chinese characters printed on white fabric in black with a pen in the right hand top corner.

An English-language Editor Takes the Mandarin HSK3 Exam

UPDATE (21/12/21): Scroll to the bottom to find out how I did!

The HSK exams test knowledge of Mandarin Chinese. I took the HSK 3 exam on Saturday 11 December. This level tests lower-intermediate (A2–B1) skills. I passed the HSK2 exam one year ago, but this level does not require knowledge of Chinese characters, so HSK3 felt like a big jump up.

What Does the HSK 3 Exam Consist Of?

The exam tests listening skills, reading comprehension skills and writing skills. For the online version of the exam, you don’t have to know how to write the individual characters; instead, you key them in on a computer after pressing the latinised (pinyin) equivalents. You do need to be able to recognise the characters though, and this is the lowest-level exam you can take for which pinyin is not provided. You need to know roughly 600 words and characters to pass the exam.

The exam is quite simple. The questions are not designed to catch you out – the other choices often have nothing at all to do with the text and are really testing whether you can recognise the correct characters or not.

Many Mandarin learners say that the next level up, HSK4, for which you need to know around 1200 characters, is where they feel like they have made a significant jump and can string many sentences together.

Why Did I Take the HSK 3 Exam?

There were two main reasons: a work-related reason and a personal one.


As a teenager (in 2003) I visited China and learnt a few words and characters during my trip. In that moment, learning Mandarin to a decent conversational level became a life ambition. My job as a social anthropologist made that difficult, however, as I was focused on learning another language for my work (Serbian/Croatian). When I quit that job to set up my own editorial business, I had more freedom to pursue this hobby.


Since 2016 I have taught pre-sessional academic reading and writing every summer for six weeks at the University of Southampton. The first language of many students I teach is Mandarin. For the rest of the year, I translate and edit texts written primarily by multilingual authors, including for authors whose first language is Mandarin. If you learn a writer’s first language, the quality of your editing will improve, as you can identify the logic behind how the writer has put each sentence together. The fact that learning Mandarin would enrich my experience of the teaching and editing was the icing on the cake.

Is Mandarin Difficult?

I’ve learnt several languages, but Mandarin has been the hardest one so far. It feels like learning two languages in one go. When learning new words, first I become familiar with the pinyin and spoken form. Only when that is in my long-term memory do I progress to learning the Chinese characters. This means that my listening skills are one level ahead of my reading and writing skills.

Mandarin, Hungarian, Czech, Serbian/Croatian, German, French, Spanish

The languages I have had lessons in, from hardest to easiest!

Some aspects of Mandarin are quite easy though. There are no inflections or cases as in languages like Hungarian or Slavic languages. The grammar is quite simple, with no tenses or verb–subject agreement. However, the linguistic distance between English and Chinese means that learning new words takes a very long time, especially in the early stages, as there are few common roots unlike, for example, Germanic or Latin languages.

Preparing for the HSK Exam

My main motivation for taking the exam was to take advantage of a positive backwash effect on the courses I was doing. This is when the process of studying for an assessment in a classroom environment has a positive effect on learning that language. Backwash effects can also be negative, though!

This effect means that the HSK3 exam was a success for me already, even if I fail!

Why? Because I had spent many hours (twenty minutes a day) preparing for it over the six weeks before the exam. I used Chinesimple for the flash cards, SuperTest for the vocabulary lists and mock exams, and SuperChinese to revise HSK3 topics.

There are now loads of apps available for learning Chinese!

To prepare, I also recommend waiting until you have covered the material for courses at a level above the exam you hope to take. This next level will be using much of the vocabulary from the lower levels too, and it will help make the exam seem easier.

What to Do on Exam Day

It’s impossible to cram for a language exam as you can only take in a few words per day and you either have them or you don’t come exam day. Getting a good night’s sleep and having something sugary immediately before the exam is all you can do to prep. On the exam day I just revised the characters a little bit to get in the zone.

As expected, I found the listening section much easier than the reading and writing (I’ll let you know my scores when results are out in a few weeks’ time).

My reading speed is still quite slow and I ended up rushing on the last few questions. At several points, I lost the thread of the text and so I may have failed or scored a low pass on the reading and writing.

What the Experience Taught Me

I now have a much deeper appreciation of all the work that my students on the pre-sessional have already completed before taking their IELTS test and applying to study in the UK. AN IELTS score of 6.5 roughly equates to a B2 level of competence in the European framework. This is equivalent to a HSK5 or HSK4 level – knowing at least double the number of words required to pass the HSK3 exam.

I wonder if learning English as a Chinese speaker may be slightly easier than the other way round, because of exposure to more English-language content in the media. If speakers already know pinyin and the Latin alphabet, this may be easier to learn than the character system and its radicals etc.

However, the online HSK exams don’t test written production or speaking skills, so passing the IELTS test includes these additional difficulties.

What are your experiences of the HSK or IELTS exams?

The Results

Woohoo! I passed all three parts! The total mark is out of 300, divided equally into listening, reading and writing. You need 180 (60/100 in each skill) to pass. I scored 83 for listening, 63 for reading, and 80 for writing.

This roughly matches up with what I hoped/expected to achieve. That *is* satisfying for a language teacher familiar with assessing student language skills to hear. The reading was a low pass (as expected). The writing was difficult to gauge and this result was a pleasant surpise, while I expected listening to be my strongest skill.

This means the next step will be to take classes at the HSK4 level and I’ll give the exams another go this time next year!


Photo by Cherry Lin on Unsplash

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