9 Hours to Change 9.6 Million Lives: 6 Things You Should Know About China’s Toughest Test



From rural one-room schoolhouses to high-tech secondary schools in Shanghai, Chinese students have one thing in common: their race towards the Gaokao begins at birth. China’s National College Entrance Exam, or Gaokao (高考; gāokǎo), is the sole determinant for undergraduate admission - and success - in China.


Normally written in June, COVID19 delayed this year's test to July. Here’s what you should know:



1. It’s Accepted Internationally

Last year, the University of New Hampshire became the first US state university to accept Gaokao scores. Leading institutions like Cambridge University and Canada’s University of British Columbia have followed suit. The University of Edinburgh accepts “excellent” scores and the University of San Francisco even dishes out scholarships to top scorers.


Many schools have split the difference, accepting Gaokao scores for Foundation and Pathway programs, opening the door for Chinese students that might not have otherwise considered studying abroad.


2. It’s Unlike Any Test You’ve Ever Taken

The essay questions are notoriously challenging, like this essay prompt from 2013:


The containers for milk are always square boxes, containers for mineral water are always round bottles, and round wine bottles are usually placed in square boxes. Write an essay on the subtle philosophy of the round and square.


The test from 2018 contained an equally challenging mathematics question:


If x + y ≥ a, x - y ≤ -1, and the minimum value of z = x + ay = 7, what is a?


A) -5

B) -5 or 3

C) 3

D) 5 of -3.


Answer: B


Questions like this make it unsurprising that the test has been criticized for being formulaic and putting more emphasis on student’s test-taking ability than their critical thinking.


3. It Takes A Village

The Chinese education market is saturated with cram schools, some costing upwards of USD $8,000, Thousands of students in these schools take practice test after test for more than 14 hours a day under intense supervision.


Some communities go further: Maotanchang, a city in China’s Anhui province and home to one of the most famous cram schools in China, has done away with any form of entertainment that may prove distracting to students.


Parents sometimes quit their jobs to become “Gaokao migrants”, moving closer to top-tier cram schools in cities that are happy to capitalize on the fervour; rent for closet-like apartments in these cities can be close to that of downtown Beijing.


Gaokao nannies, recent graduates or highly-educated students, are hired to move in and provide support, and traffic around test sites is silenced as the country rallies around students undertaking the rite of passage.


With so much at stake, it’s no surprise that the test comes with its share of controversies. Wracked by cheating scandals and gadgets that would make James Bond proud, some desperate parents even turn to identity theft to secure top grades. In 2016, cheating became punishable with jail time of up to 7 years and a 3-year ban on taking the test.



4. It’s Completely Life-Changing

Gaokao scores define lives. A low score is a close guarantee to a lifetime of low-skill, low-wage employment, plummeting marriage prospects, and crushing familial disappointment.


A good score is the difference between becoming one of China’s 260 million migrant workers and a comfortable office job in one of China’s major cities.


The test consumes the lives of families. Grandparents and parents put three generations of eggs in one basket in hopes their student will score high enough to get into a renowned university, followed by a lucrative career and the upwards social mobility for the entire family that comes with it.



5. It’s Not Entirely Equal

For a test meant to even the playing field, the system is still skewed.


Students from rural areas are allocated far fewer spots by top universities, meaning their scores have to be higher than their urban counterparts for consideration for the same programs.


In 2008, students from Beijing were 24 times more likely than students from Henan Province to be accepted at Peking University, a prestigious school in China’s capital. In 2013, this figure jumped to 31 times.


6. Superstition Reigns

Prayers and offerings to ancestors aren’t the limits of good-luck rites. The night before the test finds families releasing lanterns, eating eggs (the shape of egg is similar to a head, for good luck), and walnuts (their brain-like form is said to improve thinking ability).


Mothers wait anxiously for their test-takers wearing a qipao, a traditional Chinese dress with slits up the side. In Mandarin, “qipao kai cha” sounds similar to the phrase for, “success at the first attempt”, or “qi kai de sheng”.


Buses allocated to take students to testing centres have license plates ending in 8, the luckiest number in Chinese culture. Normal bus routes are re-labelled as 211 and 985, China’s Ministry of Education’s designation for the country’s top universities. Preferred bus drivers are born in the year of the horse, a reference to the Chinese saying, “ma dao cheng gong,” meaning, “success when the horse arrives.”


Given the power of the test to determine the fates of its takers, it’s to no great surprise that superstition plays a role. Every little bit helps.


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