Language Proficiency Tests ~ Part 2

Earlier, I talked about language proficiency tests in general, and the benefits or limitations of them.

Now, I want to talk a little bit about language proficiency tests in the context of KGSP. In my post on required documents for the KGSP application, I did touch briefly on my general opinion, but there are some other considerations as well.

First of all, I would reiterate that if you are not a native speaker of either English or Korean, then I would submit either an English or a Korean proficiency test result. Except in exceptional circumstances, you will be doing your graduate study in some combination of English and Korean, so it is a good idea to show that you are up to that challenge.

You can show English proficiency by taking the TOEFL or IELTS exams, or by showing that you completed your undergraduate or Master’s degree in English (obviously being a native speaker counts too). My knowledge of these tests is limited because I’ve never had to take them. I can say the for TOEFL between 100-120 is considered very high, and 80-100 is high. (80 is the minimum requirement to be admitted to Harvard Graduate School, though of course their actual cutoff may be higher.) As with any test, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the format of the test, and the kinds of questions you will see. Particularly with the TOEFL, you should get used to structuring written and spoken answers within a limited amount of time.

To show Korean proficiency you should take the TOPIK test. NIIED is the organization in charge of administering the TOPIK test, so it’s the only one they accept for KGSP.

First, a brief introduction to TOPIK.

The TOPIK exam was recently restructured, so keep that in mind when searching for information online. The current TOPIK system has two tests – TOPIK I and TOPIK II. TOPIK I is for beginners and includes a reading and a listening section (100 points each). If you score more than 80 of the total 200 points, then you pass level 1. If you score more than 140, then you pass level 2. The TOPIK II is for intermediate and advanced learners (prior to restructuring it was two separate tests, but now it is one test). The TOPIK II includes reading, listening and writing sections (100 points each). You need to score more than 120 points to pass level 3, more than 150 for level 4, more than 190 for level 5, and more than 230 for level 6.

Whereas with an English exam you are trying to show a strong overall proficiency because you will have limited opportunities to improve it formally in Korea, with a Korean exam even a pass at the lowest level (1 or 2) can have value for KGSP. With the TOPIK exam, you are mostly trying to show an interest and an effort in learning Korean.

There are exceptions to that rule though. There are some programs that will require you to speak Korean at the time you apply. If you do already have Korean proficiency, and you would like to apply to one of these programs, then it is a good idea to take the TOPIK and try for at least level 4 (level 5 or 6 would be preferable). Otherwise, you might want to avoid applying to these programs because they may reject you despite the year of language study you would get through KGSP. (When in doubt contact the department about language requirements.)

Also, if you personally would like to start your degree program right away and skip the language study, then you will need to get TOPIK 5 or 6. This is regardless of the language requirements of your degree program. Even if your program is 100% in English, in order to start early (in September of the year you apply, or March of the following year) you need to have TOPIK 5 or 6. (Although to successfully move on from the language program after one full year, you only need to pass level 3.)

So, what should you do if TOPIK is not available in your country?

TOPIK is available in quite a few countries (68 plus Korea), so you should check (and recheck) the official website to find out when and where you can take it. (Right now on the English page the list of testing sites is called “Experiment Station,” which sounds a little scary. The info is also only in Korean, but if you are ready to take TOPIK at any level then you should be able to read it. You can narrow your search by region and country.)

But if it really isn’t available in your country and you are highly proficient, I would recommend one of the following:

  1. Write your application in Korean. The application can be written either in Korean or in English. If you are applying to a program that requires Korean and you are proficient already, but cannot take a test, then show them through your application essays. As with any time you are writing in a non-native language have someone check them if you can, but don’t have someone write them for you – they will find out eventually that you are not that good at Korean, and you will be the one to suffer.
  2. Ask a Korean teacher for a recommendation. Unless your major was/is Korean language, or you just happen to have a Korean person as a professor for another major course, I would not recommend submitting this as your only recommendation. While language ability is important, it is more important to establish your knowledge and ability in your own field. But it doesn’t hurt to submit some proof of language ability as an extra recommendation, if you can’t take TOPIK.
  3. Travel to another country. This can be an expensive option, depending on how far you should go. I would really only recommend this option if it is important to you to start your degree program right away. You should weigh the options carefully. Which is more costly to you (in terms of time and money), going to another country to take the test, or spending your first 6 months in a language program instead of a degree program. If the later is more costly to you, then consider traveling to take the test. You should, of course, check with the organization in charge of running the test in that country to make sure you are allowed to register to take it from another country. You also need to be reasonably certain of passing at least level 5, or your effort will be for naught. If you are on the edge then you would probably benefit from at least 6 more months of study in Korea anyway.

And that last sentence brings me to my final point – it is possible to show too much proficiency. If you are the opposite of the person who wants to start their degree program right away, and you actually do want to spend some time focusing full time on improving your Korean language skills, then you may not want to submit the level 5 score. The unfortunate thing about the new TOPIK test is that the intermediate and advanced tests are now combined. Before if you took the intermediate test, then there was no way to pass level 5, but now the difference between level 4 and level 5 can be just a few points on the same test. Of course, I would always recommend doing your best and achieving the best possible score, but remember, as soon as you submit a level 5 or 6 score, you will be REQUIRED to start your degree program right away without doing the language program. Think for yourself about what that means to you.

Overall, I would say that unless you are a bad tester and you think your scores significantly under-represent your actual language skills, I think it is always a good idea to include a test score when available and applicable. Both English and Korean test scores are, officially speaking, optional, but without them schools can assume the worst rather than the best. If you do choose not to submit them, or have no choice, be sure to make up for it in other ways, such as essays and recommendations.

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