Em in Asia!

My Experiences Living and Teaching in South Korea

On the TOPIK and Being Okay with Failure

May31

I failed the Intermediate Topik again.

I took the test in April, and have been anxiously awaiting the results ever since. The results came out yesterday at 3 and I ran up to my co-teacher’s office to use her computer because mine was too slow. The score finally came up, right as the bell signifying the next period rang. 불합격. I had failed. The tightness in my chest I had felt while waiting for the test results further constricted, and surprisingly I found myself struggling to hold back tears. My co-teacher looked at me, concerned, and I left to go teach.

I have spent the last three years “studying” Korean, but to be honest with myself I have spent only the last year and a half intensively studying Korean. I’ve done classes, private lessons, and studied on my own. My focus ever since I submitted my graduate school applications has been the TOPIK, and I’ve given up a lot of other extracurricular activities to further focus on studying for this test. However, according to the Korean government I’m not good enough at Korean to be considered an intermediate speaker – I’m just a beginner.

This is obviously just me feeling sorry for myself, as I’m not a beginner by any stretch of the imagination, but I spent most of yesterday down in the dumps. You see – I didn’t expect a failing grade, I actually thought I would pass.

In order to pass the Intermediate TOPIK with a score of 3 you have to get a 50% on all 4 sections, the grammar/vocabulary, writing, reading, and listening. In order to receive a score of 4, you have to get a 70% on all of the sections. A 50% is pretty low, so even if you feel like you failed the test, there’s a chance you passed it. I had taken the TOPIK once before and had failed it then, so when I left the building this time around I felt much better, and it turns out I should have. I got a 70% on grammar/vocab (enough to qualify me for a 4 in that section), and a surprising 66 on the reading – which last time around was my worst section. I felt a little nervous about my listening score, but as listening is normally my best section I assumed that I had passed it and I did with a score of 59%. Writing is what killed me, with a score of 35%. 35%. One percent worse than I did last time. Where I improved by leaps and bounds, almost doubling my listening and grammar/vocab scores, my writing score actually got worse and I was so frustrated that I probably would’ve burst into tears if I hadn’t had class.

Today I finished teaching my content matter a little early, so I let students relax for the last five minutes of class. A student called me over and asked if she could talk to me about something. She ended up telling me about her English grades, and how her teacher had told her that her English was getting worse because her test scores were dropping. She was really upset because she thought that her English was pretty good, but both her score and her teacher were telling her that she wasn’t.

I sat down and told her that I couldn’t say that scores don’t matter, because unfortunately they do, but we both know that she has a high English level. Of course she wants to improve her score, and she should try, but a lower test score doesn’t mean that her English is bad. I then told her that I had just failed a Korean test. Her eyes got wide, and she exclaimed “but you’re good at Korean!” and I replied “I know. But sometimes we get bad scores.” It took talking to this student for me to remember that scores aren’t the end all be all. We tell our students everyday that the score less important than your actual ability, but I had to tell a student this in order to apply it to myself. Yes, I failed this proficiency test – but I’m still good at Korean. And I will pass this test the next time around.

4 Comments to

“On the TOPIK and Being Okay with Failure”

  1. Avatar May 31st, 2013 at 8:59 pm Amy Phillips-Iversen Says:

    Great post, Emily! All too often it’s all about the score and testing. What really matters is the tenacity and effort of the individual. Too bad testing doesn’t give a score for that!! Kudos to you for everything you’ve accomplished and will do so in the future.


  2. Avatar June 1st, 2013 at 10:08 pm Shanna Says:

    Don’t get too disappointed about TOPIK ^^ To be honest, it’s not really an accurate reflection of your proficiency. You can pass topik 4 and yet suck at speaking and sometimes you fail but it doesn’t mean you can’t hold a conversation, read or write in Korean. The writing component tests more formal writing and the 3 “fill in the blank” questions can be a killer. Like all tests, you get better with practice, so try out the past year TOPIK papers before you attempt TOPIK again ^^ I find that quite helpful!

    I assume that you are applying for graduate schools in Korea. TOPIK cert will be helpful, but in the end, it’s your true proficiency that matters. ^^


  3. Avatar June 11th, 2013 at 10:01 am epotosky Says:

    Thanks! I’m trying not to let it get me down. I’m doing a lot of writing practice and I think it was the “fill in the blank” questions that killed me. I hate those so much…

    I’m actually not applying for graduate schools in Korea, so it puts me on a more flexible timeline, but hearing your information about true proficiency was really good. Thank you!


  4. Avatar April 18th, 2014 at 7:49 am shahin Says:

    oh god now i’m feeling more nervous about mine test coming up this saturday, I’ve been studying since september and i’m taking both the beginner and intermediate level


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안녕하세요! My name is Emily and when I started this blog I had received a 2010 – 2011 F*lbright grant to teach English in South Korea.  I then decided to apply to renew my grant, so I am now staying in Korea until July 2012. This blog is not an official F*lbright Program blog, and the views expressed are my own and not those of the F*lbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.

I graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a degree in Philosophy Pre-Law and Classical Civilizations, and found myself 3 months later teaching English at SGHS. The town that I taught in, SG, is a small town of 12,000 people, an “읍” (eup) rather than a “시” (shi – city), and though it was sometimes hard teaching in such a small town I really enjoyed the unique experience of being the first foreign teacher SGHS had ever had. I lived in the largest part of the county which is significantly bigger (40,000 people) than the town the school is situated in, but is also considered rural by Korean standards.

During my second grant period (2011-2012) I decided to change schools and I currently teach at CPHS which is located in an even smaller town than previously, in Jeollanamdo.

This blog is meant to serve as a reflection not only of being a Native English Speaking teacher in Korea, but also of living as a foreigner in rural Korea.