How I Prepared for TOPIK II

Two weeks ago, I sat for the TOPIK II test for the first time. I had a year to prepare for it, so I got to experiment with all sorts of exercises – reading news, listening to radio, writing articles – with varying degrees of success. In this article, I’ll be talking about the ones that I found the most effective.

I also wrote an article on the test-taking strategies I employed during the exam, which you can read here.

Listening

The listening paper is 60 minutes long, and it contains 50 multiple-choice questions. Audio clips will be played, and you’ll have to listen to them and answer questions designed to gauge your listening comprehension skills.

My listening skills were the weakest out of the three primary skills TOPIK II aims to test, namely reading, writing and listening, but they weren’t too bad. I could understand most native content without subtitles, unless they used a lot of technical terms. But even then, I was thrown off by how formal and stiff the voices sounded when I tried the mock test on TOPIK Guide.

I found them a bit difficult to understand. No one speaks like that in real life, except for people voicing commercials and news anchors. And chances are if you don’t live in Korea and have been building your listening skills based on more natural, organic content, you’ll feel the same, too. I knew it would take some time to get used to, so I started practicing with past TOPIK papers, which can be found here and here.

And while I was doing that, I also noticed that the content of those audio clips can be extremely specific. In my case, for example, there were questions about moon dust and ancient mirrors discovered through some archaeological excavation somewhere. Granted, those were among the more advanced questions, but I was aiming for level 5 – 6, so I needed to get as many questions right as possible.

This means vocabulary is extremely important – you need it to understand not only the clips, but the questions and answers as well. To solve this, I tried to read as extensively as I could. I would look up something new in Korean everyday using the naver search engine, and read whatever articles and blogs I could find. I would write down any word I didn’t understand, look them up, and then transfer them to a memrise deck so I could memorise them.

An additional perk to this exercise is that it increases your reading speed, which is actually a tremendous help when it comes to the listening paper. See, just because you know what a word looks like and what it means, it doesn’t mean your brain is necessarily going to recognise it when you hear it – at least not for the first few times. If you’ve never heard a word being spoken, chances are you’re going to miss it if it’s said very quickly in a sentence.

Reading the questions and answers first, however, solves this problem somewhat. If you know a word is coming and you’re listening for it, you’re much more likely to catch it. But to constantly read ahead of the clips, you need to be able to read very fast. And the only way to gain that ability is to read a lot, and often.

Writing

The writing paper consists of 3 sections. Section 1 contains 4 fill-in-the-blank questions, section 2 requires you to summarise a couple of graphs or charts in 200-300 words, while section 3 requires you to write a 600-700 word essay on a specified topic.

Section 2 is really easy to prepare for. All you need to do is gather a bunch of words, expressions and sentence patterns that are commonly used in reporting-style texts, like 3 different ways to say ‘increase’ (늘다, 증가하다, 상승하다) and ‘decrease’ (떨어지다, 하락하다, 줄다) , how to compare figures (A는 X%로 B Y%보다 높게 나타났다), or how to cite the cause of an issue or phenomenon (~때문인 것으로 보인다).

Write a couple of essays using those words and expressions, and then memorise them so you could tweak them to suit whatever you’re asked to summarise during the exam.

Section 3 is a little trickier. There’s no telling what topic you’ll get, so once again, an extensive vocabulary is important. To prepare for this, I wrote a lot – with references. I would look up articles and essays on the topic I wanted to write on, and then use them as references as I wrote. I would highlight sentences that I thought were well-written, or sentences that I’d like to say/write but would never have been able to come up with on my own, and put them in my essay. And if I liked them enough, I would repeat them again and again in future essays, until I got so used to writing and saying them that they became my own.

The importance of writing with reference (as opposed to just writing with what you know) is that we, as non-native speakers who have yet to master the language, often lack the ability to tell what is natural and what isn’t. The only way to acquire that ability is to be repeatedly exposed to natural speech and writing from native speakers. We become more like them through emulating them. Writing with reference is like that. Without reference, you’ll just be stuck with regurgitating your own limited pool of words and expressions at best, and unknowingly repeating the same mistakes at worst.

Plus, it lets you read and write at the same time. You read something, and then you put what you learned to use right away by writing it. This significantly reduces the time between the moment you first encounter, say, a word, and the moment you reinforce your memory of that word by actively putting it to use, which is where most of the decline in retention happens. Simply put, the longer you let the information stay idle in your head, the more you’re gonna forget, and if you wait long enough, it’s going to be like you never learned it at all. So if you want to remember a word, you need to use it ASAP, and often.

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.

I practiced writing like that on a wide range of topics, from Coronavirus to the fourth industrial revolution. I had it all printed out and filed away in a folder, and read them once a week in the months leading up to the exam. By the time it was time to take the test, I was so familiar with those essays that I could have comfortably recreated them during the exam if I needed to. There was no need for that, as it turned out, but I was able to modify some parts of them to suit the essay I was writing, which was a great help when I found myself panicking towards the end of the test due to not having enough time.

Reading

Like the listening paper, the reading paper consists of 50 multiple-choice questions. There’s no special way to prepare for this, as most of this comes down to vocabulary, reading speed (the passages get really long towards the end) and some test-taking strategies that’ll help you make the most out of the time and knowledge you have.

My advice, again, is to read often and extensively. Read as much as possible, about as many topics as possible. If I have to recommend one specific source of reading material, though, I would suggest news articles and blogs. Novels and webtoons are great, too, but novels are slow and webtoons don’t really provide the kind of vocabulary you need to ace this test.

Something that I found surprisingly helpful, though, was hanja knowledge. I know a lot of people say that you don’t need it to become fluent in Korean, and that’s true to a certain extent, but it definitely helps with the more advanced passages on the reading paper. I managed to make it to the end of the paper pretty smoothly, even though there were plenty of words I’d never seen before, because I was able to deduce their meaning based on my hanja knowledge with the help of contextual clues.

This is because hanja-based words tend to appear a lot in advanced, academic texts. I remember reading this article about the election system in South Korea a few days before the exam. I found it ridiculously dense, and decided to try and count how many pure Korean words there were. There were exactly 5. Everything else was derived from hanja.

I’m not saying you need to master hanja in order to score well on this test, but if you’re aiming for level 6, I’m sure some knowledge of it will help.

Summary

To sum it up, here’s what I did to prepare for TOPIK II, with the goal of scoring Level 5 – 6:

  1. Practice with past TOPIK papers
  2. Write once a week, with reference
  3. Read daily, on a diverse range of topics
  4. Memorise words and sentence patterns commonly used in reporting-style articles
  5. Brush up on my hanja knowledge

If I have to narrow it down to just a few essentials, I would say the key to acing TOPIK II is a solid vocabulary, the ability to read fast and scan for gist, as well as the effective use of test-taking strategies that suit your goal (whether you’re aiming for Level 3-4, or 5-6).

I hope this article helped give you an idea of what you can do to prepare for the exam. In my opinion, a lot of it comes down to strategy, so it is in no way a complete, accurate reflection of your proficiency in the language. All the best, and happy learning!