HSK Elementary / Intermediate

The elementary / intermediate exam has four parts - Listening, Grammar, Reading and the cryptically named 'General'. The exam is taken in one sitting and lasts a total of 2 hours 25 minutes.

The elementary and intermediate HSK exam is based on a bank of 5000 words, made up from 2205 different characters. These words make up 90% of those used in everyday conversation and writing. The exam focuses on everyday situation - you'll hear students discussing a teacher, not politicians discussing trade deals; and read about an argument on a bus, not a legal dispute.

Here's a part by part breakdown of what you'll see in the exam.

* Listening: This lasts about 35 minutes with 50 questions. All questions are both spoken on the tape and written on the exam script - which is handy as you have time to read the questions in the pauses, but if you don't recognize a character you can wait for it to be spoken and hope that will help. It subdivides into the following 3 parts. One good thing about this part of the exam is that it does test your knowledge of colloquial spoken Chinese.

  1. One speaker makes a statement and you answer one single question. 15 questions
  2. You hear a brief exchange between a man and a woman and answer one question. 20 questions
  3. You hear a longer speech from one speaker - it could be a story, part of a radio show, a university lecture, etc. You then answer between 2 and 5 questions on what you've heard.

* Grammar. Two parts with a total of 30 questions, to be done in 20 minutes.

  1. Part 1, 10 questions. You get one sentence with four gaps, marked A to D. You also get one word, and you have to decide which gap it should go in.
  2. Part 2. 20 questions. Again you get one sentence, but this time there is only one gap and you have to choose between 4 possible words to fill it.

* Reading. 50 questions with one hour to do them in. This divides into 2 parts.

  1. Part 1, 20 questions. You read one short sentence, one word of which is underlined. You then have to decide which of the four words given below have the same meaning as the underlined word. This is probably the part of the exam that I am most dubious about - rather than testing your reading comprehension this is simply a test of your vocabulary - you could completely fail to understand the meaning and implication of the sentence, but if you know only the underlined words and the choices below you will be able to answer correctly.
  2. Part 2 is a lot more challenging. You have 8 passages to read, with 3 to 5 questions on each (total of 30 questions). Passages start relatively short - about 130 characters - and get up to about five or six hundred (still only half an A4 page). The questions for each passage move from specific (what kind of person is Xiao Fang?) to general (what would be an appropriate title for the passage?).

* General Blank-filling. My least favorite part, by far. 40 questions, 30 minutes, 2 parts.

  1. Part 1, 25 questions. You're given 5 passages, similar in style to those in part 2 of the reading. This time though some fool has left out some words and you have to choose which of four options should go in the blank.
  2. Part 2, 15 questions. Now, if you are anything like me, you've been sitting through this thinking 'Hey, this is ok. I don't need to write anything - I can just learn to recognize the characters, I don't need to learn to write them - easy'. However, they've thought of everything . . .

You don't actually need to write an essay or anything. Not even a sentence. You read 4 short passages, each of which has a number of blanks. You need to decide which character should fill the blank and then write it on the answer sheet. No easy A,B,C or D options here - you actually need to drag the character up from the depths of your memory. Damn.

There are 6 possible grades (assuming you reach a minimum standard), Elementary A B and C, and Intermediate A B and C. These are sometimes expressed as one of six numerical grades from 3 to 8. Technically, an elementary C allows you entry to science and engineering courses in Chinese universities, while an Intermediate C gets you into arts courses. Personally, I think this is ridiculously low - I have the Intermediate C result, and I know I couldn't tackle either a science or an arts course - I would get very lost very quickly. Apart from anything else, the exam doesn't test extended writing - or even non-extended writing - which would surely be an essential part of any university course.

Apart from the doubts I raised in the above paragraph, I'd also like to make clear that this exam has far too broad a scope. 400 to 2000 study hours is equivalent to between six months and two years of full-time study. This means that those of you who are nearer the 400 hours end of the scale will look at this exam, see all the intermediate content, and run home in tears. The only thing you can do is have realistic aims and accept that there will be large chunks of the exam that are beyond you. Also, don't look at an Elementary A as being in the bottom half of an Elementary / Intermediate exam - think of it as being at the top end of an Elementary exam.