Dating back to 1952, the ‘Gaokao’ is a notoriously difficult three-day test with incredible demands — both academically and socially.
In each June, millions of high school grads in China have been bracing up to appear for the annual college entrance examination called “Gaokao”. It’s considered a prerequisite to get into college that puts an incredible amount of pressure on students.
In 2016, 9.4 million students sat for the test, competing to get into the country’s top universities.
The notoriously hard exam tests high school leavers on their Chinese, mathematics and English and another science or humanities subject of their choice.
The exam is a mixture of problem-solving that requires intensive rote-memorisation, and vague philosophical questions designed to test one’s creativity.
The essay questions range from the literary to the philosophical or even downright cryptic. On Chinese social media today, students from different provinces compared their prompts.
These are some examples of essay questions from previous years:
• “A teacher asked the students to look at butterflies under a microscope. At first, they thought the butterflies were colourful, but when they looked at them closely, they realised that they were actually colourless.” Based on this story, write an essay.
• Who do you admire the most? A biotechnology researcher, a welding engineering technician or a photographer? Based on this, write an essay.
• You are free because you may choose how to cross the desert; you are not free because you must cross the desert either way. Write an 800-word essay on this.
The exam rooms are strictly monitored to prevent cheating. But from hidden earphones and watches, to T-shirts with receivers, students have tried almost all means and ways to get past this.
In previous years authorities installed metal detectors at entrances to make sure students did not sneak in smartphones. In Henan province, even deployed a drone carrying a radio scanner to catch cheats.
But why is Gaokao so important?
The quality of education in China varies greatly depending on which university you’ve gone to. It’s not enough to simply get into university — you need the best institution you can possibly access.
If a student receives a low score, they’ll most likely go straight into menial work.
But as Universal principle, there are exceptions to this rule. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, is arguably the most famous Gaokao “loser”.
He failed the exam twice — and the chief executive billionaire is now one of the richest men in China.
“Life is so changeable,” he wrote. “Today it goes well, yet tomorrow it may not; today you fail, but it doesn’t mean you have no chance to succeed in future.”
In early October 2016, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued an official test syllabus for English for 2017, which increases the test’s English vocabulary from 3,200 to 3,500 words, showing that a strengthened English unit is still an integral part of the Gaokao system.
Under the reforms, students will be given more flexibility and autonomy. Chinese, Math and English will continue to be compulsory Gaokao subjects, but students will now be given two attempts to pass their English test. They will no longer have to choose between being streamed into either “science based” or “liberal arts based” exams – instead, they will be able to select three elective subjects of their choice that match their desired major at their desired institution, including both science and liberal art type subjects if they wish. This model is now being interpreted by many provincial governments as the “3+3” model.
The first students from Shanghai and Zhejiang will sit the new Gaokao in 2017.