There are many arguments for not taking the TOPIK exam – and it’s entirely possible that you may not need it. Let’s look at some reasons it could be unnecessary for you.
What’s in this post:
- What is TOPIK?
- Are you planning to move to South Korea?
- Are you applying to work for a Korean company?
- Do you want to attend a Korean university?
- Location, location, location (and cost)
- Other ways to track your progress
When I first started studying Korean, I learned about the TOPIK exam and immediately set a goal for myself to take the TOPIK I exam within a year. However, I quickly realized there are a lot of reasons to NOT take the TOPIK. Here are some insights to help you decide if the test is right for you or not.
NOT Taking the TOPIK Exam – how to decide if you need it or not
First of all, let’s go over one very important question:
What is the TOPIK Exam?
You can’t decide if not taking the TOPIK exam is the right choice until you know exactly what it is. TOPIK stands for Test of Proficiency in Korean. Most languages that you learn as a second (or third, or beyond) language will have some sort of proficiency test. In essence it measures your learning when it comes to your new language. For Korean, it’s the TOPIK exam.
There are two levels, TOPIK I and TOPIK II. Level one is beginner, whereas level two is lower intermediate to upper advanced. There’s a great breakdown of the two exams over at this site, but here’s the basic gist.
TOPIK I measures your listening comprehension and your reading comprehension. There are 30 questions in the listening section; you are able to hear the dialog twice for each question and you choose your answer. In the reading section there are 40 questions. After reading a sentence, paragraph, or story (they get progressively longer as you go), you answer the related question(s). They can be tricky sometimes – in some cases you are expected to choose the INCORRECT answer, so it’s important to read the instructions carefully.
NOTE – It seems obvious but it’s important to know the instructions, even for beginners, are written 100% in Korean. In addition, it is very formal language so make sure you are familiar with formal speech (your 입니다, 니까, etc).
You have 100 minutes to complete the exam. You are not penalized for incorrect answers.
TOPIK II also measures listening and reading comprehension (50 questions for each), but there is an additional writing section. The listening and reading work the same way as they do in TOPIK I; the writing section involves short-answer and essay writing. The exam is much longer, so there are two sessions. You do the listening and reading in the morning, have a short break, then do the writing in the afternoon. You have 180 minutes total to complete the exam, and again you are not penalized for incorrect answers.
NOTE: As of 2022 there will be a speaking section for TOPIK II as well, which makes sense to me. Are you truly fluent if you aren’t able to speak the language?
TOPIK I is divided into two beginner sections, level 1 and level 2. Your score will determine your proficiency level as a beginner. TOPIK II is divided into level 3 and 4 (Intermediate) and level 5 and 6 (Advanced).
TOPIK I is a total of 200 points. If you score 80, you pass level 1 and if you score 140, you pass level 2 and move on to TOPIK II.
TOPIK II is a total of 300 points. If you score 120, you pass level 3, 150 points means you pass level 4, 190 points means you pass level 5, and 230 points means you pass level 6. Level 6 is the highest, there is no further TOPIK to take after that, although your score is only valid for 2 years; if you are required to show proof of proficiency you will need to re-take it after 2 years have gone by.
Okay. Now you have an idea of what TOPIK is all about. So what are some reasons for NOT taking the TOPIK exam?
You’re not moving to South Korea
First of all it’s important to note something right away. Many people DO move to South Korea without a TOPIK score. In fact, many people move there to teach and don’t even know how to speak Korean at all beyond basic greetings and ordering food. I follow several YouTubers who teach English around the country and they have said it just isn’t necessary, especially in the larger cities such as Seoul, Incheon, and Busan.
However, if you do intend to move, having a TOPIK score can be handy. I’m not planning a move, as exciting as that might be. Because of that, I don’t know a lot about the requirements. I have heard, colloquially though, that having a TOPIK score – even just passing level 1 – can be favorable.
But if you aren’t planning on packing your bags and relocating to South Korea, then you may decide not to bother with TOPIK.
You’re not applying to a Korean company
If you are looking at applying to a Korean company, even if it’s in your own country, passing appropriate levels of TOPIK can be highly useful. It may even be a requirement.
I am not looking to apply for a job in a Korean company. I am happy with my current career path. The company I work for is international and it does have a presence in parts of Asia, but not South Korea. Therefore, there is no need for me to take the TOPIK even for the possibility of a role opening up where I am now.
If your plans don’t include seeking employment at a local branch of a Korean corporation, then not taking the TOPIK is probably a good choice for you.
You’re not applying to a Korean university
There are numerous universities in South Korea that offer Korean language programs. These are usually not degree-based. There are specific requirements to attend them, but a TOPIK score is not one of them.
On the other hand, you will probably need a TOPIK score if you are applying to a Korean university in a degree program where the instruction will be done in Korean. This is especially true if you are also planning to apply for any form of scholarship.
It makes sense when you think about it. Schools would want to be certain that they’re giving one of their spots or monetary awards to someone who has an adequate grasp of the language. Imagine your first day of your Psychology major when you realize you don’t understand Korean as well as you thought you did. That’s a waste of everyone’s time.
However, if you don’t expect to find yourself applying to Seoul or Yonsei University for a degree, you can pass on the TOPIK.
Consider test locations and associated costs
The TOPIK exam is not something you can take just anywhere, and it definitely can’t be taken online. There are specific dates and locations where you can register to take it. There are six times per year when you can register – one is in Korea only, and the other times it is in Korea and various international cities.
In international countries, the Korean Embassy or the country’s Korean Cultural Center administers the exam. What does that mean for you?
Well, depending on where you live, you may have to travel a long distance to get there. For example, I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. That’s right on the Atlantic coast of the country. Sadly, there’s no embassy or KCC here. The closest location for me to take the TOPIK is in Toronto, Ontario, which is closer to the middle of the country.
Not so cost-effective breakdown for me:
While the test itself is pretty affordable (currently it would cost me $40 CDN for TOPIK I or $50CDN for TOPIK II), I would have to consider the following costs as well:
- Airfare – that alone could run me several hundred dollars if I get a good deal
- Hotel – it’s unlikely that I would be able to fly in, take the test, and fly home all in the same day (plus I’d be stressed about delays causing me to miss the test altogether!). That means I’d have to book a hotel room for at least one night if not two.
- Food – I’d also have to set aside money to cover the costs of food during my multi-day stay
Maybe if I was taking a vacation to Toronto anyway, it could be scheduled around test dates. Otherwise, it’s a lot of money to spend for an exam I don’t really require. If you also don’t have a real need for it, the cost of traveling to a test location could be a strong argument for not taking the TOPIK.
Oh my nerves!
I don’t know how you feel about them, but I am a nervous test-taker. It doesn’t matter how well I know the material or how much I’ve studied. Regardless of whether it’s a quiz, a test, or an exam, I get very anxious beforehand. When I did my final exam for my first semester of my Korean class, my stomach felt like it would crawl up into my throat.
I had no choice but to push through the nerves when I was in school. I don’t have a choice about doing work-related mandatory skill tests annually. My Korean class is strictly for my own enjoyment, but I had weekly quizzes, unit tests, and a final exam.
I get stressed every single time. Without fail.
When I consider the fact that I do not have any real reason to take the TOPIK, and then I consider the stress… Well. I definitely don’t want to subject myself to high anxiety just to take an exam I don’t need!
Okay, so how else can you track your progress?
It’s important to remember that the TOPIK – while widely recognized – is not the only measuring tool when learning Korean. At the end of the day it’s a standardized test. Many people that take it admit that what the TOPIK measures best is your ability to take a test.
(That’s also good to keep in mind if you do take it and don’t score as well as you’d like. It doesn’t automatically mean you’re bad at Korean. You may just struggle with this type of testing.)
Another fun fact – native Korean speakers have ALSO found the test difficult. See?
All of this means there are many OTHER ways to check your own progress. Here are a few ideas.
Old TOPIK Exams
Did you really, really want to take the TOPIK anyway and just couldn’t justify it? Here’s some good news! You can take old TOPIK exams and see your score. The side I linked to earlier, TOPIK Guide, has a lot of old exams on their site. You can take them here according to your current level. If you’re just starting out, take TOPIK I to see how you do.
They run exactly the same way they would if you took the latest official TOPIK exam. You will hear the audio twice and you will be timed on each section. The only thing you can’t do on the old exams is the written portion. However, there are options for that too (see next section).
I use these old tests for practice regularly. They’re free, I can do them at home, and they’re way less stressful than a real exam!
Work with a tutor
The site iTalki is a popular tutoring site with a large selection of languages and instructors. If you want to measure your progress, consider working one on one with a Korean tutor. Having regular conversations and/or homework with your tutor is a fantastic gauge to see how you’re moving forward in your studies. You’ll probably be able to tell that you’re improving; if not, your tutor can tell you!
This is also a great way to get writing practice. The old TOPIK tests do not allow you to complete the writing section. Unlike the reading and listening comprehension, the writing portion requires a human to correct it. However, if you’re working with a tutor, you can discuss the option of sending them short essays. It’s an excellent option for feedback on how your spelling and grammar are coming along.
Take a class
I signed up for a beginner level class in the Fall 2021 semester at the Korean Education Center in Canada. It’s not necessarily the path everyone wants to choose, but it worked well for me. I enjoyed the structure of a 15 week course. I also found the feedback of a live teacher very valuable. Meanwhile, my mildly competitive side found that having other classmates made me work harder; I didn’t want to fall behind! If you function in a similar way, a course may be a great option for you too.
Being in a class provided me with useful measurement tools. There were weekly quizzes at the end of each lesson, as well as unit tests. Seeing my score helped me to see where I was doing well and where I needed more work. The final exam was motivational, if stressful. Bonus – my school uses old TOPIK tests for the final exams so even though it wasn’t official, I got the score I would have received if I had been taking it formally.
We also needed to submit a final video project. The goal was to use at least ten grammar points covered in the semester. While we weren’t graded, our teacher provided feedback. She told me my grammar use and pronunciation were very good. This was very rewarding and told me I was on the right track.
There are a variety of classes you can take. You can find in-person options (if you’re comfortable with that), or online with teachers. There are also self-led options like Coursera and Talk To Me In Korean. You can read more about these and other suggestions on my list of places to learn Korean for free.
Listen and measure yourself
If you are a fan of K-Pop music (I am! You can tell by my massive master playlist over here!) you will slowly start to notice you are recognizing more and more words in the song lyrics. You may not be able to understand an entire verse or even a line. But perhaps you suddenly realize you know that word means love. And that word means suddenly. And those three words mean one, two, three. As time goes by, this will happen more and more often.
The same goes for watching K-dramas or Korean movies. Yes, you can read the sub-titles, and if you’re a beginner I recommend using them. At a beginner level, there’s just too much vocabulary that’s unfamiliar. But even with the captions you’ll notice you know WHICH words match the ones you’re reading. You may even start to understand some full lines of dialog.
When I was watching Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha (one of my faves!), two characters had the following exchange :
“갑자기? 지금 베고파?”
Even without the captions I knew what it meant. The first person said, “I’m hungry.” The second said, “Suddenly? Now you’re hungry?”
I have to warn you – it’s very exciting when this happens. Don’t be surprised if you freak out when you start to piece together dialog. And don’t downplay it. It IS a big deal. Enjoy it!
(I was in the kitchen when I heard a character in Squid Game say, “돈이 없어요” and I literally screamed, “that means I have no money.” My family was alarmed.)
Making your choice
When you are asking yourself if not taking the TOPIK is the better choice, you should consider the factors I’ve listed above. For me, it was easy. Because of those reasons, I simply don’t need it. I am very passionate about the challenge and joy of learning Korean. Passion is actually my primary driving factor in my journey. Beyond that, I have no need to measure my learning with a standardized test like TOPIK.
Maybe some day I will change my mind. You never know when an opportunity will come up. Maybe in five years, the company I work for will have a presence in South Korea. At that time, maybe it would make sense for me to go to Toronto to take the TOPIK.
However, for now I’m happy to just keep studying for my own joy and personal milestones. Seeing my improvements with other measurements is more than good enough for me.
How about you?
Are you going to take the TOPIK some day? Or is not taking the TOPIK better for you and your goals? Let me know!
(And if you still plan to take it in the future but you’re just getting started, check out my list of resources for learning Korean for free.)