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How to Prepare for the HSK Chinese Proficiency Test

JINNA WANG | JULY 05, 2018

If you are learning Mandarin and want to officially certify your Chinese skills, you're looking for the HSK Chinese Proficiency test!

Even if you haven't started studying Chinese yet, maybe you’ve heard about the HSK and are curious to learn more. 

Read on to learn everything you need to know about the HSK test, including advice on how to best prepare for the exam!

What is the HSK?

HSK is the commonly used name for the 汉语水平考试 (hàn yǔ shuǐ píng kǎo shì) - Chinese Proficiency Test

It is the most popular and internationally accepted exam to assess non-native speakers’ proficiency in using the Chinese language in their academic and day-to-day lives.

Who should take the HSK?

The HSK is useful for different types of Mandarin learners in different ways. 

•  For job seekers who are non-native speakers of Chinese, the HSK is an official way to prove one’s ability to a potential employer

• For students who want to study at a Chinese university, the HSK is a required exam. A level 4 certification is required to pursue a bachelor’s degree, while a level 5 is required for a master’s.

Lastly, even if studying or working in China is not in your future plans, many students choose to take the HSK as an official milestone of their learning progress. The structured levels of the exams provide tangible and attainable goals to work towards, and helps these students feel motivated as they go through their Mandarin learning journey.

What is the structure of the HSK exam?

Since 2010, there have been six levels to the HSK, with Level 1 being the easiest, and Level 6 being the most difficult. 

The test breaks down into two major portions, with the first being vocabulary, and the second being a written test. Check out this chart that sums up what is tested at each HSK level. 

You need to have a good idea of your own Chinese proficiency level before attempting the exam. For beginners who can hold everyday conversations and know a basic set of vocabulary (or have completed our Beginner Conversational Course), Level 1 or Level 2 is most appropriate. At this level, writing is not yet tested.

For more advanced learners who can read Chinese newspapers and are able to write a speech or article (or have completed our Upper Intermediate Conversational Course and our Chinese Character Courses, Level 5 might be a solid goal. Many Chinese job opportunities require an HSK Level of 5 or higher.

What’s the difference between Mandarin Courses vs HSK Prep Courses?

If you are serious about learning Mandarin, it is important to understand that HSK prep courses should not be your main resource. 

HSK prep courses are like taking a class for the SATs: the curriculum of the course is geared solely towards helping you pass the exam. Learning Mandarin this way like taking a college entrance exam prep course instead of actually going through high school. It's not an effective way to learn, and you will miss out on so much of the rich intricacies of the culture and the language!

Maybe it goes without saying, but I highly recommend choosing Yoyo Chinese courses as your program for learning Mandarin. If you aren't already going through the free lessons at the start of all the courses, you can check out this video for more information on how the Yoyo Chinese program works:

Even if you choose not to study with Yoyo Chinese, you should choose a structured course that actually teaches you the language from the ground up, and that you can follow all the way to fluency without having to switch to a different program.

By going through a comprehensive course, students develop a more holistic understanding of Mandarin Chinese and feel more connected to the language. Using unstructured resources or exam prep books to try and learn Mandarin leads to feeling like you aren't making progress, which leads to frustration, which leads to quitting.

That is not to say that there isn’t a place in your learning arsenal for HSK prep material!  When you are feeling ready to take an exam, you should create a structured test prep plan and break out the practice exams. The HSK prep material will serve as the bootcamp right before the test, but you need to have developed a solid and thorough foundation for your Chinese before you switch gears into test prep mode.

How should I study for the HSK exam?

As you follow a comprehensive Mandarin course that builds up your skills, you will naturally become ready for different levels of the HSK. After you decide which level of the HSK is right for your current skill set, it’s time to focus on test prep. 

It is crucial to do as many practice exams as possible in a simulated test environment. Once you feel like your vocabulary and listening skills are at least passable (they do not have to be perfect!), it is time to take a mock exam. 

The key to making the most of the mock exam is to prepare for it as if you are taking the real exam. Give yourself a time limit, sit at your desk, and turn off all the distractions. The closer you make your mock exam experience to the real exam, the more comfortable and relaxed you will be during the actual exam – because it’s like you’ve done it before!

You might be discouraged by your scores for the first few mock exams, but you have to remember that these scores are part of the journey, and NOT the final destination. Your mock exams will point you in the right direction as to what area you need to focus on improving.

There are many resources you can draw on as part of your study journey. Tech-savvy people might find flashcard apps to be most helpful, while others may prefer exam prep books. If you're studying with Yoyo Chinese, you've already got interactive flashcards and quizzes to help you review!

Do what works best for you, but make sure you have a plan and commit to it. Happy studying!

Are you a Yoyo Chinese student who has taken the HSK exam? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments below!