The written HSK test consists of three parts: a listening section, a reading section and a writing section. Each part is worth 100 points, even though they differ in duration and (in my opinion) difficulty.
During the listening part, the participant needs to listen to short dialogues or statements and answer questions about them. Each dialogue is played twice and there is one question per dialogue. The dialogues are spoken by native speakers who are presumably professionals. The format is as follows:
- 10 dialogues for which you need to identify a matching picture;
- 10 dialogues for which you need to answer a true-false question;
- 20 dialogues for which you need to answer multiple-choice questions; there are three choices per question.
This part is 35 minutes long, followed by five minutes to transfer your answer from the draft paper to the official answer paper. If you have practised a lot of listening, you will often get the answer after the first time you hear the dialogue, so you can use the second time to confirm your initial idea. It is a very good idea to have a brief glance at the provided answer options before the next dialogue plays, so you know what sort of information to listen for. Many dialogues have a male and a female voice and the question is then about what either the man or the woman said, so you should try to remember more or less what each person said (not the exact words but their intent). The dialogues vary in length between 2 and 4 turns.
The reading part has three types of tasks:
- 10 matching exercises in two blocks of five exercises: first you have a list of sentences with the letters A - E, then you get a list of numbered exercises. The numbered sentences are the first part of a short dialogue and you need to identify the matching sentence from the first list (A-E). So for this task you need to read 20 sentences in total.
- 10 cloze tests, again in two blocks of five. You first have five Chinese characters or words identified by the letters A to E and five sentences where one of the characters or words is missing. After each sentence, you need the write the letter that stands for the missing word or character (so you don't actually need to write characters for this tasks, just be able to read them).
- 10 short paragraphs (never longer than 2 lines) followed by a question that you need to answer by selecting the correct response from three choices (multiple-choice question).
This part of the exam is 30 minutes long; 10 minutes for each task. You don't need to write Chinese characters of this part of the exam but you need to be able to read them fluently.
The writing part has two types of tasks:
- Five sentence building tasks: you are given 3 to 6 items that you need to put in the correct order to build a sentence. The "items" may be individual characters, words or phrases.
- Five sentences where one character has been replaced by its pinyin transcription (with tone marks); you need to write the correct character.
This is the only part of the exam that requires you to write characters. Even though it consists of very few items, you get ten minutes for this part of the exam (five minutes for each part). If you are thoroughly familiar with the characters from the lists published by Hanban, the secod part is very easy. The first part also requires basic knowledge of syntax. However, it is not clear how this part is rated: just correcntess of the syntax and characters or also the readability of your characters. (When I took the test a few years ago, I thought this was by far the easiest part, but it turned out to be the only part that cost me a few points.)
A few general points:
- Hanban published a list of 600 characters that you need to know for HSK 3. However, this is just a list of characters, not words. Some websites and books also provide word list of exactly 600 words that use these 600 characters. (For example, gigacool's GitHub repository hanyu-shuiping-kaoshi has vocabulary lists in JSON and CSV format.) However, such lists should be considered as the minimum that you need to know; the exam itself occasionally uses words and characters that you won't find in these lists.
- While vocabulary lists are easy to find on the web, it is harder to figure out what grammar you are expected to know. For this aspect, I worked with two books published in Germany: HSK-Übungsbuch (Stufe 3) by Yinhua Li and Katrin Buchta (2011) and Vorbereitung HSK-Prüfung. HSK 3 by Hefei Huang and Dieter Ziethen (second edition, 2012). These books contain vocabulary lists, a grammar overview, grammar exercises (with an answer key), tips for each part of the exam, and mock exams. The mock exams turned out to be a bit harder than the real exam.
- There are many materials that help you prepare for HSK, both "authorised" and (usually) unauthorised. The HSK Standard Course published by the Beijing Language and Culture University Press (BLCUP) claims to be authorised by Hanban. "With HSK test papers as its primary source, HSK Standard Course is characterized by a humorous style, familiar topics and a scientific course design." I don't know what these materials look like.
For HSK 3, there is a textbook (HSK标准教程3) and an exercise book (HSK标准教程3 练习册). To download the answer keys for the exercises, click the button 资源下载 on the webpage for the exercises book; this will take you to a separate page with a list of items you can download. Before you can download anything, you will need to register on the website with a name and an e-mail address (you get the prompt "请登录后进行资源下载。" with button 确定, which takes you to a registration page). (See also the YouTube video How to download answer keys to HSK standard course.)
- There are many websitse where you can download past test papers to practice with; the downloads sometimes also include the audio files for the listening part. These are useful if you want to check whether you are ready for the test. See for example the resources at the Confucius Institute in Manchester.
- In general, books that focus on test preparation don't bring you from HSK 2 from HSK 3. That is not their goal. In order to increase your language skills, you need general learning materials. These learning materials usually don't focus on the HSK levels (except perhaps the BLCUP series mentioned above and perhaps a few other books).
- Even though I often listened to the CDs that came with the various Chinese language textbooks that I used, there was still something about the dialogues in the listening part that I found difficult. I don't know whether this was related to speed, accent, audio quality (recording equipment? loudspeakers? distance to the loudspeakers?) or something else. For this reason, I think it is important to listen to audio resources from several sources, including sources with inferior audio quality. You should definitely not neglect listening skills!