TOPIK test experience

So I wrote my first TOPIK test yesterday. It was TOPIK II (intermediate-advanced) and I wrote it in 강완도 춘천. Even though I live in Seoul, all of the testing centres in and around Seoul get booked up pretty much immediately, so I had to go out to the countryside a bit. Not a big deal, as my wife came with me, and we had a fun time touring around the area, going to 남이선, a private island in the middle of the river, and RailPark, which was a blast!

Anyway, the timeline went something like:

Saturday night: Avoiding doing any studying to try to relax.

Sunday 11:00: Arrive at 강완도대학교 campus and find the testing centre. Realize that all of the cafés on campus seem to be closed, thwarting our plans.

11:20: Go to the testing centre while my wife goes to a café off-campus to kill time. Realize that the doors don’t open until 11:40. At least they have a giant board out front with everyone’s name and registration number so you can verify you’re in the right place and discover your room number. This would be useful if I had forgotten to bring my registration information with me.

11:40: The doors open and everyone floods in to get to the elevators first.

11:45: Find my assigned classroom and my assigned desk and realize I have nothing to do now but wait. Why was everyone so eager to get to the elevator first? So they could be the first ones to sit and do nothing? No one is talking. Hardly anyone is even studying. Most people are just zoning out doing nothing but staring into space.

12:10: The 2 invigilators come into our room and people start getting their stuff ready. I can tell a lot of the other test-takers in the room have gone through this procedure before. They know exactly what’s allowed (e.g., white-out is allowed; pens are not) and start arranging things. I go to the bathroom one last time.

12:20: The head invigilator starts going over all of the rules, mostly telling us how to fill in our names and our “even/odd” status on the Scantron sheets (I gather that there are 2 versions of the tests). She’s speaking Korean at a million miles an hour but I just pretend like I’m understanding everything she’s saying. There are a number of level 5/6s in the room who can follow and ask her questions in fairly fluent Korean, so I just follow their lead. She tells us that we’re not allowed to go to the bathroom, but in retrospect, I think she may have told us that only for the listening section, not for the entire combined listening/writing section.

12:50: A tone sounds, which I guess is supposed to tell us to get ready to do the test. Everyone sits in silence for 10 minutes, not doing anything. I don’t get it, but when I asked my wife about it afterwards, she just said “isn’t that normal?”

1:00: Another tone sounds. It’s like the starting gun at a track event. The instant the tone sounds, the experienced TOPIKers start a mad scramble to flip through the book as quickly as possible and start reading the listening questions. The TOPIK II listening section progresses quickly (I knew this going in), so you have to find any time you can to read ahead in the questions and get familiar with the possible answers. I have to go to the bathroom.

1:20: My ability to do the listening questions is almost exhausted. I mean I’m only level 3 (hopefully) and these questions are for the level 5 and 6 students. Some of them I can catch maybe 10% of what’s going on, but it doesn’t help much. Even reading the possible answers is becoming difficult. I have to go to the bathroom pretty bad now.

1:45: I’ve shifted my attention over entirely to the writing section now. I was counting on the first 2 writing questions to be gimmes because they were so easy when I did my practice test. But this time is different. The first writing question is okay, but the second one is using vocabulary I don’t know. I’m having difficulty concentrating on anything because I have to go to the bathroom so bad.

2:00: The listening section is complete and everyone’s turned their attention over to the writing section. I’m trying to sketch out what to say about the 3rd writing question (the one where you have to explain a graph with a bunch of numbers). I feel like I’m going to die.

2:10: Finally I can’t take it any more. All of my effort is on trying to keep from peeing myself. I’m pretty sure I’m not allowed to go to the bathroom, but I have no choice. I stick up my hand and ask, even if it means ending my test. Turns out it is okay during the writing section. There’s a protocol you have to follow, where a guy with a metal detector follows you into the bathroom to ensure you’re not bringing any electronics in or out of the bathroom.

2:15: I can finally concentrate! I do the writing section to the best of my ability. For the final writing question, the one with 3 specific questions on a general essay topic, I focus on the first question and write everything I can think of related to that. I only get to about 200 boxes (not even close to the minimum 600) before I run out of time.

2:50: Break time. Again, most people don’t speak. Some people have friends that they talk with, but most people just sit and stare silently.

3:10: We’re back in the classroom for more instructions on the final section.

3:20: The tone sounds and the reading section begins. This went much better than expected. The nice thing about the reading section is that all of it is relevant to level 3ers, from start to finish. That’s not to say that I could follow every question, but it’s not like you get to question #15 and then say “okay the last 35 questions are not for me”. You can make an honest attempt at every question. For level 3ers, the difference mostly comes down to whether a question coincidentally uses vocabulary and grammar that you know, since most level 3ers (I assume) know a random smattering of grammar and vocabulary, so each question is mostly luck of the draw whether it’s going to be relevant for you.

4:15: I’m finished and too tired to torture myself with second-guessing the answers I made.

4:30: We can go home.

I don’t know how to feel about my performance on the test. I went into it feeling writing would be my strong point, but I feel like I butchered the writing section a bit. On the other hand, listening went better than it did in practice and reading also went better than expected. I’m about 70% confident I managed to achieve my goal of level 3.

Now I wait until November 30 to get the results….