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….

Studying update

As an update to my ongoing studying for the TOPIK test, my new weekly routine is now as follows.


Anki is the new focus on my studying, and something I probably should have started using months (or even years) ago. I’d never used it before because I was not really keen on the drudgery of rote memorization. Anki removes a lot of the drudgery of memorization, though. I use it purely for vocabulary.

The benefit of using Anki is that it manages the administration of memorizing for you. It keeps track of which words need to be repeated soon and which words don’t need to be repeated soon, so that I don’t have to keep track of that. And, best of all, it’s not possible for some vocabulary to slip through the cracks and for me to forget about it.

I also quite like that Anki has an open specification and a good community behind it.

Language exchange

I’ve started leading an English study group at GlobalSeoulMates, which is a language café in Seoul. I also stick around after the English study group to do the Korean-English language exchange so that I can get in a bit of practice with foreigners each week. Due to holidays—going to Japan and now 추석—I have been slacking with this a bit lately.


I bought a couple new books specific to studying TOPIK II. I’ll give a proper review of them at some point, but I can’t do that yet, as I haven’t used them enough yet to determine their efficacy.

Old tests

I’ve been doing most of my studying from old TOPIK tests. I’ve started with the TOPIK I tests until I got comfortable that I could ace them. Well, the reading section is fine, but the listening section…the questions at the end I don’t think I’ll be able to consistently ace. I might have to accept that my listening will always be lagging behind my reading and writing, at least for the purposes of my test next month.

I will be starting to practice from TOPIK II old tests this month.


I have decided to take TOPIK, which is the most popular test of proficiency in Korean. A TOPIK score is strictly speaking not totally necessary for me, as I’m applying for an F-6 visa which, unlike some F visas (like F-5), does not require a TOPIK score from the foreigner. And my job search is temporarily paused (more on that in another post, maybe). However, there’s no denying that a TOPIK score would still help me if I can put it on my resume in the future and, more to the point, taking the TOPIK test will help me focus my studying abilities.

I haven’t been diligent in my Korean. Since landing in Korea almost a month ago, we’ve been preoccupied with a lot of other things, and I just sort of assumed I’d start picking up more Korean in daily life. That hasn’t really happened, or at least not to any great extent, and I feel my Korean is stagnant at a high-beginner level.

I’m going to register for the next TOPIK test, which is October 22. Registration is the third week of August and the cost doesn’t seem too terrible (40 000₩ for the TOPIK II test).

I am going to be registering for TOPIK II. It’s a little beyond my abilities now, but I have two and a half months to study and my wife is a (good) Korean teacher, so I think it’s doable. My philosophy as a professor was always that you teach students at a higher level than you want them to learn at (or, equivalently, that you learn at a slightly lower level than you studied at/were taught at). I’m applying that principle to my studying for TOPIK and am studying for a TOPIK Level 4 in the hopes that I will be able to solidly achieve Level 3.

To start off with, my daily studying regimen is:

  1. Study old TOPIK tests. Sinea has already given me a 2015 (?) version of the reading portion of TOPIK I. I’ve started studying from it to ensure first of all that I’m comfortable with the format of the questions, and also that there are no vocabulary words that I’m unfamiliar with.
  2. Reading and summarizing (in Korean) news articles. TOPIK Level 4 requires being able to understand news articles (yikes) and being able to write summaries. I just tried reading a news article this morning which was, to put it mildly, humbling. I’m hoping if I can stick to my daily regimen, it will become a little easier over time.

Probably my daily regimen will change in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Code for reading a random Korean news article

Want an easy way to read a random news article? I didn’t want my corpus of training material to be biased (too much news about girl groups), so I wanted an easy way to get a totally random news article to read each day. If you’re on Linux or a Unix-like environment and have sharutils installed (required for randomly selecting a line of text) and xml2 installed (required for parsing RSS), create a text file called rss-feeds with the following text:

The command for opening up a random news feed is then firefox $(curl -s $(shuf -n 1 rss-feeds) | xml2 | fgrep link | sed -r 's/(^.*=)//' | shuf -n 1)

This way, when you’re studying from news articles, you won’t get stuck with articles from one particular newspaper or on one particular subject!