Five Things I Did to Teach Myself Chinese and Pass HSK 3 in 9 Months

This morning, I received my HSK results! You may be able to tell from the title, but I PASSED! Yay me!

When I moved at the beginning of August, I was determined to learn Mandarin during my time here. I love languages, and picking them up has always come easy to me. While I had heard repeatedly how difficult it is to learn Chinese, I was prepared to face this challenge.


HSK, or Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, is the official Chinese proficiency test for foreigners. It can open the door to multiple school and work opportunities. HSK 3 tests intermediate Chinese, covering 600 vocabulary words and equivalent to about 1.5-2 years of study. To be guaranteed acceptance to most positions, you must have a HSK 4 level proficiency of higher.

At first, my goal was to pass HSK 4 by the end of my second year abroad. Being an anthropologist, I simply could not allow myself to live somewhere for so long and not communicate with people around me. Now, my goal is to take HSK 5 at the end of next school year.

I believe I have picked up on Mandarin fairly quickly, but it was not always an easy process. It was just after about a month of getting settled that I began to actively study Mandarin on my own. Along the way, I found a pretty comfortable routine that led me to quicker success.

Study Routine


From the very beginning I noticed how easy it became for me to depend solely on the ability of my phone to translate my writing and speech into Mandarin. Having never lived in a place where I couldn’t communicate with people, it was a new, and difficult, experience for me on a daily basis. However over time I realized not only was I not retaining any of the information that was being transmitted, but I also would walk away from a conversation not even knowing what the person I talked to looked like.

It was then that I made myself put down my phone while out, using it only to help ME say one or two words. This pushed me to practice simple location and topic specific sentences before leaving the house so that I was prepared for the conversations I knew I would have.


When I say I watched ONLY Chinese TV, it is not much of an exaggeration. Everyday, when I get home after work, I watch Mainland and Taiwanese dramas, and whatever other Mandarin language show. I have been in China almost a year and only went to the movies for the first time this month. Outside of TV time with friends, and finishing Game of Thrones, I would say 97% of the television I have watched in China has been in Mandarin with English subtitles.

I did this for a couple of reasons. First, watching shows about everyday life helps me pick up useful daily phrases and vocabulary. It also helps with fluency, listening, and pronunciation. Second, it is extremely helpful when trying to learn more about Chinese culture, norms, and society. Third, taking notes in my journal, that has it’s own place on the couch, provides me extra sources of practice material.


Over the past few months I have used every opportunity available to practice what I have learned in order to retain all the new information. This included talking to people in my community, chatting with my students, and harassing Chinese coworkers in broken, English-Mandarin sentences. In multiple cases this allowed for me to learn more about grammar, associated words, and colloquial phrases.

I did at times attend an informal weekly Mandarin class given by one of the Mandarin teachers at our school, but soon realized that I was learning at a quicker pace on my own. I continued to go, but made sure to have my own materials and questions about things I was studying so that they could be answered during this time.


I owe a lot of what I have learned to my favorite Mandarin learning app HelloChinese. I loved how user friendly it was, and that it allowed me to learn by listening to native speakers. It was also beneficial because it was important to me that I not only learn to speak Chinese, but also be able to read and write at the same level. This app allowed me to do practice all areas of the language so I felt balanced. I finished all lessons on the app by the time I began officially practicing for HSK. It was then that I added two more apps- Chinese HSK and HSK Online. The listening, reading, and writing in these apps are solely vocabulary being tested on HSK. It was convenient to be able to practice with mock questions and exams that were structured exactly like the real test.


While I did not practice everyday, I practiced CONSISTENTLY. When I felt like my brain was going to explode or I was feeling too overwhelmed with the sheer size of a new language, I took a break. But some days I would find myself practicing on my apps for HOURS after already watching multiple TV episodes.

It got to the point where I would think of responses to conversations in Chinese first and began actively looking for things I could understand around my environment. I practiced with children’s books during my school breaks, making my poor co-teacher listen to all my choppy sentences and help me with characters I didn’t know. When I realized Pinyin was making me dependent and lazy, I switched all my apps to characters only and covered up the Pinyin in books. With all of my new vocabulary up until the final cram, I made sure I could understand it, say it, read it, and write it in characters.


When I finished HSK 3 in May, I felt confident in my test performance. Each of the three sections, listening, reading, and writing, has a maximum of 100 points each. The minimum passing score is 180. I walked away with a 254 out of 300, with an 83, 79, and 92 in each of the respective areas.

All in all the entire process was slow enough that it did not feel like I was in studying a language just to pass a test. While the last couple months leading up to the test were a cram, (because I chose to switch to HSK 3 instead of taking HSK 2, adding 300 new words), I had already begun to retain so much. I am no longer a stranger in my city. I can speak Chinese.

Are you learning a new language or taking HSK soon? Do you have any language learning tips or resources?

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