This Chinese College Entrance Exam Can Make Or Break You

Published June 15, 2016
Updated February 10, 2017

Many in the United States are quick to criticize standardized testing, but a glance at gaokao, China’s college entrance exam, offers some perspective on just how bad standardized testing can actually be.

By the time Chinese high school students take gaokao, they have often spent up to half their lives studying for the exam, which was first introduced in 1952 to even the opportunity gap between poor and affluent students in China.

Taken over two days, gaokao — which lasts nine hours and covers an array of subjects including Chinese literature and Mathematics — sees approximately 9 million students vie for fewer than 7 million college spots per year.

Here’s what that looks like:

Gaokao Girls Prepare
Cheer Up
Students Enter
Woman Prays
This Chinese College Entrance Exam Can Make Or Break You
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In China, gaokao is a student’s sole shot at getting into a college within the country. If they don't do well on the test, they have no chance at earning a Chinese university degree, and face bleak job prospects.

Thus, students desperate to get a good score are known to take IV amino acid drips for studying energy and even enter hyperbaric oxygen chambers to reduce stress. Sometimes, the stress can prove fatal: In 2011, student Lü Pin committed suicide by jumping from his sixth floor dorm on the first day of the test.

Outside of changes in a student’s behavior, cities shut down during the test. Airplanes are rerouted, factories are closed, and car-horn honking is forbidden. Even in 2008 during the Summer Olympics, the torch relay route was moved so as not to disturb gaokao test takers.

Given the fact that more and more students are leaving China to attend college abroad — and that, as critics suggest, the test promotes memorization instead of learning, has a deleterious impact on students’ mental and emotional state, and is actually discriminatory given its region-based quota system -- some have begun to call for an end to gaokao.

As Chinese talk show host Zhong Shan said, "Is there no way at all we can avoid having the younger generation, the future of our nation, grow up in such a fearful, desperate and cruel atmosphere?"

In the end, though, numbers alone might spell gaokao's demise. Amid falling numbers of students taking gaokao — an annual survey revealed that the number of takers has fallen to record lows in Beijing, Liaoning and Jiangsu provinces — education experts just this month have pushed universities to look for new recruiting methods to keep college enrollment figures up.

Read more about equal opportunity education and how income affects your SAT score.

Erin Kelly
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Kelly, Erin. "This Chinese College Entrance Exam Can Make Or Break You.", June 15, 2016, Accessed May 19, 2024.