Taking the TOPIK II

On Thursday, I got my results for the TOPIK II I took last month.

The TOPIK II is for levels 3 to 6 (intermediate to advanced) and the best possible score is 300—100 points each for Writing, Listening, and Reading. One thing that’s nice is that you don’t apply for a set level; you pass levels based purely on your score. You pass level 3 at 120 points, level 4 at 150, level 5 at 190, and level 6 at 230. It doesn’t matter how you do on an individual section as long as your total score exceeds those benchmarks. You could skip one complete section and still pass level 5 if you ace the ones you take.

I passed Level 6 only because of this kind of forgiving scoring system. I got a 253, which is decent, an 84 percent, but if a fail in one section meant a fail on the test, I would have failed. I did well on the relatively easy Listening (96) and Reading (98) sections, but I failed Writing (59). It’s a good thing I don’t write in Korean.

84 percent may seem like a good percentage, but you also have to remember that I’m Asian. I grew up a latch-key kid, but I’m my own worst Asian parent. I’ve also been living in Korea for over 14 years, including two years of immersion in the Korean Army, and I still got a B. Not that I’m going to study and take it again. There was no point in me taking the test in the first place, and it was a painful experience.

The beginning

The test was on a Sunday, and because I didn’t register early, I had to go all the way out to Korea Polytechnical University (KPU), down near the southern end of the blue line (Line 4). (For those of you interested in taking the test for whatever reason, register as soon as the registration period starts. I registered probably a month before the test, and there were no spots for the test in Seoul, at least for the TOPIK II.) I drove because the weather was nice for a change, but the roads there are shitty and I took a wrong turn or two. I still managed to make it there with fifteen minutes to spare so I bought a cup of coffee and chain-smoked a few cigarettes in the parking lot. There was only one break time scheduled for the three or four hours of the test so I had to get enough nicotine in my system to hold me down until the break.

The classroom number was on my registration slip, and inside the classroom, the desks are assigned by examinee number. During the half hour or so before the test began, the proctors explained the procedures and tested the audio. I got the impression that they take the test far too seriously. For example, they collected all of our cell phones and put them in these special binders, announcing that we would only get them back at the end of the test. They also announced that there would be no bathroom breaks so I didn’t see the point of taking our phones. It sucked because I put some stuff on my phone for the sole purpose of keeping myself entertained during the break. They also announced that the wearing of hats was not allowed. For God’s sake, it was a Sunday. I have to take a shower just to take a test?

All you need to bring is your registration slip, and even that they don’t let you keep on your desk. They give you a special pen, with one thick end for filling in Scantron bubbles and one thin end for the Writing section. There is correction tape (Wite-Out), but they don’t give each person their own. The TAs have it and you have to raise your hand for them to bring it to you.

Needless to say, I regretted coming instantly.

Part 1: Listening and writing

The test started off with the Listening section, which was really painful. The person in the recording spoke really slowly. They only play the recording once for most of the questions except where there is a pair of questions to answer for one scenario. The hardest part is maintaining your concentration and not drifting off while waiting for the person to hurry up and finish saying the goddam sentence. For a couple of the questions toward the end, it seemed like a couple of answers could have applied, as with any standardized test, but overall, it was really simple.

The test moves straight into the Writing section. There are a couple fill-in-the-blank questions to start off and then a short essay (maybe 200-300 characters) and a long essay (maybe 600-700 characters). The task of the short essay was to write a summary of a pie chart on high school students’ breakfast-eating habits. The topic of the long essay was the value, methods, and benefits of volunteer work.

I got too cocky during this section. I looked at the clock after I finished the short essay, and I had thirty-five minutes to spare. They didn’t give us any scratch paper so I started brainstorming and outlining in my head, which was a waste of time. I looked at the clock again and I had twenty minutes left so I started writing as fast as I could. With time running out, I abandoned any kind of outline I had and started jotting down whatever popped into my head, repeating the same things over and over just to make the 600 character mark. When we handed in our test sheets, I got a glimpse of other people’s papers. At least one person didn’t even try to write the long essay. But I had one of those moments where you see that other people’s papers are drastically different and wonder if you did something wrong. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I did poorly. But I thought it was at least worth a B-, definitely not an F.

Break time

As they were collecting our answer sheets, the proctor dropped the bomb.

“You can’t leave the building during the break time. For those of you who smoke, just hold on until the test is over.”


It was just cruel. The break time was between sections so it’s not like we could do anything outside other than smoke. I walked out of the classroom and toward the elevators, where there were long lines to use the bathroom. Having nothing to do, I climbed all of the stairs, checking on each floor to see if there were any smoking rooms, and I made it all the way to the top floor, hoping to at least get on the roof, only to find signs on the door saying that alarms would go off if the doors were opened. Dejected and out of breath, I went back down. I bought a cup of vending machine coffee, took a piss, returned to the classroom, rested my head on my arms, and tried to take a quick nap.

Part 2: Reading

The final section, Reading, was 70 minutes long. It was too long. If you can read practically anything in Korean, it shouldn’t be a problem. My Korean reading speed is nowhere near my English reading speed, but the passages are straightforward and the choices are not that difficult. Wishing that I could leave early but knowing that they wouldn’t let me, I took a nap for the last half hour.


The test is not difficult, but it is frustrating in its procedures. Play to your strengths because you can still pass level 5 even if you skip one complete section. The Writing section is really the only section for which time is a factor so make sure you save plenty of time for the long essay. Unless you’re taking the test with a friend, bring along a crossword puzzle, a book to read, or a small pillow because there is nothing to do during the break except piss, shit, or nap. If you smoke, buy some nicotine patches or bring an e-cigarette and find a bathroom out of the way. And don’t drink too much water before the test or you’re going to have a bad time.

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