My experience taking the HSK 4 and Intermediate HSKK

So I originally took the HSK4 in March of 2017 without studying at all. No mock tests, didn’t learn the vocab, etc. I was just taking it so I could tell roughly what level I was at, and then maybe later on use it as a benchmark for comparing how far I’d come. I failed, but I was kind of close to passing (I got a 156, while 180 is passing and 300 is perfect). After learning the vocab from their list and practicing a bit, I took it again in May 2018, and this time I passed (274). Yay!

Is it useful?

Some programs require it, so yeah, if you have to take it, take it. For me, the question is whether studying for the test helps much in the real world. I think it does. Several people have recently given me unsolicited feedback that my Chinese is noticeably better than it was a year ago. The HSK vocabulary is pretty common—I’d frequently learn an HSK word and then see it pop up in conversation a few days later. And the listening and reading skills that it requires are extremely transferable. So to me it seems like a no-lose way to improve your Chinese and be able to quantify your progress at the same time.

How is the actual test different from the mock exams?

For me, the biggest differences were:

  • You can’t read ahead to the next question. That was pretty useful in the listening section of the practice tests. I’d answer one question, then immediately read the answers for the next one so I’d be ready to go and would know what to listen for. But the computer-based test didn’t allow me to do that, so I had to listen, then use some time to read, then answer.
  • The first section of the intermediate HSKK just plays a sentence and then has you repeat it out loud. No problem. These are pretty short, and I found it pretty easy when practicing. (You can find a practice exam here.) But in the actual exam, they’d read the sentence, then pause, then in English explain that you should now repeat it, then pause, then explain again in Chinese that you should repeat the original sentence. Then you could answer. Every. Single. Time. And at that point it was already gone from my head. I tried writing it down as I heard it, but then that got in the way of fully listening, and I tried just listening and trusting that I’d remember it for long enough, but I never found my rhythm on those. So, I felt like I got killed on that section—definitely didn’t feel like I showed what I could do.

I’ll also note that I took the computer-based exam and that everyone’s experience will probably be a little different. The first time I took the test, for example, there was some glitch in the setup and the computer asked me to give permission to the microphone before every single question (i.e. before it would record my answer on the speaking test (the HSKK)). And, oops! once I thought I’d clicked on it but hadn’t, so that answer never got recorded. Super annoying.

For the writing section, you could pick from a few different input methods, but the most common one that I see on Windows wasn’t an option. (You couldn’t use the computer’s native input methods, there was a special one for the test.) And their method wasn’t very good about stringing characters together before finalizing the input. Very slightly annoying, but not much of a problem.

Test prep – what I did

Obviously what works for one person for learning and staying motivated along the way won’t work for everyone, but here’s what I did once I decided to study for the HSK:

  • Learned the vocabulary. For that, I used XM Mandarin’s HSK 4 course and OrangeOrApple’s flashcard app. I really liked XM Mandarin because for each HSK word, they not only define the word itself, but they give a number of usage examples and other words that use the HSK word as a component. They provide written materials and audio.
  • Practiced listening for at least 30 minutes a day. I was pretty consistent about this (hit this target roughly 90% of days and would do double to make up for it if I felt short on any given day). I listened to text book passages, short stories (e.g. Chinese Breeze, and the XM Mandarin lessons.
  • Practiced with language partners at meetups and over Skype. Probably averaged 30 minutes a week speaking Chinese over Skype or in person with language partners and made it to a meetup to practice in a group setting once every couple weeks.
  • Read. Mostly stories from beginning readers like the Mandarin Companion ones (my favorites) and Chinese Breeze. (Shameless plug: here’s a good one.) Probably an hour or two a week at most, not a ton.
  • I took two weeks of Chinese classes while I was on vacation in Taiwan in September (at Taiwan Mandarin Institute).
  • Practice tests. I did a total of 12 of these over the course of 14 months. Mostly the ones from BLCU and Sinolingua. Good for getting used to the format, etc.

How do scores on the mock tests compare to the real thing?

I assumed that you can calculate your score on each section as the % of correct answers. Doing that, here’s how the real thing compared to my averages on the mock tests in the last month or so before the exam:

Exam Total Score Listening Reading Writing
Actual HSK 274 91 95 88
BLCU (average) 249 79 90 80
Sinolingua (average) 243 78 89 76

To give you a sense of the variability, here are all of the scores from the individual tests I took in the month before the exam:

Exam Total Score Listening Reading Writing
BLCU #8 257 84 93 80
BLCU #9 241 73 88 80
Sinolingua #1 244 76 95 73
Sinolingua #2 231 76 83 73
Sinolingua #3 252 82 90 80
Sinolingua #4 240 73 88 80

A bit of variability, and I wound up scoring better on the real thing, but the practice exams weren’t a terrible indicator.

How much is just knowing the vocabulary?

I.e. if you just memorize the words so you can recognize them and know what they mean, is that pretty much all you need? I was kind of curious how much the vocab counted for. After taking the test the first time without studying (yep, I failed), I went through a list of the HSK3 vocabulary and the HSK4 vocabulary. I knew 496/600 on the HSK3 list and about 300 / 600 of the additional ones they list for HSK4. So all told, I knew about two thirds of the recommended vocab. After learning the remaining words (this took me a few months), I took a few of BLCU’s mock HSK exams (six over the course of above six weeks). My scaled scores on those averaged 195 (59 listening, 69 reading, 68 writing, up from 51, 64, 41 on the real thing). Yay, passing! (-ish)

After waiting another six months (I had intended to take it again in October, but the date got moved due to forest fires in my area), my mock test scores averaged 244 (77 listening, 89 reading, 78 writing).

During this time, I averaged about 35 minutes a day of listening practice, and probably spent 20 minutes a day reviewing vocab flash cards. I also met with language partners about once a week and occasionally read Chinese stories (detailed above). So it was a good chance to solidify the vocabulary, but also to improve my basic reading and listening skills.

So here’s how I think of my progress:

March 2017:
  • Knew 75% of the vocab, decently fluent at reading and having conversations, although I always felt like listening was a particular weakness (still do).
  • Score: 156 (51 listening, 64 reading, 41 writing). HSKK: 63

September 2017:
  • Knew 100% of the vocab, felt like same fluency as before. Had done about 30 minutes of listening practice a day, meeting up with people to practice about once a week.
  • Average score on BCLU mock tests: 195 (59 listening, 69 reading, 68 writing)

May 2018:
  • Knew 100% of the vocab, felt like I was a bit more fluent than before. Had done about 30 minutes of listening practice a day, meeting up with people to practice about once a week.
  • Average score on mock tests: 244 (77 listening, 89 reading, 78 writing)
  • HSK score: 274 (91 listening, 95 reading, 88 writing). HSKK: 74

So my sense is that just knowing the vocab is responsible for a good chunk of my test score, but even if you have the vocab, a large fraction of the score comes from practicing those skills. No surprise there.

I was a little surprised that there was more of a jump in my scores between September and May than there was between March and September. After all, I was doing roughly the same amount of practice, so I’d think that would contribute slowly and steadily over that whole year. And by going from not knowing one-fourth of the vocab to knowing all of it—well, I expected a bigger jump from that than I got.

Anyway, my conclusion from all of that is a simple one—know the vocab and you’ll probably do okay (can pass if you have average-ish skills), but actively developing the skills is a huge part of doing well on the test.