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 and HSK 4 are in the middle. According to Hanban these two levels represent intermediate and upper-intermediate levels respectively.

In this post, I explain how I managed to go from passing HSK 3 to passing HSK 4 in just 5 months.

You don't have to study for years to go from HSK 3 to HSK 4. If you're committed, you can do it in just a few months. This article explains how to prepare and blitz the most essential Chinese language exam. #learnchinese #hsk4 #studychinese

Differences between HSK 3 and 4

HSK 4 is higher level than HSK 3, so obviously you need to learn more material. For HSK 3 you need to master 600 words, while for HSK 4 you need 1200 words. Also, you need to learn more grammar structures for HSK 4.

Both exams consist of three parts: Listening, Reading and Writing. You can get a maximum score of 100 for each part, so 300 in total, and you need 180 points to pass.

The table below shows how long you’re allowed for each part and hom many question each of them contains.

Table displaying HSK 4 Exam Times and Number of Questions
HSK 3 and HSK 4 Exam Times

All HSK exams can be taken on paper or on a computer in the exam centre. The questions are the same, but I strongly recommend a computer-based exam as it’s much easier to type Chinese characters (using pinyin) than to write them on paper. However, not all centres have a computer version.

You can register for an HSK 4 exam here.

How to prepare for HSK 4

You might be starting from scratch and aiming high for HSK 4, or maybe you’ve already passed HSK 3 and want to do the next step. My study method works the same, but if you’re starting from nothing you’ll need to master more material.

I had only five months between my HSK 3 and HSK 4 and, I’ll be honest, it was hard work. I prepared for it while teaching English full-time and I would often need to cram in studying during my breaks.

Here’s how I personally prepared for HSK 4 exam.

Chinese characters

First of all, there’s absolutely no way you can pass HSK 4 (or even 3 for that matter) without knowing the required amount of Chinese characters. You must also be able to write them (or be able to type them on a computer if you take a computer-based test).

The list of Chinese characters you need to know for HSK is available on the HSK Academy Site and you can also find them in the 2-part HSK 4 Standard Course textbooks. These books introduce words gradually rather than throwing them at you all at once. You can get the useful HSK 4 workbooks (one workbook for each coursebook) as well, containing mini tests and summarizes the structures you learned in each unit.

In my opinion, the best app for learning to write and recognize Chinese characters is Skritter. It uses a Spaced Repetition System (I explain how it works in this post) and tests writing, pinyin, meaning and tone for each character. You can use lists that are available, but I personally prefer to add new words when I need them. Click here for a free three-week trial (normally trials are only one week long).

Skritter can also be used for learning Japanese characters.

Reading skills

Chinese character for snow on a phone app
Skritter on Android phone

Only knowing the words is not enough to be able to read and understand Chinese sentences. Chinese grammar is very different from English. You’ve probably heard many time that Chinese has no grammar and learning at lower levels can often give this impression. But while preparing for HSK 4 you’ll realize that this isn’t true.

HSK 4 has many more grammar structures to learn than HSK 3, all included in the HSK 4 coursebook. Unfortunately, the grammar explanations aren’t always totally clear, so it’s good to have somebody to when you’re unsure. This person can be a teacher or even a friend.

What I do next is I take all the sentences from the coursebook’s dialog and grammar examples and put them into a flashcard app program such as Anki or Flashcards Deluxe, together with their translation. My translation was from Polish, my first language and I believe it’s best to learn using your first language.

I also think that it’s much better to learn words when you see their context in sentences. This way, you’ll also learn grammar structures and collocations. Using them in a Space Repetition System program ensures you revise everything regularly.

But if you want to get a good score in your HSK 4 Reading test, you need to actually start reading Chinese. You could try books and newspapers, but don’t worry if they feel difficult. Alternatively, Chairman Bao provides articles graded by level.

Another option, and my personal favourite, is the Mandarin Companion series. These graded works retell classic works in simpler Chinese, using only 300 unique characters at Level 1 and 450 words at Level 2.

This will ease you in gently while improving your reading skills and reading speed at the same time. Also, they’re actually very interesting. I recommend reading them on a kindle or a tablet, as then it’s much easier to look up unfamiliar vocabulary.

Mandarin Companion Level 1 books:
Mandarin Companion Level 2 books:

Listening skills

Listening is a skill that I personally find difficult when it comes to Asian languages. That’s why I always make sure I have some Chinese audio files on my phone. And I listen to then whenever I can: while walking to work, at the gym, while washing the dishes… Anytime while engaging in mindless wordless activities is the best time for this.

I would mostly listen to audio files from the HSK 4 Course Book. I already knew how these sentences were written, so this way I could listen to them being spoken as well. Sometimes, I would also listen to ChinesePod, a premium Chinese learning podcast which wasn’t developed for the HSK exams, but can still really improve your listening skills.

Watching videos on YouTube in also a good idea to improve your listening skills. My personal favourite is Happy Chinese. It has short 15-minute episodes and some grammar explanations as well. It comes with Chinese and English subtitles.

Link to Happy Chinese episode on YouTube
A Happy Chinese Episode

Speaking

Although there’s no spoken component in HSK 4, it’s still good to learn how to speak. I personally find that I remember words much better if I use them. I also had an ulterior motive in that I wanted to take a HSKK Intermediate, which a spoken exam (I blogged about it here).

Language exchanges can be a good idea, but you need to be disciplined as it’s easy to revert back to the languages you know better. Your language partner needs to be patient, so they won’t interrupt you or switch to that language too often.

In my experience having a professional Chinese teacher is much better. I’ve had plenty of exchange partners, and I’ve learned a lot from them. But I was able to learn so much more from a professional teacher.

I had 2 x 2-hour lessons a week. Honestly, I think two hours is a bit too much for a lesson, but in China it’s what they do. And, I really enjoyed these lessons, we mostly went through dialogs and texts from the HSK 4 Coursebook.

It was a good motivational tool as well. You know that you’re paying for the lesson, so you’re more likely to prepare for it.

If there’s no Chinese teacher where you live, you can use a service like italki. They have a lot of teachers across many languages. Click here to get $10 bonus credit after booking your first lesson.

My System for Preparing for HSK 4

The two HSK 4 Coursebooks consist of ten units each. Every unit has 5 dialogues or texts, plus new grammar points. I would start with adding new words to Skritter and practicing them. Then I worked through the grammar points and exercises, if I had any problems I usually asked my teacher.

A Chinese course book and a notebook with Chinese writing
Studying Chinese

After that I would take every sentence from the dialogues and texts and put them into the Flashcards Deluxe app. I personally made sure to go through them before my lesson at least once, so it made it easier for me to talk about them. Around a week after finishing the unit, I would revise what I learned by studying the test from the workbook.

I also made sure to listen to the audio files from the book as often as possible. When I had time, I also read one two chapters from Mandarin companion book.

I also tested myself using the book Success with New HSK (Level 4), as well as Success with NEW HSK 4 Listening, containing 10 extra listening texts that helped a lot with my listening skills. There’s also plenty of phone apps with free HSK 4 tests, which I found useful. So, I did quite a lot of tests.

However, I put all my books away two days before the exam and I didn’t take them to London, where I travelled to take the exam. This gave my brain time to rest. I also made sure I got enough sleep the day before the exam.

My Result and What I would have done differently

In the end, I got 77% in my HSK 4 exam. This was well over the pass mark of 60%.

If I could reverse time I would definitely give myself more time for HSK 4 exam. These 5 months were a bit rushed. I think I would also do more extra things, as I felt I focused too much at the exam and not enough on speaking and the learning language more organically. I improved my speaking as well, but I know I could have done better.

What’s next

I took HSK 4 almost a year ago. Since then I focused more on Russian and Korean. I want to take HSK 5, but no sooner than in a few years. But I want to learn it not only from books this time.


Thank you for reading. If you need any help with the Chinese language, particularly if you’re taking HSK 4, then leave a comment below and I’ll respond asap.

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You don't have to study for years to go from HSK 3 to HSK 4. If you're committed, you can do it in just a few months. This article explains how to prepare and blitz the most essential Chinese language exam. #learnchinese #hsk4 #studychinese
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About Ola Jagielska

Ola Jagielska is an ESL teacher (you can find her on http://englishforthebusy.com), language enthusiast and co-author of this blog. She speaks seven languages and is striving for more. She loves travelling, reading and drinking good coffee.

4 thoughts on “HSK 3 to HSK 4 in 5 Months

  1. Hi Ola, I just took the HSK 3 test and wanted some insights on how to approach HSK 4. Your article gave a lot of practical tips and resources to check out. Thanks so much!

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