by Adam Davis – CEDP and Confucius Institute for Business London student – 12th August 2019

The following 10 pointers helped me prepare for, and pass, the HSK 3 exam.

They do, of course, apply to most exams; but because my focus was primarily on passing HSK 3 with a short deadline (under 3 weeks), I had to be especially focussed and effective – which is how I developed the approach below.

The main difference between HSK 3 and HSK 1/2 is that students have to familiar with Chinese characters – a challenge which I had been avoiding.



Lose the fear. Forget any notion that Chinese characters are too difficult, or confusing, and that there are too many to learn. If you open your mind to it, your brain may surprise you.

2. Find your own way.

An essential part of covering a HSK course is learning new words and characters. Find the best way(s) of learning them for you, and practise with them. Staring at the book and reading the characters is one way, but not the only one. Some people learn better by sound (hearing and/or repeating to themselves), or by action (writing/copying). Your preferred way be:

  • Recording lists of words – using phone, voice memos, or finding some online.
  • Writing the pinyin next to a character until you can do it without looking at the answer.
  • Using flash cards and having a fellow learner, friend, family member or native speaker, test you.
  • Or using a mix of methods.

3. Practice & Patience

In the early stages of learning Chinese particularly, memorising a character often takes more than just a few instances of reading it. You may have to read, say or write a character 20, 50 or even 100 times before it sinks in. However, a word is quick to read; and once you know it – you know it. It may feel like you can’t remember any characters at all after a day/week of practising them. However, the next day/week you’re likely to find them a lot easier.

The great news, in my opinion, is that the characters seem to get easier to learn as you go. Learning 600 characters for HSK 3 can seem truly impossible at the start of the course. Yet, once onto HSK 4, learning the next 600 seems completely do-able. 

4. Break it down.

Set yourself achievable goals, but be forceful and disciplined in achieving them. The HSK book has already done part of this by splitting the course into chapters. Use them. This may mean setting yourself 5 new words to learn per day, or 50 a week. 1 chapter per day or 3 chapters a week. Whatever your number is, push yourself as much as possible to achieve it. With this comes a sense of progress, success, and therefore self-encouragement.

5. Don’t be patient.

Although a seeming contradiction to paragraph 3, this is meant in a broader sense. In my experience it is best to put your head down and smash a chapter or two of the HSK book in a few days (with a short break, if necessary, afterwards) – rather than do it in small bits over a couple of weeks.

6. Grammar points.

Each chapter of the HSK book has grammar points. These are not to be ignored. The explanations may seem boring or complicated, but most of the time (particularly in HSK 1-4) they’re relatively simple – just explaining when to use a particular key word or a common phrase structure. If you don’t understand, read it aloud. If you still don’t understand, ask a teacher, fellow student, or native speaker.

7. Test yourself – Exercise book & Workbook.

One of the best ways to learn is to force your brain to recall information. The HSK exercise books have short exercises throughout. If you don’t have time to do all of them, try to do at least a large part. It’s also useful to know which areas you’re confident in and which need a recap.

Each HSK course has a corresponding Workbook full of exam type questions. I recommend, not only getting it but trying to complete it all. It is essential practice for passing the exam.

8. Past papers & exam technique.

It’s best not to walk into an exam without having done a mock or past paper. This applies to all exams and all subjects. Do as many as you can. If possible, do them in exam conditions. Set yourself the same time limit you would have in the exam – no checking with your notes if you can’t recall a character. You can go over it again afterwards. This will give you an idea of your current level and what you need to work on.

9. Exam technique.

A large part of exam technique is developed naturally through doing past papers. However, even if you have done all the right preparation however, a few things are important to remember on the day:

  • reath and focus. If closing your eyes during the listening part helps you concentrate, do it.
  • If you’re feeling the pressure during the reading or writing section (when the listening questions aren’t running), take a few seconds to clear your mind, look around the room and think about something else. Then start afresh.
  • If you don’t understand the first time something is said, don’t panic. Listen carefully to the second reading (as information is often repeated).
  • Listen and look out for key words. This applies to all parts of the exam. A lot of the time, you can make a good deduction as to which is the right answer just by checking which key words appear in both the answer and the question.
  • Keep an eye on the clock. If you get stuck on a question, try not to waste too much valuable time on it, move on to the next and come back to it afterwards if you have time (this may vary if you’re taking the e-test – if you go on to the next section, reading/writing, you can’t always go to back to check the previous ones).
  • When it comes to the writing part, if you are asked to write a character and can’t remember it, don’t be afraid to go back through the earlier parts of the exam in case the character appears there – use all the materials available to you on the day.

10. Have confidence.

What’s the worst that can happen? If you fail, you can re-take. It’s not the end of the world 😉. With that mindset and enough preparation, you should pass with flying colours!