How To Prepare For (And Pass) HSK: Tips and Strategies

How To Prepare For (And Pass) HSK: Tips and Strategies

If you’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese for a while, you may have heard people talk about HSK.

What does HSK stand for?

HSK stands for Hànyǔ (汉语, Chinese) Shuǐpíng (水平, level) Kǎoshì (考试, test). There are six levels of HSK.

Like CEFR (European languages), JLPT (Japanese) and TOPIK (Korean), HSK is the official Chinese testing for language proficiency which is used primarily to determine suitability for academia and employment.

Table of Contents:

  1. HSK Levels
    1. Level 1
    2. Level 2
    3. Level 3
    4. Level 4
    5. Level 5
    6. Level 6
  2. Who should take HSK?
    1. Education
    2. Employment
    3. Personal development
  3. Preparing For HSK
    1. HSK Levels 1 & 2
    2. HSK Levels 3 & 4
    3. HSK Levels 5 & 6
  4. Summary

The table below will give you a pretty good idea about what to expect for each level.

HSK Level 1
Understand very simple phrases
Be able to use very simple phrases
Be able to communicate with very basic sentence structure and grammar
HSK Level 2
Be able to communicate something simple in daily routines
Be able to exchange information on families and routine matters
Be able to grasp basic Chinese from a conversation and in written form
HSK level 3
Be able to communicate in Chinese at a basic level about daily, academic, and professional lives
Be able to communicate with native speakers when traveling to China (for most communications)
HSK level 4
Be able to have conversations on a wide range of topics
Be able to communicate fluently with native speakers
HSK level 5
Be able to read Chinese newspapers and magazines
Be able to understand and enjoy Chinese films and plays
Be able to give a full-length speech in Chinese
HSK level 6
Be able to easily comprehend written and spoken information in Chinese
Be able to express themselves in Chinese in both oral and written forms

Who should take HSK?

The test is mainly designed to help Chinese companies and education institutions evaluate your Chinese language level, and it is designed for non-native speakers only.

So, who should take HSK?

If you fall into one of the categories below, you should consider taking it!

Education: if you would like to study abroad in China.

According to the Ministry of Education, if you would like to pursue a bachelor’s degree at a Chinese university, the average passing level is HSK 4. If you are going for a master’s degree at a Chinese university, then the average passing level would be HSK 5.

Employment: if you are looking for job opportunities in China, or in a Chinese company.

Most test takers are actually adults.

When you apply for a job position that requires a certain level of Chinese competency, HSK level 3 or 4 is usually the minimum requirement if you are using Chinese as your major working language. Some companies will even ask for HSK level 5 as the pass mark.

Personal development: if you would like to expand your language skills.

When I was a Mandarin Chinese teacher in a high school, this was actually the main reason most of my students chose to take it. They were still a bit too young to make a decision about what they really wanted to major in at college or what they would do for a living in the future.

But they did see the benefit of learning Chinese. Holding a language passing certificate is a huge plus for sure.

How to prepare for HSK?

Just like all the tests you would like to pass, knowing the test structure will definitely help you to achieve your goal.

Grammar and vocabulary are the two big keys to mastering any language.

I remember when I had just started learning English as a second language, I really struggled with those “text-only” materials. The long vocabulary list always defeated me right at the beginning of each new lesson.

After I became a Mandarin Chinese teacher, I realized that many of my students had a similar struggle. That’s when I found out how much infographics can help.

HSK Level 1 and 2

There are 150 words in the HSK 1 vocabulary list that you MUST master. For HSK 2, there are 300 words in the list, including the 150 words from HSK 1.

If you plan to continue for higher level tests, you have to be VERY familiar with ALL 300 words. Regarding grammar points, there are about 50 HSK 1 grammar points you need to know, and about another 80 grammar points for HSK 2.

Here is an approximate benchmark to use as your reference. If you are learning Mandarin Chinese in a high school or college and have 2 to 3 hours of classes per week, with diligent work, you can master the HSK 1 vocabulary and grammar points within a semester.

And to master HSK 2, you will probably need another semester.

Vocabulary

As I mentioned earlier, I found infographics are a great help when studying vocabulary. Below is an example.

If you have a vocabulary list like this:

ChinesePinyinEnglish
I/me
我们wǒmenwe/us
you
你们nǐmenyou (pl.)
he/him
他们tāmenthey
she/her
她们tāmenthey (females, pl.)
爸爸bàbafather
妈妈māmamother
儿子érzison
女儿nǚérdaughter
老师lǎoshīteacher
朋友péngyǒufriend
学生xuéshēngstudent
同学tóngxuéclassmate
先生xiānshengsir
小姐xiǎojiěmiss
医生yīshēngdoctor

And compare it to the infographic like this:

HSK vocabulary

When the images come with the vocabulary, students are not only able to associate the image with the vocabulary, but also there are other related images around. If you find the infographics above helpful, you are probably a visual learner.

According to much research, about 65% of us are visual learners.

HSK Flashcards

There is another way to prepare for vocabulary and everyone knows it!

Flashcards are oldies but goodies. When people say practice makes perfect, it means you do something repeatedly until you master it. Flashcards adopt the same idea.

Below are some examples to show you that if you use infographic-style flashcards, they can make your learning journey much easier from the beginning.

HSK Flashcards 2

Some of my students have asked me before that since there was NO writing section in both HSK 1 and 2, did they need to know how to write each word?

My answer is an absolute YES. Here is why.

Since you are a beginner, you probably are not that familiar with this language, including the characters. Since there are a lot of homophones in Chinese, if you do not practice writing them down and are not able to recognize them, based on my teaching experience, you will end up getting confused with similar looking Chinese characters or homophone words.

It will also not benefit you in your long-term language learning journey.

Grammar

The fundamental grammar points include:

  • basic sentence structure,
  • question sentence structure,
  • question words,
  • measurement words,
  • negative sentence structure,
  • numbers,
  • time,
  • days,
  • past tense sentence structure,
  • introducing oneself,
  • money units,
  • comparison, and more.

Learning grammar on your own in the beginning may not be an easy thing.

If you are not taking a Chinese class in a school, finding a good online HSK course is definitely a great option.

Listening

In both HSK 1 and 2 listening sections, all of the questions will play TWICE.

So, when you practice for this section, make sure you are familiar with the pronunciation of each piece of vocabulary, as well as the grammar.

Find some practice tests online to get familiar with.

There are 4-5 parts in this section. I will show you an example question for each part (ref: ChineseTest.cn), so you have a better idea what this section will look like:

HSK 1

Part1: True-or false. Judge if the phrase matches the picture.

HSK True False

Part 2: Choose a corresponding picture based on what you hear.

HSK Choose

Part 3: Choose a corresponding picture based on what you hear.

HSK Choose 2

Part 4: A statement and a question sentence will be provided for you to listen to. Three possible answers will be provided on the paper.

Choose the correct answer from what you hear.

HSK Choose 3

HSK 2

The HSK 2 listening section is similar to HSK 1, but a phrase may become a sentence and there are more questions in most of the parts.

To prepare for the listening section, listen carefully to how to pronounce each word when you study and say it out loud.

Then once you get an idea what a Chinese sentence structure is, you can start listening to some simple sentences. There are some books and online Chinese courses that include audio files that you can practice with.

Reading

Good news for beginners, is that in the reading sections of HSK 1 and 2, you will have both Chinese characters and PINYIN for each question.

HSK 1

Part 1: Judge if the picture and the phrase are matching

HSK Judge

Part 2: Match the provided pictures and sentences

HSK Match

Part 3: Match 5 questions sentences and 5 answers

HSK Match 2

Part 4: Choose from a list of words to fill in the blank.

HSK Choose list

HSK 2

The reading section in HSK 2 is also similar to HSK 1 (much like the listening component).

With double the amount of vocabulary and grammar points, it may take you a bit longer to comprehend them.

HSK Level 3 and 4

HSK 3

Words: 600

Grammar points: about 80 new grammar points

Prep time: approximately 2 to 4 class hours per week for 3 semesters

HSK 4

Words: 1200

Grammar points: about 120 new grammar points

Prep time: approximately 2 to 4 class hours per week for 4 semesters

Writing

Starting in HSK 3, there is a NEW section, WRITING.

The writing sections of both HSK 3 and HSK 4 contain two parts.

The first part (both HSK 3 and HSK 4 are similar) is to rearrange the sentence. You are given a few words in each question. Rearrange them into the correct order.

To prepare for this part, you need to be familiar with the vocabulary and the sentence structure.

Second part of HSK 4

You are given a sentence in Chinese characters, but there is one word written in pinyin.

Write the correct Chinese character according to the context.

One of the big differences between Chinese and English is there are a lot of homophones in Chinese. That is the main reason for this part.

To prepare for this part, you not only should know the pronunciation for each word but should also be able to recognize and write the correct character.

Second part of HSK 4

You are given a picture and a phrase, you need to make a sentence according to the picture and the phrase.

To prepare for this part, in order to write the sentences in Chinese characters, practicing each item of vocabulary in Chinese characters is basic but yet important.

Listening and Reading

Watching Chinese shows will definitely help your listening skills in general.

In my opinion, I think if you have passed HSK 2, it is a good time to start watching shows in Chinese. It may not help you to prepare for HSK 3 directly, but it will help you to get used to hearing this language in a fun way!

Most of the shows in Chinese have Chinese subtitles, which is great.

The reading comprehension section includes matching conversations, finding the correct words for sentences, rearranging sentences into paragraphs, and reading from a couple of sentences or a short paragraph and answering questions on it.

Getting a couple of HSK 3 or 4 books or finding some online or paper practice tests can be a good idea after studying for vocabulary and grammar.

HSK Level 5 and 6

HSK 5

Words: 2,500

Grammar points: about 130 new grammar points

Prep time: approximately 2 to 4 class hours per week for two years

HSK 6

Words: 5,000

There are definitely many fewer people taking HSK 5 and 6.

Most of these test takers are now pretty sure that they are going to use this language somehow in their future, for educational or professional development.

Writing

There are two parts in the writing section in HSK 5. The first part is the same as HSK 3 and 4, rearranging the sentence. The second part is writing TWO short essays. The word count requirement is about 80 words. You are given only 10 minutes in this section.

First part: you are given a list of vocabulary items. The requirement is you have to use ALL of them in the essay.

Second part: Storytelling. You are given a picture. Write an essay to tell a story about the picture.

For HSK 6, there is only one part of the writing section, SUMMARIZING. In the first 10 minutes, you are given an article to read. You are not allowed to write any notes.

The proctor will take away the article after 10 minutes, you have to write an approximate 400 words summary. You will have 35 minutes for this part.

Listening and reading

At this point, it is harder to give a specific way to prepare for the listening and reading parts of HSK 5 and 6.

The reading section is longer and harder. Read newspapers in Chinese every day. Or even try to read everything in Chinese. Have Chinese podcasts, music or other shows on when you want to listen to something.

If you are not living in a Chinese speaking country, then create one.

Imagine this is your native language, think in Chinese, talk in Chinese, read in Chinese, write and type in Chinese.

Preparing for HSK: Summary

Hopefully by now you have a big picture of what HSK looks like and you should also know the level you are going to pursue.

If you decide to learn Mandarin Chinese, taking HSK is definitely one of the best options. Even though I personally do not believe a standardized test can 100% reflect your real language level, HSK can still be a big plus. It can give the school or the company a quick idea if you are qualified.

It can also be a goal that you want to achieve.

Having a clear goal will motivate you to learn. Whether or not you want to use this language as a professional or as a language lover, it is a fun learning journey.


This post was contributed by Karen Chang of Vivid Chinese.

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Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Icelandic

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