HSK stands for Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (汉语水平考试). It’s a standard Chinese language test with 6 levels. HSK 1 is the lowest and HSK 6 the highest. HSK 3 comes somewhere in the middle.

In the post I explain what I did to achieve a score of 96% in the HSK 3 test.

What is and why HSK 3?

This year China are introducing a new entry system for expats. This will award foreigners points for every HSK level. If you don’t get enough points, it will be hard to get a job in China.

HSK 3 is much easier than HSK 4 and is attainable in six months. HSK 3 might give you the boost you need.

To me, it also helps to see each of these exams as milestones. They can help you measure your progress. Although HSK 4 is the big exam that you need to enter universities, HSK 3 can help give you confidence on your way.

To pass HSK 3 you need to have learnt 600 words plus a certain amount of grammar points. the exam consists of three parts: Listening, Reading and Writing. Each part is worth 100 points and you need 180 in total to pass the test.

Learning Chinese characters

Orange book for HSK 3
HSK 3 Textbook

You don’t need to know Chinese characters to pass HSK 1 or 2 as everything is written in both Chinese characters and pinyin instead. HSK 3 removes pinyin, so you need to be able to read Chinese characters (and write them on the computer). You can find a list of all the characters you need to know for each level on the HSK Academy site as well as in the HSK 3 Standard Course textbook.

Personally, I think that the best way to learn Chinese characters is using the Skritter app. If you follow this link, you can sign up for a two week trial subscription (usually you’d get one). It uses Space Repetition System (SRS) technology that teaches you to write and recognise the characters. For each character or word, the program teaches and tests writing, pinyin, word meaning, and tones.

Skritter can also teach you Japanese characters.

Skritter showing green Chinese character for 'to ski'
Skritter on Android Phone

Once you start learning Chinese characters using Skritter, you’ll realise they’re not as difficult as they seem. In fact, Chinese has quite an intuitive writing system once you know the basics.

Improving reading skills

Obviously, knowing vocabulary is not enough to understand Chinese writing.

The HSK 3 Standard Course textbook introduces you to all the structures you’ll find on the exam. Each unit consists of four dialogues, grammar explanations, and exercises. To be honest, the grammar explanations aren’t always totally clear, but it’s not difficult to work them out from the examples.

My method is to take all sentences with new words and new structures from each unit and put them into an SRS program such as Anki or Flashcards Deluxe. I find that I remember words much better if I learn them within sentences. This way, I also learn the structures and collocations.

Excel spreadsheet showing Chinese sentences in first column and Polish sentence translations in second column.
List of sentences made by me with Polish translations. I upload these sentences into flash card software.

This generally should be enough to get your reading skills to HSK 3 level, but I’m also a big fan of reading books and I believe that reading is very good for fluency.

Mandarin Companion Graded Readers are great to work on your reading skills. Level 1 books are written using around 300 characters, and so they are perfect for HSK 3 level.

I found them enjoyable to read and suitable for my level just before my HSK 3 exam. They’re especially great on a kindle or iPad, because you can check all words you don’t know in a dictionary. The only improvement I think they could make would be to add some audio files, so they can also help to improve listening.

Improving listening skills

I’ve always found listening one of the most difficult parts of learning a language, especially with Asian languages. But I manged to get my listening good enough to do well in my HSK 3.

I used the audio files from the HSK 3 Standard Course textbook. I always had them on my phone, and I would listen to them anytime I was washing the dishes, walking, running, or any other form of repetitive, mindless activity. This helped me familiarise myself with all the dialogues in the textbook.

Thanks to a good friend, I also discovered Happy Chinese. This is a series of more than 100 episodes, each 15 minutes each. Although their webpage recommends the program for advanced learners, because it has Chinese and English subtitles, it is also good for intermediate learners. Each episode has additional grammar points with examples, which are also useful.

There’s also a really good podcast called Chinese Pod. It has hundreds of podcasts for each level. I wouldn’t recommend it strictly for HSK preparation, but it’s a great extra tool to improve your listening skills.

Improving speaking

Why speaking? HSK 3 doesn’t have a speaking component. However, speaking does improve listening skills and it’s really good for memorising vocabulary. So how do you practice speaking?

Obviously, if you live in a country where Chinese is spoken, then you can practice Chinese every day. However, most everyday exchanges are rather shallow, and if you want to really improve your speaking you need to do more than just chat small talk.

Language exchanges are a good idea. But we tend to revert to the language we know better whenever we have a chance. Setting a rule like, “For the next 15 minutes we will only speak Chinese” should help. But you must be determined to speak Chinese (and your language partner need to be patient).

Taking private lessons is also helpful and not too expensive in China. But if you want somebody to explain something well, I really recommend a professional Chinese teacher. They can explain all your doubts about certain words and grammatical structures.

Then you can get out there and practice your newfound knowledge through talking to any Chinese person on the street.

Talking to people, who don’t speak any other language than Chinese would certainly make you practice, but they are often surprised if foreigners speak their language. This can also help you to make new friends.

If you don’t live in a Chinese speaking country, you can use the language learning sites: italki or HelloTalk, to find lots of people to practice Chinese with.

How to practice for HSK 3

Asides from the coursebook, I also used a workbook, that has a mini-exam for each unit. There are also many mock exams available online (for example, at the Confucius Institute Manchester branch), as well as books with mock exams, such as Success with the New HSK (Level 3).

How to sign up for the exam

To sign up for HSK 3, you need to visit the HSK Chinese Test site. After signing up, you can choose the exam you want to take, the place, and the time. You can also choose whether to take a paper-based or an electronic-based exam. I really recommend the latter as you don’t have to worry about writing Chinese characters by hand.


Thank you for reading. If you need any help with the Chinese language, particularly if you’re taking HSK 3, then leave a comment below and I’ll respond asap. Next week at Being a Nomad, Chris will continue his account of our quest to find the true South Shaolin temple.

We also promised to write a useful post about how to use buses in China. Worry not, I’m working on it and I’ll post it soon.

Don’t forget to follow us using the buttons on the right and, if you find this post useful, feel free to share it. Until next time…

About Ola Jagielska

Ola Jagielska is an ESL teacher, language enthusiast and co-author of this blog. She speaks five languages and is striving for more. She loves traveling, reading and drinking good coffee.

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