TOPIK Vocabulary: How to Learn Enough Korean Words Before The Exam

When preparing for the TOPIK exam, vocabulary is essential in order to get a good score.

The problem is, there are so many Korean words to study and memorize, ranging from the easy and most common ones to the most difficult and highly technical words. Given such a challenge, it’s easy to doubt yourself whether you’ll be ready for the test.

So what can we do with it?

Before you check another long list of Korean words (which is understandable), allow me to share with you how I would prepare my vocabulary for the TOPIK exam.

Although I’ve used some memory techniques such as spaced repetition and flashcards and active recall, this isn’t the post for teaching that. The emphasis is in preparing your vocabulary towards the TOPIK exam (I and II). After all, your score is the official measure of your ability that will be seen by other people, so we might as well prepare hard for it, right?

But first, let me remind you of something fundamental.

The Words You Know Are Enough

It can be tempting to cram on a vocabulary list, thinking you’ll be able to store them all in your head.

As much as I want to bring a huge stack of words to you, I want you to realize one important fact:

Your Korean words are enough.

However big (or small) of a word bank you think you have, I believe that you have enough words to take on the TOPIK exam.

As long as you continue adding vocabulary on a regular basis by way of studying or immersing, you will become better especially when the test date arrives.

I’m not suggesting that you should stop learning vocabulary, in fact I want you to continue doing it. Rather, it’s about taking on a mindset that you’re already starting from a good base of knowledge – all you’re doing is building on top of it.

And with such a good base, it’s your job to strengthen that base and to keep refreshing your words while also adding new ones along the way. After all, it matters that the words are internalized and not hard to recall DURING the exam.

With TOPIK being such an important exam wherein your score could be seen by the public, preparing for it will be slightly different unlike when learning on a typical day.

How to Prepare Your Word Bank for TOPIK: 5 Tips

That said, we’re going to prepare our vocab for the TOPIK exam. I said we, since I’m also taking the TOPIK exam to gauge my Korean level.

So how would I prepare my Korean vocabulary? I suggest these tips tailored specifically for the TOPIK exam.

1. Learn the Vocabulary of the TOPIK Test

When I first took the TOPIK test (TOPIK I) I was overwhelmed by all the unfamiliar words in the registration form as well as the paper during the exam. It felt like a hostile territory I shouldn’t be in, which added to my jitters before the exam.

The good thing was I studied the instructions and the type of questions that will appear in the exam, learning the essential vocabulary required to get through the test and answer correctly.

Terms such as:

  • 알맞은 – right, appropriate
  • 고르다 – select, choose
  • 밑줄 – underline
  • 부분 – part, section
  • 글 – piece of writing
  • 도표 – graph, diagram
  • 문장 – sentence
  • 물음 – question
  • 중심 생각 – central thought
  • 순서대로 – in proper order
  • 나열하다 – list, enumerate
  • And so on

When you have the time, it would be nice too if you can understand the entire registration form (this is optional). I may have been overwhelmed by the forms, but within me I feel the thrill of uncovering those hard vocabulary and add them to my bank.

2. Focus on the Most Common Words

Though cliché, it would be of great help to focus and refresh on the most commonly used words in Korean. If you have to master these words, then do so because they’re important.

The common words can usually be encountered in daily life situations, such as when traveling to work or buying groceries. Make sure that whatever you already know, they don’t get away from your head when it’s most needed – during the exam.

When you’re confident with the common words, then you can move on to the harder ones. This will usually depend whether you’re taking the TOPIK I or TOPIK II test, the latter being the one that’s more technical and involve more advanced vocabulary.

It will also help if you have a TOPIK level that you’re targeting, since this will limit the scope of vocabulary and grammar you need to learn.

3. Don’t Forget About Numbers

Numbers are not a big deal when you’re reading and writing it. But when it comes to the listening test, numbers are tricky and can be easy to miss out (therefore wasted points!)

Numbers are often hard to remember, especially for Korean which has two sets of numbers: Native and Sino-Korean. It could well be a practice drill session on its own!

While we’re at the topic of numbers, also take the time to learn the counters of objects, such as machines, books, and animals. If you memorize them, you’ll make it easier to understand the item being counted.

4. When Unknown Words Appear, Focus on the Context

Okay, this is not a tip for preparing for TOPIK, but a technique you do during the exam.

You see, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter difficult words. No matter how much vocabulary you’ve studied, sometimes there are words that are just out of reach.

But remember how I said that your Korean words are enough? This is where the advice can be beneficial.

The idea is to fill in the missing words by understanding the thought of the sentence. Or you can get hints from the sentences next to it, or from the diagram if it’s a reading test, or even from the multiple choice answers provided below.

That’s where your known vocabulary comes into rescue, since the more you know of it, the better you are at picking up the clues. Consider it as a “bonus” or a little reward for doing the upfront work of improving your vocabulary.

5. Start Earlier

No matter how much time you have left, you should take advantage of it. Even if tomorrow is your upcoming exam, you can still add in some words to your bank (hopefully it’s not tomorrow!)

Of course I won’t advise you to cram vocabulary, since majority of it will be forgotten the next day. The key is to have enough time for new words to sink into your memory as you study for the exam.

That said, this tip implies that the best time to act is NOW. Don’t put it off until tomorrow because there are so much words to learn and it takes time to internalize them. This is even more important if you’re aiming for the highest levels of TOPIK where you need to immerse in a lot of advanced vocabulary – it just takes a lot of time.

But when you’re really running short of time (which is understandable), simply prioritize words that are more useful for the test, such as the words used in the test questions and the most common words and numbers.

The more time you have (preferably months) the better the connections you can form in your brain when learning Korean words. And the more techniques you could experiment with for memorizing vocabulary (such as active recall and spaced repetition).

Use Your Words: They Will Get You Far

Your vocabulary is enough to navigate the TOPIK exam.

In time, your word bank will naturally get bigger and better as you continue learning Korean. The key is to be consistent with your study, even if it’s just one new word per day.

At the end of it all, once you get your TOPIK score, realize that you can always improve if you’re not satisfied with the result. Just repeat the cycle of preparing your words for the next exam, perhaps this time focusing on harder words. Or maybe next time focus on writing skills and take the TOPIK II test.

Learning Korean words is never a waste of time, whether there’s an exam or not. If you did make extra preparations because of the exam, such as discovering 100 new words, realize that those words will now stay with you forever, way beyond the exam date. You can now use them for other purposes such as for immersion or conversation with natives in the future.

So go ahead, start preparing and improving your Korean vocabulary. I’ll be resuming my preparations too.

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