China’s Gaokao

November 22, 2022

“One month before I took the Gaokao, I lost about 12 pounds….my hair on the back of my head… half of [it] got gray.”

“I still have nightmares that…I could not finish the test, even now after ten years.”

The Gaokao, the only college entrance exam in China with a reputation that has spread internationally, occupies 10 million students’ lives each year. It is a painstaking test-taking process, wrought with years of dreaded anticipation, preparation and mental and physical impacts for Chinese high schoolers.

The nine-hour test is administered only once a year in early June— and students’ scores solely determine the college they attend. The Gaokao is out of 750 points and consists of six sections, including Chinese literature, math, foreign language (typically English), and three subjects under liberal arts or science, depending on the test taker’s choice. The liberal arts section is split into history, politics, and geography, and the science section contains physics, chemistry, and biology.

While American college entrance exams have become less significant, the performance in the Gaokao completely decides students’ futures. And that is why, for roughly a year, this test will completely overshadow their daily lives— with a rigorous schedule consisting of hours of intense studying and mock testing.

Guolong Zhu, an assistant professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, took the Gaokao in 2006, preparing for the exam in one of the best high schools in his province of Shandong. 

“My focus since in primary school has always been focusing on the scores [and] preparing for the test.”

While the main preparation for the Gaokao takes place during the third and final year of high school, Chinese students have basically prepared since the day they were born. Rather than being educated in different subjects, the Chinese school system is based on teaching students the material that will be tested in the Gaokao. The entire third year of high school is used solely for the preparation of the Gaokao. 

“We [had] finished all the high school materials in the first two years. In the last year, the third year, we only did reviewing,” said Zhu.

The preparation is strenuous and long, starting at 7 a.m. in the morning and ending at 10 p.m., which is repeated for the rest of that year. Wedged in the schedule, there are two lunch breaks. Besides time built in for studying, teachers also give lectures, reviewing problems and common mistakes students might have made on mock exams. Saturday afternoons are free, yet most students use this time for further studying. And once a month, students can have a day and a half off. 

“The feeling [towards the Gaokao] was really complex. I loved it but it was like a nightmare to me…I spent so much time on it,” said Zhu. 

There are several differences between college entrance exams in the United States and the Gaokao in China. American students prepare for the SAT or ACT outside of school, while most, if not all, of the preparation for the Gaokao is done in school, leaving little to no time for outside tutors. 

“In order to get into college in China, the score in Gaokao is the only thing. You don’t need those services or extracurriculars or sports, nothing else. Just the score,” said Zhu.

Yet, in America, it seems that extracurriculars and skills are one of the leading influences on American students’ success in college applications. In China, students get one chance a year to get into their dream college—one chance to excel. If they do not score well on the test, then they must wait until the next year to retake it. 

“I do have some friends that did not get good enough scores so they just decided to review for another year and took it again,” said Zhu.

Furthermore, the Gaokao is designed to give equal opportunity amongst the provinces by accepting the same amount of students from each province into a school. This, however, often leads to major competition in providences amongst students. Zhu’s providence, Shandong, is one of the most competitive for the Gaokao. 

“I got a score [in the] 98 or 99 percentile in my province but I was only able to go to the university with a national ranking [of] about 30 or 40.” 

Each practice test counts. Each day and night counts. Each point counts. If Zhu had scored 8 points higher, from his original score of 618 to 626, he could have gone to a school that was 12th in terms of national ranking. 

“I got a 618; it’s a number I still remember. Because the score was so important, even now I still remember the scores of many of my friends.”

The Gaokao is considered one of the largest priorities in the Chinese education system and society. For the two to three days of the exam, the traffic and streets of mainland China are limited to facilitate the students taking the Gaokao.

Despite the physical and mental drawbacks that Zhu has stated, he believes that the Gaokao is not flawed to the point of removing it entirely from Chinese society. 

“In China, the way that Gaokao [works] is probably the best way. In China, if [they do] not solely rely on the score, but rather with some [extracurriculars, it can be] unfair for those people with less resources.”

Zhu believes that for the exam and its high academic pressure to change, Chinese culture and society themselves would have to change. 

One thing remains clear: the Gaokao will continue to tout its reputation of high academic pressure for present and future students.

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