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How I Scored 91 on TOPIK 초급 (100 in Vocab/Grammar)


Let me begin with a disclaimer: I’m not out merely for a certification. I desire fluency. Therefore, the higher test scores I can get along my journey, the better I feel my progress is going.

This is how I achieved a very high Beginner TOPIK score:

  1. Choice of Correct Materials
  2. Individual Skill Practice
  3. Time

Choice of Correct Materials

While I have studied Korean a little bit previously, it wasn’t really until recently that I started focusing on it and trying to improve. I’ve lived in Korea now for 7 years, and I feel that my learning has gone a little something like this:


It’s true that once you reach a certain level in Korean (particularly as an English teacher where Korean ability is not required for a comfortable life here), it’s easy to just stop learning. Once you can carry out basic conversations and do and get what you want relatively easily, many people find little motivation to continue studying. And that’s where I was for years.

But when I finally decided that this was something I was going to do, I sat down with my wife and scoured dozens of Korean language books to find just the right ones to get going again. Here’s what we came up with:

Sogang University Compact Series 1
Sogang Uni Compact Series

This is a combination of the Sogang Series beginner books A and B (so it’s really two books in one). It is an excellent intro to all aspects of Korean that would make you comfortable living here.

This is the book we go over in our Beginner class.

Korean Grammar in Use: Beginner
TOPIK 초급 Grammar book

This book reviews the grammar points introduced in the Sogang series and adds about 100 more. It’s a wonderful in-depth look at all the basic Korean grammar that is covered in the TOPIK Levels 1 and 2.

This is the book we go over in Low Intermediate.

Complete Guide to the TOPIK: Basic
Beginner TOPIK Prep Guide

After completing the first two books, this guide to the test is key. It’ll help you learn the question types and get a feel for the flow of the organization, pacing, and content of the test.

This is the immediate follow-up to Low Intermediate and the book we study just before taking the TOPIK. Contact us for more details.

After all is said and done, I definitely feel as though I’ve learned about as much in the last six months as I’ve learned in the first 2 years I was in Korea. Using proper materials is the first key toward TOPIK success.

Individual Skill Practice

As any TOPIK student knows, the test is divided into 4 parts:

  1. Vocabulary and Grammar (어휘 & 문법)
  2. Writing (쓰기)
  3. Listening (듣기)
  4. Reading (읽기)

Here are the steps I took to improve each of these parts of my test:

1. Vocabulary and Grammar (어휘 & 문법)
2. Writing (쓰기)
3. Listening (듣기)
  • I tried to watch more TV and speak to more people.
  • I practiced the TOPIK Listening from previous tests and in the test prep book. I did my best to take notes during the listening (all in Korean) and even tried to write down the entire phrase or conversation when possible. Sometimes that required more listening but it also helped me notice small parts that I would have otherwise missed.
4. Reading (읽기)
  • I did read a good deal of children’s books to my son during this period, so it helped my reading improve.
  • But I noticed that what REALLY helped my reading improve was doing as many practice tests as possible in the Android and iPhone versions of the TOPIK One app. That app is hands down the best investment you’ll make in approaching TOPIK.


Finally, the most important resource you need to get a high score is time. I’ve been in Korea for over 7 years now (albeit studying hard for only about 2), but time and repetition are huge factors in solidifying Korean in your brain.

Peter’s Example

There is one notable exception to this that comes to mind however. One of our previous students (Peter) approached us with relatively low Korean skills around March or April. He said he just wanted to learn enough to pass the TOPIK Level 1. Yet, he recently received his scores and found he passed with a HIGH Level 2! 


I have to give him props because he put in a lot of time daily (1-2 hours) to be sure that he would go into the test with confidence.

So, how are you preparing for TOPIK?

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19 thoughts

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience! I want to prepare for TOPIK, and I’m studying Korean level 3 in an institute.
    Since I’m the worst student in class in terms of skills, I can’t add anything. However, since my classmates are usually kids and hangout together a lot, I can say that vocabulary is the main thing. Everything else comes with studying. Vocab comes by memorizing. It’s the only element that should be reviewed periodically.

    1. I definitely agree that vocabulary is one of the main keys to review every once in a while. However, I also find that I have to constantly review grammar rules. There are around 120 rules in each of the Korean Grammar in Use books (so over 350 total!) and I just can’t seem to remember the difference between some of them sometimes – especially when they are related and used in similar contexts – like 잖아요 and 거든요. So, I often find myself needing to review the grammar as well as the vocab.

      I’ve found that doing extensive reading (like books and TTMIK’s Iyagi series) is most helpful for me to review and learn new vocabulary. And extensive writing (like keeping a Korean journal and attempting TOPIK writing prompts) is best for me to review and use various grammar points.

      Good luck to you in your studies!~ Let me know what kinds of things have helped you out the most!

  2. I’m really curious how come it took 7 years for beginner level?

    Your advice is really good and comprehensive, but as for the results I know people (non-Chinese/Japanese) who passed TOPIK 3 after only 1 year in Korea.
    Maybe passing a higher level would be a better advertisement for your website.

    That being said, I absolutely love your articles and resources.

    1. In order to understand why it took 7 years to pass TOPIK Level 2, you’d need to understand what the situation is like for native English teachers here (because that’s what I’ve been for the past 8 years).

      1. Upon arrival in the country, most native English teachers have no knowledge of Korea, nor the alphabet, and have never heard any of the syllables pronounced at any point in their lives.
      2. We are contracted to teach English ONLY, and honestly a good majority of schools frown upon our efforts to learn any Korean from our students or practice anything in the classroom. We are even told (in some situations) to assign the students English names and use those exclusively. It’s supposed to aid our memorization of student names, but it has a secondary consequence as well – we hardly practice Hangul or Korean names and can’t usually even tell the difference between boys’ and girls’ names.
      3. Living in Korea WITHOUT speaking Korean is actually quite easy given the “English mania” that is sweeping the country. MOST of my English teaching co-workers have WORSE Korean skills than me and some have been in the country TWICE as long!
      4. After putting in a full day’s work (yes, sometimes only 4 hours teaching, but often 8 hours or MORE in the office preparing and grading), it’s difficult to return home at night and study Korean. Most people just want to go out with their friends and grab a beer and a bite to eat. Simply working is exhausting. To try to study on top of that is crazy to some people. We are NOT full-time students with the time and desire to study after all. We are primarily employees, just trying to earn a living. (Now it’s much easier to understand why some Hispanics can live in the US for years and never learn English – the same is true for Westerners in Korea.)
      5. The general atmosphere here in Korea is that Westerners are NOT expected to learn Korean. The community is such that it is hardly even encouraged as well. Employers say, “Don’t speak Korean” which turns us off to the language in the first place. And when we attempt to order food IN Korean, many people respond to us IN English, which further de-motivates us. Add to that that going out with friends – even with the purpose of practicing Korean – often turns into more of them practicing English than we practicing Korean.

      All in all, it is VERY difficult to be employed as a full-time English teacher in Korea and still learn Korean in your off time. Another big reason why it takes so long and most people don’t is: they have no purpose TO study, and also, they often don’t find Korean appealing as a language to learn – at least, not as appealing as Japanese, or Chinese, or French, or Spanish. “What good will Korean do in the future?” they wonder, “I’m only planning to stay for one year.” (But, actually, the “one year” often becomes “ten years” but the attitude never changes. “Oh, just one MORE year. No use to study Korean just for ONE year.”)

      The Primary motivation and goal of this blog is to document my personal progress as I achieve higher and higher levels of Korean proficiency. The secondary purpose of this blog is to motivate and assist other people who find themselves in a similar situation (and with a similar attitude) as mine.

      Glad I can help as much as I can! Please, look forward to the upcoming months. I’m hoping to get back on track and take this blog in a slightly different direction as we roll around into 2015!~~

      1. I really agree with you! That’s exactly how I feel when I’m learning Korean. Plus, I don’t really need to study Korean for my work and I don’t even live in Korea. I think a language learning journey shouldn’t be evaluated by how many years taken, as the journey is a lifetime journey anyway! Thanks for sharing and I really appreciate it.

          1. I’ve been in Korea close to 8 years as well, and am also married with a child. When you filter in all of those factors on top of the ones you have mentioned, I really do understand why it takes so long to improve. I’m working at a level 2 now (based on past tests taken online) and have to get up to a level 3 to start my masters degree next March.
            It’s a mammoth task to achieve, but I know that sometimes you have to just knuckle down and get on with it.
            Thanks for your article, I enjoyed reading it.

          2. Sure thing. Nice to hear from someone in a similar situation. Honestly, the one thing recently that I think has helped me the most has been learning the “right way” to study vocab with homemade flashcards (I’d never used flashcards before). It is a time-consuming task to continually make 30 cards per day (around 1-1.5 hours), but I’ve now studied and reviewed over 600 new words since the beginning of July. I’d encourage you to try it out (click the previous link).

            By the way, where are you going to be doing your Masters? Which major?

  3. I plan to take Topik I this year. Do you think studying the materials you recommended, at least 1.5 hours daily will prepare me enough to take the exam? I am also working full time and can’t attend formal classes because of work…. after seeing the scope of Topik I, I got really worried if I will pass..

    1. Ultimately, whether you take a class or not, the majority of your effort will need to be SELF effort anyway. The teacher is only there to guide you in the best way to study, to make things clearer and easier, and to give you more opportunity to practice. But ultimately, the only learning that takes place is of your own accord, and you still have to do the homework on your own. I’d say, as long as you can make time for yourself to study (I wake up at 4 or 5am everyday to get in 3+ hours of work/study before my day job), and can find some way to get feedback (like a tutor, language partner on Skype, or the TOPIK One apps), then you’ll be able to adequately prepare yourself for the TOPIK.

      If you can work on it long enough to eventually get to the point where you can make it through a previous TOPIK test on the TOPIK One app with 90% accuracy, then you’ll ace the TOPIK when you take it. That’s my current goal. To get to a place in my Korean where I can make it through any TOPIK One Intermediate test with 90% accuracy. I wish you luck with your studies!~

      1. Hi, This is a really great site and this gave me motivation and tips before passing Topik level 2. I agree that it is still seen as somewhat ‘unusual’ to speak korean as a foreigner and this can often lead to some strange interactions where you are speaking but some people aren’t really listening to what you say, and they simply respond with ‘Your korean is really good’.

        However I disagree that it is ‘very difficult’ to learn Korean in Korea. Korean is everywhere! You can read the signs on the street, listen to people’s conversations in coffee shops, in restaurants, on the street. If you have the passion to learn you can learn alot very quickly. This is how I passed level 2 with a good grade after just over 1 year of arriving here with zero Korean. I am also a teacher working all day everyday!

        1. Great job! Thanks for your story! I suppose part of my problem is that I’m very busy and PRACTICING Korean takes time and mental energy that I don’t often FEEL like I can afford to expend. However, I have been speaking often with my 2-year old almost completely in Korean, so I am improving gradually, though not as quickly as I’d like.

    1. Basically, fluency. And there are a few additional benefits at higher levels regarding immigration, getting a job, getting scholarships to study, gaining different VISAs (like permanent residency) and so on. Check out this post for details: TOPIK Leveling Up

  4. I´ll take TOPIK in exactly 2 weeks. I´m pretty nervous. I haven´t really learned(I´m a self learner). And I just studied Vocabulary all the time and no grammar so now I´m freaking out!!! I also use the sogang books, integrated korean, a german book for korean learners, 500 basic korean verbs and I have a lot of korean books and a korean child CD. but I feel like I won´t pass TOPIK. I have 2 days left to study because, I´ll have a lot of exams at school. But I hope that will teach me all the grammar I need and I´m also very very glad that I found your tips. Thank you sooooo much. I´ll try it all.
    (sry for my bad english I´m from Germany)

  5. Im actually still looking for ways to imorove my korean especially in the vocabulary part cause i studied grammar first from a website, not sure if i can mention hehehe ghanks for your advice, feling motivated again yey

    1. Glad to provide a little motivation. Honestly, the motivation part is the hardest for me to overcome when I study a language. That’s why much of this blog is designed to be “motivational.”

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