Top 4 Reasons Why You Might Want to Take the HSK

(Note: This is Part 1 of our five part series on preparing for the HSK Exam. For a list of all parts, visit our Insider’s Guide to Acing the HSK Exam here.)

How do I ace the HSK exam?

What can I use the HSK exam for?

Or, if you’ve never heard of it, what is the HSK?

If any of these questions are ringing in your head, you’re in the right place!

In this HSK series, I’ve dissected every nook and cranny of the HSK exam, all the way from the technical know-hows (how to take the HSK test, HSK certificates, HSK resources), to the strategic components (battle ready exam tips, tons of translated sample questions and answers), so you’ll be covered from ground up!

No stone left unturned…promise.

In this first section of the guide, I want to quickly introduce the HSK exam to you, and share with the top four ways the HSK exam can benefit you should you choose to take it.

Let’s dive straight in!


What is the HSK?

The HSK is the Chinese version of TOEFL (or if you don’t know TOEFL, it’s a test of English for non native speakers), and it basically tests how good you are at Chinese at six levels from one (the easiest) through six (the most difficult). At each level, you either pass or don’t pass – it’s that simple.

If you’re wondering how popular the test is, whether it’s a huge deal or just some hidden proficiency test under the rock (yes, I do love rock analogies), consider this – this test has been going on for 30 years now (as of 2014), and it’s been taken over 100 million times around the world over 120 countries.

Talk about a popularity contest.

Reason #1: If you’re thinking about expanding to the Chinese market for persona, professional or business reasons, the HSK is definitely something for you. 

Who is the HSK Test for?

Okay, now we’ve gotten a basic idea of the test, I want to detail a little more about who the HSK Test is designed for.

Generally, there are two main groups of people taking the HSK (though the first group represents the majority of these groups by an overwhelming margin): students, and professionals.

We can further divide these into finer categories too.

For students, there are usually Chinese ethnic minorities students (like from XinJiang), and because their mother tongues might be a Chinese dialect, and not Putonghua (the official Chinese language), they have to demonstrate that their Chinese is actually up to standard.

The other category of students, of course, is foreign students. These are students who, either by real admission (they really grew up overseas and don’t have Chinese as their native language), or by circumstantial admission (they might’ve grown up overseas, but are 华侨, which means overseas citizens of Chinese ethnicity) need to take the test to demonstrate their Chinese proficiency.

Students taking the HSK do so most commonly for one reason: to get into a Chinese university. Most Chinese universities usually provide a “foreigner’s exam” (留学生高考, as it’s coined by local Chinese students) as a college admission test, and part of the requirement is that foreign students are required to either have a HSK Level 5 or 6.

For professionals, these are usually people who’re really driven to prove their Chinese proficiency. As you can probably guess, they only have one objective: to use the certificate as certification for potential employers. And for that to work, it’s pretty common to aim only for the highest levels: Level 5 or 6.

You see, the ironic thing is – most employers looking for foreign employees don’t know what the HSK is! Most don’t even know the HSK exists.

So, you might be thinking – why take it?

As with anything else, more than a test of certification, it’s a sign that you have put in the commensurate effort to stick through to the end to pass the test. While it doesn’t seem much, to study Chinese on a part time basis, and pass on the higher levels is pretty tough. This is especially the case for professionals who don’t particularly like languages, but have to study it for professional reasons.

And employers respect that.

Not to mention that compared to foreigners who learn the language, while they might be capable on a conversational level, their written proficiency might be lacking compared to those who did study for it.

So don’t think it’s just a scrap piece of paper – it’s a testament of your perseverance to learn the Chinese language and culture!

Reason #2: If you’re a student looking to study in a Chinese university, the HSK is a pre-requisite. 

Reason #3: If you’re a professional looking for employment in China, while it’s not a famous test among employers, it shows your dedication to learn about and be in China. 

Who is the HSK Test for? (Extended)

There is another small group the HSK Test is for – I didn’t think it registers in scale compared to the two groups above, but it is worth mentioning to the curious reader – for scholarships.

More specifically, it’s possible to apply for the Confucius Institute Scholarship using your HSK test results.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Confucius Institute, it’s basically a state supervised organisation looking to promote the Chinese language and culture within China and in foreign countries. You might have heard of it in the past being mentioned in tandem with academic institutions – these make up the bulk of the CI’s partners, whose other goal is to assist in teaching foreign students and facilitating exchange opportunities for foreign students.

So, you might ask, what’s the Confucius Institute Scholarship?

Originally (and still), it was designed to provide financial aid for students who want to further their studies in China – but with some strings attached (there are always strings attached) – the discipline students choose must be related to the Chinese language or culture.

In other words, it’s a program designed by people who are looking to promote the Chinese language and culture to train people who do promote the Chinese language and culture.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Some majors you might get a scholarship for include teaching Chinese as a foreign language (or 对外汉语, which is often looked down upon as an unpopular and often derogatory choice for foreign students), and Chinese history (which can be notoriously difficult, not because of the content of the major as such, but because of the linguistic demands of the major).

Archaic Chinese…very difficult for the foreigner.

But this also makes sense, doesn’t it? Passing the HSK test with outstanding scores shows you have a linguistic aptitude, and hence the sponsorship for linguistics related subjects.

In a similar sense, if you pass the 留学生高考 with outstanding scores (and this is beyond the scope of the CI Scholarship), students often get priority in choosing their majors, and they either get full or partial scholarships.

In any case, three main criteria used to assess candidates for the scholarship program are academic performance (grades must by 90% or above and 80% or above for full and partial scholarships respectively), aggregate performance (learning attitude), as well as Chinese language ability (HSK level 6 written test scores must be above 180, and HSKK oral ability test scores must be above 75).

Reason #4: To apply for a CI Scholarship. 

What does the HSK test assess?

The HSK Test Levels

Now we’ve dissected the main reasons why you’d want to take an HSK test, let’s try to answer this question – what does it assess?

First of all, let’s clarify the structure of how HSK levels work. Here’s a quick visual aid:

HSK Written ExamsHSKK (Speaking) Exams
Level 1Beginner
Level 2
Level 3Intermediate
Level 4
Level 5Advanced
Level 6

If you’re wondering about the oral tests, they’re taken separately, and they correspond to two increasing levels for the written exam, so Beginner for Levels 1 and 2, Intermediate for Levels 3 and 4, Advanced for Levels 5 and 6.

Basic structure of an HSK Test

For each HSK level, there are listening, reading, writing and oral sections. The oral test is separate  (called the HSKK) and is administered in three levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced.

So what exactly does the test assess?

Does it assess your ability to read prose?

Does it assess your ability to write fluently?

Does it assess your ability to understand archaic Chinese?

Does it assess your ability to adapt to different contexts?

Rather than trying to answer the question, I think a better way to present the answer is by stating the design objective of the HSK test: to be able to use Chinese in practical situations.

That’s it!

And it does it in increasingly difficult levels, from Level 1, which is like the proficiency of a young child in kindergarten level to Level 6, which would allow you to express complex thoughts and opinions in Chinese fluently without thinking.

So if you’re thinking about the specific difficulty of the test, all you have to do is to ask yourself this question – does it meet a every day usage?

If the answer is yes, then it will most likely be an area that’s tested. (Think interviews, summaries, newspapers, news report, talking with a conductor, hearing a story, a conversation in the supermarket.)

On the other hand, if it’s no, then most likely, it’s not going to be tested. (Think archaic Chinese, Tang poetry, contemporary prose, ancient prose, analysis of prose, etc.)

In order to better help you understand what’s exactly in the HSK test, I’ve prepared some great stuff for ya – the next section is an entire section with complete, translated example questions and answers for each subsection of every section in every level.

So, you won’t only get an idea of the question type of each HSK Test level, you’ll also be met with real life examples taken from real HSK tests with exam tips to help you conquer the test at every level!

Before we head over to the next section, just three notes about the HSK exam (you’ll see how these are relevant later, promise)

– The six levels are best thought of as groups of three: Levels 1 and 2, Levels 3 and 4, Levels 5 and 6. For each group of two, the difference in difficulty is minimal, so I highly recommend that you choose the higher of the two for each group of levels.

– Points are assessed on an overall basis – so if you get a lower score for listening and a higher score for reading, that’s fine too – they need only be higher than the threshold overall.

– If you’d like to get a bird’s eye view to what an exam looks like, I’ve also prepared a Level by Level summary chart below so you can get a preview.

HSK Levels Summary

HSK Level 1

AreaSection 1Section 2Section 3Section 4
Listening5 questions5 questions5 questions5 questions
Determine whether the picture shown on the test paper matches what is played (a word).Match what you hear (a sentence) to the most relevant picture.Match what you hear (conversation) to the most relevant picture.A person says a sentence, followed by a question on that sentence. Determine the best answer out of three choices.
Reading5 questions5 questions5 questions5 questions
Determine if the word matches the picture.Match the sentences with the given pictures.Match the most appropriate sentences with the given choices.Fill in the blanks in each sentence with the appropriate choice.
Speaking15 questions7 seconds each10 questions10 seconds each2 questions1.5 minutes each/
Repeat each sentence.Answer each (short) question.Answer each question (longer question).

HSK Level 2

AreaSection 1Section 2Section 3Section 4
Listening10 questions10 questions10 questions5 questions
Determine whether the picture shown on the test paper matches what is played (a word).You hear a dialogue and tick the match it with the corresponding picture.You hear a dialogue followed by a question and you select the right answer.You hear a (longer) dialogue followed by a question and you select the right answer.
Reading5 questions5 questions5 questions10 questions
You’re presented with five pictures and sentences, which you have to match.You’re presented with five sentences and five blanks, and you have to select the best answer.You’re presented with two sentences, and you have to determine whether the second sentence’s meaning is implied in the first.You’re presented with 10 sentences and 10 choices, you match the two which are most coherent.
SpeakingSame as Level 1

HSK Level 3

AreaSection 1Section 2Section 3Section 4
Listening10 questions10 questions10 questions10 questions
Match the conversation with the correct picture.A sentence is played and you have to determine whether the second is implied in the first.Choose the answer to the question at the end of the dialogue.Choose the answer to the question at the end of the (longer) dialogue.
Reading10 questions10 questions10 questions/
Select the most coherent phrase for each question.Fill in the blanks with the given choices.Choose the answer to the question at the end of the short passage./
Writing5 questions5 questions//
Rearrange the words to form a coherent sentence.For each sentence, you’re give a blank with the pinyin. Write out the character.
Speaking10 questions2 questions2 questions/
Repeat each sentence.Look at a picture and describe it.Answer each question in moderate detail.

HSK Level 4

AreaSection 1Section 2Section 3Section 4
Listening10 questions15 questions20 questions/
Match the conversation with the correct picture.Choose the answer to the question at the end of the dialogue.Choose the answer to the question at the end of the (longer) dialogue./
Reading5 questions10 questions10 questions/
Fill in the blanks with the given choices.For each question, you’re given three sentences which you have to re-arrange in order.Choose the answer to the question at the end of the short passage./
Writing5 questions5 questions//
Rearrange the words to form a coherent sentence.With the give picture and word, write a sentence about the picture.
SpeakingSame as Level 3

HSK Level 5

AreaSection 1Section 2Section 3Section 4
Listening20 questions25 questions//
Choose the answer to the question you hear after the short dialogue.Choose the answer to the question at the end of the passage.//
Reading15 questions10 questions20 questions/
Fill in the blanks for the paragraph with the given choices.Select the sentence that best summarises the passage.Choose the best answers to the questions based on the give passage./
Writing8 questions2 questions//
Rearrange the words into a coherent sentence.Write a short paragraph of about 100 words with the given instructions.
Speaking3 questions1 question2 questions
Listen to a block of text and summarise it afterwards.Read a block of text approximately 300 words long out loud.Answer to open ended questions.

HSK Level 6

AreaSection 1Section 2Section 3Section 4
Listening15 questions15 questions20 questions/
Choose the answer to the question you hear after the passage.Choose the answer that best fits the multiple blanks in the given sentence.Choose the answer to the question at the end of the (longer) passages./
Reading10 questions10 questions10 questions20 questions
Among four sentences for each question, identify the grammatically incorrect choice.For each question, you’re given three sentences which you have to re-arrange in order.For each given paragraph, fill in the blanks (placeholder for phrases, not words) with the most appropriate choice.Choose the best answers to questions based on the (longer, more difficult) paragraphs.
Writing1 questions///
Summarize a passage of about 1000 words into less than 400 words.
SpeakingSame as Level 5

Up Next

Next up, we’ve assembled 57 questions taken from real HSK exams from all sections and subsections of each HSK Level. Additional examples, questions analyses, as well as pointers specific to each question type are included for each level.

Check out Part II: A Down and Dirty Look at 57 Real HSK Questions!

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