Yesterday marked the climax of 10 weeks of preparation for the TOPIK test. For those of you unfamiliar with this test, it’s a nationally standardized test designed to assess the taker’s proficiency in the Korean language. Think of it as the Korean equivalent to English tests like TOEFL. I had never taken the exam before, but weeks of cramming with test preparation books and memorizing vocabulary and sentence patterns (when studying for a Korean test in Korea, one needs to study like a Korean) made me feel pretty well prepared.

Here’s a handy overview of the TOPIK format:

Here you see the minimum score requirements for reaching levels 1-6.

I had signed up for the TOPIK II which is targeted toward intermediate and advanced speakers. The test is divided into three parts: Listening, writing, and reading. Each part is worth 100 points, making 300 points a perfect score. Based on my total score, I will then get placed on either level 3, 4, 5, or 6.

But before I get into how my test went, let me tell you about the things that happened on my way to the test site. Since I live in Seoul I had hoped to take the test here, but apparently signing up 4 hours after registration opens is too late, so I was referred to the nearest test site in Daejeon, which is 140 km south of Seoul. We had received information that no one would be allowed admission after 12:20, and the test was to start at 1:00, so I left my home early in the morning to allow for unplanned delays. (A wise move.) I took the super fast KTX train to Daejeon which only took about an hour. Arrived in Daejeon at 10:30 I hopped into a cab and told the driver to go to Daejeon University. He immediately started talking about my Seoul accent and asked me where I came from since I did not look like I was from Seoul. He kept referring to me as agasshi (little miss), then it came up that I was married and he switched to calling me ajummah (married middle-aged woman), adding insult to injury by saying that I didn’t look old at all and was actually very pretty even though (!) I was a Westerner. Ah, there’s a backhanded Korean compliment if I ever heard one. After 20 minutes of driving and talking, he drove into the campus premises and I got out of the car.

Consulting my own map and the one on the campus grounds quickly made me realize that I was in the wrong place. The driver had inadvertently taken me to the Daejeon University of Technology. I quickly hailed another cab, and this time pulled the address and name of the building up on my phone and specifically told this driver to go nowhere but exactly there. That gave me another 25 minutes of speaking practice with the added spice of navigating the Daejeon dialect. This more than made up for the lack of speaking assessment in the TOPIK test, in my opinion.

I finally arrived at the test site (still with 40 minutes to spare) and waited in line outside with the other test takers. When the doors finally opened, we were divided into multiple classrooms of 40 people based on our exam numbers. We were ID checked to ensure that we didn’t take the test in someone else’s place, and a proctor even demanded that we rolled up our sleeves so he could examine our wrists just in case someone had tattooed a little cheat sheet on their arm. The classroom was freezing and I was so thankful that I had decided to wear my new Uniqlo heat-tech skiing underwear under a sensible cashmere sweater but even so, I still kept my coat on too. Before we started, we had to listen to a long lecture by a strict proctor with no sense of humor about all the minor things that were considered cheating and would result in immediate dismissal from the test. He even listed examples of cheating that had happened during previous tests and made it clear that there would be no mercy. What bothered me most was that we were not allowed to make any notes or memos on the exam paper, which I had always done while practicing.

When they finally started the test I was already feeling numb from sitting on a hard wooden bench on a metal frame and my fingers were freezing. Nonetheless, I struggled to stay focused throughout the listening part of the test, but I was frustrated that I couldn’t make notes, and I’m sure I’ve lost some points on that account. I’m not saying the listening part was terrible, but I know I could have performed better under different circumstances and that bugs me. Anyway, after the listening part which lasted 60 minutes, followed the writing part. We had 50 minutes to write four sentences to be put into blank spaces in a text to make it flow naturally, write half a page based on an infographic about the decrease in waste in Seoul due to the increased recycling campaigns, and then finally a full-page essay on the problems with finding information on the internet (think reliability, sources, trolls, fake news, etc.) Needless to say, the time pressure was enormous, but I have a pretty good feeling that I may just have aced that part. In any case, the proctor did not have to force the pen out of my hand as he did with the guy next to me, who was scrambling to finish a sentence when the time was up.

The 20-minute break that followed was spent waiting in line for the questionable and freezing restroom, where it was BYOTPD (bring your own toilet paper day) as is usually the case in places outside the greater metropolitan area. Then followed the reading part, usually one of my strongest suits, as I read a lot in Korean and can read really fast even when under pressure. I had to give a qualified guess for the last 2-3 questions as the proctor by the end wouldn’t shut up about how many minutes and seconds were left, which did no good to my concentration, but overall I have a good feeling with the reading part as well.

So, all in all, taking the TOPIK was a fun (and very Korean) experience. I won’t get my results until Dec. 21, so I’ll have to wait and see how I did. There’s no doubt that I went in with the goal of reaching level 6, I mean, always aim high, you may just hit your target. But I also realize that with the difficulty of the listening part, that may not be possible. I still believe there’s a chance, though, and I’ll be sure to keep you posted when the results are out.

On my way home in the KTX train, I was sitting behind the cutest 3-year-old boy, who wouldn’t stop turning around smiling, winking, waiving and go 뿌잉뿌잉 (a cute sound Koreans make) at me. Even though I was super tired, I couldn’t help melting completely at his cuteness.

This morning, the tables had turned and I was the one administering a quiz to my 240+ students. That felt so much better, but only for a short while because now… I have to grade them. Oh, well… 뿌잉뿌잉 and happy Monday!!!


  1. That’s interesting about the no notes on your paper . . . I took the TOPIK I a few years ago in the US and the TOPIK II in October at Gyungsang University in Jinju and in both cases it was completely allowed to write all over your exam book, just as long as you kept it out of the view of others. I wonder if there’s any kind of way to submit complaints about proctors?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m taking TOPIK 1 in January and desperately trying to memorize voabulary, my biggest weakness. I actually live in Daejeon and my Korea is not good enough to be able to hear a huge difference between a Seoul accent and a Daejeon one. Was there something specific you noticed about the way the taxi driver was speaking? My goal is to be here long enough, and speak well enough, that people will be able to tell I lived in Daejeon lol. Anyway, great blog post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, then I definitely wish you the best of luck with your TOPIK prep! It’s hard to say what really characterizes the Daejeon dialect. For me it was just that I felt that the intonation was different from what I’m used to hearing in Seoul. 🙂


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