What is an HSK test?
HSK stands for 汉语水平考试 (hànyǔ shuǐpíng kǎoshì), a Chinese proficiency test for learners of Chinese as a foreign language. It is basically a standardised test, similar to its English and American counterparts: IELTS and TOEFL. There’s an old version with eleven levels (still revered by the old-school sinophiles) designed by Beijing Language and Culture University (yes, the BLCU); and there’s the new version with six levels and designed by Hanban office, a non-profit under China Ministry of Education.
The six levels range from beginner to advanced following the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) which dictates the rules for language proficiency tests – you know, the A1-C2 levels. Depending on the level you take, the tests are either composed of two or three parts. Levels I and II consist of only reading and listening parts, while other levels also have the additional writing part.
There are a number of textbooks and vocabulary lists out there that tell you which and how many characters you have to know, which grammar concepts you have to be familiar with in order to pass each level. For level I, for example, it is assumed that the test takers have studied Chinese for half an academic year with 2-3 hours of Chinese weekly, or the equivalent of a two-month intensive course. To successfully sit an HSK I, the students are expected to have mastered 150 commonly used words and basic grammar patterns. The entire HSK I is written in Pinyin.
Should you take an HSK test?
There are usually two main reasons why someone would take an HSK test: first, passing the test is necessary if you intend to enrol into a university degree in China. Depending on the major you would want to take, levels between IV-VI are required.
Second, HSK is an objective measurement of your Chinese level, so instead of saying, ‘Hey I studied Chinese for two years,’ you can instead say, ‘Hey I’ve passed HSK IV’ – which looks much better on your CV.
There is also the third reason, which is the one I would choose. I find HSK tests useful, because they give you a specific goal and framework to work with. This is especially important with language studies because having a specific goal in mind – such as passing the HSK test of the desired level – will keep you motivated on the long run.
And another good news: a decent test score might get you a scholarship for studying Chinese in China (check with the Confucius institute near you)
How to prepare for HSK?
What I recommend is the following: I suggest that on top your standard study material, that is, on top of what your syllabus or your tutor requires, you also invest some time revising the HSK preparation material. Always buy material of a level higher than your current level. For example, if you’ve been studying Chinese for three months, try HSK 2; if you’ve been studying for a year, try HSK 4, and so on. There are essentially three things that you have to cover.
First is the vocabulary acquisition. There are numerous textbooks and websites that have all the HSK vocabulary listed by their levels. So, for example, for acing a level 2 test, you’d have to know 300 words. Study those 300 words, learn their meanings and learn how to use them. Then move on to grammar. Study, practice and learn all the grammar patterns and structures that are included in a certain HSK level. Again, there’s tons of resources out there, many of them for free.
Once you’re fine with grammar, the final part is reading exercises. And here’s where you get to practice and develop your Chinese muscle. Train yourself to be able to scan the texts and look for the most important information – like what you would do in your own language. Try to find the main idea of each paragraph and, if it’s an essay, for example, understand the structure of the whole text. What information is important? Who has done what, and when? Time yourself and make sure that you’re able to cover all the articles in the same time as you are given in the real test situation. For example, if you need to read 10 articles in 50 min, practice exactly that.
Once you’ve developed your reading muscle it’s time to move on to mock tests. Taking mock tests will give you the sense of how long each section of the test takes, which of the sections is your strongest and which your weakest.
If you do it right and systematically, it won’t take much time. In my case, I’ve never used more than 2 weeks to prepare for one HSK and I always did great in the end – though, do make sure that you don’t repeat my mistake and that you eat a hearty meal before the test (the sound of your complaining stomach might interfere with your listening part).
And that’s all it takes. You can find more details about the tests here.