15 Facts About China’s Grueling College Entrance Exam

You may have thought the SAT was too stressful, involved too much pressure, or was given too much weight in your college admissions process. But the SAT’s got nothing on the gao kao. China’s college entrance exam, properly known as the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, is the most grueling standardized test placed under the sweaty palms of teenagers in the world. Failure is not an option. Its takers do not know of these “weekends” of which you speak. Venture inside the horrifying world of college entrance exams in the Land of the Rising Sun, if you dare.

  1. The test is more than twice as long as the SAT:Clocking in at nine hours spread over two days, students complete sections in math, Chinese, a foreign language like English, Japanese, or French, and two optional subjects in the arts and sciences. The grueling length of the test makes it nearly 2.5 times the time it takes to complete the SAT.
  2. Students go to extreme measures while studying for the test:Because the gao kao is considered so important to students’ futures, the pressure placed on them by their parents and themselves is astronomical. Unfortunately this can lead to situations like students hooking themselves up to amino acid drips to boost their energy while cramming. According to an article in China Daily, parents had requested the drips for their children who were exhausted from studying for this year’s entrance exam.
  3. Most students spend their entire senior year studying for the exam:It is not uncommon for students to spend up to six or more hours studying for the gao kao after returning home from 10 hours of schooling, and taking no breaks on the weekend. Many schools even go so far as to dedicate the entire senior year of high school to preparing students for the exam.
  4. The entire nation cooperates during exam days:In the true Chinese spirit of putting the group ahead of the individual, during exam time, the entire country chips in. Flights are rerouted so they don’t fly over testing areas, and funeral processions are redirected. Construction sites near schools are closed, and police roadblocks are set up in the nearby streets. No car honking is permitted. Even the Olympic torch does not take precedent over the gao kao.
  5. Security is tight:Because of the high stakes involved, it’s no surprise that students (and parents) sometimes give in to the temptation to cheat on the gao kao, but they have a tough time getting away with it. Metal detectors sweep for cellphones, police escort the exam deliverers, cameras scan the classroom while testing is underway. In 2011, police seized cheating devices like wireless headphones and false exam documents days before the exam.
  6. The exam can only be taken once a year:American high schoolers taking the SAT have the benefit of knowing if they score lower than their goal, they can retake the test two or three times, if necessary. Chinese students enjoy no such luxury: earn a low score, and they’ll be repeating senior year to study and try once more. Not only will friends be off to university by then, these students bear the shame and stigma of being the fudusheng, the “students who re-study.”
  7. Only 60% make it into university on the basis of their gao kao score:According to People’s Daily Online, an estimated 40% of students do not make it into any university at all, much less a prestigious school, because their test scores are too low. As more than 9 million students are taking the exam this year (compared to just over 1.5 million SAT takers in the U.S. in 2011), clearly there is only room for so many students on China’s college campuses.
  8. Top scores do not necessarily lead to top careers:Many worry that the significance tied to scoring highly on just one exam is turning students into master test-takers but robbing them of their creativity and discouraging them from being innovative thinkers. A survey of 30-plus years’ worth of top scorers on the gao kao revealed out of 1,000 people, none of them went on to the exceptional careers most expected them to have.
  9. The exam even stresses out the teachers:Even your sweetest high school teacher probably didn’t lose any sleep worrying about how you did on the SAT. In China, the pressure on teachers is so high — in some cases, students’ performance on the gao kao is tied to their salary — as many as 10% of teachers are estimated to be quitting the profession every year due to anxiety. Even instances of suicide are not unheard of.
  10. Not even .2% of takers of the gao kao will make it into a top-five school:Tsinghua University, Peking University, Zhejiang University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and Fudan University are generally considered the top schools in China. Fewer than 200,000 students will earn a spot at one of these coveted universities. As a comparison, the five choosiest Ivy League schools in 2012 let in three times the percentage (0.6%) of SAT-takers.
  11. Gao kao season improves the economy:The entrance exam is such a big deal — parents book hotels near the test centers and ferry meals and nutritional supplements to their kids — the Chinese economy gets a significant boost beginning around April every year. The reference book industry also gets a big boost, and even companies owned by universities see a rise in their stock prices.
  12. There is regional discrimination in the scoring:Despite the ideal that the gao kao is a great equalizer, not only do the tests vary across regions, scores that would be near the top in one area may only rank as average in another area. To combat this, thousands of families move their kids to different regions to try to get higher grades and increase their chances of acceptance to a particular university.
  13. The gao kao has a brutal history:The exam is a descendant of the keju, China’s centuries-old civil service exam, which gave birth to tales of men going mad while studying for the grueling, days-long test. In its early days, the gao kao was brutally competitive: in 1977, 6 million students fought for 220,000 university slots.
  14. Some are calling for reforming or completely abolishing the gao kao:Luo Chongmin, the head of the Department of Education in Yunan province, has received much positive attention for his statement that the gao kao turns students into “test-taking machines” and should be done away with. Meanwhile, one school — the South University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen — has lowered the weight of the gao kao to 60% of the admissions review, using its own test and school grades for the other 40%.
  15. Crazy fast facts:In 2007, family and teachers of one girl from Shaanxi Province hid the news of her father’s death for two months so as to keep her from being upset before the test. Some girls take contraceptives or receive injections to prevent the onset of their menstrual cycle during the week of the exam. One student who showed up four minutes late to the gao kao in 2007 was refused entry, even though she begged officials on her knees.