I took the gaokao three times. In 2007, I failed to get a high score. The next year, I failed again. And then I decided to study for another year.
Gaokao is the best we’ve got
I took the gaokao for the third time in 2009.
I think I was brave to do so, but my result wasn’t as good as more famous three-time gaokao veterans. Yu Minhong, who founded China’s tutoring giant New Oriental Education, got into the elite Peking University on his third gaokao attempt.
Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, scored just one point in mathematics in his first gaokao. But the third year he took the exam he scored 79 out of 120, and was admitted as an English major by a university in eastern China. [Alibaba owns Inkstone.]
For me, even after trying three times, I only got into a tier-three university no one had heard of. I was the kind of student who performed well in school, but always dropped the ball in key exams. I was too nervous when sitting in the exam hall.
I have a lot of regrets about gaokao, and I do not like how everything is decided by one exam. But I do support the existing gaokao system.
Talent selection policies in China have been on a long journey. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), local governors were told to nominate filial, incorrupt men as candidates for government posts.
In the four hundred years that followed, Chinese emperors deployed recruiters to look for people with a good family background, moral conduct and ability. But the result was a lack of social mobility. All the officials came from privileged families.
Standardized exams started to take shape in Sui Dynasty (581–618). Over the subsequent centuries, written tests held by imperial rulers allowed many poor people to enter the civil service.
The current gaokao system has its problems. It encourages students to study only for the exams. The questions are often removed from reality. It cannot fully reflect students’ abilities. And it places too much emphasis on on-the-spot performance.
Despite all that, gaokao is our best choice. No matter what policy is adopted, social stratification and wealth gaps will always exist. At least gaokao gives underprivileged people a chance to change their fate with knowledge.
Assessing students with more comprehensive metrics like in the US is simply not realistic in China. In rural areas of the country, students have few resources to develop their non-academic skills. For them, succeeding in gaokao is the only way out. If the poor do not even have this platform to change their lives, the wealth gap will only widen.
Gaokao is a relatively fair system. What we need to do now is to improve it and make it more effective in bringing out the talented.
Sun Miaolin is a human resources manager in Wuhan, China and a three-time gaokao taker.