TOPIK II for Intermediate Learners ~ Strategies

Results for the 37th TOPIK exam will be announced on Wednesday, so while I’m obsessing/stressing about those, I thought I’d write a little about what I would do if I was trying to pass level 3 or 4 of the new TOPIK.

If you are an intermediate learner, the new TOPIK is a daunting task. With levels 3-6 mixed into one test, there are going to be a lot of questions that are just too difficult to even approach, and it’s easy to get frustrated and feel defeated.

Ideally, I suppose one would sit down and go through all of the questions and try to answer each one in order to get an “accurate” assessment of their ability, but realistically I’m sure that NIIED accounts for random guessing in setting their standard, so it is to your advantage to learn how to do that effectively with this test. Also, the reality is that passing level 3 or 4 is a requirement for some activities like going to university here in Korea, so it pays to have some strategy under your belt.

So here are some of my tips to help you conquer the TOPIK II exam as an intermediate learner.

TIP #1 Analyze your strengths and weaknesses

NIIED has announced that they will stop publishing all of the TOPIK tests on their website, but they will continue to upload at least one a year, and they will leave the current ones there, so sit down with one of the old tests and figure out which questions you are good at, and which you aren’t.

When you do this, you might want to time yourself, but I wouldn’t worry too much about the time issue. What you want to figure out is which questions it’s okay for you to guess on, and which ones you want to skip altogether.

The thing is that as an intermediate learner, you won’t have time to read all of the questions during the actual test, so you want to figure out where to spend your time.

In general, the questions go from easiest to hardest. In the reading and listening sections that means that the first 12 questions are about level 3, the next 13 level 4, the next 12 level 5 and the last 13 level 6 (give or take).

BUT, just because a question comes before another question doesn’t necessarily make that question easier FOR YOU. Honestly, there are some sections at the beginning of the test that I’m just not good at, but I can answer the “harder” questions fairly well. There may be types of questions that you too are particularly good at answering, even if they do come later in the test, so you want to figure out which ones those are.

The TOPIK exam always includes the same style of questions in the same order on every test, so if you know that you are pretty good at guessing questions 30-33, but not 20-24, then you can skip the earlier ones, and go straight to the later ones.

When you are doing this, skip questions where you can’t eliminate at least two answers. If you don’t understand anything you are better off not guessing. (More on guessing later.) In these practice tests, it’s a good idea to mark the answers you eliminated, and the two you wavered between. If you find that both of those are wrong, and you eliminated the right answer… that might be the kind of question you want to skip on the real test.

TIP #2 Get used to the questions

As I said above, they always ask the same kinds of questions in the same places, so make sure you understand the wording of the questions and what they are asking for. During the test you want to be able to glance at the key words in the questions just to remind you which question it is (I certainly haven’t memorized the exact order), and not have to read the whole question each time. Are you looking for a topic? Is it asking for a similar meaning? etc.

Also, as you practice particular types of questions and analyze the right answers, you may develop better strategies for answering them more accurately.

TIP #3 Don’t think of it as a 50 question test

The listening and the reading sections have 50 questions each, but if your goal is to pass level 3 or 4, don’t even attempt to answer all 50 questions.

For the reading test, find 20-25 questions that you answer fairly accurately most of the time (TIP #1) and think of it as a 20-25 question test. Spend as much time as you need to on those questions. If you have time, then keep going, but again if you can’t eliminate at least two answers then skip it.

For the listening test, unfortunately you only have as much time as they give you for each question. But for example, when they start asking two questions for one conversation/speech you can decide to only answer one of those (whichever one you are better at), and spend more time reading the answer choices for that question, and listening for that answer only. Then if you decide not to even attempt the last questions you can take the extra time to start the writing section (if you can concentrate with the listening test still going on).

TIP #4 Do the math

Or I can do a little math for you…

First of all, to pass level 3 you need 120 points total, or an average of 40 points per section. For level 4, you need 150 points, or an average of 50 points per section. BUT, chances are good that you will score better in the multiple choice sections than the writing section, so you want to aim for a minmum of about 50/50/20 or 60/60/30 (or if you have more confidence in writing, 45/45/30 or 55/55/40).

So how do you do that?

Let’s focus on level 4 (you can apply similar math to level 3).

Each reading or listening question is worth 2 points, so to get 60 points, you need to answer 30 questions correctly. BUT, that doesn’t mean you need to know the answer to 30 questions.

The TOPIK exam has one major quirk, or flaw, that you can use to your advantage (unless they get wise and change it). That quirk is that they always distribute the answers (almost) evenly among the four possible choices. I say almost because there are fifty questions, and fifty is not divisible by four, but there are always 12 of each answer, plus one extra for two of them. That means that even if you just filled in the same answer for every question you would be guaranteed 24 (or possibly 26) points.

Now that is not enough, of course, to pass any level, so you do still need to answer some questions by yourself, but you can use it to your advantage.

Let’s see how it works with the 37th TOPIK.

You take your time answering the first 25 questions, and are pretty confident with your answers. If your answers are all correct, you would count them and find the following:

  1. Six answers
  2. Eight answers
  3. Six answers
  4. Five answers

So, because (4) has the fewest you fill in (4) for all of the remaining answers. That gives you 50 points for the 25 questions you answered, plus 14 points for the seven other times (4) was an answer. That’s 64 points, not too shabby. If you answered 5 questions wrong, and then accidentally chose (2), then you’d still be left with 50 points.

It’s only a minor boost, but with totally random guessing, you run the risk of getting more wrong. Unless you can accurately narrow your chances to a fifty/fifty guess, you are better off sticking with one answer. Think of this as insurance for the questions you tried to answer but got wrong.

You can of course apply this strategy at any level. Assuming you get the first x number of questions right these are the possible outcomes for x questions answered (on the 37th TOPIK, actual results will vary).

You answered/Score

Remember the above is assuming that all the answers you attempted you got right. In the end, for a goal of 45-60 points, you want to be really confident for about 15 to 25 questions. (You probably want to attempt more like 20-30 to allow for wrong answers early on.)

And when you think about it that way, the new TOPIK doesn’t seem that bad, right?

So in the end, if you just want to see how many questions you can answer for your own personal fulfillment, you can use the practice tests. If you need a certain score on the real exam, then play it safe and smart.

More on the writing section later.

Do you have a strategy or tip that’s worked for you?

Proficiency Tests

Today I took a break from moving preparations and goodbye meals to take the TOPIK exam.

The Test of Proficiency in Korean, Intermediate Level.  Three hours of vocab, writing, listening and reading.  Fun stuff, right?  A great way to spend an Easter Sunday…

To be perfectly honest though, I love tests.  That’s probably because I am a pretty good tester.  You name it I’ve taken it… or not really, but I’ve definitely done my fair share of language tests.

It all started in my year abroad when I first learned there were such things as language proficiency exams.  Take a test and get a pretty certificate if you pass?  Where do I sign up?  So as soon as I got home I signed up for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), level 2 (which at the time was the second highest of four tests).  And passed.

Then, when I arrived in Japan two years later, I signed up for level 1, and passed that too.  Then heard about the Business Japanese Proficiency Test (BJT), which at the time was run by JETRO, but is now run by the same people as the “Kanken” (Kanji Aptitude Test), and so I took that too.  And passed (but skipped the optional interview because while I thrive in written tests, interviews make me really nervous).

Then I got into Korean, and found that they have tests too (!!), so I took the TOPIK beginner level two years ago, and the intermediate test last year.

Then I decided I might want to go to Korea and that would mean looking for new jobs.  And when looking for new jobs what better thing to have on your resume than multilingualism (with more proficiency tests for proof)?  So, since it had been ten years since I first passed JLPT level one, and the test had since undergone a major overhaul, I decided to take N1 (now the highest level of five), and throw in the Nihongo Kentei (日本語検定) for good measure.  The Nihongo Kentei is actually a test theoretically designed for Japanese people, and tests knowledge of things like keigo, vocab, proper usage, etc.  In some ways it is similar to the English part of the SATs.

Almost took the BJT again, but I accidentally slept through it… or rather completely forgot I was signed up until the day after…

And of course one more intermediate TOPIK test (because the first time around I only passed level three and I want four).

There are a lot of people out there who like to devalue proficiency tests.  More so for JLPT than TOPIK (probably because JLPT has been around longer).

I personally think that you just have to understand the tests, and what they are and are not.

I cannot guarantee that having a level one JLPT has ever gotten me a job, but I can say that when we were looking for my replacement at work, we definitely filtered candidates based partially on language proficiency (as that is essential for my old job), and JLPT scores were one of the scales we used. (Of course we interviewed everyone who passed that first filter, and did language checks of our own as well.) If you don’t like proficiency tests, you are going to have to find some other way to demonstrate your proficiency in an easily understandable way.

I can also say that a JLPT score exempts one from the language test required by one of the master’s programs I have applied to, so being able to demonstrate that proficiency in the application stage has got to be some advantage (as it is a requirement of the program.)

If used correctly, proficiency tests are great for your resume.

Of course they have to be used correctly.

For example, in looking for my replacement we fairly quickly discounted anyone who wrote level 3 or below. For some it was an old result, so it is theoretically possible that they are much better now, but without any more recent indication of higher proficiency it wasn’t really worth our time. For some positions it is possible that even level 2 (N2), might have been cut, so you have to really understand the demands of the job. If it’s an old result that doesn’t really reflect your current level it might be better to leave it off.

On the other hand, proficiency tests are not necessarily great indications of your actual proficiency.

As the people evaluating the candidates, it was necessary for us to do checks of our own.

As someone taking the tests, you have to be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses.

For instance, in my case…

I studied Japanese for seven years before I’d even heard of language proficiency exams. I took formal classes, I studied abroad, and I did a lot of conversation practice. By the time I took my first test, I was functionally quite proficient (the only reason I didn’t go straight for the highest level was some insecurity about kanji and reading). As a result, the exam result was just confirmation of what I already new myself, and was a fairly accurate representation of what I actually knew and could control. I never really studied FOR the exam (other than familiarizing myself with the format.)

With Korean it was (and is) a whole different story. I knew about the existence of the tests almost from the very beginning, and took my first test after only six months of study. I was taking formal classes, but conversation practice was limited. I very much studied FOR that first test, and every test thereafter.

As a result, the scores may open some doors, but conversationally speaking I am still an infant. My comprehension is not terrible, so that’s something, but the test results are a very poor representation of my language production skills.

Anti-testing people largely cite cases like mine as reasons the tests are “worthless,” but I think you just need to be realistic about how much value to place on them.

As a learner, I am very happy with my pretty little certificates, and grateful for every door they have opened, but I also am aware of my own limitations, and that passing the highest level does not necessarily eliminate the need to progress.

And as someone looking at the tests to evaluate others, I realize that they do have limitations, and that it is fine to use them just as one clue to the bigger picture, but dangerous to assume they tell the whole truth.