Two months ago, when wedding prep had fully commandeered most of my time and brainspace, I got this (slightly adapted) Facebook message from an Irishman I knew back in the day in Seoul and later in London:

Hey Sara, happy new year! How’s life back in the States? I’m thinking of doing the TOPIK test in April and was looking for some advice. First of all, what would you suggest in terms of the difficulty of TOPIK II without having done TOPIK I (aiming for level 3). Second, what books would you recommend for study? My wife’s sister is coming over in a few weeks time so she could bring some over from Korea. Any advice you have would be really great!

I was super busy but…I’m kind of passionate about this topic, so I responded immediately. I thought, though, that I might adapt my thoughts into a blog post for anyone else looking for advice on how to pass the TOPIK.

IMG_6397
TOPIK marker, handed out before the start of the test.

To give a little background, the TOPIK–Test of Proficiency in Korean–is administered by a government organization, the NIIEP, several times a year both inside and outside of Korea. It’s divided into two test: TOPIK I, levels 1 and 2, and TOPIK II, levels 3-6. I took it first in London when I was applying for a Korean grad program, then later took it three more times in Seoul because I needed to pass level 4 to graduate from the Korean grad program. If you’re reading this, you probably already know about the TOPIK’s structure, but if not, you can read about it here.

For those who want tips on how to study for the TOPIK, Here’s an edited version of what I sent to my friend.

Hi! It’s good to hear from you. Everything’s good over here, just extremely busy with wedding planning so looking forward to that being done! TOPIK-wise, I don’t know if I’m qualified to give advice on passing, but I did take it four times! The first time (in London) I didn’t pass level 3, the second two times I passed level 3 (4 points short of level 4 one of the times), finally the fourth time level 4 (what I needed). Well, since my performance improved like that, maybe I am qualified.

I would expect that if you’ve kept up your Korean and if your other skills match your apparent ease with speaking the last times I was around you, you wouldn’t have too much trouble passing level 3. That said, I don’t know that much about your other skills! But anyway, I think you would pass level 2 with no problem, so personally I would recommend just taking the TOPIK II. You only need 150 of the 300 points to pass level 3, after all, although the test is kind of intimidating because there are also really hard questions aimed at level 6-ers.

Anyway, here are my tips based on my experience:

1. Practice reading.
Some of the reading passages are quite long, and there’s a lot to read, so if you’re not a fast reader in Korean (I wasn’t) or are out of practice, it would be good to read things. Especially probably news stories in Korean.

2. Practice writing.
I don’t know how much you write in Korean, but in fact this is my most comfortable skill in real life. In fact, I had written a 70+ page thesis in Korean before I was able to pass TOPIK level 4, but even then I only got 54/100 points or something on the writing. My coworker who ended up passing level 6 only got a couple of points higher than me on the writing part. I think this is because they have really specific and not-real-world-like standards of how the writing should be. Also, it’s super awkward to write inside these boxes:

topik grid.jpg

Also, you have to use a marker and white-out (at least the last three times I took it), no pencils, so if you forget a particle (조사) or something, you’re kind of screwed. You also have to write in -다 form, you know, like 했다 instead of 했어요 or 했습니다, on the main writing section–you probably know this, but if you’re not used to it, it might be awkward. So I’d take some topics from old tests and practice writing them on their stupid test paper and ask your wife or someone to check them–that’s what I did.

The other writing part is different because you have to know kind of the sociolinguistically appropriate things to write in filling in the blanks in an e-mail to a professor or wedding invitation or whatever. Kind of easier IMO. Anyway, if you’re only aiming for level 3, it’s probably most important to practice the two 10-point questions and the 30-point question, which usually involves describing a chart, so words like 증가하다, 감소하다, words about proportion and outlook, and other words you’d use to describe graphs and charts are extremely useful.

3. Study vocabulary–maybe the most important thing.
My score went up a ton once I started doing this systematically. I used Memrise lists; started with this one and then moved on to the 1000-2000 most common by the same creator, etc. You probably don’t have to do the first 1000, but anyway I am anal and like to do things completely, so I did.

memrise.jpg

Vocab is important because the test uses a lot of random vocabulary that people don’t use that often in real life… And a lot of synonyms. For example, one reading question described something as being colorful or something, and the correct answer used the word 독특하다. Also, if you can’t understand the writing questions, you’re obviously kind of screwed. Another good thing to study–for the writing section and also reading–would be transitions like 왜냐하면…때문이다, 게다가, 예를 들면, 즉, 또한, 그리하여, 등 등 등.

4. Do practice tests.

You can find them on the TOPIK website. Like many language tests, the TOPIK is not like real life, so it would be good to get used to the style of the listening questions and other sections, plus it’s reading and listening practice. They are so boring though. I could only bear to do them one section at a time.

Listening:

I don’t have any good advice for the listening section because I usually got so nervous I couldn’t even hear the first few questions. I guess you are probably okay on that point anyway, unless there is a vocabulary problem.

Books:

korean grammar in useAs far as books go, I don’t really have any recommendations. I tried a few TOPIK study books published in Korea and the answer keys on one didn’t even match the questions. It was terribly and cheaply written and formatted, as many books of that sort are in Korea. But maybe there are good ones! I did find Intermediate Korean Grammar in Use somewhat useful just for formal explanations of grammar constructs I encountered elsewhere, but there’s no grammar section on the test any more. I also paid for and downloaded this and used some materials a little, and nothing shady happened with my credit card.

Overall though, I just tried to make Korean writing and reading a part of my everyday life because I have philosophical and pragmatic disagreements with the way every Korean language book and classroom I’ve encountered was constructed, and in addition I studied vocabulary.

Anyway, this is probably far more information than you wanted, but I hope it is useful. I hope you and your wife are both well–tell her hi for me!–and good luck on the test and in the new year.

That’s it! Of course, everyone’s different, including when it comes to language study, but I hope whatever wisdom I’ve garnered through my Terrible TOPIK Tribulations can be helpful to someone else down the road.

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3 thoughts on “Tips and tribulations: how to pass the TOPIK

  1. Thanks for posting this, Sarah! I’ve been thinking about beefing up on my Korean skills and taking the TOPIK at some point. I’m still at “aggressive toddler” stage though, so your post makes it sound super intimidating. O_O

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      1. Haha! I have no idea what your Korean is like now but I guess you’d do okay with a little work. Especially on the TOPIK I! I feel like a moron every time I open my mouth, but it started to come back when my in-laws came to town.

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