China’s Gruelling College Entrance Examination




The efforts you put into your studies will always pay off for your future career and endeavours in life – this is how China motivates its youth to aspire for higher education. In an attempt to boost the so-called “intellectual youth”, the government set strict standards on who enters Chinese colleges to pursue degrees. Since the 1950s, Chinese students and their families go through months of preparations for gaokao or the annual National University Entrance Examination. The exam, however, is strongly criticised for its “harsh” criteria that hurt the working class.

Entrance exam preparations

In June, some 9.2 million high school students took the entrance exam in hopes to qualify for the 30,000 university slots. Students and their parents have been anxiously preparing for the gaokao which has become an important national event. Taxis and other vehicles were prohibited from making unnecessary noise within the testing centres while construction workers were sent home for the day. The Chinese media heavily covers the exam with radio and TV commentators discussing essay questions.

Gaokao, which means “high test”, has become a part of the Chinese tradition. The unified national college entrance examination was launched in 1952 as one of the reforms of the newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC). The exam was interrupted during the Cultural Revolution but resumed in late 1977. Since 1978, the exam was uniformly designed by the Ministry of Education across the country. Several provinces, however, proposed for independent tests paving the way for customised exams in 16 localities including Beijing, Tianjin and Jiangsu.

The passing score was a maximum of 750 points. The 2013 test was topped by Zhu Chenzhuo from Beijing who scored 725 points. The single mark determines which university a student may enter. Those who fail the gaokao may repeat their senior year in high school to retake the entrance exam on the following year.

Students are assessed on their proficiency on mandatory subjects – Mathematics, Chinese and a foreign language which could be Japanese, French or Russian. One long-running assessment, however, has been under scrutiny for years. The Economist defined the “zero mark essay” as “answers to the main question in the compulsory language-and-culture section, which receive absolutely no points”.

In this year’s exam, one examinee garnered the most attention on his essay that received a zero mark. The Sichuan student has confronted a question about “Chinese equilibrium”. The brutally honest essay started with: “When I saw this essay prompt, I suddenly felt an urge to laugh.” He went on describing the second-generation rich in their sports cars and materialistic lifestyle. The essay closed with a mocking challenge: “Give me a zero then, my dear grader. I’m not scared; Sanlu milk powder didn’t kill me, so what more could a zero grade do?”