Is China’s Infamous Gaokao College Entrance Exam as Scary as it Seems?

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5:24 PM HKT, Thu June 7, 2018 4 mins read

This morning, millions of students across China are sitting down for the first day of the country’s college entrance exams, the infamous gaokao (高考).

The examinations, which take place every year from June 7-9, never fail to capture the public’s attention — whether it’s due to memories of one’s own experiences grappling with the exams, or because with around 9 million students sitting them the degrees of separation between oneself and a gaokao student are generally very small.

“Good luck in the gaokao” has been riding high on Weibo’s trending topics list for at least a week now. Major cities are implementing traffic diversions and attempting to ensure low noise levels in the vicinity of school campuses, and police have been known to turn on the lights on their vehicles to speed tardy students to the exam hall on time.

Police affix “Gaokao Direct Transportation Vehicle” stickers to their bikes in preparation for the exams (image: Xinhuawang)

And the exams don’t just grab headlines at home. Every year the coming of the gaokao is accompanied by stories in international media with headlines such as “Is China’s gaokao the world’s toughest school exam?“, “China’s ‘gaokao’ exams are a different kind of scary altogether”, and “China’s Version of the SAT Is Kind of Insane”.

Of course, every student is different and responds to the pressure of examination in different ways. But as someone who sat the dreaded gaokao relatively recently, in my experience the exams are not all that scary.


In 2014, I took the gaokao when I was 17 years-old. I was a high school senior at one of the best high schools in Sichuan, Chengdu No.7 High School. I studied for months for it, took practice papers beforehand, and learned from the mistakes I made before I took the final test. Just like you would with any exam really.

I’ve taken both the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) exams twice. From what I’ve seen, the gaokao — or as it’s officially known, the National Higher Education Entrance Examination — is no different from either of them in terms of pressure. The only difference is you take the exam with millions of people, it is the only standard to decide which University you go to, and you only have one chance a year.

It’s stressful certainly, but it’s not always as insane as people make out.

A lot gets made of the surveillance of students during the exams. When I sat mine, there was surveillance equipment like metal detectors, facial and fingerprint scanners, and mobile-signal blockers, which can seem a little intimidating. But students know that the main purpose of these kinds of things is to nab cheaters (gaokao cheating has become big business in China in recent years).

Inspecting gaokao monitoring systems before the big day (image: Xinhuawang)

There’s often criticism too from people who believe the test — which examines a total of 4 subjects: three mandatory subjects of Chinese language and literature, math, and English, and one elective subject from either the sciences or humanities — has too many unreasonable or vague questions. For example, imagine being asked in exam conditions to pen 800 words on this:

The containers for milk are always square boxes; containers for mineral water are always round bottles; round wine bottle are usually placed in square boxes. Write a composition on the subtle philosophy of the round and square.

That’s what students sitting Hubei’s 2013 gaokao had to contend with. It’s not the only time the province had a controversial question either. Two years later its math test contained an obscure Chinese word in a question, meaning students could only tackle the math problem if they comprehended a term usually reserved for high-minded works of literature.

Generally however, repeated assessment of the questions means that such curveballs are rare. The professionals charged with writing the questions spend months essentially locked in a room preparing the exam, forbidden from communicating with the outside world.

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One of the main criticisms associated with the gaokao is that in just three days it can determine the rest of a student’s life. “Make or break” and “life-changing” are terms regularly trotted out in any coverage of the exams. However, in my opinion, the gaokao is just a way to tell which students will be admitted to university. It doesn’t mean your future is doomed if you don’t do well and don’t get into a top ten university. You can choose to take the exam again next year, or simply live with it. For most students, they’ll choose to go to college with the score they get and try their best in college.

And these days, the gaokao is not the only way to get admitted to a university. Some top universities such as Tsinghua University, Peking University, and Nanjing University have their own exams before the gaokao to help identify students with great potential. During these exams, students are required to take creative tests and hold an interview with admissions officers. If the student passes the exam, universities usually sign a contract with them promising admission even with a lower score on the gaokao.


At this point, you’re probably wondering how I got on in my gaokao — it would be easy to downplay the life-changing significance of an exam and appear blasé about its effects on students’ mental well-being if I’d aced it. But actually I didn’t do very well on my gaokao. Sure, I still made it to a university, but not one of China’s “Ivy League level” institutions. I sometimes think that I would have gotten a better education if I’d done better in the exam, but in hindsight I’m glad I didn’t experience one more year of “torture” studying to take the exam over again.

Personally, I preferred having the freedom to choose classes in my many areas of interest rather than being confined to an obligatory course map, studying limited topics related to a specific subject over and over again, as one has to do for gaokao prep. I preferred being able to plan my own schedule and do extracurricular activities rather than having to sit in a classroom all day every day listening to a teacher discuss typical testing blunders. And I preferred having the independence to explore more options and gain hands-on experience along the way than following a prescribed path.

The gaokao doesn’t have to mean everything. You still have the chance to shape your future and who you will be, regardless of your score. In the run up to the exams, I thought the gaokao would be the hardest thing would I have to endure, but looking back I realize that I was naïve; life is not so simple. There are more challenges, more choices, more knowledge to be learned. How your story is written depends entirely on how you use the opportunities afforded you, putting maximum effort into everything you do, and your determination to achieve your dreams.

In the moment, the gaokao feels like a judgement of your self worth, but really, it’s just a stepping stone to what you want to do next.

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