Taking the HSK level 3 exam on computer

Today I took the HSK 3 exam! Unlike the HSK 1 and HSK 2 tests, which I did on paper, this one I opted to do on the computer. Further below, I talk about the pros/cons of each.

After entering the exam room (at 9:10am, 20 mins before the exam was scheduled to start) I was directed to sit down at the computer that had my name on it. It was a computer lab full of computers and I found one that had a sticker with my ‘ticket number’, login code, name, Chinese name (which was blank for me, as I don’t have one yet) and the level of my HSK exam. I was seated next to others who were taking different levels of the exam, probably to reduce the chance of cheating.

Some people were doing a paper test, so they were sitting at a computer with headphones too. Instead of the HSK app, they just had a media player loaded with the listening section of their test. They also had the exam paper and answer sheet.

The computer had headphones and was running Windows 7, and we were shown how to adjust the volume and activate the pinyin input method. I was directed to use the ticket number and code to log in to the HSK app that was already loaded. The input was really laggy and the app actually crashed, but I was able to open it up again (there was a shortcut on the desktop). It wasn’t laggy after that and I had no further problems with it.

I think it went pretty well – similar to how well I was doing in the later sample exams that I was testing myself with in preparation. Once the exam timer had counted down to 0, I was instructed to leave the exam room, and that was the end of it.

Advantages of computer test

Writing characters faster and more accurately

From HSK level 3 onwards, there is a writing section in the exam. As we all know, writing is one of the hardest parts about the Chinese language, and the computer test lets you type using operating system’s pinyin input method. This is far faster and more accurate than writing by hand, even for those who can write quite well. Admittedly the HSK 3’s writing section is quite small, so this benefit is perhaps not as important as it is in higher levels.

Visual cues to answered questions

After you provide an answer to a question, a pencil icon appears next to the question in the contents pane on the left. This provides a clear visual cue that you’ve answered the question and makes it easy to see if you’ve accidentally missed one.

No need to fill out registration details

Since there is no answer sheet, there was no registration details to fill out. I printed out the registration ticket that was sent to me a few days before the exam and took it along with my ID, but aside from leaving it on my desk during the exam, I didn’t have to fill anything out on the day. It was as easy as logging in with some provided details.

Disadvantages of computer test

Section locking

This was the worst aspect. During a particular section (e.g. the listening section), you may skip around to other questions in the same section, which is very useful for reading potential answer options ahead of time (e.g. while example questions are being read). This is particularly useful to make up for slowness in reading speed (considering there is no pinyin from HSK 3 onwards). However, it’s not possible to skip into a different section (e.g. the reading section) until the allocated time has expired.

There are 35 minutes allocated for the listening section, 30 minutes for reading and 15 minutes for writing. This also meant I couldn’t skip to the writing section even though I finished the reading section a bit early. After checking my work, I was sitting there doing nothing until the timer expired.

There was also a mandatory 5 minute period after the listening section for filling out the registration sheet, which wasn’t necessary at all (it’s already automatically filled out) although, honestly, I didn’t mind the break as the listening section was very exhausting for me. Had I been tight on time, these enforced delays would have been extremely frustrating.

Tips for HSK 3 exam preparation

For anyone interested, here are the tips I have for anyone else preparing for this exam (starting with the most important). Note that I have not received my results for this exam yet, so be sure to take my advice with an extra large grain of salt 😉

Learn all the vocabulary

It’s easy to use an SRS tool (e.g. Anki) with a pre-made HSK 3 vocabulary list to ensure you can at least read all (or almost all) of the words in the syllabus for that HSK level. Obviously it takes time, but it would be a bad idea to book the exam before you had the vast majority of the vocab learnt. It is the most important thing.

Practice with sample exams

Taking some sample/past exams is a very efficient way to check your readiness for the exam. Personally I try to make sure I am getting around 90% correct in some sample exams before I am satisfied that I’m ready. Higher levels of HSK might be harder to mark because of expanded writing sections, but for HSK 3 it’s definitely possible to self-mark the whole thing with the provided answers.

Sample exams can be purchased or found online. You’re best off finding the newest publications you can due to the word list change that happened in 2012, as older sample exams (between 2010 to 2011) have some minor vocabulary syllabus differences from 2012 exams onwards.

Ensure that you analyse the questions you answered incorrectly and study up until you understand why.

Practice reading speed

Ensure you do the sample exams with a timer to check that you can get through them in the allotted time. Since there is no more pinyin from this level onwards, reading speed relies entirely on character recognition, which will be slow without practice. Reading speed even affects the listening section, as you need to read all the potential answer options and decide which one is most correct before the next question begins. If you can stuck on a particular option, it can screw up your rhythm for the next few questions.

Use the official HSK textbook

HSK 3 textbook coverThis advice may come too late if you’re doing final preparations but I was fortunate enough to be using the official HSK textbooks in my classes, so it was very focused on the syllabus. In addition to the focussed vocabulary, it also has focussed grammar points and has exercises that mimic the style of questions in the exams.

It may not be the best textbook for learning Chinese in general, but it’s the most efficient for tackling the exams. Even if you find it a bit light on content, you can use it as a trunk and research your own additional resources based on the syllabus it gives you. For example, I would often refer to the Chinese Grammar Wiki to get more info on grammar points that were introduced in the HSK 3 textbook, since I knew I might be examined on them.

Opt for the computer test

If you have the option, the computer test is the way to go. Despite the disadvantages mentioned above, I think the advantages outweigh them.

Best of luck with your preparation!

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Chinese learning habits for 2017

This year I have resolved to take a more deliberate and structured approach to my Chinese language study. I’ve also found a way to gamify my habits to help keep me motivated.

Study task types

I have come up with a weekly plan that has a list of study task types for each day of the week. Each weekday I am going to do:

  • my SRS study (e.g. Skritter, Anki), and
  • active listening practice (mainly from textbook audio at this stage).

SRS is designed to be used daily and is the primary way of acquiring new vocabulary (the most important thing). I view listening ability as my weakest area (especially considering how important it is) so I really want to put a lot of effort into this.

On some other days of the week I also have:

  • reading practice (currently using my Mandarin Companion graded readers), and
  • my regular Chinese class (2 hours on one day a week).

I haven’t specified a fixed minimum time I need to spend on these study tasks because I’m more concerned about forging the habits themselves, but I’m using ~10 minutes as a guide right now. The task types allow for a bit of variance, so I can easily swap in new audio (for example) resources.

Gamifying the habits

To give me more motivation to complete the habits every day, I have started using Habitica. For anyone that has played an RPG video game, it should look familiar.

Characters from Habitica

The idea is that you create a character and enter in your list of habits (daily/scheduled tasks, to-do items or repeatable habits). Recording the completion of your habits will give more experience points (XP) to your character and you will level up. Not completing your daily habits will result in you losing health, risking your character’s death and resulting in a loss of XP. You also earn gold to buy more powerful equipment for your character, which helps them lose less health for missed dailies, get more gold from completed tasks, etc.

Habitica is available via web and mobile app, so I’m easily able to tick off my tasks as I complete them even when I’m out (e.g. I often do my SRS task on the train to work). The health system is good because I feel that I can skip some dailies if I really need to, but I can’t keep doing it for too long otherwise my character will die.

The year of the rooster

I hope the combination of some (not too much) structure and some gamification will make for some good progress in this upcoming year of the rooster 🙂 新年快乐!

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All about tea

I never used to drink tea or coffee but due to my interest in all things Chinese, tea piqued my interest. In fact, over the last year or so I’ve developed quite a tea-drinking habit. There’s a lot of info out there about tea but this post will just cover the major things I find most interesting about it.

Tea with tea leaves

What is tea?

  • Essentially, all types of tea (black, green, white, etc.) come from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. The difference is in the processing of the leaves.
  • Herbal ‘tea’ is not actually real tea — they are tisanes and aren’t going to be talked about here.

Where did it come from?

  • All tea originated from China, where it has been drunk for thousands of years.
  • Its Chinese name is 茶 (pronounced “chá” in Mandarin, but more like “tê” in the dialect of the area of China where it was exported to the West.
  • It arrived in Europe during the 1600s. England wanted more of it so badly that they went to war with China over it in the 1800s and started growing their own in India.
  • Today, China and India still the top two countries for tea production, but many others now grow it.

Gaiwan with tea leaves

Why is it so popular?

Tea is the second most consumed beverage on the planet (after water). There’s a number of reasons for this.

  • It contains the drug caffeine, which raises alertness but is addictive.
  • Many cultures have developed strong tea cultures and social norms that perpetuate its consumption.
  • Tasting different teas is interesting because of how different one tea can be to another (thanks to variances in cultivar, location, altitude, processing, storage, etc.). This is similar to wine tasting.

Where can I learn more?

Pouring tea

Parting thoughts

  • In my opinion (obviously this is subjective), for maximum tea enjoyment I recommend:
    • avoiding tea bags — use quality loose-leaf tea;
    • avoiding tisanes and flavoured teas (e.g. tea scented with flowers/herbs); and
    • brewing gongfu style.
  • You can follow my Instagram account where I post about my tea adventures.
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