What is the HSK exam? Improve your Chinese!

class-studying-chinese

Introduction

The HSK exam – Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (汉语水平考试) – is the official Chinese proficiency test. Developed by Beijing University and administered by Chinese Testing International Ltd., it consists of 6 different levels.

Development for the test began in 1984; the first HSK test was held overseas in 1991.

Since then, more than 1200 examination centers have sprawled in over 150 countries, serving more than 30 million Chinese learners worldwide.

The current HSK exam (version 2.0) has been in use since 2010. It evaluates reading, writing, and listening capabilities. Keep in mind that speaking skills are assessed separately on the HSKK exam.

HSK Chinese Proficiency Exam logo

New HSK 3.0

Starting in March 2022, HSK version 3.0 will begin rolling out. Linguistic content has been rearranged into nine levels, which will in time replace the former system. The change is expected to be implemented over several years.

You may ask yourselves: why changing such a seemingly successful system? The reason is simple: it has been proven that students who reach HSK 6 may not get to be fully proficient in Chinese so as to speak fluently and comfortably with native speakers. Moreover, the current structure is not aligned with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which is the main international standard used for curriculum and evaluation purposes by over 40 languages. 

From now on until 2024 there will be a transition phase where levels will be added while maintaining the present evaluation structure. By the end of 2024-2026 full accordance to CEFR is expected. In the meantime, current HSK levels 1-6 will stay the same and still be in use until 2024 at least. Advanced levels 7-9 will be added in 2022 along with new textbooks.

Goals and purposes

According to its founding institution, “the HSK examines the ability of non-native speakers to communicate in Chinese in their daily life, study and work in accordance with the Chinese Language Proficiency Scales for Speakers of Other Languages and the HSK Test Syllabi. The Test consists of six levels, serving as a prerequisite for foreign students to study in China and to apply for scholarships; for foreigners to work in China, apply for permanent residence, immigration, etc. It is also widely used by multinational enterprises as a key basis for recruitment and promotion.”

Contents per level

Levels 1-2

The tests for the first two levels cover Chinese basics and assesses around 200 characters. Both have reading and listening sections; each section makes up for half the score, which has a maximum value of 200 points. 

Although you are not required at the exam to write down the characters but only to recognize them, if you are serious about your studies, I strongly suggest to start writing Chinese characters – Hanzi (汉字) – as soon as possible, either by hand or on a computer, as it will help you immensely in the future. Nonetheless, be aware that the exam is totally pinyin-based, it does not test writing skills. The following descriptions are taken from an official source.

HSK 1. “Test takers who are able to pass the HSK (Level I) can understand and use very simple Chinese phrases, meet basic needs for communication and possess the ability to further their Chinese language studies.”

HSK 2. “Test takers who are able to pass the HSK (Level II) have an excellent grasp of basic Chinese and can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.”

Levels 3-6

Congratulations! You are starting to dive deeper into more complex subjects, unearthing foundational building blocks to attaining proficiency in Chinese. In these exams, a writing section is added to the preexistent reading and listening parts. Each one of them makes up for a third of the score, whose maximum is 300 points. The following descriptions are taken from an official source.

HSK 3. “Test takers who are able to pass the HSK (Level III) can communicate in Chinese at a basic level in their daily, academic, and professional lives. They can manage most communication in Chinese when traveling in China.”

HSK 4. “Test takers who are able to pass the HSK (Level IV) can converse in Chinese on a wide range of topics and are able to communicate fluently with native Chinese speakers.”

HSK 5. “Test takers who are able to pass the HSK (Level V) can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, enjoy Chinese films and plays, and give a full-length speech in Chinese.”

HSK 6. “Test takers who are able to pass the HSK (Level VI) can easily comprehend written and spoken information in Chinese and can effectively express themselves in Chinese, both orally and on paper.”

Vocabulary
(words)
Test duration
(minutes)
Total score Passing score
Level 1 150 40 200 120
Level 2 300 55 200 120
Level 3 600 90 300 180
Level 4 1200 105 300 180
Level 5 2500 125 300 180
Level 6 5000 140 300 180

Keep in mind

I can personally attest that the former accounts are a bit exaggerated. Passing HSK 4 will probably not mean that you will be able to communicate fluently with natives as there is not much correlation between your HSK level and communication skills. Paradoxical as it may sound, in order to speak Chinese you must speak Chinese. At the beginning, you’ll make plenty of mistakes while speaking. It’s completely natural, it’s part of any learning process. However, as you speak and listen to your communicative partners’ utterances, you will self-correct yourself and they will also correct you on the go. In short, don’t be shy and keep on practicing.

Rule of thumb

If you want to know, for example, what your skills will become after successfully passing any level, go check the goals of the previous one. For example, if you are interested in the HSK 4  exam, check the HSK 3 explanation above. That being said, don’t be discouraged, you have embarked on a challenging but fruitful journey.

Registration & Test fees

You can register for the exam by clicking here. If you are taking the test in China, go ahead and sign up. Nonetheless, if interested in sitting it outside China, it’s recommended to first contact the examination center (Confucius Institute for example) before signing up through the official website. The reason is that you may be requested to pay for the exam in their offices, or maybe the exam date you are interested in is actually not open to everyone. 

Pricing varies according to the test center/country upon registration. Here are the HSK exam fees in Mainland China (CNY).

FAQ

When applying to a university or college in China, they will certainly ask whether you sat the HSK exam, and they will only accept it if it was taken in the prior two years. That being said, for work-related opportunities or Chinese visa applications, no formal deadlines are imposed.

Yes, there are no requirements for passing the exam in an orderly fashion; what matters is successfully passing the highest one you can achieve.

HSK examination dates are usually open to everyone, you don’t have to be related to the host institution in any way whatsoever. Nevertheless, it’s advisable to check with them beforehand as the test date you are interested in may be open solely for the institute’s students.

Yes, just keep in mind that your certificate will be sent to the location where you sat for the exam. If you sit for the exam in, for example, Beijing, you will have to arrange for an international delivery to your homeland. Make sure to write down the examination center’s contact information, it may come in handy.

Do you have any other questions? Contact us and we will be glad to help you!
Why are you interested in sitting for the HSK exam? Have you ever taken it? It would brighten my day if you would share your experience. Please share in the comments section below!

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