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Thoughts on the TestDaF

Posted: Fri Feb 14, 2020 6:34 am
by Axon
Today I took the TestDaF (Test Deutsch als Fremdsprache) at the Goethe-Institut in Chicago. There are no test centers anywhere near me on the West Coast of the United States :shock: . Good thing I have family out there!

I have been studying German since late 2012, completing a German minor during my undergrad. I got the idea in my head to take the TestDaF in October, and at that time I felt unprepared for a serious exam. I reduced my use of other languages to a minimum (so only a bit of specialized Spanish vocab study for work and the odd Indonesian and Mandarin conversations with friends) at that time to focus my energy on rebuilding and improving my German. There aren't that many English write-ups of the TestDaF experience out there, so I thought I'd share my thoughts about my study strategies, the tools I used, and how the test felt. I will get my results in six weeks.

Study Tools

I broke with tradition and ended up spending a few hundred dollars on preparation for this test. Flight ticket and test fee notwithstanding, I estimate that I spent $285 on study tools.
$120 - iTalki tutoring - I booked five lessons plus one additional lesson with Stephan, one of the best-rated TestDaF teachers on iTalki. We mostly focused on speaking, and his input as an experienced tutor was very valuable because he could compare me with other students who had scored well or poorly before. He was extremely encouraging and told me I was the best-prepared TestDaF student he'd ever seen. Whether or not he tells this to everybody, it was a good thing to hear.
$5 - Test Prep book - I bought Ihor Kolesnykov's "Universale Wortschatz" study guide as a Kindle book. It has two sample essays and lots of set phrases for different topics. Unfortunately it only includes sample essays for the first two topics, then just collocations for the rest.
$15 - Clozemaster Pro subscription (3 months) - I paid for a year up front but I didn't use it as much after the first month. However, it was a valuable tool for grammar practice.
$120 - Speechling Pro subscription (4 months) - I probably should have stopped the subscription after I started doing iTalki, because I definitely wasted at least one month where I didn't actually record anything. However, it was very valuable in the first few months when I was warming up because it got me actually speaking German into a microphone under time pressure, just like in the test.
$25 - LingQ Premium subscription (2 months) - This one I actually got for free, but I still think it ended up being an extremely useful tool. As I'll go into, reading was really important for my progress and this platform supported me really well in that.

I downloaded about 100 documentary/science/vlog/TestDaF videos in German from YouTube as well as 20 Wikipedia article audio recordings and listened to these constantly while driving and walking. If there is interest, I'll gladly compile a list of the channels I used, but overall I just searched for various topics and terms from sample tests in German and downloaded videos that looked like they might have good-quality discussion about the subject. The Wikipedia article recordings were purposefully chosen to be about German cities and modern German history that I didn't know about.

I tried to read at least some real German every day, even though I prefer listening and have more time for it. I read Vice, DW, Wikipedia, Statista, GuteFrage, and various miscellaneous things that I found by again searching for terms and concepts from the sample material. I also reread my Calvin und Hobbes collections in German and my old college textbook Stationen. Just a week or so ago I found two books from the Duden Taschenbücher series Wie schreibt man gutes Deutsch? and Fehlerfreies Deutsch. I usually read aloud.

And of course the sample material: I found copies of Musterprüfungen 2, 3, and 5 online as well as the two books Fit für den TestDaF and TestDaF Training 2015. Interestingly enough I found a number of typos in TestDaF Training. I typed out all of the Speaking section questions from all of the sample tests I found online in order to get them into one place. I never did a single practice test all the way through, but after getting near-perfect scores on sample reading and listening tests around December I pivoted toward actively practicing only speaking and writing - mostly speaking. The reading and listening I entrusted to the extensive and intensive reading I did.

My Test Experience

I did in fact feel quite prepared for this test. I knew the test format and the types of questions backward and forward, and I had spent my commute-listening time for the last several weeks having lively debates with myself aloud in the car about typical TestDaF things like alcohol on campuses or pedestrian-only city centers.

Although I felt comfortable with the reading, I do wish I had challenged myself a little bit more with the type of texts I prepared with. I tended to read more pop-sciencey stuff in a more conversational style. These texts had elements of that, but perhaps one level more formal, striking the kind of tone you'd expect in a magazine on a specialized topic. The listening felt rather easy as I tended to practice with vloggers and other people that talked much faster than the test material. The structure of the listening section is also straightforward because the answers appear in the audio in the order that they appear on the sheet.

I'm second-guessing my writing section the most. I hit all the main points and I used impressive sentences, but I didn't add a lot of detail about each point and my essay came in at only about 240 words. I had enough time to re-read it while moving my lips (not whispering or speaking but pretending to speak) and caught a couple of grammatical mistakes. I had one funky sentence that I ended up leaving in because I wasn't sure of another way to express the thought and time was running out. It was pretty shocking that upon my review I found two huge mistakes that either made my sentence nonsensical or mean the opposite of what I intended. I did all my writing practice freehand, so as to practice my German handwriting clarity and speed and get used to writing an essay by hand as I would have to on the test day.

The one thing I was not prepared for was that the speaking portion is done with everybody speaking aloud in the same room at different times. This is the worst possible way to arrange it, because not only can you hear everybody extremely clearly, you hear people beginning milliseconds apart from each other and it throws you way off. I can only hope the examiner accounts for that in the grading. It is imperative that you practice the speaking portion in an environment where others are actively trying to distract you so that you can be ready for the real thing. Fortunately I had in fact practiced in such an environment and so I was partially prepared for what would come. All the reading aloud and speaking practice I did on different topics helped enormously, and I felt lucky that the topics were ones I happened to have knowledge about and quick ideas for.

Contrary to some test advice I found online, the topics do deal with up-to-date issues. The sample tests all tend to have charts and graphs from the early 2000s, but in my test today they went up to 2018. You are also not allowed a watch, but at least at my test center there was a digital clock measuring minutes and seconds that everyone could see. The listening section was played over large speakers and there was hardly any traffic noise. The speaking section was actually done with Audacity, so you could see a waveform of the audio track as you spoke as well as the speaking time. Also (I have never seen this mentioned before), there are some sections that give you more than one minute for preparation. At each minute mark, you will hear a barely-noticeable tap, like a record head being dropped onto the record. This, however, clearly shows up on the waveform on the screen and you can see as your recording cursor approaches.

Based on my tutor's comments and my performance on sample exams, I have a good feeling that I'll get at least a 4 in all four sections. If I don't, then this might quickly become a guide on what not to do!

Re: Thoughts on the TestDaF

Posted: Fri Feb 14, 2020 7:52 pm
by Lawyer&Mom
I’ll take any excuse to visit Chicago, but any reason you picked the TestDaf rather than a CEFR exam? (I don’t really know the difference between TestDaf and C1/C2.)

Re: Thoughts on the TestDaF

Posted: Fri Feb 14, 2020 8:34 pm
by Axon
Lawyer&Mom wrote:I’ll take any excuse to visit Chicago, but any reason you picked the TestDaf rather than a CEFR exam? (I don’t really know the difference between TestDaf and C1/C2.)

I'm considering going to Germany for another degree, and the school I'm looking at requires either TestDaF 4 or Goethe-Zertifikat C2. I didn't think I could handle a full C2 and so I set my sights on the TestDaF. A score of 4 in each section is considered a B2/C1, and a score of 5 is considered C1.

Re: Thoughts on the TestDaF

Posted: Fri Feb 14, 2020 9:37 pm
by Lawyer&Mom
Ah! B2/C1 is definitely more my comfort zone. (I’m not there yet in all four skills, but at least it seems within the realm of the possible!)

Thanks for sharing your experience, and keep us posted with your results!

Re: Thoughts on the TestDaF

Posted: Thu Mar 26, 2020 3:48 pm
by Axon
Update: I got my results back today.

Leseverstehen: 4

Hörverstehen: 5

Schriftlicher Ausdruck: 4

Mündlicher Ausdruck: 4

I certainly had the feeling that I did very well, and I'm now curious which questions I missed on the reading section. My essay was short and I lost my train of thought during the speaking a few times due to other people distracting me, so no big surprises there.

Anyway, it looks like the studying worked! I'll never know if these were "solid" 4s or "barely" 4s, but in any case I'm very glad I prepared for as long as I did.