanding of a dialogue or paragraph does not need to be 100% to get most questions right – a lot of contextual clues are provided . This means that it’s very much possible to study toward passing a certain HSK test level in a very short space of time. The downside is that passing this level does not guarantee a level of competency that the test is supposed to guarantee but hey, maybe you just want the qualification for some other reason (to put on your CV, most likely?).

If you plan to study toward the HSK, there are just two main things to do:

  • study the relevant vocab list for your required level.  These are available to download as flashcard decks, or just as lists online.
  • do practice tests.  The official website has one for each level, but there are more available on other websites – for example, this one.  Time yourself.

Once you go over one or two practice tests and check your answers, it should become quite clear where your weaknesses lie.  For most people, this is in the reading section, which is quite tight on time.

For some questions, it works better to read the question first, and then just skim the passage to get the right answer, rather than reading the whole passage.  This doesn’t really work if the question is of the form where you have to identify the right/wrong sentence out of four different sentences, but it does work quite well for the “fill-in-the-blank” type of questions.

The best way to figure out which level you’re at is simply to do the mock tests in test conditions and see what score you get.  Depending on how long you have until you plan to sit the test, you can decide either to enroll for the level you can pass right now, or aim a bit higher for the next level.  Scores can matter as well, so it may be better to sit the HSK 5 and be assured of passing with a good score, than sit the HSK 6 and risk failing.  An HSK 5 with a good score (above 80%) is enough for most purposes, anyway, such as entrance into many Chinese universities.

And remember, even if you get a great test score, that doesn’t mean your skills are necessarily that great in the “real world”.  Be realistic about what the test score represents, especially if you did study toward the test.  On the flip side though, if your reading, listening, and writing (or typing) skills in the “real world” are already at, say, an intermediate level, you’ll likely be able to sit the intermediate levels of HSK (that is, HSK 3 and 4) with no problem and may even be able to pass advanced with minimal extra effort.

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