机不可失，时不再来 (jī bù kě shī, shí bú zài lái)
– Opportunity knocks at the door only once.
This is a rough guide on what the Exam entails and how I found it when I took it last September and again in March. Provided the Exam and class placement system hasn’t changed since then, I hope this can be a useful tool to calm nerves and go in more prepared than I was!
Around 50 weeks ago, I was one of the nervous and jet-lagged exchange students sitting in a very large hall about to start the Peking University Chinese Language Proficiency Exam (“Exam” from here on in). Beforehand I had scanned the Internet for any friendly tips about what it might entail and was unsuccessful in my search, so I promised myself I would write a little guide for future students in my situation.
The Exam is how the university decides what level class you should be placed in for the entire semester, so it’s important to give it your best shot. While it is possible to change levels (before classes start) if you don’t do as well as you expected to, I wouldn’t recommend giving yourself the hassle – you have to have a very strong case and even then the teachers will be unwilling to move you (more on this later).
Before the Exam
This is an exam that is difficult to cram for – rightly so, it is a test of your general Chinese level and not something that a few hours of revising before the exam can help you with (I bought all my previous Chinese study books with me to China in order to feverishly revise before the Exam and wasted both time and precious weight allowance in my suitcase). I would, however, recommend revising a few sentence structures and good vocab pieces to use in the essay at the end. Brushing up on general vocabulary that can be applied (or bent slightly) to fit any situation will help improve the quality of your essay no matter what the topic is, and is something that may bring your marks up if other parts of the Exam don’t go so well.
It is also important to figure out where the Exam will be held and make yourself very sure of the timings a day or two beforehand. It starts bang-on the start time with listening, so you’ll unnecessarily put yourself at a large disadvantage if you’re late. Stereotypical exam advice: remember to stay calm and not worry too much about the results.
Contents of the Exam
The Exam is very similar to the style of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK). As it is a proficiency test for students of all levels, beginner to advanced, it is very likely that some parts of the exam will seem very hard, if not impossible, to complete. Remember that this is okay – there would be no point in having an exam to test proficiency if everyone could get 100%!
The first section of the Exam is the Listening Section. The listening tracks are only played once, so it’s important to try and pick out the key words as you go along. On some of the questions, you have to read the Chinese characters in order to choose the correct answer, so a tip is to pick out the key words from the answers and then keep an ear open in the listening dialogue! Remember, if you feel like this part hasn’t gone very well you’ll have plenty of time to redeem yourself in the Reading and Writing Sections.
The Reading Section also includes grammar, and consists of around 50 multiple-choice questions. In one section you may be given four sentences and have to decide which sentence contains a grammatical error. In another section there will be a fill-in-the-gap passage, with different options given below clumped collectively as A, B, C, or D. There is also a comprehension part, in which you are given a few ~10 line passages and are required to choose suitable answers for questions from the options provided.
There is a lot to cover in this section, so I recommend moving quickly and coming back to the parts that you may be stuck on.
The Writing Section is comprised of an essay. Both times we were given a cartoon and told to write about what was happening – in the first one it was something like a small boy and his father at the dinner table, and the second one was something obscure about a small boy and his father with a snake in the garden. I didn’t know the word for snake so I ended up writing about the garden, and why the father was in a bad mood (something about the economy and him losing his job) so at least I could show off my Chinese instead of leaving a lot blank. This is where your preparation will come in handy – if you can throw in a few idioms and sentence structures it will probably help your grade!
After the Exam
A few days after the exam, you’ll probably go to the Florence Lee Fang building (potentially marked on your campus map as ‘School of Chinese as a Second Language’) to look at the lists pasted on the wall with your name and a classroom number on it. The different classrooms contain different level Chinese books, from beginner to advanced. You queue up outside your assigned classroom and then go in to sit opposite a teacher and look through the books to decide if it’s the right standard for you. It’s more than likely that you will be asked to read aloud from a section of the book. As a general rule, the teacher will expect you to be able to read 60% of the characters – if you have no trouble reading and understanding the text (they will ask you questions), the teacher will recommend that you move to the next difficulty level. The teacher might also ask you to explain a random chapter’s grammatical structures – if you can explain them and use them competently in a sentence, the level is too easy for you and you will be moved up. If you think the books are too easy or too hard, this is the time to tell the teacher! While your timetable may offer an option to come back the next day to change your books, I wouldn’t recommend waiting until then. If the teacher agrees that the books in the classroom aren’t suitable for you, they will send you to another room with different books so you can go through the process again. At this stage it’s important to be both patient and persistent – it’s likely that they have put you in the right place after reviewing the Exam score, but if you’re sure that they haven’t you need to speak up now and persuade the teacher (in Mandarin) that you’d like to change.
Bear in mind that once you have purchased your books, you no longer have the option to change classes – this is a very strict rule. We had an incident where a student who was a much higher level than the class he was in was not allowed to move to a higher-level class. So pick your books wisely! I pushed to be in a class that was really challenging for me at the start, but meant that my learning curve was incredibly steep throughout the semester. I’d recommend this route if you’d like to work hard, test yourself and see an impressive improvement in your Chinese.
For the core classes, you are required to take a grammar class, and an oral class, for each of which you will have between three and four 2-hour lessons per week. Unless the rules change, you have to enrol in classes of the same difficulty – i.e. if your oral abilities are much more advanced than your writing abilities, you must either choose to be in an easier class for speaking, or in a more difficult class for writing. In general, grammar classes are harder than the oral classes even at the same difficulty.
Once you’ve been set in your class, you’ll have the opportunity to choose electives. The options change regularly, and there will be different options available for each difficulty level (Beginner, Lower-Intermediate, Upper-Intermediate, and Advanced) – you can see which electives I took here. As far as I’m aware, Beginner and Lower-Intermediate levels are not offered electives, and are instead required to work on the core language, so this is something to bear in mind.
When it came to choosing electives, it paid to be early. People were arriving to queue outside the classrooms up to an hour beforehand in order to register for the more popular, capped electives. I’d highly recommend getting there with plenty of time to spare – you’ll be studying this subject for at least four months so it’s worth a rushed breakfast/lunch.
I hope this has been helpful! The Exam isn’t something to worry about at all, and I hope after reading this you’ll have a better idea of what it entails and how the procedure works. If you have any questions please feel free to comment below. Good luck!