Gaokao

More than 9 million Chinese students are taking their university entrance exam

June 7, 2014
June 7, 2014

This is the weekend from hell for secondary school students in China as they take the national university entrance exam, known as the gaokao.

Some 9.4 million students have registered to take the test on June 7 and 8, the South China Morning Post reports. “Gaokao blessing” was the most popular phrase on Weibo, with 57 million posts.

For most Chinese students, doing well in this exam is their only hope of finding a place in China’s university system—the world’s largest—and getting a decent job. Stories of craziness surrounding the gaokao abound. Villages in the countryside shut down for two days. Lines of cars of parents dropping their kids off at the schools stretch for miles and feature a carnival atmosphere of dancing and singing. The city of Foshan, in Guangdong province, this year banned any kind of entertainment within 500 meters of test centers, according to the SCMP.

The gaokao rewards purely rote learning. With so much pressure placed on memorization, exam preparation takes on a new life. The Hengshui High School has been ranked the best school for university enrollment for 14 consecutive years in the Hebei province, according to China Daily’s US edition. There, from 5:30am until 10pm each day, students study incessantly. Mobile phones are banned. Cameras in the classrooms keep an eye for lazy students. Students get one day’s holiday every four weeks.

“I usually spent three to five minutes eating dinner,” one former student told China Daily. “Once, I even finished my meal in less than two minutes.” The BBC once reported that a school in the same province had classrooms full of student diligently working while intravenous drips hung from the ceiling fed them amino acids to boost their energy levels.

To put the gaokao into perspective, 1.66 million students sat the SAT and 1.8 million took the ACT for US college admission last year. (In 2012, the ACT surpassed the SAT in total annual number of test-takers for the first time.)

In fact, the SAT is being redesigned and moving away from the kind of memory-based learning beloved by the Chinese. From 2016, the College Board plans to make the test shorter and the essay optional, remove penalties for wrong answers, and provide more emphasis on critical reasoning.

But the biggest key difference between the gaokao and the SAT will remain: In China, learning a foreign language is mandatory.

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