Exit HSK

I recently met up with an old friend who said she had started studying for the HSK. The conversation went something like this:

> Me: Wow, the HSK, huh?

> Her: Yeah, I know… I felt it was finally time.

> Me: So you’re planning on leaving China soon?

> Her: Uhhh… I didn’t say that…

> Me: Yeah, I know, but if you’re not planning on doing some kind of university program here, the main reason to take the HSK is to get a score for your resume.

> Her: Exactly. I’ve gotten my Chinese to a decent level here, but I don’t have any kind of degree in Chinese, so I figured it was time.

> Me: So are you leaving?

> Her: Not sure yet, but possibly.

Few see the HSK as a useful test. It’s a necessary evil for certain purposes. HSK test prep is definitely not very helpful for improving one’s communication skills. It sure is ironic that for many, it has become the test you take when you decide to leave China.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. They should consider basing a test on IELTS but in Chinese. It’s one of the more practical language tests around, covers all main four areas.

  2. The reason, IMHO, is that if you’re going to leave China, you know your Mandarin is going to drop precipitously when you go back to USA or whatever. So while you’re still immersed in Chinese, get some paperwork to add to your resume.

    Does anyone care? Well, sure, if your next job is in NYC, and you’re a white kid speaking Chinese, it’s pretty impressive.

    Either you’re about to leave China, or your about to stop studying formally, same diff.

  3. I just took the HSK level 5 a few weeks ago. Wasn’t too bad. It is a part of the application to go to Nanjing University.

  4. Felix Wang Says: April 3, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    Hi John, Great blog. I have a couple of questions: 1. You mention that the HSK is not helpful for improving your communication skills — can you expand on that as I am considering starting HSK test prep as a disciplined and structured way to expand my Mandarin. 2. I am also considering the Business Chinese Test (BCT) to allow me to increase my competency in the professional work environment. What are your thoughts on the BCT, versus self-study using texts and Chinesepod? Overall, I am looking for a practical and efficient manner of study. Thanks.

  5. You realise how useful the HSK is when you try to find a Chinese tutor to help you prepare. My Chinese tutor was nt remotely interested – he had done it once before and it was a case of ‘never again’.

  6. Old or new HSK?

    As for it being a prelude to ‘exit stage left’, I dunno. I did it just to get some kind of metric*, no matter how imperfect, on my Chinese level. And in an increasingly “magic piece of paper”-dependent world, it makes perfect sense to do HSK to get a number to put on the CV.

    *Old HSK, 7, and yes, it really was nothing more than a measure of my test taking ability. Of course, one does need a certain level of Chinese to succeed, but Old HSK tested nothing of one’s ability to use Chinese in real life.

  7. Julian S Says: April 4, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    I was in Beijing a few months ago and decided to do a few HSK exams. I did the the old HSK Advanced (高等), the improved old HSK (改进高级), and the new HSK Level 6. They’re all really quite different exams. I’m not sure if Beiyu is still running the old exams (a great pity, as the improved exams were excellent).

    I’m one of the few that John mentions that find the HSKs useful. My Chinese tutors (who were graduate students, not Chinese teachers) also thought they were good for me.

    Part of the bad reputation of the exams comes from the way that the exams are taught and studied for in the PRC. A large number of Asian students need the HSK to further their academic or business careers, and do their best to game the exam. This can be done, to a degree. However, I don’t believe you get a very good score at the top levels without being genuinely competent.

    So, perhaps unlike John, I believe that preparing for the HSK can help you improve your communication skills. Here’s some of the things I did when preparing:

    • The listening exams I did included segments from TV and radio talk shows, and university lectures, as well as the dialogue snippets they love at the lower levels. So I spent more time listening to the TV and radio. Hugely helpful (and great

    • The reading exams force you to learn how to read difficult texts very quickly. I had exams that included texts from philosophy, biology, social sciences and more. The best way to speed yourself up, it seems to me, is to spend more time reading similar sorts of material. I remember one exam text about Nietzschean philosphy that made me simultaneously think, “I’m answering an exam ques‭tion about Nietzsche in Chinese, cool” and “Damn, I should have read more philosophy in Chinese”.

    • The speaking exam asks you to speak clearly about a topic for a few minutes. This is not an easy skill, even in your native language. I practiced this, a lot, with my tutors, and improved my clarity of speech a great deal. Some of the topics are poor, but some were genuinely interesting and worth sp‌ending time on (that said, IELTS/CAE/CPE are still much better speaking exam formats). You might be able to game a pass, but I don’t see how you could get a near-100% without being genuinely able to express yourself in Chinese.

    • The writing exam is perhaps the most problematic for foreign students, who generally think handwriting is an outdated skill. Fine. But I’d still like to see them type coherent, correct, well-structured essays in the time provided. Topics again can be imperfect, but the skills needed to write these pieces are hard, and practice also fed back into my speaking abilities.

    • Grammar. Not my thing, but if I’m going to be able to speak and write correctly, I need to able to spot my mistakes, which this forced me to work on.

    Making HSK your end-goal of study would be limiting and dull, but to me it seems a perfectly reasonable way to encourage yourself to improve some highly valuable communicative skills.

    • Benjamin Says: April 6, 2012 at 6:31 pm

      Julian are you saying that you took the old HSK just a few months ago? I had no idea the old exams were still takeable, and that will complicate things for me when it comes time to finally take the test myself.

      • Julian S Says: April 8, 2012 at 1:31 am

        Benjamin — yes, despite the efforts of Hanban to destroy the old HSK, it still exists. You can look at http://www.hsk.org.cn/news/News20120228_c.html for the 2012 dates and venues. You’ll see there’s only a handful of universities left trying to keep it alive.

        The old advanced level exam (高等) was pretty popular when I took it–though it seemed to be mainly Korean, Japanese and Xinjiang students who were taking it. The revised advanced exam (改进高级) was less popular: there were only two students (myself included) taking it at 北语. Like I mentioned above, that was a real shame–it was the most comprehensive and most interesting of all the HSK exams I’ve done.

  8. 班廷筠 Says: April 4, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    I’ve managed to avoid the HSK – mainly for the reason John mentions, I’m rather convinced it would distract from more useful study.

    But there are definite alternatives for letting your Chinese ability help in job interviews. Often at interview or information events and the like, there will be a Chinese person – just strike up a conversation with them. It stands out enough that people notice, especially if you keep the conversation going for awhile, and probably does a lot more to convince people of your real ability than a score they don’t really know how to interpret buried in your resume.

    At least, my Chinese ability seemed to help me when I recently got a job at at a consulting firm. Though the lure of phd studies in Chinese history quickly drew me back to academia…where the HSK doesn’t matter and language ability is best demonstrated by translating ancient documents.

  9. This was exactly the reason and the timing I followed when I took HSK. Unfortunately my score (on old HSK) did not reflect my ability, because as you mentioned, there is poor correlation between real usage of Mandarin & the test.

  10. Mei-Mei Says: April 9, 2012 at 2:11 am

    I agree with Julian on the usefulness of HSK preparation. Definitely less true for the new one, but the old Advanced is very challenging and just going through a couple of mock tests (and correcting them) will give you several hours of well-structured studying in a context, better than any textbook.

  11. Strange. I’ve never associated the test with people wanting to leave China, but have into a lot who have a more amorphous desire to take it because they’ve got a sense they should be improving but don’t really know how to accomplish that.

    Either way, the new upper level materials can’t compare. It’s a really big mistake on the part of the Chinese government not to treat non-native Chinese acquisition seriously, and only a matter of time until there are better alternatives. In many ways, there already are.

  12. Slim Smith Says: April 11, 2012 at 7:42 am

    I’m preparing to take Level 4, the new version. And I’m not leaving China.

    I’m not a big fan of standardized tests, but decided to take it for a couple of reasons. My main reason was to get an idea of what level I’m at. I tried a couple of Level 3 practice tests, scored fairly well and have since moved on to Level 4 practice tests. I’m not taking any HSK classes, just doing the practice tests on my own. While not the most exciting way to study, it has given me valuable feedback about some grammar that I’m still weak in, and has also helped me with my listening skills and reading speed. It would be nice is there was a speaking component. I’ve heard there is, but it’s a seperate test. It would be nice if it was integrated with the regular test.

    Another reason is employment. Somewhere down the line, I’d like to get a job using Chinese, perhaps as a translator. I’ve seen some job listings that require HSK scores.

    After taking Level 4, and hopefully passing. I plan to go continue my regular studies and then try Level 5 next year.

    • Doji Star Says: April 11, 2012 at 11:29 pm

      I agree with Slim, I took new HSK Level 3 in Dec and am preparing for Level 4. I know the new exams aren’t very hard at the advanced levels compared to the old ones, but they seem to test different things than you get in a class or self-study through a textbook/Skritter/etc.

      For example, when I took 3, I found the vocab list to be quite small. The listening and reading sections, however, require you to really KNOW those words instantly since there is so little time to listen or to read the questions. And textbook reading is not the same since it’s specifically geared to be only phrases you know. The HSK seemed to test “real” language proficiency better, i.e. only a 60% is required to pass each section — this is like when you read an unfamiliar article or listen to a conversation in the wild: can you get the gist of it quickly? This is particularly useful for the intermediate zone when most writing and television are out of your reach. The HSK “writing” section was a joke, however.

      I just find the HSK useful to make sure I’m progressing outside of my textbooks and vocab list. Disclaimer: I’m also a resume item whore. I have most financial credentials already.

  13. I took new HSK 5 recently. To prepare I needed to listen to many spoken dialogues and get the main point, and skim quite a few texts (there wasn’t enough time to read everything) to get the gist what is written. How is that not useful? That’s what everyone needs to do in real life all the time. As long as you don’t believe in HSK level descriptions (C1 for HSK5? give me a break), it is IMHO as useful as TOEFL or any other language test.

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