WATCH: China’s Infamous Gaokao Exam, Explained

A short documentary from San Francisco's 1990 Institute examines the hyper-competitive college entrance exam

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6:33 AM HKT, Tue June 6, 2023 1 mins read

Another year, another intense exam season for high school seniors in China.

The annual ‘gaokao,’ China’s National College Entrance Examination (NCEE), is drawing near on June 7 and 8, and as always, onlookers are tuning in to see what twists and turns may appear.

The gaokao is a hot topic each year, and not just for the teens who are taking it. This time around, a short documentary explores individual stories occurring inside the hyper-competitive exam.

The doc was produced by the 1990 Institute, a San Francisco-based non-profit that champions fair and equal treatment for Asian Americans, and advocates for mutual understanding between the U.S. and China. It features interviews with three high school students, all from different cities and with varying academic backgrounds, as they approach the gaokao exam.

“Getting into college is a stressful experience for high school students with big aspirations,” 1990 Institute Board Chair Grace Yu told RADII. “This is a shared experience or rite of passage for youth both in China and the U.S.”

China’s gaokao is similar to the SAT in the U.S., or the A-level test in the U.K. However, with over 12 million test-takers in 2022, the competition is significantly higher.

Even so, there are second chances. Students who fall short of their goals have the option to retake the exam the following year, either repeating their final year of high school or attending specialized test preparation schools. One infamous example is Maotanchang, a city that’s become a “factory” for gaokao test-prep.

For students in China, this is par for the course.

“A college education can be almost a complete guarantee of upward social and economic mobility in China," said Yu. “It’s different than in the U.S., where there are still many paths one can follow to achieve success.”.

Cover image via 1990 Institute

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