Gaokao: Could you pass the world’s toughest school exam?


At MI of the year, millions of students take the world’s most grueling college entrance exam. Here’s a look at what that entails.

MID-TERM of the year, millions of Chinese high school students will take a grueling college entrance exam.

Dating back to 1952, the “Gaokao” is a notoriously difficult three-day test with incredible demands, both academic and social.

It’s much more intense than high school exams in Australia, with more competition and societal expectations adding grueling pressure to the roughly 9.4 million students who experience ‘Hell Weekend’ each year. .

Some parents even pay “Gaokao hotels” near exam centers, so children can save travel time to study.

In several cities, “test taxis” have yellow signs and are given priority when taking candidates to test sites.

In short, the test is so important that everyday life across China shifts to accommodate the applicants.

And it makes our end of school exams look like a luxury cruise.


Students who take the Gaokao are tested on their Chinese, mathematics, English and a science or human subject of their choice.

The exam is a mixture of problem solving that requires intensive memorization and vague philosophical questions designed to test one’s creativity.

Here 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 colorful, but when they looked at them closely they realized that they were in fact colorless. Based on this story, write an essay.

• Who do you admire the most? A biotechnology researcher, a welding engineering technician or a photographer? On this basis, write an essay.

• You are free because you can choose how to cross the desert; you are not free because you have to cross the desert anyway. Write an 800 word essay on it.

Yang Wang, 26, officially finished Gaokao in 2008.

He scored well to enter Peking University, one of the leading Chinese research universities in Beijing.

After a few years of working in China, he finally moved to Sydney, where he obtained a Masters in Commerce from the University of New South Wales.

But it was not without extraordinary effort that he gained access to the Australian higher education system.

Yang told that Chinese students spend up to 80 hours or more studying each week. Holidays and school vacations are extremely rare and your social life is limited.

In his experience, students had at least 11 classes every day of the week, with nine classes on Saturdays and up to five on Sundays.

Total daily class time is around 10 hours, but during the exam year itself, students cram in as much overtime as they can, feverishly doing old homework in private.

It is the norm to spend every waking moment studying.

“In order to make sure that the students focus on their studies, there weren’t a lot of extracurricular activities in my school,” Yang said.

“Sport was perhaps the only thing that was encouraged, because good health is important for students who study and live under pressure.

“It’s like living through exam week for Australian universities, but every day for three years.”

The practice exams would take place up to six months before the real exams. The students faced immense pressure, but you just had to smile and put up with it.

Gaokao is controversial, even in China. Yang said he receives a lot more criticism than praise because his primary focus is on learning by memorization rather than the actual application of that knowledge using analytical skills.

But at the same time, it is crucial for any Chinese student looking for a decent future.


While some students take a feverish approach to high school exams in Australia, such as the NSW Higher School Certificate, the focus is on the “life after” grade 12 exams.

Every year during the HSC season, it is common to hear testimonials from former students saying that failure “is not the end of the world”.

In China, the end-of-year exams are another story. The competition is fiercer and the pressure to succeed is greater.

On the one hand, according to Yang, a high exam score is the easiest way to get a higher education in China, which increases your chances of having a better life.

While Australians emphasize a variety of career paths and choices, the Gaokao is the sole assessment criteria for university entry in China.

“Strong competition in the job market makes training a candidate more important,” Yang said. “The reason behind this – unfortunately – is because it’s cheap and easy to use.”

He also said that the quality of education in China varies greatly depending on the university you attended. It’s not enough to get into college, you need the best institution you can access.

If a student scores low, they will most likely go straight into a junior job.

“It’s hard to get a decent job with just a high school diploma in China,” Yang said. “Most of them have to do manual labor, which is poorly paid in China due to high supply and low minimum wages.”

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule.

Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, is arguably Gaokao’s most famous “loser”.

Ma has failed the exam twice and the chief billionaire is now one of the richest men in China.

Last year, he wrote an open letter to Chinese students that quickly went viral.

“Life is so changeable,” he wrote. “Today is going well, but tomorrow it may not be; today you are failing, but that doesn’t mean you have no chance of success in the future.


There is a well-documented stereotype of “Asian parents”: Chinese “tiger mothers” place harsh and unrealistic expectations on their children to succeed in school and work them to the bone.

In 2011, Chinese-American author Amy Chua created a storm of controversy in the Western world with her memoir Mother Tiger’s Battle Anthem.

An extract published in the the Wall Street newspaper, titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” detailed the explicit rules and restrictions she imposed on her children to make them thrive academically.

After its publication, Chua received death threats, racist slurs and calls for his arrest for child abuse.

But ironically, the controversial book was actually seen in China as a guide to Western parenting – a guide to being friendlier to your kids.

Yang said some families in China definitely operate this way, but not all. He explained that Chinese culture is “socially oriented,” in the sense that people do not hesitate to publicly use each other’s scores and opinions as benchmarks for their own families.

“Unfortunately, some of them use this logic on their children and would compare their children’s performance to that of their peers,” he explained. This contributes to the feverish atmosphere surrounding the exam.

But Yang himself was lucky – his family were incredibly supportive, even changing their location to be closer to school, meaning he could sleep more.

He said his family expected him to do his best, but would have accepted any outcome, which helped him stress less.


Research shows Australia is falling apart in the global education scoreboard.

According to this year Trends in the international study of mathematics and science, 4th grade students in Australia ranked 28th in math. China came 4th.

8th grade students in Australia placed 17th in math and science. China came third in both.

Australia also ranked well below the United States, Russia and Kazakhstan.

Despite this, many Chinese consider us lucky.

Yang believes Australians are more likely to have a decent future even if they don’t score high in high school. The stakes are not as high, which he attributes to a better welfare system, government grants and nonprofits.

“Australian employers don’t put as much emphasis on education as Chinese and would be happy to give people practical work experience based on other achievements,” he said.

This certainly explains why our largest portion of international students pursuing higher education come from China.

According to federal government data, nearly 50,000 Chinese students started classes at Australian universities in the first half of 2016, up 23% from last year.

But William Zhao, another Gaokao survivor who is now the national executive director of the Australia-China Youth Association, told he prefers China’s teaching methods over those of Australia.

He also said the Gaokao was a brutal experience – consisting of 14-hour study days and fierce competition – but believes it laid the foundation for success.

“In Australia, students have more time to develop their interests and engage in extracurricular activities,” he said.

“Personally, I preferred to have a solid academic foundation in primary and secondary school before receiving world-class higher education in Australia.

@GavinDFernando |

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