(Note: This is Part 3 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.)
Welcome to Part 3 of our HSK strategy guide!
In this guide, I want to talk about some important things that can help maximize your success as you prepare for the HSK Exam.
Let’s dive straight in!
When doing the HSK Exam…
Speed is king. This is especially true on the listening sections. There’s no repeats, and there’s no second times (from level 3 and above). So, it’s important to be paying your fullest attention during the exam.
For the reading section, especially for the higher levels, this is all you’re really being tested on. The texts aren’t difficult to understand, but you have to work fast. So it’s important to practice speed reading and time yourself with mock papers.
I mean, isn’t it a shame for you to know all the Chinese…only to be held back by speed?
“Should I take notes during the listening exam?” Personally, I say no notes unless you’re at the higher levels. And even on the higher levels, I’d still prefer no notes.
I often find that if you’re taking notes, you’re not listening, and if you’re listening, the notes you take aren’t very good quality.
I know that some people like notes, and if you feel strongly about taking notes, I have one caveat – try and take them in your native language (if you can translate fast enough)…Chinese has many strokes and should be slower to take notes with…this should save you a bit of time as well!
Two types of practice. When doing practice papers, you can practice in two ways – the first way is to do lots of questions that are section specific, and you can practice with entire HSK papers. If you’re drilling questions, your objective is to learn the question type and learn which bits of the test to hone in.
However, with the second way, you’re really practicing for timing (you know roughly how much time you have for each question) and assimilation (to get comfortable with the exam format). So I highly recommend that you simulate exam conditions when doing it.
What exam conditions specifically?
Pencils, multiple choice answer template, playing the recordings to include the examiner’s call outs during the exams, etc. Make it like it’s the real exam…so when the real HSK Test comes, you’ll feel just like you’re at home!
Don’t underestimate nerves…even if your Chinese level is good, but the test conditions and format seem to feel unfamiliar to you, you might lose out on marks. Again, what a shame! Don’t let that happen to you!
Learning to skip questions…temporarily. Unless you’re a true Chinese whizz, there will be parts you don’t get, whether it be listening or reading or writing (more on speaking later). It’s important to learn what to skip.
As a rule of thumb, the answers should come almost instantly for the listening section, and you shouldn’t need to spend more than 30 seconds per question in reading, and apart from Level 6, no more than 20 seconds writing a sentence, and no more than 5 minutes on the 100 words in Level 5. (If you need help with improving your listening, check out this post.)
And as you can see, this really is a test of speed!
Because of that, if you feel like a question is bugging you, let it go and skip it…you can always come back to a question that you’ve skipped, but there’s no getting back time you’ve lost to do other questions.
Strange as it sounds, it’s important to know when to (temporarily) give up.
How to do the exam. This may just be a personal preference, but I have a way I like to go about multiple choice exams. I personally find it annoying to fill in those answer cards – but because these are checked by machines, you have to shade it well.
So instead of filling in the answer card at the end of every question, I like to do them in bulk after an entire section of questions. This is more applicable to the reading section, because you’ll have to do that for the listening section anyway (you get five minutes to transfer your answers).
But this way, you’re killing two birds with one stone – on the one hand, you’re not constantly distracted by having to look between the HSK paper and the answer template, and on the other, you’ll reduce errors you make when transferring answers.
This is the worst possible way to lose marks!
Imagine you have all the correct answers, but for one question, you accidentally shade it one question lower on the answer sheet. Then all the following answers are filled in the wrong place.
What a disaster!
My “One Take” theory. In my opinion, I think that the answers you put down first are usually going to be your final answer, and the answer most likely to be right.
So, if you’ve done your preparation, give yourself some credit and trust your answer. Don’t look back twice – you can do that when double checking.
If there’s extra time. While I doubt you’ll be left with excessive amounts of time, you’ll almost always find that you’ll have some extra time at the end.
Use that time to go back and double check.
While I suspect you won’t change very much, the second time is often where I like to look over questions where I doubted my answers. This is the decision time for these confusing questions.
Make sure your handwriting is legible. It goes without saying, but if you write characters so fast that it becomes illegible, you can be sure the examiner won’t be spending his / her time trying to unravel the mysterious script you write…he / she’ll just skip it!
Make sure you speak clearly. Don’t worry if you have an accent, but it is important to speak clearly, just like it’s important to write clearly.
If you can get these two components to work together, you’ll sound clear, and easy to understand. (By the way, make sure you check out our previous post on improving your speaking.)
Keep your answers simple! Whether it be writing or speaking, whenever there’s a section on composing an answer – don’t overcomplicate it!
I won’t try to patronise you with the ill ramifications of complexity (you’ve probably experienced that first hand already through practice, or will), but I’ll leave a note on how to do this – simply plan things out before you write / speak it! Or at the very least, make a mental note to yourself on what you’re about to say / express, before saying it out loud!
You’ll be much more in control then.
The two things you’re allowed in an exam…use them! There are two things you’re allowed to “bring” to an exam, so use these well!
The first is your watch. Don’t let this be a distraction, but it’s always useful to know how much time has passed, and how much time is left – so you’re always on top of your game!
Second of all, your index finger. This has been a huge help for me in the past, and I suspect it can for you too.
Whenever reading a question, it’s always helpful to use your finger to guide your reading.
And here’s where this is coming from.
I remember reading an article recently that showed that Chinese words can be jumbled up and you can still understand them (something like English, where if you jumble the middle letters up, if the first and last letters are intact, you can read it).
Because of this, it’s easy to read what you want to read instead of what’s actually there.
This can lead you to either mis-read or miss out a word here and there…so I highly recommend you using your index finger, or if you’re more comfortable, your pencil to guide your eyes when reading!
Listen to the examiner. At the end of each section of the exam, there will be cues to signal you’re closing in to the end of that section (five minutes before it ends), make sure that you’re done by then so you can either finish up transferring your answers, or double checking your answers.
Trust yourself! This sounds generic, but in my experience, an important bit of taking an exam is often the simplest bit…trust yourself!
What I mean by that is don’t doubt yourself during the exam – when doing a question, more than often, your first answer is most likely to be correct.
Don’t let self doubt, the “what if’s” or the “should’s” and the “would’s” get to you! Trust yourself!
Success with the HSK Exam
Be committed. Make some time to study Chinese every day.
If you’re really busy, simply shorten a session to 15 minutes or so – but don’t go a day without Chinese!
I remember when I was getting started learning Spanish, even without a day’s worth of practice, I felt rusty.
Daily consistency is that important.
So, in my opinion, it’s better to practice consistently in short sessions every day – even 20 minutes per day, rather than to cram in 5 hours of study during the weekend.
Have plenty of time to be committed. I know I said that 20 minutes daily is preferable to 5 hours on a weekend, but as you suspect, you’ll probably need more than 20 minutes a day to get ready for the HSK Exam!
That said, I don’t have a magical number. But I’m thinking that at least one hour of study per day is in order to make this work. You can then shorten the sessions during the weekend to revise what you learnt during the week, but short of that, it’s important to set aside enough time to commit to learning Chinese.
Try to enjoy learning Chinese. This probably sounds more psychological than anything else, but it does make a difference.
If you’re looking at committing the time studying for the HSK test purely to prep for the test, you won’t enjoy it much.
I remember having foreign friends in college who didn’t enjoy studying Chinese very much, but had to anyway, because it was a pre-requisite for getting into a Chinese college.
They ended up integrating poorly in China because they didn’t like using Chinese that much, unless when they had to, like when studying.
So if the time’s gonna pass anyway, why not at least try to enjoy it?
It can start off with something simple – a funny tone in Chinese, the strange looking Chinese guy in the drama, the signature Shanghai dish that was surprisingly delicious…and slowly, it’ll creep its way through your heart (I know that doesn’t sound flattering, but you get the point) and you might even come to enjoy it!
So use this time to try and enjoy it…and I can guarantee that you’ll find test preparation much less dreary than “test preparation” suggests…and you’ll find yourself surprisingly good at the language!
The vocabulary list isn’t definite. In my personal opinion, while I think the vocabulary list is good as a reference, I honestly think that it’s hugely optimistic to expect HSK Tests to be based within the scope of that vocabulary list. Nope…you’ll almost always see words you don’t know…so don’t worry too much about it!
Again, I can’t speak from experience for learning Chinese from a foreigner’s perspective – it is my native language after all. But I remember when I was a child, my Chinese drastically improved when I took an interest in reading. And it was reading Greek mythologies…in Chinese!
There’s something magical about reading, and if the novel in front of you, whether it be prose or even a children literature, manages to compel you within the first couple of pages, then you have a winner – because you’ve formed an emotional connection to it (cheesy as that sounds).
And when you do, it doesn’t seem like a language learning endeavour any longer (dreary word, I know), you’ll actually want to understand!
Talk about efficient learning – on autopilot. (By the way, if you’re into vocab lists, don’t miss this post.)
Practice speed reading. I know I’ve been ranting on about reading, but another component of reading is to increase your reading speed, so you’re roughly at the same level compared to reading in your native tongue.
This sounds more difficult than it actually is, because if you read enough, and you read interesting things, that speed will automatically increase over time.
Of course, because we’re preparing for a language test that demands speed (especially on the higher levels), “automatically increase over time” sounds anything but reassuring.
So, I actually recommend that you time yourself reading something like a newspaper article, an extract from a novel, or a passage from a textbook you’re working with. Time yourself how much time you’ll need to get through that passage and use that as a benchmark to see how well you improve.
While I don’t have a magical “number of words / minute” threshold, I do have an easy rule of thumb – if you feel like you can comprehend the gist of the passage after reading it once casually, you’re on the right track.
But if you feel like you’re looking at individual words without really comprehending them, or if you’re looking at phrases and still need to think back to sentence structure, you might need a little work on reading.
The ultimate benchmark? To read once and comprehend most of what you’ve read for the level of text you’re given.
Is grammar important? In my opinion, not as much as European languages like French and Spanish (there are exceptions, of course).
To me, grammar in Chinese is more like understanding the function of specific words, so you can use these as signals to help you understand the overall tone and flow of the text.
After that, you can then try to understand the word order to know what “makes sense” and what doesn’t in Chinese.
Other than to read lots of text, I don’t really have a good strategy to know what “makes sense”. Of course, for the purposes of preparing for the HSK Test, you don’t have to worry about that – you won’t see something difficult that hasn’t been covered in the grammar syllabus, because the HSK Test was designed to test your Chinese proficiency in practical situations.
That said, the obvious alternative is to study grammar texts. You can get a good coverage of the scope of the grammar points covered in the HSK if you have a good guide.
I would say that learning “grammar words”, for instance, the list of conjunctions (e.g. and, yet, nevertheless), particles (是，的, etc.) is important. With these keywords, you can set the foundation to understanding longer texts, and therefore it’s important to know these well.
When preparing for the HSK Exam…
Having a study schedule. This sounds trivial, but it isn’t.
When you have a game plan, you’ll be moving along the learning curve in a predictable manner.
If you stick to a somewhat consistent plan, you’ll make good progress in learning Chinese. On the other hand, if you simply study sporadically, it will be that much less effective.
So, what do I mean by a study schedule?
Without complicating it, it boils down to just one question – how much time can I comfortably commit to studying every week?
Break that figure down so you can commit that on a daily basis.
If you try that figure out for the first two weeks and feel that it’s really pushing you too hard, then simply lower the number of hours.
But I really feel strongly that you commit to it – while it doesn’t seem significant at first, it can really make a difference in the months and months to come!
Concentrate on the most commonly used words in Chinese. I don’t really have an “official” figure for what that is, but I recently saw a TED talk that pegged it at around 1000 words. I personally suspect that’s winging it (that puts you at about HSK Level 4), but it’s a good start nevertheless.
It’s very important to concentrate on learning these first 1000 words, and to learn it well.
The reason I’m saying this is because when you have these most commonly used words under your belt, you won’t have to rely so much on a dictionary and grammar books any more.
Suddenly, you’ll find yourself being able to understand the overall gist of longer passages, even if you don’t know certain words, and you might even be able to deduce (correctly!) the meaning of unknown words.
As you can guess, this is going to be essential to aiming for Levels 5 and 6!
Understand that Chinese is a language that is initially difficult. On top of what I just mentioned in the previous point, I want to comment on the common belief that people think Chinese is a difficult language to learn.
While that’s partially true, I think they’re leaving something out in that statement – Chinese is a difficult language to learn initially compared to other languages, because of the unique makeup and culture behind the language.
Once you learn the basics, however, and I defined this as the 1000 most common words, it gets a lot easier.
Use a reading-oriented approach. If I were to learn Chinese from scratch for a beginner, I wouldn’t use a grammar or vocabulary oriented way. I mean, we all start there (it’s impractical if we don’t even know the words for “I” or “book” or “love” in Chinese!), but after the fundamentals, I’d switch gradually to a reading oriented approach.
There might be many words you still don’t know. You might also have to back up your understanding of certain phrases with grammar books.
But hey, guess what?
You’re reading, comprehending, and most importantly, learning in Chinese!
Aim to get the overall gist of passages, instead of focusing on individual words. When reading, remember the focus is to understand the gist of what’s happening, or to understand enough so you understand what’s happening. Words are secondary to that, so don’t check a word unless it’s crucial to you understanding the passage.
If you prioritise learning words that way, you’ll slowly, but surely be building up a very strong foundation to read more challenging texts and even novels in the near future.
Other questions you might have in mind
Next, I want to discuss a few questions that might’ve crossed your mind when learning about the HSK Exam.
What HSK level should I go after?
I think this is probably the one of the first questions you’re likely to ask, and for a good reason too.
Personally, I recommend taking only two tests for the HSK, or one if you’re good enough – Level 4 and then Level 6, or jump directly to Level 5 or Level 6.
Levels 1 – 3 are really too simple for you to spend time taking the test. For starters, in just a few months for study, even starting from scratch, you can easily be at Level 3. What’s more, Level 3 is too low a level as a qualification.
However, Level 4 really starts to indicate a proficiency – with 1,200 words under your belt, you should be able to comfortably read and understand the gist of most passages you come across. Even if you don’t understand specific words, you should be able to grasp the flow of Chinese comfortably through your study of Chinese grammar.
At Levels 5 and 6, you should have an excellent fluency and comprehend, both reading and listening wise, everything that you hear. Again, there are still going to be the occasional time when you hear some unknown word, but this is perfectly normal!
And with the top two levels of the HSK Exam, you’ll almost be in possession of a pass to most Chinese universities, and as proof of your Chinese capabilities in professional contexts.
How long do I need to prepare for an HSK test?
Hanban actually provides official timeframe estimates for the amount of time they recommend before you can take the HSK Tests at each level. So let me start off by listing these before I chime in.
Recommended hours of study
2 – 3 class hours / week for a semester ~= <300 hours
2 – 3 class hours / week for two semesters ~= <300 hours
2 – 3 class hours / week for three semesters ~= 300 hours
2 – 3 class hours / week for four semesters ~= 800 hours
2 – 3 class hours / week for four semesters+ ~= 2000 hours
The reason why Levels 1 – 3 are about 300 hours is that you can comfortably fit Levels 1 – 3 content within that time period – how fast you can get through it depends on how fast you work and how well organised your learning program is.
*A note on vocabulary – this is the accumulated words you need to know, so the 300 you need to know in Level 2 include the 150 you’ve already learnt in Level 1, and so forth.
However, these are all projections based on these assumptions:
You’re studying 2 – 3 hours / week (and spending about the same amount of time studying)
You’re studying via traditional classroom instruction
That you’ve never learnt Chinese before
First of all, just by studying more per week, you’ll find getting through each level of Chinese will be much faster! So if you can afford the time, this is one thing to consider.
Second of all, I think that improvements can be made to learning Chinese in a traditional setting. I think that if you do the least you’re expected, even with minimal motivation, with a well organised curriculum, you can pull through each level reasonably well.
But what if you had above average…or even exceptional motivation?
And what if you are especially interested in the Chinese culture?
Don’t you think you can learn a lot more through things like Chinese dramas, Chinese movies, Chinese songs, Chinese novels?
So if you know yourself well, and are willing to put in a little extra effort every week, I suspect you’ll find yourself adding another burst of speed to the learning process.
Third of all, I think that this is based on someone who has never learnt Chinese before. For me personally, I think that after you get to a Level 3 or 4, you should have an excellent basis to move on to higher levels.
And because you have a basis to work with, you won’t be struggling with basic things like sentence structure, particles, basic words holding you back from understanding what you read and hear…you’ll be flowing through new material much quicker!
Based on that, you can probably slash a couple of hours away from the above estimates too.
So, I highly recommend that you evaluate the time you’ll need to prepare for an exam on a personal basis, because it can be very different based on the few factors we were talking about.
How much time should I study every week for the HSK?
Here’s a recommended list of weekly tasks you might follow to help prepare:
Grammar points x 3
Study time: 3 hours
Revision: 1 hour
Reading exercise x 2
Study time: 2 hours
Revision: 30 minutes
Listening exercise x 1 – 2
Study time: 45 minutes – 1.5 hours
Revision: 30 minutes
As you can see, the approximate time commitment you’ll need is about 10 hours per week, which averages out to about 1.5 hours / day.
And I highly recommend that you study consistently…again, it’s better to do half an hour everyday for six days a week, than to do six hours of study over the weekend. You might end up with the same number of hours, but the effect will be really different!
What grammar points do I need to know for the HSK Exam?
Reference the next post in this series for recommended grammar resources (free and paid).
What resources do you recommend for studying the HSK?
Reference the next post for recommended resources.
After this post, you probably have a rough idea as to how you want to go about total HSK domination. In the next section, I talk about some common technical problems about the HSK like how to register for it, how to check results, where to take the test, in the form of 18 FAQ’s. Check out Part IV: 18 Most Commonly Asked Questions about the HSK here.
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