is hsk worth it

The Complete Guide to Taking the HSK Test in 2024

The HSK test is the official Mandarin Chinese proficiency exam, and it contains nine levels.

In this guide, I’ll introduce you to the HSK test—from its different levels to the test-taking process—and share some tips and resources for studying for the exam.


What Is the HSK?

“HSK” is the English abbreviation for 汉语水平考试 (hàn yǔ shuǐ píng kǎo shì). It’s the official standardized test for Chinese proficiency in Mainland China.

The HSK tests how good you are at Chinese. It’s implemented at nine levels, from 1 (the easiest) through 9 (the most advanced). At each level, you either pass or don’t pass—it’s that simple.

The test has been going on for more than 30 years now, and it’s been taken over 100 million times around the world in over 120 countries.

The HSK originally had six levels. Levels 1-2 were beginner, Levels 3-4 were intermediate and Levels 5-6 were advanced. But as of March 2022, there’s now the Levels 7-9 exam that represents the advanced level. Levels 4-6 are now considered intermediate.

The HSK doesn’t test your speaking skills until the advanced level, but there’s a separate test for speaking that’s called the HSKK. It’s also divided into Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced levels.

Here’s a breakdown of the HSK levels.

HSK LevelProficiency LevelWords to Know
HSK 1Beginner150
HSK 2Beginner300
HSK 3Beginner600
HSK 4Intermediate1,200
HSK 5Intermediate2,500
HSK 6Intermediate5,000
HSK 7-9Advanced11,092

2024 Updates to the HSK Test

The HSK test is updated every so often. A few changes have been made to it in 2024.

One of the major updates is that there’s now a translation test on HSK levels 4-6. It is the fourth skill you’ll be tested on, alongside the original listening, reading and writing skills.

There’s also an advanced HSK test now. Traditionally, there have only been six HSK levels. Now, there are HSK Levels 7, 8 and 9. However, these levels are tested under the same test and are grouped together as the “Advanced” level. HSK 4, 5 and 6 are considered intermediate.

Who Is the HSK for?

There are two main groups of people taking the HSK: students and professionals.

Students include Chinese ethnic minorities. Because their mother tongue might be a Chinese dialect and not Standard Mandarin (普通话pǔ tōng huà), they have to demonstrate that their Chinese is actually up to standard.

The other category of students, of course, is foreign students. These include those who don’t have Chinese as their native language as well as 华侨 (huá qiáo) — those with Chinese ethnicity who grew up overseas. 

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”—or 留学生高考 (liú xué shēng gāo kǎo), as it’s coined by local Chinese students—as a college admission test.

Foreign students are required to either have an HSK Level 5 or 6 certificate.

As for professionals, these are usually people who are really driven to prove their Chinese proficiency. As you can probably guess, their main objective is to show their certificate to potential employers. And for that to work, it’s pretty common to aim only for the highest levels.

But more than anything, passing an HSK test is a sign that you’ve put in the commensurate effort to stick through to the end. While it doesn’t seem much, studying Chinese on a part-time basis and passing the higher levels is pretty tough.

And employers respect that. Besides, passing the HSK also makes you more likely to have written proficiency, as compared to sticking with only conversational Chinese.

What Does the HSK Test Look Like?

The objective of the HSK test is to check if you can use Chinese in practical situations.

This gets increasingly difficult as you go up the levels. Level 1 is similar to the proficiency of a young child at the kindergarten level, while Level 6 allows you to express complex thoughts and opinions in Chinese fluently without thinking.

No matter what the level, the test focuses on skills for everyday use. For example, it might include interviews, summaries, newspapers, news reports, stories and dialogues in the supermarket. On the other hand, archaic Chinese, Tang poetry, contemporary prose and ancient prose won’t really appear on the HSK.

There are a couple of important details to note about the HSK exam.

First, the difference between the two levels per learning category (Levels 1-3 are Beginner, Levels 4-6 are Intermediate and Levels 7-9 are Advanced) is minimal. I highly recommend that you choose the higher of the two levels for each group.

Second, points are assessed on an overall basis. If you get a lower score for listening and a higher score for reading, that’s fine—they need only be higher than the threshold overall.

If you’re curious about what the exams are like per level, here’s a breakdown of the types of questions you’ll encounter: 

HSK Level 1

AreaSection 1Section 2Section 3Section 4
Listening5 questions5 questions5 questions5 questions
True or false Match sentences with picturesMatch dialogues with picturesMultiple choice (sentence)
Reading5 questions5 questions5 questions5 questions
True or falseMatch sentences with picturesMatch sentences with responsesFill in the blanks (with choices)

HSK Level 2

AreaSection 1Section 2Section 3Section 4
Listening10 questions10 questions10 questions5 questions
True or falseMatch dialogues with picturesMultiple choice (dialogue)Multiple choice (longer dialogue)
Reading5 questions5 questions5 questions10 questions
Match sentences with picturesFill in the blanks (with choices)True or false (logical deduction)Match sentences with responses 

HSK Level 3

AreaSection 1Section 2Section 3Section 4
Listening10 questions10 questions10 questions10 questions
Match conversations with picturesTrue or false (logical deduction)Multiple choice (dialogue)Multiple choice (longer dialogue)
Reading10 questions10 questions10 questions
Match sentences with responsesFill in the blanks (with choices)Multiple choice (short passage) 
Writing5 questions5 questions
Arrange words into a sentenceWrite the character (pinyin provided)

HSK Level 4

AreaSection 1Section 2Section 3
Listening10 questions15 questions20 questions
Match conversations with picturesMultiple choice (dialogue)Multiple choice (longer dialogue)
Reading5 questions10 questions10 questions
Fill in the blanks (with choices)Arrange sentences Multiple choice (short passage)
Writing5 questions5 questions
Arrange words into a sentenceWrite a sentence about a picture

HSK Level 5

AreaSection 1Section 2Section 3
Listening20 questions25 questions
Multiple choice (short dialogue)Multiple choice (passage)
Reading15 questions10 questions20 questions
Fill in the blanks (with choices)Multiple choice (summarize a passage)Multiple choice (reading comprehension)
Writing8 questions2 questions
Arrange words into a sentenceWrite a short paragraph of about 100 words

HSK Level 6

AreaSection 1Section 2Section 3Section 4
Listening15 questions15 questions20 questions
Multiple choice (passage)Multiple choice (interviews)Multiple choice (longer passages)
Reading10 questions10 questions10 questions20 questions
Choose the incorrect sentenceRe-arrange sentences Fill in the blanks (with choices)Multiple choice (reading comprehension)
Writing1 question
Summarize a passage of about 1000 characters in less than 400 characters

HSK Level 7-9

AreaSection 1Section 2Section 3
Listening10 questions12 questions18 questions
Reading28 questions5 questions14 questions
Writing1 question1 question
Translation2 questions2 questions
Speaking1 question3 questions1 question

Where Can I Take the HSK Test?

There are generally two ways you can take an HSK Test: in-person or online.

Online HSK tests are mainly administered in test centers, except you take them on a computer instead of writing a paper test. However, since the pandemic in 2020, you have the option of taking the test at home over a video call, as long as you follow certain requirements.

One reason why you might prefer the online test is that you can type answers. This might be appealing to those who have trouble remembering how to write characters or who prefer to type because it’s faster.

Either way, you can use the online registration to conveniently register for the test.

What if I Fail the HSK Test? Can I Retake it?

There are no ramifications if you fail, and you can certainly retake it as many times as you wish.

How Long Is My HSK Certificate Valid?

The HSK certificate is valid indefinitely.

However, for academic purposes, it is valid for two years from the date the exam was taken. So if you’re applying for a Chinese university, your HSK certificate will only be good for two years.

How Do HSK Levels Compare to the CEFR Levels?

Hanban claims that the HSK levels have a one-to-one correspondence to the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) levels, with HSK Levels 1 to 6 being parallel to CEFR Levels A1 (Beginner) to C2 (Mastery).

There has been debate over this claim, though. For instance, the Fachverband Chinesisch in Germany (an organization similar to the Confucius Institute) thinks that Level 6 of HSK is only equivalent to a B2 level in the CEFR.

I agree with this.

In my opinion, levels C1 or C2 are near-native, if not native, levels of proficiency in a language. Based on the CEFR Global Scale, a person who has attained a C2 level of proficiency can do the following:

  • Understand with ease virtually everything heard or read
  • Summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation
  • Express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in more complex situations

Even at the sixth level, the HSK doesn’t meet the last statement, especially in terms of “differentiating finer shades of meaning even in more complex situations.” To do that, you would need to be relatively well-read, and the level of reading that’s required for the Level 6 tests falls short of testing this particular standard.

Because of this, HSK Level 7-9 would be more representative of a C1 and C2 level.

What Is the CI Scholarship? 

There is another small group that the HSK test is for, and that’s scholarship applicants.

More specifically, you’ll likely need your HSK test results to apply for the Confucius Institute Scholarship.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Confucius Institute, it’s a state-supervised organization 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, which make up the bulk of the CI’s partners. The CI’s other goal is to help teach and facilitate exchange opportunities for foreign students.

From the start, the CI scholarship was designed to provide financial aid for students who want to further their studies in China. The discipline that you choose must be related to the Chinese language or culture, though. An example of a major that you might get a scholarship for would be teaching Chinese as a foreign language.

To get into a scholarship program, you usually have to pass at least two main criteria: 

  • Aggregate performance – You’ll be assessed for proof of having a good learning attitude. 
  • Chinese language ability – Depending on your program, you’ll need to have good HSK and HSKK scores at a specific level. 

Requiring applicants to pass an HSK test makes sense because it shows you have an aptitude for language, hence the sponsorship of language-related programs.

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 programs, and they either get full or partial scholarships.

Resources for Studying for the HSK Test

Here’s a list of resources to help you prepare for the HSK test:

  • This is the official HSK website. It lets you find a test center near you and sign up for HSK courses. They’re taught by certified HSK teachers who help you fly through the vocabulary and grammar you need to pass the level of your choosing. You can also find detailed information about each test on the website, do a mock test and look up your test results.
  • HSK Study Guides. There are three main study guide resources I recommend. You can also check out our comprehensive HSK study guide.
    • The “New HSK Simulated Tests” series is a book for each level that contains 10 practice exams and the words needed to pass.
    • The “Official Examination Papers of HSK” series is a collection of practice exams and is available at an affordable price.
    • The “HSK Standard Course” is a textbook series to help you prepare for each of the HSK levels. There’s a part one and part two to the textbooks starting at Level 4 and beyond. The chapters explain grammar points in detail, introduce you to the necessary vocabulary and contain practice exams. 
  • Vocabulary Lists. You can find tons of vocabulary lists online for free by searching for them on Google. For example, DigMandarin has free PDF vocabulary lists for all HSK levels (I’ve personally used this one for HSK 4). Chinese Vocabulary Wiki also has free lists online and breaks down the vocabulary into parts, such as adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, etc.
  • Online Courses. Platforms like Coursera, edX, or Udemy often have HSK preparation courses. Many also offer interactive lessons and quizzes.
  • Multimedia Resources. Several YouTube channels offer lessons and tips for HSK, such as Mandarin Corner. For example, they have a four-and-a-half-hour video with all 600 words in HSK Level 4, with example sentences.

  • Tutoring Services. Consider hiring a tutor for personalized guidance and feedback. You can use online tutoring platforms like italki or Preply to find qualified HSK tutors.
  • Immersion Resources. Make sure to continue supplementing your HSK study with immersion, like listening to podcasts, dramas, YouTube videos and more. You can also use FluentU to look up the words you’re learning in the video-based dictionary to hear them used in real, native-speaker media.

    FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

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All in all, taking the HSK test is pretty common among long-term Chinese learners. Although it’s not required, it’s one way to assess your Chinese skills, and can be handy for opportunities that value Chinese proficiency, such as Chinese scholarships.

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