“Am I actually making any progress?”
It’s a thought that lingers in the back of any language learner’s mind. Unless we look hard, it’s sometimes difficult to see language progress in our day-to-day lives.
Enter proficiency exams.
They are an official way to gauge language skills. It doesn’t matter if you want to work at a foreign company, go to school overseas, or just prove to yourself where your skills are. Proficiency exams are a great way to find out, but don’t go in blind.
The first time I took a proficiency exam I had no idea what I was doing. In addition to the stakes being high (yay Bachelor’s Degree), I honestly didn’t know what to expect. The entire ordeal had me so stressed that by the time it was over I contemplated throwing myself into Lake Michigan.
Fortunately, it went well. I had been going to see a private tutor to bring me up to speed, so I totally passed with good scores. Booyah.
…Except that was only the B1 exam and I needed a B2 level to get my degree. Cue the internal screaming. There was no way I was going through that disaster again.
The second time around I sat down and created a plan. I gathered my resources and kept myself on a strict schedule. It might all seem like common sense, but I wish I’d had something laid out for me back when I was a newbie in the proficiency exam game.
Lucky for you, I’m here to help you avoid a major meltdown. This language exam guide will help you plan out your path to passing your proficiency exam from start to finish, regardless of which language you’re learning.
Most of the examples will reference the Goethe Institute, so if you’re learning German specifically, you’ll find quite a few helpful links in this post. 🙂
So, grab your Preparation Packet below and let’s get started!
Assess your language level
You won’t know where to start if you don’t know where you’re at. The first thing you should do is assess your language level.
This is most likely the easiest option. Sites like Transparent.com offer “placement tests” that give a general overview of your current level. Keep in mind that these are broad results based on the material for these specific sites’ programs. But it is great for a quick glance at what you know.
In that same vein, check to see if the administering institution has an online level test.
You can also try to take “In-House” placement tests at the institution administering the exam. Using the Goethe Institute as an example again, they provide their placement tests to help you decide which level class to take. However, taking the class isn’t mandatory, and the results come back quickly. Use your scores as a baseline for your study!
Do Your Research
What are the institutions that are licensed to administer the exam you want to take? Where are they located? Do all of them even offer the exam level you want to take? There’s a lot to get together before you’re running off to demonstrate your linguistic prowess.
Dates: Some tests take place once a year while others are offered year-round. Make sure you know when the exam is. You might find that you want to pass and wait for the next time around.
Cost: Cost can vary with the level of the exam. If you need time to save up for the exam or borrow the money, you’ll need to know how much.
Location: While some proficiency exams are tied to specific institutions (Goethe Institute), some are just administered by general local organizations. For example, the TOPIK here in Chicago is taken at different schools or one of the cultural centers.
Free Practice Materials
There are many sites that offer free testing materials in the way of old tests or mock tests. Practicing taking an exam in the exact same format as the actual exam will make you more comfortable with the process. Sometimes the institutions will have free mock tests available!
Goethe Institute Practice Tests – Online Practice Exams for all levels currently offered at the Goethe Institute.
Goethe Institute Study Materials – Various tutorials, videos, quizzes and more all free of charge!
Consider finding a language exchange partner through a site like Meetup or language exchange, especially to practice skills such as listening and speaking. Make sure you’re upfront about your language level and what you’re expecting out of the exchange. I’ve seen many exchanges go sour because one party was looking for a future friendship and the other just needed a passing grade.
Paid Practice Materials
So. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m obsessed with textbooks. I prefer to solo study, meaning a good textbook is a must. However, don’t think you have to go out and spend a ton of money just to prep for your exam. Be sure to check your local library first!
As always, read reviews. Just because one person likes a book doesn’t mean it’s right for you or your learning style. Shop around. While you’re looking, ideally you’ll choose materials that target the big four specific areas: reading, listening, writing, and reading.
For exam study purposes, these are best used in conjunction with a native speaker who can help correct your mistakes, as well as provided guided feedback. Which brings us to:
One-On-One with Native Speaker
Go to a site like Verbling or italki and search for a teacher who has classes geared toward preparing for your exam!
Starting Your study
Choose the best date for your exam
Some tests are administered multiple times a year. Some you only get one chance a year.
For the most comfortable experience, I would personally advise no less than 4 months of study time before sitting an exam. This will obviously differ from person to person. For one, it depends on how long you’ve been learning the language and how much of a foundation you have. Sitting an A2 level test is going to require a different mindset from sitting a B2.
It also depends on how experienced you are as a language learner. If this is not your first time at the rodeo studying a language (third or fourth language for example), you may need less prep time.
Make a Timeline
I’m going to share with you my personal study timeline! Given a 4-5 month study schedule, here’s how I operate:
Month 1: Review general grammar and vocabulary in your language. Go through previous exams if available. Try to concentrate on topics you know will be on it. Start with the absolute basics and make sure you have a good grasp on the base of your language.
Month 2: Continue to work on the exam topics. Try to add in lessons tailored to passing the exam in question. This can be online tutoring or even face to face.
Month 3: Start taking untimed practice tests every other week, taking note of your weak areas and focusing on these topics heavily during your study. For example, maybe you’re not good with past tense. Maybe you haven’t quite grasped the concept of modal verbs. If possible, work with a tutor on your weak areas specifically.
Month 4 (5): Switch to taking timed practice exams to familiarize yourself with the test-taking environment. Be honest with your time.
Taking the Test
- The most important thing is…relax! Don’t try to cram in anymore studying. You’ll just overload your brain and stress yourself out.
- Make sure you go to bed at a reasonable time. You want to wake up on time as well as get a full 8 hours of sleep.
- Make sure you have any extras you need (directions to the institution, pencil/pen, snacks if allowed).
- Woosa! Take a few deep breaths. You’ll be ok, I promise.
- During your test break, if allowed, try to have your snack and something to drink. Stretch a little too.
- Again, don’t try to cram! Don’t invite unnecessary stress.
- If there are other people there, get to know your peers. It helps to relieve some of the nervousness when you know someone else is going through the same thoughts as you!
After the Test
- Celebrate! You’ve done your best and worked very hard. Now everything is all done and all that’s left is waiting for the results.
- Don’t obsess over said results. At this point you can’t do anything to change the past so, Hakuna Matata. Go out and get yourself something nice Instead!
Don’t forget to download your Proficiency Exam Preparation Packet!
Are you planning to take a proficiency exam this year? If so which one?