Hacking TOPIK II

Two days ago, I sat for the TOPIK II exam. It was my first time taking the test, so I was pretty nervous, but to my surprise, I was better prepared than I thought. I wish I had more time for the essay writing section, but other than that, I think it turned out pretty okay.

This article is a compilation of the techniques and strategies that I found effective, as well as things that I wish I’d done differently.

Listening

The listening paper is 60 minutes long. It has 50 multiple-choice questions, and the questions get progressively harder – the vocabulary and sentences become more complex, and the voice actors speak faster. This is mostly due to the fact that the test is designed for both intermediate and advanced learners.

Assuming you’ve been doing a lot of listening practice with natural speech (content intended for native speakers, or listening materials built around natural speech, like Talk to Me in 100% Korean), the first 20 questions should be pretty easy for you. The actors speak very slowly, which leaves you plenty of time to go through the options before they’re even done reading the passage.

My key strategy for the listening paper is this: read ahead. Read the questions and the options before listening to the passage. This gives you an idea of what the passage is about, and what you should look for.

It also solves a common problem that intermediate learners (and lower advanced learners, to some extent) struggle with when it comes to listening. Often, you’ll find yourself completely lost while listening to an audio clip, only to realise later, upon reading the transcript (if there is one), that you actually know all the words that were being said. This happens because your brain isn’t used to hearing those words spoken out loud, despite being familiar with it in writing. The only solution to this is repeated exposure – to hear it again and again until your brain eventually learns to associate the word you know to its corresponding sound.

We do not have the luxury to do that during tests, but reading ahead helps solve that problem somewhat. If you know that the word is coming, you’ll be able to detect it much more easily than if you were to go into it cold.

들은 내용으로 맞는 것을 고르십시오.

1. 이 서비스는 무료로 이용이 가능한다.

2. 이 서비스는 아직 이용자가 많지 않다.

3. 이 서비스는 책에 관한 해설도 제공한다.

4. 이 서비스는 동영상 기능을 추가할 예정이다.

Q30 from the 64th TOPIK II Exam (Listening)

This is the 30th question from the 64th TOPIK II listening paper. Just by reading this (and the question before it), I know that the passage is going to be about some sort of e-book service (전자책 서비스). The four options tell me what to listen for – whether the service is free (무료), whether it has a lot of users (이용자) already or if it’s new, whether it provides some kind of commentary or analysis (해설) on the books, and whether it’s going to get video (동영상) support in the future.

Only one of these four options is true – and that’s the one you have to find. Now, let’s say you manage to identify the correct answer halfway through the passage. Do you keep listening?

It depends on how confident you are. If you’re upper intermediate, for example, chances are you’re going to find question 21-30 relatively easy. They’re read twice, so if you feel like you got the answer during your first listen, you should move on and use the remaining time to read the next question. If you keep this up, you’ll always be ahead of the audio – at least until the difficulty catches up to your reading skills.

If you’re an advanced learner with relatively weak listening skills (in comparison to your reading skills – like me), this strategy will ensure that you have plenty of time to go through the questions and answers before the passage is read, allowing you to listen for gist effectively. All passages are read twice from question 21 onward, so I made sure to listen only once and spend the remaining time on reading ahead, unless I was unsure of my answer. I read pretty fast, so I was able to stay at least 6 questions ahead of the audio for most of the test. The gap was later reduced to 4 questions when we entered advanced territory (question 37 onward).

Of course, for this strategy to work, you have to be able to read relatively fast. And there’s no real hack for this, except to read often and extensively.

If you’re an intermediate learner aiming for level 3 or 4, I would suggest focusing on getting the first 20 questions right. And then, for the rest of the paper, apply the aforementioned strategy the best you can, for as long as you can. If you know what to listen for, even if you didn’t manage to understand the whole passage, you should still be able to eliminate an option or two based on the keywords you heard. That should significantly increase your chance of getting the correct answer, at least for Q21-26/28.

Note that all passages from Q21 onward come with 2 questions. This, for example, is the question that came before the one mentioned above:

여자는 누구인지 맞는 것을 고르십시오.

1. 전자책을 조사하는 사람

2. 전자책을 골라 주는 사람

3. 전자책 구독 서비스에 가입한 사람

4. 전자책 구독 서비스를 개발한 사람

Q29 from the 64th TOPIK II Exam (Listening)

Here, they’re asking you to guess the identity of the woman in the passage. Generally speaking, questions like this – questions that ask you about the possible identity, the intention, or the tone of the speaker – comes before the other – the one that presents you with 4 statements and asks you to identify the single true one. If you find yourself short of time and having to choose only one to read ahead on, I suggest going for the second question – because things like tone, intention and identity are relatively easy to infer once you got all the facts down.

Writing

The writing paper starts immediately after the listening one. Officially, it’s supposed to be a 50 minute-long paper, but in my case, they started collecting our answer sheets 10 minutes before the end of the test, so we were left with only 40 minutes. I’m not sure if this is the case everywhere else.

The paper is divided into 3 sections. The first section consists of 4 fill-in-the-blank questions, the second requires you to write a 200-300 word summary of a graph or a chart, while the last one asks you to write a 600-700 word essay on a specified topic.

The strategy differs, depending on what you’re aiming for. If you’re aiming for level 3-4 (or maybe even shoot for a 5, if you’re lucky), I would suggest starting with the first section (it’s extremely straight forward, so don’t overthink it – you need to spend no more than 5 – 10 minutes on it and move on ASAP) and focusing on the second section. It’s worth 30 marks, and a lot easier to ace than the third section.

It’s really easy to prepare for, too – all you have to do is read lots of reporting-style articles/texts beforehand and memorise several sentence patterns that you can tweak to fit your essay, such as ~… X%로 나타났다 (for talking about the percentage of something), ~A는 X%로 B Y%보다 높게 나타났다 (for comparisons), ~때문인 것으로 보인다 (for citing the cause). On top of that, make sure you create a list of high-frequency words for reporting-style writing and memorise them, such as to increase (증가하다, 늘다), to decrease (떨어지다, 하락하다), etc.

If you’re aiming for level 5 or 6, however, I would suggest focusing on the third section. Personally, I wish I’d spent less time second-guessing myself on the second section, especially since it’s such a straightforward exercise. I should have started with the third section and spent maybe about 20-25 minutes on it, and then 15 minutes on the second, and finally, 5 minutes on the first.

I can’t tell you how terrified I was when they announced that we only had 10 minutes left, just when I’d finished writing the introduction of my essay. My mind went blank and I spent about a minute just frozen in my seat, staring at my answer sheet. I ended up having to finish the remaining 75% of my essay in just 8 minutes, frantically stretching the word count so that I could at least make it past the 600-word mark. I don’t know how I did it, but I’m definitely not happy with the end product.

Luckily, I had practiced writing on a variety of topics – from inflation to the fourth industrial revolution – before going into the test. If you write constantly over a certain period of time, you’re bound to develop a level of comfort with certain words and sentence patterns. These things will form the base of your writing skills – in moments of stress and panic, they would be all that’s left to you, so building a solid base is extremely important. I was able to recall some sentences that I’d written in another essay two weeks ago, and tweak them a little so that they would fit the topic we were given with. I’m sure I would have fared a lot less if I had to write the whole thing from scratch.

Reading

The reading paper is 70 minutes long. It contains 50 questions. I’m going to break it down section by section:

Q1 – 4

These are grammar-related questions, and they’re pretty straightforward. When in doubt, play the elimination game – cross out the ones that are obviously not the answer, and then choose one from the remaining options.

Q5 – 6

These are usually short copy from banners or ads, and you’re usually asked to guess what they’re for. Sometimes they can be really straightforward, and other times ambiguous. The same strategy applies – if you’re unsure, try eliminating the ones that are obviously incorrect, and then go with your best guess.

Q9 – 10

These two questions usually feature graphs, charts or flyers, and they’re fortunately, relatively easy to understand. They’re pretty straightforward, so don’t overthink it.

Q11 – 12

Usually excerpts of articles. The answers (options) are usually worded in a more simple, straightforward manner in comparison to the excerpt itself, so I would recommend reading them before scanning the passage for the answer.

Q13 – 15

You’re required to rearrange four sentences so that they form a coherent passage. If you’re struggling, again, look to the options and see what you can eliminate. If you’re sure that, say, sentence 2 and sentence 4 are supposed to line up back-to-back, then you can eliminate the options in which sentence 2 and 4 are separate.

Q16 – 18

You’re required to fill in the blank in the text using one of the four options provided. This has less to do with vocabulary (you don’t need to understand ever single word in the passage) and more to do with your ability to connect two sentences (or two parts of a sentence) in a way that feels natural and logical. It’s fairly simple – read the text thoroughly, and pick what you feel makes the most sense.

Q19 – 24

Now we’re moving into relatively advanced territory. This is where the texts start to vary in topic and format – there could be a science article, a passage that reads like something out of wikipedia, and what reads like an excerpt from a novel. Each passage comes with 2 questions, one that either asks you to fill in the blank with one of the four options provided or identify the tone/mood of a certain sentence from the passage, and one that presents 4 statements regarding the passage (3 of which are false) and asks you to identify the correct one. Read the second question first, because like Q16 – 18, the answers are usually worded far more plainly than the passage itself, so reading them first can help provide you with some idea of what to look for as you scan the text for gist.

Q25 – 27

These can be some of the most challenging questions in the entire paper. You’re provided with 3 newspaper headlines and asked to choose one statement (out of four) that best describes it. It’s tricky because the headlines usually use a lot of low-frequency hanja-based words – words that you don’t really come across that often in everyday Korean. If Hanja isn’t your forte, I would suggest just picking what seems the most likely and saving that time for other questions that you might have a better shot with.

Q28 – 31

These are fill-in-the-blank questions, just like Q16 – 18, except with more complex texts. This is also where topics start to vary wildly, ranging from arts and culture, to science and architecture. The same strategy applies, though. Don’t worry too much about understanding every single word in the passage – focus on getting the gist right and choosing the option that makes the most sense given the location of the blank in the text.

Q32 – 38

Q32 – 34, again, are your typical ‘which one of the following statements is true’ questions. I suggest reading the questions and answers before moving on to the text, as they might help provide context on what the passage is about. Q35 – 38 require you to choose from four statements the one that best sums up the passage. Once again, I would suggest reading the four statements before tackling the passage itself.

Q39 – 41

You’re presented with a passage and a sentence that is pulled from the passage. Your task is to identify where that sentence fits in the passage (you’re to choose from four indicated locations). To save time, I would recommend reading the sentence first, and then the passage.

Q42 – 50

Q42-50 is all the previous questions combined. You have a mix of fill-in-the-blank questions, the ‘identify the tone/mood of the underlined sentence’ questions, and the ‘which one of the following statements is true’ questions. In this case, I would suggest reading the last type of questions first before tackling the passage, for the same reason mentioned earlier. If you’re short on time, however, I would suggest reading all the questions first and then scanning the passage for answers, because there are 4 passages and they’re all pretty long.

And that’s pretty much it! It goes without saying that to comfortably answer all the questions, you have to be able to read quickly, and that’s something that comes only from practice, so make sure you read often.

I know a lot of people say that you don’t need a lot of hanja knowledge to speak Korean well, and that’s certainly true to an extent, but it’s definitely a huge bonus when it comes to TOPIK, at least in my personal experience. I was able to finish all the questions without too much trouble, even though there were plenty of words that I’d never seen before. That’s because I was able to draw on my hanja knowledge and deduce the meaning of those words with the help of contextual clues. So if you’re into hanja, dive in – and don’t ever let anyone tell you that it’s a waste of time, because it’s not.


I hope you found this article helpful. I wish you all the best for the exam, and happy learning!