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    Inside China’s grueling version of the SAT
    Inside China’s grueling version of the SAT
    EDUCATION

    Inside China’s grueling version of the SAT

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    From today until Friday, Inkstone follows the fates and fortunes of the millions of high school graduates taking the grueling and competitive national college entrance exam.

    Imagine preparing for 12 years for a nine-hour test that will decide the rest of your life.

    For 9.8 million Chinese students, that’s exactly what this week holds.

    In early June every year, high school graduates across the country sit for the grueling college entrance exam known as gaokao.

    Students walk out of a school after taking the first section of the national college entrance exam in Changsha, Hunan province in 2014.
    Students walk out of a school after taking the first section of the national college entrance exam in Changsha, Hunan province in 2014. Photo: Reuters

    The annual exam is notorious for its tough questions, and for putting Chinese students under enormous competition and stress.

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    This year’s gaokao is to be administered from Thursday to Saturday, and Inkstone will report from the frontlines. Here’s what you need to know.

    How is gaokao different from the SAT?

    Gaokao – “high exam” – is an abbreviation in Chinese for “National College Entrance Examination.”

    The highly standardized exam has its roots in China’s imperial past, when scholars competed for government positions by writing essays while locked into cubicles.

    A parent prays outside a gaokao exam site in Hefei in eastern China in June 2017. Gaokao is a life-defining exam for many Chinese students.
    A parent prays outside a gaokao exam site in Hefei in eastern China in June 2017. Gaokao is a life-defining exam for many Chinese students. Photo: Xinhua

    Although gaokao is seen as China’s equivalent of the SAT, the two systems are quite different.

    While SAT results constitute only part of the college application process for American students, your three-digit gaokao score is the sole determinant of university admissions in China.

    The SAT has been structured to test students’ reasoning and communication skills. In comparison, gaokao focuses more on fact-based knowledge and covers a wider range of subjects, including Chinese, mathematics, English as well as a choice of sciences or humanities.

    Is there anything like it outside of China?

    South Korea also has an all-important annual college entrance examination known as suneung, which determines which university one gets into.

    Students from a high school cheer for their seniors in front of a college entrance exam hall in Seoul, South Korea in 2012.
    Students from a high school cheer for their seniors in front of a college entrance exam hall in Seoul, South Korea in 2012. Photo: AFP

    Japan is in the process of reforming its life-defining National Center Test for University Admissions to enhance students’ ability in thinking and expressing themselves.

    In the US, an analogous system is the controversial Specialized High Schools Admissions Test in New York City. That test is for highly sought after places in high schools, not universities. But Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed over the weekend to eliminate the score-based system to bring more ethnic diversity to the schools.

    How hard is gaokao?

    The level of difficulty varies across the country, as most provinces set their own gaokao papers. But in general, the questions are hard.

    The long exam papers and tight time constraints make even the best students sweat.

    Could you take the gaokao?
    Here are three gaokao questions I answered in 2012, hopefully correctly:
    Mathematics: If a∈R, and when x>0, [(a-1)x-1](x2 - ax - 1) ≥ 0 always stands, a= _____.
    Answer: 3/2
    English: Had they known what was coming next, they ____ second thoughts.
    A. may have    B. could have    C. must have had    D. might have had
    Answer: D
    Sciences: The concentrations of CO2 and K+ are higher inside human liver cells than the outside, while the concentrations of O2 and Na+ are lower inside the cells. Which of the following molecules can be moved into the cells through active transport?
    A. CO2    B. O2    C. K+    D. Na+
    Answer: C

    To get into their dream schools, students must treat every question seriously. One mistake makes a big difference.

    In 2016, only the top 2% of exam takers were admitted by China’s 38 top schools, according to Sohu.com. And only about 0.05% were able to find a place at the prestigious Tsinghua University or Peking University. By comparison, Harvard is relatively easy to get into, taking around 5% of all applicants for undergraduate degrees.

    Only the very top gaokao performers can get into elite schools such as Peking University.
    Only the very top gaokao performers can get into elite schools such as Peking University. Photo: EPA

    How do students prepare for the exam?

    By studying very, very hard.

    For most Chinese students, a high gaokao score is the ultimate goal of more than a decade of studying, from elementary to high school.

    Parents try their best to get their children into schools that have good exam records. Students are given piles of homework and sent to tutorial classes from a young age.

    Getting ready for the tough questions requires lots of late nights.
    Getting ready for the tough questions requires lots of late nights. Photo: Reuters

    The most intense study comes during senior year, when students are told to devote all their time and energy to preparing for gaokao.

    Throughout the year they work from early morning to late night, attend extra classes on weekends and take numerous mock exams.

    Is gaokao good or bad?

    Gaokao has been attacked as a cram system. Many academics blame it for killing youngsters’ creativity and critical thinking, which they say hurts China’s ability to innovate.

    But defendants of gaokao believe a standardized, tough exam is the only fair way to allocate education resources in a huge country.

    For decades, gaokao is seen as a key gateway for talent to climb up the social ladder: if you study hard, you can get into a top university and land a good job.

    But this fairness is increasingly being questioned. The number of rural students admitted to top-tier schools has been dropping as the wealth gap grows in China.

    People also criticize the region-based admission system, which sees top universities take more gaokao high-performers from areas like Beijing and Shanghai.

    Students walk out of an exam site in Beijing after finishing the 2017 gaokao. It is the end of a 12-year ordeal.
    Students walk out of an exam site in Beijing after finishing the 2017 gaokao. It is the end of a 12-year ordeal. Photo: Simon Song

    Will gaokao change in the future?

    Chinese government has promised to stop pinning students’ fates to a single exam.

    Authorities say a new gaokao system will be in place by 2020 to include diverse methods of university admission and reduce regional inequality.

    A few provinces are already experimenting with new exam designs that allow students to choose their subjects more freely and take the test more than once.

    However, the ongoing reforms have also unsettled students, parents and educators who have spent years navigating the existing system.

    Many are also concerned that allowing non-academic skills to be considered in university admission will only give rise to rampant corruption and cheating.

    Viola Zhou
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    Viola is a multimedia producer at Inkstone. Previously, she wrote about Chinese politics for the South China Morning Post.
    Viola Zhou
    arrow rightarrow right
    Viola is a multimedia producer at Inkstone. Previously, she wrote about Chinese politics for the South China Morning Post.
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