HSK Test on Paper VS Computer: What Should You Choose? (Comparison + Advice)

HSK on paper or computer

HSK tests can be taken either on paper or computer. When you sign up for an HSK test, you have to make a choice. So which is better for you?  

I’ve been studying Chinese for a couple of years and have taken HSK tests 4 times. It’s been a great way to keep myself motivated and gauge my progress. And as someone who’s taken the tests in both paper and computer formats, my stance is that you should choose to take HSK test on computer over paper as long as you have the option, especially if you are signing up for HSK3-6.

That said, there are some considerations you need to take into account. I’ll get to that in a second, but first I want to make sure you know exactly what the paper test and computer test are:

Paper-based HSK Test
You will be required to sit at a desk with the question papers and answer sheets for the listening, reading, writing sections (level 3-6 only) in an official HSK test center. You will need to write your answers in either 2B-pencil or pen.

Computer-based HSK Test (also known as Internet-based HSK Test)
You will be required to sit the listening, reading, writing tests (level 3-6 only) in front of a computer with the questions presented on the screen in an official HSK test center. The computer is connected to Hanban servers that administer the test. You will need to submit your answers through the use of a keyboard and a mouse.

For both formats, you need to go to an official HSK test center. Though the name “computer-based” may suggest it, there is no way you can take the HSK test on your own computer at home.

internet-based HSK

HSK on Paper VS Computer in Detail

Now I’ll explain why I would choose the computer-based HSK (internet-based) over the paper-based HSK.

Flexibility to Register

If you want to take the traditional paper-based HSK test, you must register at least 4 weeks before the test date you choose. It does not give you much flexibility. If you don’t plan well ahead of time, you could easily miss the registration deadline and end up waiting for another month.  

And if you are working on a rigid, intensive study schedule, 4 weeks could make a huge difference. Most people can progress to the next level, from HSK1 to HSK2, or HSK2 to HSK3, for instance. Thus, taking the HSK test below your actual skill level – only because you already signed up 4 weeks ago – would be less meaningful. You can just skip it for a higher-level test. 

The computer-based HSK test, however, allows you to register just 10 days before the test date. To me, 10 days is perfect. It gives me ample time to do warm-up practices for the upcoming test, yet it’s not too long a gap for me to lose motivation and focus.

Besides, there are more test dates for the computer-based HSK every year. Take 2020 for example, there are 14 test dates for the computer test, while there are only 12 for the paper one.  

Waiting Time for Test Results 

Have you ever been flooded with feelings of anxiety, doubt and worry waiting for test results, especially when you need them urgently for work or further study? It plagued my mind that I had to wait an entire month for the score release the first time I took the HSK.

wait for HSK test results

Unfortunately, that’s still the time you need to wait to get your results if you opt for the paper-based HSK test. 

Now the big improvement that the computer-based HSK has over the paper-based one is that you get your results in just 2 weeks – half of how long it takes with the paper test. It spares you two weeks’ anxiety and allows you to concentrate on other work. For that, I’ll give an extra point to the computer test.

Handwriting VS Typing Characters

If you are signing up for HSK1 or HSK2, honestly it won’t matter. Tests at these two basic levels consist solely of multiple choices and don’t involve any writing task. In fact, you don’t even have to know any Chinese characters to ace the tests, as all questions and choices are presented along with Pinyin.

However, on HSK3-6, writing becomes a key component, rounding to 1/3 of the overall test score (100/300). Take the HSK5 writing section, for example, you are required to write 8 sentences and 2 essays, each over 80 characters, in under 40 minutes. And on the HSK6 test, you need to write a long passage with a minimum of 400 characters in under 35 minutes.  

Now, ask yourself this: When was the last time you wrote anything in Chinese on paper?

For me, it was 2 months ago. I wrote a birthday card to my Chinese colleague, and that’s all I can recall. It’s a simple fact: with the presence of smartphones and computers everywhere, we don’t write by hand anymore, in the modern era.  

writing characters by hand

On our path to learning Chinese, most of us learned to recognize, read and type characters, but few of us ever bothered to take time practicing handwriting. I consider myself an advanced Chinese learner (passed HSK6). I have no problem forming complicated sentences and structuring paragraphs. However, I still struggle to write Chinese on paper. The minute I pick up my pen, even the most common characters – their radicals, components, strokes, and everything often start blurring in my brain, and I have to pause from time to time for look-ups. When I have to write for more than 15 minutes, another distraction appears – my hand starts to feel heavy and tired.

What about you? Is your handwriting on par with your typing skills? Can you write 15+ characters per minute accurately? Can you do that for half an hour without a break? What about during a test?

If the answer is negative, go with the computer test. It converts the writing section into a much easier typing section, where you can just use Pinyin input system to select the characters on screen instead of having to write them down stroke by stroke, and when you type words containing multiple characters, you rarely need to distinguish between individual characters in detail; the computer makes the right choices for you. Plus, typing is faster. It gives you extra time to analyze the questions and plan your answers.

Oh, right, if your handwriting is clumsy like this

…don’t take the paper test, even if you are confident that you’ll be able to write great stuff with excellent wording and textbook grammar.

Though Hanban, the HSK test administer, never set handwriting as one of its scoring criteria officially, HSK examiners can be very subjective when they score the writing tests. Amateurish, child-like handwriting reflects badly on your Chinese skills to examiners. If you make a wrong first impression, you might lose some points already before they read your passage. (On the other hand, if your handwriting looks good on the paper test, you might get a higher score.)

Correcting and Rewriting

For the same reason stated above, you should try to keep your test paper clean and neat.

But let’s say you take the paper test, what happens when you realize you’ve made some writing mistakes and want to fix them? Or you need to rewrite some sentences or restructure paragraphs? There is certainly no backspace or cursor for you to add a word here or there. You have to cross them out and write again in the space left, and that can easily make your paper look like a mess.

This problem can be thrown out the window in the computer-based test. You can just clear, copy and paste like how you edit in a Word document. And that keeps your test paper spotlessly clean.

Test Environment

In the paper-based test, the listening section is usually put on external speakers while in the computer-based test, it’s through headphones (the computers have headphones, and you are allowed to bring your own ones).

The problem with speakers is that you have an entire testing room that can affect the sound (the sound bounces around in the room before you hear it) whereas headphones are just right there by your ear canals. That makes headphones the better choice since the room barely affects it past ambient noise.

It’s worth noting that if there is a crowd taking the computer-based test with you, the keyboard hit sound can get quite loud, and you may find that a distraction in later sections when you want to focus on reading and writing.

I’ll let you in on a little tip: keep wearing the headphones as earmuffs. It will block out most of the noise and help you concentrate. If you have noise-canceling headphones, it’s a good idea to bring them to the test.

bring your headphones for internet-based HSK

Now, as I mentioned earlier, the computer-based HSK test is not necessarily the best choice for all people. Lets take a look at the cons.

Note-Taking

This is where the decision might flip for some test-takers. Taking effective notes during tests can help you answer questions faster and more accurately. I encourage you to do so on every section of the HSK test – Listening, Reading, and Writing. Unfortunately, this is only possible when you sign up for the paper-based HSK test. The computer version is totally paperless – no scratch paper will be provided to test-takers, and you won’t be able to take notes on computer tests at the moment.  

So, if you are a die-hard note-taking fan, you might want to stick to the paper-based test.

Section Locking

This is another downside to the computer-based test. On the traditional paper-pencil test, you can allot your time freely to different sections (listening, reading and writing). This is very useful if you are slow in reading or writing and need more time for those sections.

However, on the computer-based test, even if you find one section a breeze and finish it earlier than the official allotted time, you won’t be able to skip to the next section until the allocated time has expired. You have no choice but to sit through that section until the timer expires on your computer. This can be frustrating if you know you need more time to complete other sections.

Accessibility to Test Centers

This can be your major consideration – not all HSK test centers are equipped adequately to conduct the computer-based tests. Depending on where you live, you may find it easy or difficult to find a test center near you that offers this option.

For instance, if you live in China, you can take the computer-based test at almost any of the official HSK test centers across the country. In fact, more test centers offer the computer test (220 centers) than the paper test (202 centers).

The situation differs outside of China. In the USA, 53 out of 97 HSK test centers offer the computer-based test, whereas in the UK, the figure drops to 6 out of 21, and in Spain, 3 out of 13 only.

In case your nearby test center does not offer the computer test option, you will have to travel to another city to take the exam, so be prepared for the logistics it’s going to involve.

The Final Choice

Of course the final choice, in your case, is yours. Some people just feel more comfortable taking a test with paper and pencil, than gazing at a computer. If that works for you, then I encourage you to do it.

In case you are wondering, universities and employers in China don’t have any preference in which format that applicants take the HSK, and you can crush the test with flying colors in either format. After all, it is your Chinese skills that decide your results in an HSK test, not keyboard, nor pen.

To me, I think the pros of the computer-based test outweigh the cons overall. If you are more accustomed to typing than writing by hand, then I suggest you take the computer-based HSK test, if your nearby test center offers the option.


Frequently Asked Questions

1. Can I take a half paper, half computer-based test? 

No, you have to choose between paper and computer at the time of signing up for an HSK test.

2. Is the computer-based HSK test easier or more difficult? 

The computer-based HSK test is identical to the paper-based HSK test in terms of difficulty level, test content and scoring criteria. The only difference is that the questions are presented on the screen and you are required to submit answers through the use of a keyboard and a mouse. 

3. Is the computer-based HSK test more expensive than the paper-based HSK test?

The test fees for the computer-based and the paper-based HSK are the same at any test center in China, and it’s supposed to be the same outside of China too. However, some test centers abroad use their own pricing and may charge a bit more for the computer version.

4. Is the computer-based HSK scored by computer or examiner?

The Listening, Reading sections are scored by computer. The Writing (level 3-6) section is scored by certified HSK examiners. Identical scoring criteria are applied to computer and paper tests. 

5. What if I can’t type fast in Chinese? 

It may differ from individual to individual, but I find it easier to train myself to type fast than write fast. However, if you are still not able to type up to 15 characters per minute after training, or have a condition that makes it hard for you to use a computer keyboard and mouse, stick with the paper test. 

6. What happens if the computer crashes during my test?

Since computers for internet-based test purposes are regularly maintained and tested, crash rarely occurs. On the off chance that it does happen, stay calm, consult with your test proctor and seek the possibility of lengthening the testing time. If she cannot fix the problem promptly, ask for a rearrangement of the test. According to the Hanban website, they can rearrange a test soon at no additional cost if some technical problems occur during the test. 

Personally, I wouldn’t worry too much. All equipment functioned well during the 3 times I took the computer-based test, but on one test, the girl sitting in front of me kicked off the power cord accidentally and had to reboot her computer. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake.