Preparing for TestDaF
In June 2017 I took TestDaF as a grand finale to my 10 months living in Germany with a Fulbright grant teaching English at a gymnasium. I surprisingly passed with straight 5s across the board, so I thought I’d share some of my study techniques and experiences in preparing for the German proficiency exam.
What is TestDaF?
For in-depth information on the exam’s structure and grading system, I would suggest starting out on the TestDaF’s official page. The official purpose of the exam is to serve as a golden ticket into the German university system by proving your language proficiency. The language and vocabulary is centered around the level you would expect to find in a lecture or textbook, which means that unless you’ve been reading science articles and writing argumentative papers for fun, you’ve got some studying to do. Your ability to strike up fluent small talk while intoxicated at a bar is pretty much irrelevant here.
There are quite a few other German proficiency exams to get you into a German university, such as DSH, Goethe-Zertifikat, and telc. So why TestDaF? It was a bit of an eeny, meeny, miny, moe moment. There was quite honestly no particular reason and I don’t have much information on the other exams. Sorry!
There are four sections: 1. Reading, 2. Writing, 3. Listening, 4. Speaking.
It’s important to be a well-rounded German knowledgeable individual in order to succeed at a German speaking university. You can’t be the guy who reads an encyclopedia without looking up a word, but still can’t string together a spoken sentence.
This incredibly helpful diagram from the TestDaF website breaks down the levels and explains the scoring system. All you need to know is that 5 is the goal, 4 will get you into university, and 3…still deserves a pat on the back. The exam isn’t averaged or added, so each section is scored individually and kept separated in your results. IMPORTANT: You can’t afford to slack off on any section just because you’re more confident in reading that speaking, for example.
How to Prepare
…or rather how I prepared. Because I’m fairly good at self study, I took up studying individually and opted out of courses. Even if you’re not in Germany, there are tons of reputable online preparation courses you can take if you’re not confident in your ability to keep on track or prefer to have live feedback.
Books. Any book that includes a formulaic breakdown of the exercises and sections earns a gold star. Apart from obviously improving your German through studying, just knowing the tricks and structure of the exam exercises make a huge difference. The “Fit fuer den TestDaF” book from Hueber does an amazing job of deconstructing all sections and highlighting patterns and repeated vocabulary found on the test. There are several key repeated phrases I found in the book that I would have otherwise never seen just doing unrelated reading.
Real People. The speaking section of TestDaF is incredibly awkward. Rather than speaking to a real human being, you’ll be put in a computer room with the other test participants and asked to speak into your microphone for seven exercises. Chances are you probably haven’t encountered a similar speaking test before, so try to simulate the real scenario in any way possible.
So what’s one to do? Speak to real people, of course! In an obnoxiously noisy, distracting location like a cafe. It’s counter-intuitive, but if you can get past the awkwardness of practicing the speaking prompts with native German speakers, while they quietly listen to your rambling, then babbling into a microphone is easy peasy. The advantage is having someone to correct you and provide feedback, so you’re not just playing back recordings to yourself. Most importantly, keep that timer on and follow the same sequence as the test: listen to prompt, prep, listen to audio, then respond.
The same general idea follows for writing practice. I found it incredibly helpful to crank out a few essays written by hand to get a feel for the time constraints. A super nice friend can then go through and destroy your grammar and mistakes. You’ll never make the same mistakes again.
TestDaF’s site. There are tons of mock exams available for purchase to simulate the real things, but TestDaF’s website includes two for free. You’ll find practice for all four sections along with the audio needed and instructions as they appear on the real exam. I’d recommend waiting until you exhaust all your other practice options before making use of these mock exams closer to test day. That way you’ll get a fairly good idea how how you’ll do on the real thing by timing yourself.
Immersion. This one isn’t as unfair as it sounds for those not living in a German speaking country. Essentially, the key is to just read as much random material as possible during the months leading up to the exam to compile a sizable vault of vocabulary. You’d be surprised how many seemingly useless words pop back up occasionally in places you would least expect. Even if these words are just in your passive memory, they’ll greatly help you with reading comprehension and understanding exercise prompts. Plus, your reading speed will skyrocket, which is a valuable asset to have for a timed exam.
For listening practice, watch movies and media in German on Netflix, YouTube, or other online sites. Turning on the subtitles helps to engrave those new words into your memory and technically isn’t cheating, since even the listening section of TestDaF has a written prompt matching the audio.
My testing center was an hour and a half by car from where I lived, so I had to stay overnight in my testing city before the exam. All together, we were only 15 participants and the vibe reminded me of any other standardized exam I’ve taken back home in the US. After leaving our bags in the front of the room, we were only allowed to have a drink and a writing utensil in front of us for the exam. The day was broken up with reading and listening in the morning, followed by a break then writing and speaking. Honestly, I bought way too many snacks in preparation and the day just flew by!
I would say that the preparation for TestDaF should receive the most attention, and you shouldn’t stress about the test day itself. Once you’re confident that you’ve prepared as much as you can, the rest is just showing what you know.