In China, applying to college is about one thing and one thing only: the gaokao. Gaokao (高考) is short for 普通高等学校招生全国统一考试 (“The National Higher Education Entrance Examination”).
A student's score on this all-important standardized test is pretty much the only thing that matters when it comes to determining whether or not they can go to college-and if they can, which schools they can attend.
When Do You Take The Gaokao?
The gaokao is held once annually at the end of the school year. Third-year high school students (high school in China lasts three years) generally take the test, although anyone may register for it if they desire to. The test generally lasts for two or three days.
What's On The Test?
The subjects tested vary by region, but in many regions, they will include Chinese language and literature, mathematics, a foreign language (often English), and one or more subjects of the student's choice. The latter subject depends on the student's preferred major in college, for example, Social Studies, Politics, Physics, History, Biology, or Chemistry.
The gaokao is especially famous for its sometimes inscrutable essay prompts. No matter how vague or confusing they are, students must respond well if they hope to achieve a good score.
As you might imagine, preparing for and taking the gaokao is a grueling ordeal. Students are under huge amounts of pressure from their parents and teachers to do well. The final year of high school, especially, is often focused intensely on preparation for the exam. It isn't unheard of for parents to go so far as quitting their own jobs to help their children study during this year.
This pressure has even been linked to some cases of depression and suicide amongst Chinese teens, especially those who perform poorly on the exam.
Because the gaokao is so important, Chinese society goes to great lengths to make life easy for test-takers on testing days. Areas around testing sites are often marked as quiet zones. Nearby construction and even traffic are sometimes halted while students are taking the test to prevent distractions. Police officers, taxi drivers, and other car owners will often ferry students they see walking the streets to their exam locations for free, to ensure that they are not late for this all-important occasion.
After the exam is over, local essay questions are often published in the newspaper, and occasionally become hotly-debated topics.
At some point (it varies by region), students are asked to list the colleges and universities they prefer in several tiers. Ultimately, whether they are accepted or rejected will be determined based on their gaokao score. Because of this, students who fail the test and thus cannot attend college will sometimes spend another year studying and retake the test the following year.
Because the gaokao is so vitally important, there are always students willing to attempt cheating. With modern technology, cheating has become a veritable arms race between students, the authorities, and enterprising merchants who offer everything from false erasers and rulers to tiny headsets and cameras connected to off-site helpers using the internet to scan questions and feed you answers.
Authorities now often outfit test sites with a variety of signal-blocking electronic devices, but cheating devices of various sorts are still readily available to those foolish or unprepared enough to attempt using them.
The gaokao system has also been accused of regional bias. Schools often set quotas for the number of students they will take from each province, and students from their home province have more available spaces than students from remote provinces.
Since the best schools, both high schools and colleges, are mostly in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, this effectively means that students lucky enough to live in those areas are better prepared to take the gaokao and are able to enter China's top universities with a lower score than would be needed by students from other provinces.
For example, a student from Beijing might be able to get into Tsinghua University (which is located in Beijing and is former president Hu Jintao's alma mater) with a lower gaokao score than would be necessary for a student from Inner Mongolia.
Another factor is that because each province administers its own version of the gaokao, the test is sometimes demonstrably harder in some areas than others.