By Alex Endress
Taking a test that can determine your college career is never easy, but at least students in the United States can take a few extra shots each year if they flub their first go on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
Not so in China, where the National College Entrance Examination of China is an all-or-nothing two-day assessment held only once a year. Also known as the Gaokao, the nine-hour test makes or breaks high school students hoping to advance to the next level.
“It’s very crucial,” said Zhang Guan, a student from Beijing Number 4 High School. “It will decide which kind of university I will attend, and what kind of job I will do in the future.”
While similar to the SAT in America, the Gaokao is much more extensive. The test spans a variety of subjects, including Chinese, English, mathematics, science, and history. Cramming isn’t really an option.
“I’ve been preparing for 12 years, and only two days will decide the efforts of those years,” said Xu He, a student leaving for the nightly break in between exams on Tuesday, June 7. “It’s the most important time in my life since I was born.”
When applying to universities in China, the Gaokao is all-important. Factors such as statements of purpose, class ranks, interviews or extracurricular activities are rarely considered. However, students specifically recommended by their high school may receive some extra attention, according to Dr. Sang Guoyuan of Beijing Normal University.
“So far, Gaokao is the relatively fairest selecting system,” Sang said in an e-mail interview. “China is a ‘relationship’ society. Without the Gaokao system, I am afraid that most students with ‘priority’ [such as social or political connections] will be enrolled into highly ranked universities ‘automatically’.”
The exam is known for the immense psychological pressure it puts on students. The 2011 test has already claimed one suicide, reported the Global Times, an internationally focused Chinese newspaper. The student, from Hunan province, jumped off the sixth floor of his dormitory after proctors refused him entry to the exam for arriving late, according to the Times.
There were three other suicides attributed to the Gaokao in Hubei and Jiangsu provinces in 2010 after the first day of examinations. A total of 9.33 million students have registered to take the exam in 2011, according to China Daily, a state-run Chinese newspaper.
“I thought I would suddenly relax after the exam,” said Zhao Lu, a student leaving the Gaokao. “But I feel nearly the same.”
Some families even pursue moving to different provinces for a better shot at the test. Urban provinces such as Beijing or Shanghai are thought to give students a better chance at success. However, one must be able to present a permit for the given province, called a hukou, to take the Gaokao in that area.
Although the exam is undergoing modest reforms to address its impact on students’ health and future, it may be a while before the public notices any large changes.
“The government has been trying to change the system since a decade ago,” Sang said. “Till now, there are 16 provinces and municipalities that can develop their own test paper, instead of using the national paper. The only way to change the system is to innovate its content and form gradually.”