Chris in South Korea note: This guest post comes courtesy of my fiancée, who recently took the TOPIK Advanced and has started up a translation service. For more information about her, head to for your Korean-to-English translating needs.

What is the TOPIK?

The TOPIK, or Test of Proficiency in Korean, is the most well-known and widely-recognized of the Korean proficiency tests. The TOPIK has three levels: beginner, intermediate, and advanced.  In each level, there are two possible grades you can get.  The chart below summarizes the scores you need for each level.

Level Grade Requirements
Beginner 1 Overall average of 50% with no less than 40% in any one section
2 Overall average of 70% with no less than 50% in any one section
Intermediate 3 Overall average of 50% with no less than 40% in any one section
4 Overall average of 70% with no less than 50% in any one section
Advanced 5 Overall average of 50% with no less than 40% in any one section
6 Overall average of 70% with no less than 50% in any one section

In other words, there are two passing grades, the higher of which gets you the higher level. Get lower than the overall average or flunk a section and you’ll be signing up for the test again.

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I’ve never done the beginner TOPIK myself, but I’m told it’s pretty easy and that anyone with a basic grasp of Korean grammar and vocabulary should be able to pass it.  There’s a fairly enormous jump between beginner and intermediate – I’d even go so far as to say that if you can pass the Intermediate TOPIK, you know more than you’ll ever need to be able to function in Korean in daily life.  Some of the grammar is stuff I’ve still never seen “in the wild”, as it were.  Actually, though, the bulk of my studying for the Intermediate TOPIK was centered around learning vocabulary.  There’s a LOT of vocabulary on the test and you’ll stumble over every section if you don’t know it.  After that, there’s not such a huge jump between Intermediate and Advanced – mostly it’s just a matter of learning even more esoteric grammar and still more vocabulary words.

There used to be a Business TOPIK as well, but this was dropped in 2011.

Currently there’s no speaking component to the TOPIK (a great relief to some of us), but there are plans to introduce one starting in 2015. (By the way, your test results are only considered “valid” for two years, so if you’re shy like me, I’d strongly suggest autumn 2014 as an optimal test date…)

The TOPIK Guide has a lot more info about all this, if you’re still curious.

Other Korean language proficiency tests?

There’s also the KLPT, or Korean Language Proficiency Test; this one is not as well known.  There’s only one test paper for everyone and your score is determined by what grade you get.  The homepage is supposedly here, but that just leads to gibberish on my computer.

Why take the TOPIK?

There’s really no reason to take it unless the people you want to study or work for require it.  Universities will often require a grade of 4 in order to study.  According to this recent article, other people take it in order to test their language skills or to better understand Korean culture.  If you’re interested in naturalizing yourself, it helps give you points toward an F-2-7 points-based visa.  (For more on that, go to HiKorea, then click on “Notice”, then find the notice about points, then download the attachment, then curse it for being a .hwp file… because just putting text on a normal webpage like normal people would be too difficult, apparently).  Personally, I did the Intermediate TOPIK in order to test my language skills and the Advanced because I’m starting a career as a translator and so the more qualifications I can show off, the better.  (That, and after over three million won spent towards graduating Yonsei’s Korean Language Academy, I wanted to prove to myself that my money had been well spent…)

How do I register?
Firstly, you can only register during a certain period before each test.  This period usually lasts about two weeks.  The tests are held four times yearly within Korea and twice a year outside of Korea.

Information about test dates, locations and registration periods can be found on the TOPIK website.  Seeing as it’s a test of KOREAN proficiency, the entire website is in Korean; however, for those who need a little help, there’s an English guide as well as guides in several other languages.  You can’t actually register through the English link, but it explains the process pretty well.  Note that while you can browse the website in Chrome, registration must be done in IE because there are the usual security programs to be dealt with.  You can also pay via the website, and that’s also explained in the English guide; I did this successfully for my Intermediate test and couldn’t get it to work for the Advanced, so I opted for a direct bank transfer, which is also an option if you don’t feel like having your computer raped by even more Korean “security” programs.

How do I prepare?

The  TOPIK website itself allows you to download recent test papers and the answers.  (Should the link I just gave fail you, just go to the page and then 정보 마당 and then 기출 문제 다운로드).

Personally, I prefer doing practice tests on paper.  This allows me to draw giant happy circles around questions I get right, as well as scribble notes all over the practice test.  Any well-stocked bookstore should have a full library of TOPIK practice books.  I recommend TOPIK Master, which takes the trouble to explain the answers in the answer book… kind of.  They’re not great explanations, but they can be all you need, especially for patterns that are difficult to find in other grammar books.  Plus, they give you ten full practice tests, which should keep you busy for a good long time.

I strongly recommend doing previous tests as a study method, because taking the test is a skill in and of itself, and just knowing the appropriate Korean may not be enough.  The format of the test is exactly the same every time – I mean, for example, if question 48 on the reading section is “Choose the central idea of this paragraph”, then question 48 on the next reading test will also be “Choose the central idea of this paragraph.”  So, the more you prepare, the less time you’ll have to spend reading the directions, and the less time you have to spend reading the directions, the more time you have to spend on the questions.  This is very important.  I’m the sort of nerd who’s usually the first to finish any test she writes, and I find the TOPIK test times to be just barely enough.  So, don’t waste any time, and don’t spend a long time pondering the answer to one question; if you don’t know right away, skip it and come back to it later if you have time.

Grammar and vocabulary (어휘 및 문법)
Other than the obvious strategy of “study grammar and vocabulary”… there aren’t a lot of tricks on this section.  In the Intermediate and Advanced tests, there will be at least one question on onomatopoeic words and at least one on proverbs.  The Advanced test will also include a question on 한자성어, those four-character hanja-based words.  Since it’s only a few questions, I wouldn’t bother spending tons of time studying all this, but as with everything else, the more you know, the better.  One thing that is very important in this section is that when doing the questions based on paragraphs, don’t try to read the entire paragraph.  Reading the sentence with the blank in it will probably be sufficient.  If you can’t get the answer based solely on that, only then should you try to read the extra sentences.

Writing (쓰기)
This one is, to be blunt, a bitch.  In particular, I find it nearly impossible to figure out what they want with the short-answer questions, which are worth a lot of points.  The best suggestion I have for you there is to focus on the key ideas of the paragraph.  In the Intermediate level, quite often all you’ll have to do is regurgitate something that was already said in the paragraph, maybe with a couple of changes.  Knowing vocabulary and grammar, just like the stuff you’ve been studying for the first section, will help you out immensely with the multiple-choice questions.  The essay itself is not usually that bad, and seems to be marked pretty generously – just make sure you follow the directions well and include all the things they want you to include (which will be written in the question).

Listening (듣기)
Your style may vary, but I find it nearly impossible to listen to a question and then remember the information while I read through the responses.  My strategy here is to stay ahead and make sure I’ve read the answers to each question before hearing the recording.  This means you can’t take a long time to think about your answers – try as best as you can to rule out things while listening.  If you can find the answer on the first playthrough, so much the better.  With the exception of some of the Advanced questions, you will always hear the recording twice.

Reading (읽기)
The biggest problem here, again, is time management.  If you don’t know the answer, move on.  I find this to be the easiest section, but they do like to throw a lot of vocabulary at you – again, the more you know, the better.  They also like to include a question or three about a topic you probably won’t know the word for – “greenhouse effect” or “middle ear inflammation” or something like that.  I’m pretty sure this is deliberate.  Don’t get too hung up on words you don’t know – just see if you can figure out how they relate to the rest of the passage.

What can I expect on test day?
There are a number of locations for the test.  The TOPIK website will provide area maps showing the exact location of the testing building for all the ones in country, so you just have to figure out how to get to that area and then follow the map.  Once there, you’ll be divided up into classrooms according to your test number, so have your printout handy.

What, you say?  My printout?  Yeah, this is crucial, so please don’t forget.  Starting a few days before your test, you’ll be able to go to the TOPIK website and print out a piece of paper with your photo, test number, name, etc.  You HAVE to do this and then keep the paper on your desk while writing the test.  Again, the English section of the TOPIK site explains the exact procedure.

There’ll also be signs at the university and volunteers around the testing wearing big bright sashes; feel free to ask them for help if you need it.

Once you find your classroom, your name should be taped to one of the desks.

As far as things to bring to the test… you need a marker that can be read by a computer.  This is the only thing you absolutely need, and it will be provided for you if you don’t have one.  A couple of things you may want are whiteout (in case you make a mistake) and a pencil with which to write your essay.  The proctors will also have whiteout, so if you don’t have any and want to change one of your answers, just raise your hand and one of them will come over.  You can write your essay with the marker, or with your own pen or pencil; pencil, of course, makes it easier for you to edit your essay.

Before the exam starts, you’ll have to turn off your cellphone and either leave it on your desk with the battery out or hand it over to the proctors.

Times are very strictly observed.  Don’t be late, and do NOT try to keep writing after they’ve said your time is up.

In the first 90-minute period, you’ll do the grammar test and the writing test.  Be sure to leave yourself plenty of time to write your essay.

The second period will start with the listening test and then, once that’s over, you’ll do the reading test.  I’ve seen people do both at once, by flipping to the reading portion during pauses in the listening; if you’re good enough to do that, go for it!  As mentioned earlier, I prefer to stay ahead during the listening test, so I just focus on one test at a time.  The listening portion will take about 45 minutes and then you can use the remaining 45 for the reading test.

Anything else?
Sure!  A few links…

The TOPIK website
Practice tests from the TOPIK website
The TOPIK Guide (all kinds of useful resources)
Naldaramjui (more practice tests)
TOPIK flashcard practice

Talk to Me in Korean (lots of good grammar explanations, though it only really covers beginner and some of the intermediate grammar)
How to Study Korean (another good website with clear explanations of grammar)