is hsk worth it

Is the HSK Worth it? What You Need to Know About the Chinese Proficiency Test

Is the HSK exam worth taking?

What can you actually use it 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 guide, I’ll introduce you to the HSK exam—from its different levels to the test-taking process—and share how the HSK exam can benefit you.  


What Is the HSK?

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

The HSK tests how good you are at Chinese. For now, it’s implemented at six levels, from 1 (the easiest) through 6 (the most difficult), although it’s currently being expanded to reach up to Level 9. At each level, you either pass or don’t pass—it’s that simple.

You can think of it as the Chinese version of TOEFL, which is an official English test for non-native speakers.

If you’re wondering how popular the HSK test is, consider this: 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.

Who Is the HSK for?

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

For students, one category would be Chinese ethnic minority students. Because their mother tongue might be a Chinese dialect and not 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà), the official Chinese language also known as Standard Mandarin, 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) or 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.

What’s ironic is most employers looking for foreign employees don’t know what the HSK is! They may not 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 the higher levels is pretty tough. This is especially the case for professionals who don’t particularly like languages but who have to study them for practical reasons.

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. 

So don’t think it’s just a scrap piece of paper—it shows your perseverance in learning the Chinese language and culture!

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.

What Are the HSK Levels?

The current HSK test currently has six levels. Levels 1-2 are Beginner, Levels 3-4 are Intermediate and Levels 5-6 are Advanced.  

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

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. This means that using contemporary and immersive learning tools like FluentU will be a big help for you in acing the HSK.

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

First, the difference between the two levels per learning category (Levels 1-2 are Beginner, Levels 3-4 are Intermediate and Levels 5-6 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

What Is the New HSK Test? 

The New HSK won’t be ready for another couple of years, so no need to worry about it yet. But if you’re curious about the changes, there are a few things to note.

Because the current 6-level model doesn’t match international frameworks for testing language fluency, the HSK will be restructured with new levels and language requirements. It’s not just about memorizing a set number of characters anymore.

The last time the HSK was updated was back in 2010 when it went from 11 to six levels with lowered requirements. The new HSK will introduce three new levels (7-9), so HSK 1-3 will be known as the elementary levels and HSK 4-6 as the intermediate levels.

As of now, the HSK only tests your listening, reading and writing skills. The new HSK will consolidate all four language skills into one well-rounded assessment. It’ll also test additional skills such as translation and handwriting abilities. So if you’re feeling hesitant about taking up calligraphy, the new test might convince you otherwise!

Another major change is the number of characters and words you should know for each level.

In addition to redefining those requirements, the new HSK will outline the number of syllables (pinyin combinations) and grammar structures needed to pass each level.

Overall, the New HSK will be raising its standards for Chinese proficiency. But the good news is that the government is working to modernize the test with topics and vocabulary applicable to the current world. So while it sounds like the new HSK will be more demanding, the new testing scheme will be more relevant to Chinese learners than it has ever been in the past.

The current tests are solely administered in simplified Chinese, and there haven’t been any updates to indicate whether the new curriculum will include an option between traditional and simplified Chinese. This may sway you to learn simplified Chinese, though you can always write your answers down using traditional characters if you’re taking the paper-based test.

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 the Level 6 of HSK is only equivalent to a B2 level in the CEFR.

I happen to 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 highest level, the HSK doesn’t meet the last statement, especially in terms of “differentiating finer shades of meaning even in more complex situations.” In order 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.

To top that off, I also consider 5,000 words to be a low estimate of the vocabulary needed to be considered at a “near-native” or native level. For starters, no emphasis is placed on areas like idiomatic expressions and sophisticated vocabulary.


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

Besides, it’s satisfying to pass a level because it’s a testament to your hard work and dedication to the language!

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