Why You Shouldn’t Study for the HSK

What’s Wrong With the HSK Exam?

Studying for a language exam is not the same as learning a language. I would only recommend studying for the HSK if you need to take it and it’s important you pass (for example, if you need to meet the entry requirements for a university course).

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the HSK because it’s still a useful measure improvement. If you couldn’t pass HSK 3 last year and this year you can pass HSK 6 then you’ve certainly upped your Chinese level. Aiming to take the HSK can also be a good motivator. Most people work and study much more effectively when they have goals.

What I mean is that if your aim to just to get good at Mandarin then your study methods and materials should not be specific to the HSK. If your sole aim is to get good at any language you should not tailor your study specifically for any exam. I studied by using textbooks, reading children’s books, listening to podcasts and organising and taking part in Mandarin corners. I then decided to take the HSK and about a week beforehand bought a book of practice papers and did one a day every day before the exam. That’s more than enough preparation for the average language learner.


doing HSK practice papers

Here my general argument is that passing any language exam can be as much about technique as language ability. But there is another big problem I have with the HSK exam specifically. That is, the HSK does not actually test your ability to communicate in Mandarin. The emphasis is upon vocabulary lists and grammatical knowledge. Having a larger vocabulary or better textbook knowledge of grammar certainly won’t do you any harm, but it is very far from being the best way to improve your communicative ability.

I was shocked when I first took a look at those HSK practice papers and found that the writing section consisted of reading an article for ten minutes and then reciting as much of the contents of that article as possible. This of course does test your ability to write Chinese characters and formulate grammatically correct written sentences. It does nothing to text your ability to express your own thoughts and ideas. In theory, it is possible for someone to pass the HSK 6 without actually being able express themselves and communicate their own thoughts.

The reading section also has problems. There are a few articles with multiple choice comprehension questions, which is fine, but after that there is a multiple choice “fill the blanks with the correct word” section. I struggle to think of a situation in real life where someone is required to fill in a blank with the correct word. Filling in a form is the one obvious example where you might have to do this, but if your aim is to get proficient in Mandarin then you would be better off spending your time going over actual examples of forms that you might need to fill in whilst in China, such as bank transfer forms, currency exchange forms, visa application forms and things like that.

This pointless fill in the blanks exercise does nothing to test your ability to actually use Mandarin. Even with the receptive skill of reading, learning a large amount of relatively low frequency vocabulary is not the best way to improve your reading ability. I’ve written a post about one way you can drastically improve your reading comprehension without learning a single extra vocabulary item. Click here to read it.

In my mind, the worst part of the exam is the “identify which sentences are grammatically incorrect” section. Unless you are aiming to become a Chinese teacher and mark other people’s writing then being able to identify grammatically incorrect sentences is a useless skill. It might be a useful task in the classroom if all the sentences are focusing on a particular grammar point and the exercise is then followed up with controlled practice of that grammar point, but that is a different situation.

Finally, one last criticism I have of the HSK is that it’s just too easy. HSK 1 and 2 are below A1 level on the CEFR scale and at many universities in China you can’t take anything below HSK 4 because they don’t hold such low level exams. HSK 6 is thought is around B2 level (upper intermediate) so there isn’t actually an advanced level HSK exam.

I don’t mean any of this as disrespect to those who have taken the HSK. I was very happy with myself when I passed the HSK and I expect anyone else would be too. My point is that, in hindsight, it was a bit lacklustre. It took me only two and half years to pass the HSK and I didn’t feel it tested my true ability. More importantly, if you are self-studying Mandarin and your aim is to be able to use it in real life practical situations then I strongly suggest that you don’t worry about this exam and stay away from HSK focused study materials.


I’m always happy to hear about other people’s experiences. Have you taken the HSK? What did you think of it? Do you completely disagree with me? You’re welcome to share your thoughts in the comments section below.