What is the HSK 3?
The HSK is China’s official fluency test and passing the HSK 3 indicates intermediate fluency in Chinese, equivalent to a year or more study. Offered by the Confucius Institute, Chinese universities, businesses, and government agencies use it as the official test of Chinese language aptitude.
If you take the test yourself, you should expect about 80 questions focused on listening and reading with a short writing section. Listening questions provide a short audio clip, a sentence or two at most, then either ask you to answer a question about the sentence or match it to the most appropriate picture. Reading follows pretty much the same structure except that you’ll be asked to read a sentence or short paragraph. Writing questions involve you putting a series of characters in the correct order to complete a sentence, so for 你好吗?, you would be given the characters “吗”, “你”, and “好”, then told to use them to make a sentence.
In terms of the difficulty, here are some sample reading questions:
If you want to learn more about the HSK 3, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned taking the HSK in terms of how to take it and how to study for it, including the vocabulary and practice tests.
How to take the HSK 3
Signing up for the test is easy once you get used to the website. It’s actually pretty good but obviously written by government bureaucrats who don’t speak English as a first language, so be ready to read a page 2-3 times before you get it. Once you get the hang of it, all you need to do is register at the website, find a nearby test center, pick the nearest date, and sign up for the test.
So to register, just go to the Hanban website. They don’t need a whole lot of information, they basically just want an email, a password for your account, your nationality, and a little information about how much Chinese you’ve studied so far.
Once you’ve registered an account, you need to find a testing center to take the HSK at. There’s a lot of testing locations all over the world, so you’ll need to look up some nearby facilities on Hanban’s official site. In all likelihood there’s a testing center at your nearest major university, although technically I think they can be anywhere.
Just a quick note, you might see references to an “online” test in your searches. Don’t get your hopes up. Online doesn’t mean you can take it at home, it just means you can use a computer to take the test at the testing center and the results are captured on the computer and sent electronically to be graded. The alternative, which I’ve never used, is apparently a pen and paper test.
Next you’ll need to choose a date for the test. Hanban writes the dates in Chinese but you can find a dates in English at the University of Nottingham. As a rule of thumb, there’s roughly one test a month and you need to register roughly one month in advance, so plan on signing up six to eight weeks before taking the test.
Once you’re registered, you just show up at the testing center at the right time and take the test. Typically this is held in a university classroom and run by the local professor of Chinese and a TA or two. I recommend showing up early because unfamiliar university campuses can be tough to navigate. Remember to bring ID.
Once you’re done you can log back into the Hanban website and look up your score. It typically takes them about a month to post the score and I never got an email from them so you have to go and check the site to get your score.
The HSK 3 expects you to have memorized 600 characters, at least officially. Unofficially, you’ll need about 1,000 characters because the test writers aren’t limited by the words on the official HSK vocabulary. They’ll use any words or Chinese characters they think are appropriate for your level, which means you need to study pretty widely to pass the test. By my memory, only about 60-70% of the characters on the test are from the official vocabulary list.
So, while you should study the 600 “official” characters, make sure you use other resources like podcasts, textbooks, and videos to expose you to the all the vocabulary you need.
The best online vocabulary list I’ve found is over at hsk.academy if you just want to see the official words.
Before you take the test, you definitely want to take a practice test to see if you’ll pass and get used to the kind of questions on the HSK. While it’s a bit too big to post here, you can read my HSK 3 Practice Test post to take an abbreviated practice test online or download five full practice tests as pdfs. All these practice tests are official mock tests distributed by Hanban itself.
Best learning tools for the HSK 3
There’s five ways to study Chinese: Flashcards, Book, Podcasts, Videos, and Tutors. The best tools for you will change as your Chinese skills increases. For the HSK 3, I think you probably want flashcards, a textbook, and a tutor.
The HSK 3 is where your studies have to start getting serious. You’ll increasingly be squeezed between two different forces: lower quality materials and increasingly difficult content. First, there’s a lot of great free content out there to teach you beginner Chinese but most of that disappears in the intermediate stage, mostly because it’s harder to make and less useful as promotional material. At the same time you’re trying to learn a lot more material that’s a lot more complex and less often used. For example, not only is describing subway schedules a lot more difficult than asking how someone is, but you’re just not describing subway schedules that often, which makes it much harder to remember. This is why I recommend tutors and textbooks at this level, you need structure and focus. Quite frankly, a lot of things that worked for the HSK 1-2 just won’t work for the HSK 3.
If you’re not using spaced repetition software by now, you need to start. There’s 3000+ characters to memorize and you want the best tool possible to help you. That means flashcards or ideally spaced repetition software. If you haven’t used spaced repetition software, it’s electronic flashcards that record how well you remember each character and then repeats those characters more often to help you remember them.
If you don’t have one, get Anki. It’s the oldest and it’ll work from HSK 1 to HSK 6, where a lot of other programs don’t have good high level options. If you’re currently using a different program, and it works for you, keep using it but be ready to switch to Anki around HSK 5-6.
HSK 3 is when you start need books, especially textbooks. You’re starting to study sentences, which means you’ve got to be able to spend time going over the sentences, checking words you don’t recognize, making sure you can handle simple variations. This requires more time and focus than videos or podcasts can really provide.
Chinese Made Easy 3 is one of the books I used and it’s fine, which is about what you should expect from textbooks. It goes through set material at a nice pace, explains everything, and is pretty dull. I don’t want to turn you off this textbook, just to be clear about what you’re getting, which is about as good as textbooks get.
I start to dislike podcasts at this level. It’s not that they’re covering bad material, it’s that they tend to have a lot of “fluff”, they have a lot of chit-chat between hosts, and not much time on the actual Chinese. Without exaggeration, a lot of twenty minute podcasts only have 3 minutes of Chinese in them. That’s just not an effective way to learn.
ChinesePod remains the best podcast, although it costs money, and if you’re going to use one, this is the one I recommend. Better to drop the ~$100 ChinesePod costs than waste hours on a bad podcast.
The best alternative is Slow Chinese. It’s a little too advanced for HSK 3 but the format is pure gold. 4-5 minute episodes full of slowly and clearly pronounced Chinese. I really like it but it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
I don’t like videos for the HSK 3 for the same reasons I don’t like podcasts; there’s too much “fluff” and not enough Chinese. Some of the sample conversations can be good but it can be hard to learn new material through video so your textbook is still your best bet.
It’s time to invest in a tutor. There’s two big reasons to get a tutor. First, you need someone to practice speaking Chinese with and you absolutely need a tutor for speaking practice. Especially now that you can start to have real conversations, you really want to start working on conversations, because while the HSK will get you in the door, any hiring manager is going to want to hear you speak Chinese. The second reason you want a tutor is to help you with problem areas. There’s going to be some things that you just don’t get and you really want a resource to help you get through these, someone to explain things you just can’t figure out on your own.
A quick warning though: you are responsible for your Chinese education. You still have to do all the planning, all the studying, and decide when to take the test. Your tutor is not qualified to do this and they do not have the time. You cannot just show up and expect the tutor to lead you. This is one of the worst mistakes I’ve made and you can waste months just spinning your wheels. A tutor is a resource, they’re not your professor or your teacher and they’re not responsible for your whole education.
There’s a few tutors I can recommend in China. Just email me at Will@rulinmandarin.com at I’ll connect you. You should expect to pay about $20 a lesson which is standard.
If you want a cheaper option, eChineseLearning has tutors specializing in the HSK 3 and they can charge as little as $11 so they’re a pretty good option.
Or you can look for your own tutor at the Beijinger. The Beijinger is a magazine/website for expats in Beijing and the classifieds section usually has 100 tutors looking for students. I’m sure they’d be willing to teach over Skype and that way you could find exactly the tutor you want.