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What is the HSK (And Should You Take it)?

Patrick Kim | September 08, 2016 | | 1 Comment
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The HSK 汉语水平考试 (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì), or Chinese Proficiency Test, is the standardized exam roughly equivalent to a TOEFL for Mandarin. It covers academic, professional, and daily life Chinese skills, making it appropriate for anyone who wants to obtain official credentials for their Chinese ability or just track their learning. While the majority of test takers are students, the HSK is a great way for professionals to impress prospective employers with your commitment to learning Chinese, and an opportunity to continue improving your Chinese in a measured process.

Is the HSK Right for You?

The first step in considering the HSK is to see if it lines up with your goals in learning Chinese. Some people are not good test takers, and might not care to invest time into test prep. If you are one of those people, don't panic because HSK is only a prerequisite if you are applying to a Chinese university, and employers seldom put HSK scores as a requirement on job listings. While obtaining an HSK certificate isn't necessary to finding job, it is a great selling point in the job market once you have a recruiter’s attention. All of the best career prospects in China are enhanced if you have Chinese skills, and language ability is also an essential component of understanding the work culture.

One of the biggest things I noticed while interviewing in China is that interviewers want to know how well you will fit into the company, as well as how committed you are to staying in China. You can play to the long-term view of business relationships in China by demonstrating your commitment to learning Chinese language and culture. An HSK credential is a clear way to demonstrate your commitment, and is much easier than trying to impress with your Chinese skills during an interview. You can go into the interview more confident and stress-free knowing that the interviewer will not be concerned about your Chinese abilities. While I never took the HSK and was still hired at many Chinese companies, I did have to speak a lot of Chinese during interviews to prove I could speak and understand. 

The HSK is also a measurement tool for self-improvement. HSK material pertains to useful subjects about daily life and culture, designed to have practical application for you no matter what your goal is in learning Chinese. Many people who take the HSK do it because they want to prove how far they have come in learning Chinese. Since test scores are more tangible than holistic knowledge, the HSK is popular among China’s foreign student bodies. However, test taking is not for everybody, and I think the HSK should only be used as a tool if it helps you get to the next level of Chinese, or it is part of your academic track. I used a lot of HSK material to study Chinese, but it didn’t bother me that I never took the test because for me, using Chinese in the workplace was enough of an accomplishment to mark my progress. However, others took the HSK say it was worth it because it made them stick out from the crowd in the job application process or gave them a sense of self-satisfaction. Passing the HSK gives you a lifetime worth of bragging rights since the certificate doesn’t expire unless you are using it to apply to universities (in which case it lasts for two years). 

How to Prepare and Get Your Desired Score

After you decide whether taking the HSK is right for you, you’re going to have to pick out a target level to take. Start by thinking about how many characters you want to learn before your test date. Refer to the table below to see how many characters could appear on each version of the test: 

 

Characters and Words Score Certificate

Characters: 178

Words: 150

1 Elementry

Characters: 349

Words: 300

2 Elementry with Honors

Characters: 623

Words: 600

3 Intermediate

Characters: 1071

Words: 1200

4 Intermediate with Honors

Characters: 1709

Words: 2500

5 Advanced
 

Characters: 2633

Words: 5000

Advanced with Honors

 

If the number of characters looks intimidating, don't be discouraged straight away. In order to pass any given level, you only need to get 60% of the answers right. This means to pass HSK 6, you only need to know how to use 1,600 characters and 3000 words correctly, and it is not difficult to memorize that amount if you employ mnemonic devices

However, learning vocabulary alone will not guarantee you can pass your desired level of the HSK. At the advanced level, you will also be tested on every aspect of characters, including circumstances they can be used in. This gets difficult in HSK 6, when it isn't simply enough to know the meaning of characters. You have to read their context carefully, while paying attention to word order and grammatical elements. Those who have more practice with spoken language might run into trouble with the grammar on the HSK, since spoken language is less concerned with grammar rules than written language. 

You will want to be able to fall back on basic test taking skills such as process of elimination and identifying intent or purpose within a passage or listening section. Since there will likely be many vocabulary words you don't know, you should use process of elimination often to approximate the right answer. Since you only need to get 60% of the questions right, it's a sound strategy for at least some of the questions. For reading passages and listening sections, you need to be able to recognize the speaker's main point. There will be words you don't recognize, so it is important to look for the attitude or opinion of the speaker so that you can stay on track and absorb enough to answer the questions. 

As with any test, practice makes perfect. Consistent exposure and experience with Chinese grammar structures and instances of how vocabulary words are used properly is necessary with the HSK. The HSK is a great opportunity to be rewarded for your Chinese studies, so I recommend giving it a shot, and study some Chinese using the question types and format of the test. 

 

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Patrick Kim

Patrick Kim

Patrick Kim is an editor at TutorMing. He has a B.A. in East Asian Studies from UCSB, and has worked in China for 3 years. His hobbies are soccer, being outdoors, and studying Chinese.

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