The gaokao: The grueling test that makes (or breaks) Chinese youth

By Megan Zhang | June 18, 2020

China’s college entrance exam can propel young people to prosperity — or dismantle their dreams — and it faces mounting criticism and pressure to reform.

Illustration by John Oquist

Every year, China grinds to a halt for a few days in early June, as millions of students in their third and final year of high school sit for the college entrance examination, or gāokǎo (高考, literally, “high exam”).

This year is an exception, though, because for the first time since the exam’s resumption in 1977 after the Cultural Revolution, it has been delayed nationwide by a month to July 7 and 8, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the unusual circumstances, the stakes remain as high as ever. The notoriously grueling standardized test — a two- or three-day event, depending on the province — sees 10 million students across the country vying for admission to the country’s top colleges. High performance in the gaokao can secure students’ acceptance to a leading university, foreshadowing future prosperity and impressive earning potential. For students from poorer rural areas, top scores are a ticket to a different life, and a way to transform their families’ fate. On the flip side, poor performance can jeopardize futures and dismantle dreams of a comfortable life and lucrative career. The exam is the sole criterion colleges will consider during admissions — though as detailed below, colleges have differing standards for comparing scores from students across regions, and, historically, there have been certain exceptions.

What is the gaokao?

While the exact questions on the high-stakes exam vary among provinces, the gaokao generally tests students in Chinese literature, mathematics, and a foreign language (usually English). Students also take additional exams in three other elective subjects.

Alongside the gaokao, students fill out a form listing the colleges for which they’d like to be considered. Every college has a lowest intake score, which varies depending on the province a test taker is from. Test takers in provinces with high population density generally face higher standards for entry into top universities, while the bar tends to be lower in less populated provinces. But according to the Berkeley Political Review, students may also receive admissions preference to local schools. This means high schoolers who live in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, where many elite institutions are concentrated, may have a better chance of enrolling in a top university. 

Students who meet the score requirement can receive admission, while those who do not qualify are rejected and passed on to another school in the list. Admission to high-ranking schools is notoriously competitive, with some top universities accepting fewer than 1% of applicants.

A student who does not meet the requirements of any school loses the chance to attend college in the coming fall. But since the gaokao imposes no age limit, students can sit for the exam again — as many times as they choose.

How students prepare

For most Chinese children, the gaokao is an ever-looming distant incentive and object of fear. During the home stretch of their final year of high school, most students devote the entire school year to frantically preparing for the exam. Tens of thousands of high schoolers attend “cram schools,” test-prep factories where students spend 16-hour days hunched over textbooks, memorizing facts and cramming practice questions to grind for the exam. 

Exam preparation is an all-consuming undertaking, oftentimes not only for the students but also for their families. It’s not uncommon for parents to funnel all their resources into ensuring their offspring perform well, with some even quitting their jobs for the year in order to facilitate their children’s studies. Many families also shell out top dollar for university students — who recently conquered the test themselves — to study with their children and prepare them for the exam.

When the testing period finally arrives, the whole country quiets down. Drivers are forbidden from honking their horns around testing sites in many cities, and public buses may not broadcast open-air announcements at bus stops where exams are taking place nearby. Citizens are also asked to avoid rush hour traffic to help ensure students get to their exams on time, and some cities even give test takers priority access into metro stations.

Cheating scandals

The stakes are so high that many cheating scandals have dogged the gaokao over the years. Test takers have worn tiny earpieces and hired stand-ins to take the exam in their stead, while organized rings have manufactured and sold wireless cheating devices.

In response, authorities cracked down on test fraud with metal detectors, facial recognition technology, drones, and even SWAT teams to monitor examination sites. Now anyone caught cheating will be banned from taking the test again for several years, and anyone who facilitates mass cheating or hires someone to take the exam on their behalf could face up to seven years in prison.

Exam papers are also treated as the most confidential of documents, tracked by GPS and chaperoned by guards while being delivered to exam sites. The examiners who devise the tests are kept under careful surveillance to ensure no information gets leaked.

Reforming the gaokao

While the gaokao is meant to be a fair way to execute the college admissions process in a country with as high a population as China’s, the test has also received mounting criticism for diminishing students’ college readiness to a single number and discounting individual expression and creative abilities.

In response to the discontent, the central government has implemented various targeted reforms over the years. In 2003, education authorities launched the Independent Freshman Admission Program (IFAP) as a way for top universities to directly recruit students who show outstanding performance in one particular area — for example, by distinguishing themselves in competitions or being published in academic journals. However, IFAP has been plagued with controversy, with critics saying that the program disproportionately offers advantages to well-off applicants, who are more likely to have the resources and opportunities to excel in an area. In 2019, the Ministry of Education placed a cap on how many students a university can accept through IFAP. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education announced plans to replace the program altogether with a new pilot plan that will address enrollment inequality, by mandating that 85% of applicants’ eligibility still be determined by their gaokao scores.

In 2018, China also eliminated certain preferential programs through which test takers can earn bonus marks on the gaokao. Now students can no longer receive a score boost based on outstanding athletic performance, or for being named a “provincial-level excellent student.” 

In 2014, a pilot run of a major reform program also began allowing students in some cities and provinces the freedom to choose which additional exams they want to take aside from the compulsory subjects of Chinese, mathematics, and English. In the past, elective exams were divided strictly between a focus in humanities or in science. Now students can test in any three elective subjects among physics, chemistry, biology, geography, politics, history, and general technology. The change aims to give students more autonomy in maximizing their advantages and pursuing their interests.

Students are now also allowed to take elective subject tests starting in the second year of high school. Only the compulsory subjects must be taken in June of their final year. Additionally, elective tests, as well as the compulsory English section, can be taken up to two times, with the best performance counting toward a student’s final score. These reforms are still being rolled out and have not yet been implemented in all the provinces throughout China.

On June 10, Chinese education authorities also announced a new directive that will tighten the preferential policies, which previously gave foreign passport holders lower admission standards for Chinese universities. Under the new regulations, gaokao test takers with foreign citizenship must meet a specific set of criteria to be considered overseas applicants.

Students who opt out of the gaokao

As much as futures ride on these two days of exams, the number of students taking the gaokao has been dropping in recent years. In 2016, the Global Times reported the number of test takers in Beijing had declined for the tenth year in a row. The decreasing number can be attributed to a few reasons, including: the one-child policy that took effect in 1978 and resulted in lower birth rates, and that more students are opting to pursue higher education overseas, for which they can choose to take different standardized tests. Many high schoolers enrolled in international schools may sit for the International Baccalaureate (IB), GCE A-levels, SAT, or ACT as an alternative.