Category Archives: Progress

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).

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!

Update: I received a score of 92% for this exam (listening: 93, reading: 100, writing 83 for a total of 276/300).


My experience with the HSKK junior/beginner exam

This weekend I took both the HSK level 2 exam and the HSKK junior (初级) exam, sometimes also referred to as ‘beginner’ or ‘basic’. The HSK 2 exam was very similar in format to the HSK 1, so have a look at this post to see what an HSK exam is like. Here I will only talk about the HSKK (汉语水平口语考试).

What is the HSKK and how is it different from the HSK?

Unlike the HSK (the listening/reading/writing test), the HSKK (the listening/speaking test) only has three levels: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. Typically a student will take the HSKK test around the same time they do the HSK 2 (for beginners), HSK 4 (for intermediates) or HSK 6 (for advanced students), although there are no restrictions on this. As with the HSK, certain employers or universities in China may require a certain HSKK level qualification in order for foreigners to apply for a job or scholarship there.

HSKK logo
The first thing to point out is that this listening/oral test is all done on a computer without human interaction. Basically a recording plays and they record everything you say, then send your recording back to HSKK headquarters where it’s marked. It pays to be familiar with what the recording is like, so read on! In terms of how many words you need to know for each level, check out the Wikipedia page on it.


The test has three parts:

  1. Listen and repeat (15 questions, 4 mins): A short phrase is said (only once) and you have ~10 seconds to repeat it.
  2. Listen and answer (10 questions, 3 mins): A short question is asked (only once) and you have ~10 seconds to answer it.
  3. Long answer (2 questions, 7 mins preparation & 3 mins speaking): Two open-ended questions are written on your exam paper. You have 7 minutes to prepare an answer for both and then 90 seconds to answer each of them.

Part 1 tests your listening ability and pronunciation skills. Part 2 also tests your vocabulary and grammar. Part 3 doesn’t test listening (as the questions are written down for you, including pinyin) but really tests your ability to talk about a particular topic at length.


I found this test much harder to prepare for than the HSK. The first thing I did was download the official sample exam. This was a bit hard to find but you can search the official downloads page for ‘HSKK’ to get to the right section. Make sure you download both the PDF and and RAR file (which contains the audio) for the correct level. For “beginner” it’s “HSKK初级真题下载 “.

The PDF also outlines the structure and gives you two sample questions for part 3. The audio will give you an idea about the flow of the exam (e.g. how they introduce each section) as well as sample questions for parts 1 & 2.

I compiled a list of as many HSKK beginner sample questions as I could find and I tried to come up with good answers for them. I would try to come up with a full sentence answer and, if it made sense and there was still time, add a bit of extra info too. I put the short question/answer pairs into my Anki flash card deck to try and memorise them because speed is very important for this. The listening practice from the sample audio was also helpful.

I tried to come up with some answers to some of the long-answer questions too. I then posted my attempt over at where the great community over there would offer up corrections. While I think this was useful, it seems like there’s quite a broad range of things that can be asked here so I probably needed to spend time doing more of these.

Taking the exam

About 30 minutes before my test was scheduled to start, I waited outside my assigned room with my admission ticket (see the HSK 1 post for info about the admission ticket) until they were ready to let us in. I was seated at a specific computer and an admin person came around to check my identity. There were three of us taking the test at the same time, all at the same level.

Just before starting, the person conducting the exam advised us to speak clearly but not too loudly, as this might distract the other examinees. Indeed, we were sitting quite close to each other and it was quite easy to overhear their speech during the silent portions of the audio. This can easily break your focus and cause you to miss part of a question, which happened to me several times.

When it was time to start, we put on our headphones (that had microphones attached) and another person came around to play the CD and start the voice recording software, so there was no need for me to touch the computer at all. Audio from the CD started playing in my headphones almost immediately so it was easy to tell that everything was working. It wasn’t an integrated system, so in this case it was using the Windows default media player to play the CD and the Windows default sound recorder to record my voice.

The audio first announced the start of the exam and then asked for my name, my country of citizenship (na3 guo2 ren2) and my sequence number. I verified with a person beforehand that the number they’re after is the long one at the top of the admission ticket (mine started with an ‘H’ with many digits after). I’m not sure if this was correct though, because I didn’t have enough time to recite the whole number (7 seconds, I think) even though I was prepared for it and spoke very quickly. Hopefully that’s not a problem since the sound file is also saved with my number, I think.

The first section then began: 15 “questions” where I just needed to listen and repeat each sentence. I was surprised how hard this was for me, and being able to hear the other examinees didn’t help either. There were some questions where I didn’t know one or two words, which generally wasn’t a problem, but for some questions I missed most of what was said and couldn’t even give a response. Notably everything in both this and the next section was only said once, not twice like in the HSK 1 & 2 exams.

The second section involved 10 short answer questions like “What’s the weather like today?” or “Who in your family can write Chinese?” I tried to give full sentence answers and if I could think of something else to say that was relevant, I’d add that in too. There was only 10 seconds to reply though. Again, there were some questions here where I didn’t understand and couldn’t give an answer.

The final section had two questions that required longer answers. These were written down on the exam paper (including pinyin). We had 7 minutes to prepare answers for these (so 3.5 minutes per question). The recording then asked for the answer to the first, with 1.5 minutes for me to reply, followed by the same for the second question. There was space on the exam paper to write down notes to help us give these answers, which was a big help. After giving the responses to these last two questions, that was the end of the exam. All up it was about 20 minutes.

How did I go?

I actually thought I’d have little problem with the first two parts and was mainly worried about the last part, but in the end I feel like the last part may have been my best section. That’s not to say I did particularly well in it though. I don’t think my answers for either of these exceeded 30 seconds. It was very challenging for me and highlighted a lot of weakness in my listening and sentence construction speed and ability. For me this is the whole point of taking these tests, so that’s a win!

To address these weaknesses I think I will look into getting a speaking partner. Stay tuned for more on this! I’ll also update this post with my results when I receive them in about a month.

2015-11-20 Update: My results are in! I received full marks for the HSK 2 (i.e. 200/200) and got 69/100 for the HSKK Beginner. The passing mark for the HSKK is 60/100 so I did manage a pass, albeit not a terribly convincing one 😉

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Taking an HSK exam in Sydney, Australia

The HSK (汉语水平考试) is the official Chinese proficiency test, basically the equivalent to the IELTS or TOEFL for English. Passing a certain level of the HSK is often necessary for entrance to Chinese universities or to apply for jobs in China. While I don’t really have a need for this accreditation, I’ve set a goal to take these exams to help motivate myself and reward my progress.

I sat the HSK 1 exam (the lowest/easiest level) this month. I’m still waiting on the results but, because I’ve been studying Chinese for some time now, it was quite easy (as expected). Let’s start with what the different HSK exam levels consist of.

HSK exam levels

Each level has a specified ‘syllabus’ of words and characters that students are expected to know. Each subsequent level obviously assumes the vocabulary of all the previous levels. You can find HSK word lists compiled by Alan Davies on his web site.

The speaking component of the HSK is a separate set of oral tests called the HSKK (汉语水平口语考试). There are three of these: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. Typically a student would take the beginner HSKK exam around a similar time to doing HSK 2, intermediate around HSK 4 and advanced around HSK 6.

HSK Levels 1 & 2 have listening and reading sections (no writing) of about equal size. All Chinese characters have accompanying pinyin, so you can theoretically get away without knowing any characters. For Level 1 you need to know 150 words (174 characters) and the test goes for about 30 minutes. For Level 2 you need to learn an additional 150 words (173 new characters) and the test is a fair bit longer at around 50 minutes. The questions are all multiple choice (sometimes true/false, sometimes A-F) and tests may be done on computer or on paper (2B pencil, computer marked).

The Beginner HSKK test is done with you sitting in a room listening to a recording while you yourself are being recorded. It lasts about 20 minutes.

You pass these exams if you get a score of 60% or higher. Check out details of the higher levels on the HSK Wikipedia page.

Applying to take an HSK exam

The exams are administered at a limited number of locations. You can use this official web site to find your nearest location. In Sydney (actually, for all of NSW) the place is the Sydney HSK Centre. It’s located within Strathfield College, which is on Pitt St near Central Station, NOT in the suburb of Strathfield! They also do Mandarin classes there, which is where I go for classes. I definitely recommend them!

After registering online, you can do a bank transfer to their bank account to pay the exam fee (or you can go in person to pay with cash if you prefer, but you’d probably want to contact them by email to arrange this prior). One to two weeks before the exam date you’ll receive an email with your HSK Admission Ticket, which you need to print and bring with you.

This ticket includes important details like:

  • the time of your exam (my one was at 9:30am but on the day there were many exams going on, all started at different times),
  • your 准考证号 (exam registration number),
  • room to attach a passport-style photo for ID, and
  • a series of instructions relating to the exam.

This ticket can be quite daunting as it’s almost all exclusively in Chinese. In reality, you just need to print it out and bring it along to the exam. If you’re doing HSK 1 or 2, there’s no need to attach a photo for ID purposes (it’s only for the higher levels). The instructions at the bottom are mostly about what happens if you show up to the exam late (you wouldn’t do that, would you?) and how long/where you can get your final marks from online.

Studying for the exam

I may not be the best person to give general advice about this, having only done HSK 1 so far, but I’ll tell you what worked for me.

I found an excellent article on DigMandarin about studying for the listening section of the HSK 1, but much of the advice given there I imagine would apply to the higher levels. This is a must-read.

In addition to the above, I found it useful to review the HSK 1 word list in flash-card form (using Anki with a shared HSK 1 deck from here). Doing some listening practice of full dialogues (not just individual words or sentences) was also helpful.

Looking at past exam papers is also very useful. It helps give you an idea of the format and gives you a way to test yourself (at least, for the reading part). The Sydney HSK Centre’s web site has some sample exams. You should be able to find more by searching online. There are also various sites that offer ‘practise exams’, which might be useful.

Taking the exam

I showed up 30 minutes before the exam was due to start with my HSK admission ticket, some 2B pencils and an eraser. I also brought some ID with me, but it was not needed.

About 10 minutes prior to the exam starting, we were let into the exam room and we sat at our assigned tables, which  had our name, rego number, etc. on our designated desks. Also on the desks was the question booklet (sealed with a sticker) and our answer sheet.

We spent most of the time before the exam started filling out our details on the answer sheet. It was all in Chinese so was daunting and hard to know what to fill out and where (last five digits of exam registration number, gender, country code, etc.), but the exam coordinator very helpfully provided us with instructions and made sure we did the right thing. We were also reminded to put our mobile phones on silent. (Pro tip: Also turn off vibration, since even vibration is really loud in a quiet classroom!)

We were then told we could open our question booklets (breaking the ‘seal’) and the exam then started with the listening section. All the dialogue in the listening section is in Chinese (except when they say the letters ‘HSK’ :P). There is a bit of introductory dialogue announcing each section and question, so it’s helpful to be able to recognise these phrases.

All the questions/statements in my HSK 1 exam were spoken very slowly and repeated (in female and male voices). Even without understanding everything, it was possible to narrow down the correct answer. It definitely helps to read and get familiar with the question before the dialogue for it is played.

The question paper can be written on, although it does get collected at the end along with your answer sheet. I mention this because I found it very helpful to write down key words on the question paper for the relevant questions as you hear them. If you want to go back to double-check your answers, these notes will be the only thing you have to go off (in this listening section).

For the reading section, my advice would be to make sure you choose the most correct answer, and use the process of elimination to your advantage. That is, if words A and B could both be an answer for one of the questions in a section, move on and answer the other questions in that part. Most likely A or B will be the only viable option for another question, leaving the other to be the correct answer for the one you were unsure of.

We received a warning from the exam coordinator when we had 10 minutes remaining, although I think all of us were finished by then. At the end, our question and answer papers were collected and we were free to go.

Exam results

I’ll come back and update this section once I have my results — probably in about a month!

Update January 11, 2015

I was able to check my score on the web site. I just had to enter my 考试证号 (examination certificate number, the code with 18 characters at the top of my HSK admission ticket) where it said “Ticket No.”, my name and solve a simple CAPTCHA code.

I was then taken to a page that showed information about myself and the test I took, followed by a breakdown of the scores for the listening section and reading section (each out of 100), and then a total score, followed by ‘status’. In my case I received a total score of 200 (full marks!) with a status of 合格 (‘qualified’), which I guess means I passed 🙂 I expect to receive a certificate confirming this a bit later.

The HSK 1 was below my current level so I was glad to get a high score. The next exams will not be so easy!

I hope you found this helpful. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments.