Ever wanted to take the Korean proficiency exams? Here's a comprehensive guide to making the best of it!
Korean was probably the first foreign language I attempted to learn without some semblance of a proper tutor – or any at all, really. But even if I couldn’t speak Korean (yet, anyway), I signed myself up for both the TOPIK I and TOPIK II examinations. If you’re not familiar with them, they’re the official language proficiency tests for Korean.
Both TOPIK I and TOPIK II take place on the same day with only about an hour’s break in between the two examinations. It’s very tiring, considering you’re taking exams straight for five hours, so if you plan to do the same thing as me please be mentally prepared.
Of course that’d seem weird to you, like, why would I choose to take both exams in the same day? Well, I figured I’d better get used to 1. the format of the TOPIK II exam (since this time my goal was passing level 2, so after this I’m kissing TOPIK I goodbye), and 2. having to do two exams together with only a short break in between.
Anyway, let’s cut to the chase. How did I prepare for the TOPIK exams?
How to prepare for the TOPIK exam
The first step to preparing for an exam is to sign up for it. And that’s not only for an exam, you’ll see me emphasising again and again that if you’re lacking motivation to learn a language, sign up for the exam. I know, I know, it sounds really obvious, but not many people think of it this way. They learn the language first and somewhere along the way go “Oh, hey! I should totally test my level by going for a proficiency exam!” I’m not saying that’s the wrong way to go, since that’s totally okay as well, but I personally am a firm believer in the “looming threat” of the exam being motivation.
You paid for the exam. You already signed up for the exam. Even worse, your family and friends know about the exam (I’m serious, tell them.) Do you really want to fail the exam?
See, when you’re asking yourself all these questions, you’re piling on stress. You’re piling on pressure, and that’s good. Not in excess, obviously, but it’s a good motivation to get you to learn the language.
So sign up for TOPIK.
Before you do that, however, you should set a goal for yourself. You can’t speak Korean yet? Oh, that doesn’t matter, sign yourself up for TOPIK I, or if you’re feeling a bit ambitious, TOPIK II. There’s no limits to what you can achieve. Set a goal for yourself, say, you’ve got two months from now till the exam and you want to pass level 2 for TOPIK. Okay, good! You’re good now, so that’s time to start preparing!
Getting to the required level
The second step to preparing for TOPIK, contrary to popular belief, is not to scour all the online markets for the best deals, buy the practice books, and sit down in front of your desk for five hours every day to do them. Firstly, I doubt you with your busy schedule have five hours to spare every day. Secondly, there’s such a thing called ‘burnout’ and I’d think you’d be dangerously close after two days or so. Lastly, and this is going to sound very contradictory, but the first part (the buying of the books) is definitely something you should do ASAP. But put the books aside first, we’ll get to that later.
The second step actually is to get yourself to the level required by the exam. No, you can’t fake it till you make it. And even if you could, what would be the point? You can’t actually speak Korean, so what’s the point of having a certificate to prove you can? This situation would sort of remind me of another action, actually. It’s called fraud, and it’s illegal.
Get yourself to the level. Learn the Korean alphabet. Start reading books in Korean. Start watching shows and movies in Korean (Korean subtitles, please). Start obsessing over K-pop if that’s what you need. You need to be immersing fully in the language for this to work. Learn some basic grammar rules, enough vocabulary (about 800 or so most common words) for you to not be completely lost while consuming Korean content, and you’re good to go. In this digital age, finding material in Korean to read, watch, listen to or whatever else is extremely easy, so you won’t even have a problem. Develop a love for the Korean culture, and motivation comes easily. Open your eyes and ears to picking up this new, this foreign language.
The third step. About three weeks away from the exam, you should sit down with those books that’ve been collecting dust in the corner, time yourself, and test yourself. Give yourself a nice long test that’s the same length as the actual exam, time yourself, and then mark your answers.
If you’re taking TOPIK I, and you’ve gotten enough marks to be able to pass your target level comfortably, then hooray! Good for you. Continue doing whatever it was you were doing in step two.
If you’re taking TOPIK II, then there’s a writing component to the test too. Complete that part of the practice book as best you can. Here’s when the problem comes in. You don’t know Korean all that well yet, and even if you do- nobody marks their own compositions. The best course of action from here would be to get a native Korean friend to help read through your essay and correct the mistakes, but if you don’t have a native Korean friend who’s willing to help, don’t have a native Korean friend at all, or are too shy to ask him/her for help, fret not. I have just the solution.
There’s this really neat website called Italki, and you can book these one-on-one lessons with native Korean speakers for fairly low prices. Scan your essays and show it to your teacher when you Skype or have a Zoom call, then ask them to grade it for you. Even though Italki’s primarily for you to practice your speaking skills, I have faith that the teachers would agree to mark your writing pieces for you. After all, you’re paying them for it.
Let’s say you don’t have enough marks to pass your target level. Don’t panic, don’t burst into tears, don’t scream hysterically (because this would probably make your neighbours either hate you or call the cops). You have three weeks until the test. This can be saved.
Yes, it can be saved. You need to look back on your journey of learning Korean. What went wrong- is your pace too slow? Have you been only enjoying your television dramas and not properly learning the language? (If you have, I don’t blame you. I do that a lot.) Either way, you need to rectify it. Focus on the language. Invest a little more time in the language- and here I can almost hear you wailing “Oh! But I have no time!” You have time. All those pockets of time you spend scrolling through Facebook and Instagram? Yeah, use that to learn Korean.
Sounds pretty harsh, huh? I know. I thought that too. Turns out language learning’s like a relationship. You gotta commit to it.
The final sprint
Fourth step. In a week from the exam, I want you to put away all your language learning devices. Your podcasts, your Youtube, your Netflix, your books- all of them. Take out the (doubtlessly even dustier) practice books and just do them using your usual Korean time! Even if you’re already very good, you can’t afford not to be familiar with the format of the questions.
I’m a native English speaker, and I think that if you sent me to take the IELTS right now, I’d probably not do well. I wouldn’t fail, but I wouldn’t do that well. That’s how important being familiar with the format of the questions is.
Also, this saves you valuable time during the exam. There’s no need to even read the instructions anymore, you know what you’re going to have to do, so you can go full steam ahead.
Lastly, on the day before the exam, sleep early! Eat a half-filling breakfast (not too full, because then you won’t be able to process things properly), and head off to your test site. Ensure maximum physical comfort. Bring a jacket. Bring two jackets, if you’re particularly scared of the cold. Wear a t-shirt underneath so you won’t get too hot. Drink water. We’re looking for maximum performance here.
Well, that’s it! Not too difficult, was it? Okay, okay, sorry, so maybe it was difficult. But you’re here now, so congratulations! You’ve done it! You’ve conquered the mountain that is Korean, and you’re all set for your TOPIK. Go in, ace it, and wow yourself. I’ll bet you didn’t even know you were capable of this.
Wishing you all the best on your TOPIK exam!