The Comprehensive HSK Study Guide: Tips and Resources for the Chinese Proficiency Test
The HSK test can surely be a challenge, but with the right strategy, you will be able to complete it with confidence.
In this guide, I want to talk about some important things that can help maximize your success as you prepare for the Chinese proficiency test.
Here are the best tips and resources to help you with your HSK prep.
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HSK Study Guide FAQs
Which HSK level should I take?
I recommend only taking the test starting at Level 4.
Levels 1 – 3 are really too simple for you to waste time taking the test. What’s more, Level 3 is too low a level as a qualification.
Level 4 really starts to indicate 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.
At Levels 5 and 6, you should have excellent fluency and the ability to comprehend the language in the spoken or written form. Further, these levels have a level of certification that can help you get into most Chinese universities or prove your abilities in the professional context.
How many hours should I study for the HSK?
Hanban actually provides official timeframe estimates for the amount of time they recommend before you can take the HSK Tests at each level:
|Level||Recommended Hours of Study||Number of Vocabulary Words|
|1||2-3 hrs/week, 1 semester||150|
|2||2-3 hrs/week, 2 semesters||300|
|3||2-3 hrs/week, 3 semesters ≈ 300 hrs||600|
|4||2-3 hrs/week, 4 semesters ≈ 800 hrs||1200|
|5||2-3 hrs/week, 4 semesters ≈ 2000 hrs||2500|
|6||40 hrs/week, 4 semesters ≈ 5760 hrs||5000+|
*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 learned in Level 1, and so forth.
It’s important to note that these are all projections based on these assumptions:
- You’re studying 2 – 3 hours/week (unless you’re studying full time for the HSK 6)
- You’re studying via traditional classroom instruction
- That you’ve never learned Chinese before
I do think that these are basic parameters that don’t take individual study habits and levels of motivation into account. If you are really dedicated and put in a ton of effort, I think that you could reach higher levels of Chinese in a shorter time.
How should I study per week for the HSK?
The approximate time commitment you’ll need is about 10 hours per week, which averages out to about 1.5 hours/day.
If you don’t have much time to study each day, remember that it’s better to be consistent than have one huge study session per week. Half an hour every day for six days a week is much more effective than six hours of study over the weekend. You might end up with the same number of hours, but you will not be retaining information the same.
Keep track of what you’ve learned, what you still want to learn, and how much time you’ve spent actually studying and reviewing.
To get an idea of how you can allot your hours, here’s what I did (hours include study and review time):
Task 1: 3 grammar points (4 hours)
- Learn three grammar points and the basic theory
- Understand their sentence usage
- Check out multiple examples to understand their context
- Construct your own sentences using these grammar points
Task 2: 2 reading exercises (2.5 hours)
- Choose an excerpt or chapter of a Chinese text
- Read it through once without stopping
- Read the text again slowly, and highlight unfamiliar terms
- Guess the definitions using context before looking them up
- Write a quick summary of the text
Task 3: 1-2 listening exercises (2 hours)
- Choose a 20-minute Chinese audio clip, preferably one with a transcript
- Take notes during the session, including timestamps to indicate unknown words, sentences, etc.
- Listen again and try to use context clues before looking up definitions
HSK Prep Resources
HSK Course Books
- “HSK Standard Course” (Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, Level 4A, Level 4B, Level 5A, Level 5B, Level 6A, Level 6B) — These are the official books that are published by Hanban, and you’ll find everything that you need to learn for the HSK here.
- “New HSK Preparations” (Level 5 – Writing, Level 6 – Reading) — The New HSK Preparations Series consists of textbooks that train you in a specific HSK skill, such as reading or writing.
- “Essentials of HSK” (Grammar, Listening, Comprehensive Exercises) — Each book has eight sets of HSK-based exercises for beginners and intermediate learners, along with two sample tests.
- “HSK Listening Bible” — It discusses sentence structures, vocabulary, idioms and even example listening questions from the HSK test.
- “Pass the HSK: Reading Comprehension” — This is geared towards takers of HSK 1 to 3, and it includes sample reading questions with detailed explanations.
HSK Word Lists and Flashcards
- HSK东西’s HSK Word Lists — This website lists down all of the words and even characters for each HSK level, with the option to download them on Skritter.
- Huamake’s HSK Lists (with Definitions) — Click on any of the characters listed here, and you’ll be taken to a thorough dictionary entry, including the character’s radical components and words where it’s used.
- “Reading and Writing Chinese” — You’ll want to keep this reference textbook around because it covers all of the 2,000+ characters that are required from HSK 1 to 6.
- Chinese Flash Cards Kit (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3) — If you prefer physical flashcards, these boxed sets might work well for you, with native-speaker recordings and a study booklet included.
- HSK Flashcards — Instead of making flashcards from scratch, you can practice with these online flashcards for all HSK levels.
- Memrise — Memrise is a language learning app that includes several crowdsourced HSK decks for its Chinese program.
- FluentU — FluentU’s Chinese program comes in handy for listening and vocabulary practice. You can create your own flashcards based on the interactive subtitles from the native media clips or study through the premade HSK-themed decks, complete with pronunciation, definitions, example sentences and related video clips.
- Chinese in Flow — This is a game that’s based on the vocabulary for HSK Levels 1 to 3.
Chinese Grammar Resources
- Chinese Grammar Wiki — This is the most comprehensive website for Chinese grammar, with grammar concepts explained from A1 (beginner) to C1 (advanced).
- “Common Chinese Patterns 330” — Knowing the top 330 sentence structures in Chinese will help you understand the language faster.
- “Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar: A Student’s Guide to Correct Structures and Common Errors” — This book gives you an overview of practical Chinese grammar, with relatable examples.
- “Schaum’s Outline of Chinese Grammar” — Schaum’s Chinese grammar book is well suited for intermediate learners, and there are plenty of exercises to work through for each grammar point.
- “YUFA! A Practical Guide to Mandarin Chinese Grammar” — Intermediate and advanced learners will find this useful because it gives detailed explanations that tackle all of the major aspects of Chinese grammar.
- “Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar Workbook” — It’s easy to forget what you just read from a grammar textbook, but this book gets you comfortable with grammar concepts through exercises that are arranged by difficulty.
HSK Mock Tests and Sample Exams
- “Level 6 HSK: Real Test Collection of New Chinese Proficiency” — This collection of mock tests is available at all levels, and it’s published by Hanban itself.
- “Model Test for the New HSK” (Level 3, Level 4, Level 5, Level 6) — Each book includes five unique sample exams with answer keys, with a listening section that’s said to be tougher than in the HSK.
- “HSK in 30 Days” (Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, Level 4, Level 5, Level 6) — For a one-month study plan, you can test out your skills with these HSK prep books, which feature five tests each.
- My eChinese — You can take online HSK mock tests here, plus there are also specific exercises for reading, writing and listening.
- Silk Road — This informative website contains online HSK mock tests along with comprehensive information about the HSK, HSKK and other official Chinese language tests.
- Visual Mandarin — Choose your level (beginner, elementary, intermediate or advanced), then browse through the exercises for several HSK sample tests.
- China Education Center — In addition to HSK mock exams, you’ll find actual HSK tests from the past here. You can even select previous test questions for specific skills like writing or listening.
Other Resources for HSK Prep
Beginner to Lower Intermediate:
- “Chinese Breeze” (Green Phoenix, I Really Want to Find Her, Wrong Wrong Wrong!) — This is one of the most popular graded reader series, with engaging stories and more than 60 titles over diverse genres.
- “Graded Chinese Reader” (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3) — It features stories that are adapted directly from works of famous modern Chinese writers.
Upper Intermediate to Advanced:
- “Capturing Chinese” (Lu Xun’s The New Year Sacrifice, Lu Xun’s The Real Story of Ah Q, Prose and Poems by Revolutionary Chinese Authors) — For an introduction to authentic Chinese literature, check out this graded reader series, which presents well-known short stories with plenty of cultural explanations and footnotes.
- “Discussing Everything Chinese” — This is used as an actual textbook in some US universities, including Yale.
- “Tales and Traditions Vol. 3” — As a graded reader, it focuses on classical Chinese poems, stories, and legends, with text in both simplified and traditional characters.
- “Advanced Reader of Contemporary Chinese Stories” — I’d recommend this for anyone interested in Chinese short stories written from the 1990s onwards.
- “An Advanced Reader of Modern Chinese” (Anything Goes, A Kaleidoscope of China) — Unlike many other graded readers, this one emphasizes real-life social issues and presents actual articles from newspapers and magazines.
- “高级汉语精读教程” — Published by Beijing University, this intensive reading book covers 16 chapters for each volume, and it includes explanations, exercises and vocabulary lists.’
Tips When Studying for the HSK Exam
1. Have a consistent study schedule.
If you stick to a somewhat consistent learning plan, you’ll make good progress in learning Chinese. On the other hand, if you study sporadically, it will be that much less effective.
Figure out how much time you can commit to studying Chinese on a weekly basis, and find a consistent way to fit that into your daily schedule.
This does not have to be a cemented schedule. If you try one schedule and it feels like too much or too little, you can easily adjust. The key is that you build a habit and maintain consistency in your studying.
2. Listen to Chinese music and watch Chinese television.
Immersion is the best way to learn any language. In addition to reading Chinese texts, I’d also listen to Chinese music and watch Chinese films and TV shows.
While subtitled Chinese content on streaming platforms comes in quite handy for simultaneously working on your reading and listening skills, it can be tough to follow when you don’t quite understand every word that’s uttered.
With the native media clips on the FluentU program, you have the advantage of learning while watching Chinese movie trailers, music videos, news reports and more. Interactive subtitles come in simplified or traditional Chinese, along with pinyin and English so that you can easily follow along.
Hover over any word and you’ll be given a definition, an image and a note on usage. You can also click the word to see sentence examples, audio pronunciation and related video clips.
Other than the website, FluentU is also available as an app (iOS and Android).
3. Concentrate on the most commonly used words in Chinese.
There’s not really an “official” number for this, but most languages tend to have a list of 1000 words you should know in that language in order to be proficient. 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 them well. Once you know those most common words, you will be able to pick up on most things and have an easier time learning more.
4. Try to have fun while learning Chinese.
Most people think that Chinese is a difficult language to learn. What most people don’t realize is that’s only true initially. Once you learn the basics of Chinese, everything gets significantly easier.
The key is to make the learning process fun. 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. By having fun with learning, you will actually improve your score as well.
It can start off with something simple, such as finding the joys in a funny tone in Chinese or a signature Shanghai dish that was surprisingly delicious.
You can also try using HSK study apps to help keep things interesting.
5. Use a reading-oriented approach.
If I were to learn Chinese from scratch as a beginner, I wouldn’t focus as much on grammar and vocabulary. Sure, you may need to know the basics, but after the fundamentals, I’d switch gradually to a reading-oriented approach.
I suggest using Chinese novels, Chinese readers, Chinese newspapers and other reading materials to really support your study plan.
You might not understand every little thing, but by focusing on reading, you shift to a more immersive learning mindset.
This will also improve your vocabulary knowledge more than just focusing on typical vocabulary lists.
6. Aim for general understanding instead of focusing on individual words.
When reading, remember the focus is to understand enough so you know the basics of what’s happening. As long as you know what is generally going on, you don’t need to translate everything word for word.
Only look up a word if it’s necessary to understand the rest of the content.
If you prioritize learning words that way, you’ll be building up a very strong foundation to read more challenging texts.
7. Don’t worry too much about grammar.
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.
The HSK Test was designed to test your Chinese proficiency in practical situations, not the complexities of grammar.
Don’t completely ignore grammar, but don’t make that the focus of your studies. I would say that learning “grammar words,” like conjunctions and articles, is important.
With these keywords, you can set the foundation for understanding longer texts, and focus on understanding the content instead of getting lost in the grammar.
8. Practice your handwriting.
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 their time trying to unravel the mysterious script you write.
Make sure to include some handwriting practice in your study time.
9. Simulate exam conditions when taking mock tests.
When practicing for your exam, you need to focus on two things: answering the questions right and answering the questions fast. You can practice section-specific questions to really get the hang of how questions should be answered and make sure that you really grasp the content.
Once you have the actual understanding of Chinese down, you can move on from just answering questions to adding the time element. I suggest you simulate exam conditions with the specific timing of the real exam and complete your practice papers in those conditions.
For the reading section, especially for the higher levels, speed 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 exams.
I would also practice speed for the listening section. There aren’t any repeats, so you need to be used to listening to fast audio and comprehending it quickly enough to spit out an answer just as fast.
Tips for Taking the HSK
10. Simply listen during the listening section.
It only seems natural to take notes during this section, right? Personally, I find that if you’re taking notes, you’re not actually listening or you’re not listening well enough to grasp what you’re hearing.
You actually tend to really understand audio better if you focus all of your attention on just listening.
I know that some people like notes, and if you feel strongly about this, take them in your native language and translate them later to be more efficient.
11. Learn to skip questions…temporarily.
As we just covered, time is just important an element as correct answers. There will likely be parts of the exam that you won’t understand. If you take too much time trying to solve one question, you lose out on the possibility of getting many others right.
As a rule of thumb:
- The answers should come almost instantly for the listening section
- You shouldn’t need to spend more than 30 seconds per question for the reading portion
- No more than 20 seconds writing a sentence
- And no more than five minutes on the 100 words
If you find yourself spending more time than what I suggested above on a question, it’s better to 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.
12. Fill in your answer sheet at the end.
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 reduces the risk of error as you will be filling things in all at once instead of looking back and forth between the exam and the answer sheet and getting distracted.
Of course, this one is based more on personal preference, but I really believe this method reduces your chances of accidentally filling in the wrong bubble on the answer sheet.
13. Go with your gut.
The answers you put down first are usually going to be your final answer, and chances are that it’s the correct one.
All too often, we take a test, fill in an answer and then later go back and change it only to find out that the one you put down first was actually right.
So, if you’ve done your preparation, give yourself some credit and trust your gut.
14. If there’s extra time, double-check your answers.
It may not be a lot, but you’ll likely end up with some time left during your test. Use that time to go back and double-check your answers.
You probably won’t actually change much, but this is where you can really check those questions that you struggled with and hopefully have a better idea of what the answer is.
15. Keep your answers simple!
Whenever there’s a section on composing an answer, don’t overcomplicate it!
Rather than writing everything that comes to mind, take the time to mentally plan what you want to write, then execute.
This way, you don’t get caught rambling and you’ll have much more control and confidence.
16. Take advantage of your resources.
You are allowed to bring a watch to your exam. I recommend that you make good use of it. Don’t let it distract you, but it can be useful to see how much time you have left in a section.
Another great resource that you probably didn’t realize you have is your index finger. Use your finger to guide your reading so you stay on track and don’t skip or jumble characters.
17. Listen to the examiner.
At the end of each section of the exam, there will be cues to signal that you’re closing into the end of that section (five minutes before it ends). Try to be done by this signal so you can use that remaining time to transfer answers, double-check or go back to your skipped questions.
Now you know 17 more tips that can help you get ready for and take the HSK exam. Take what you’ve learned from this study guide and create a plan to help you completely prepare for the Chinese proficiency test. Good luck!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)