Millions of high school seniors across China are preparing for the most important day of their lives: gaokao (高考, gāokǎo). Gaokao is the national examination for entry to university in China. Similar to the SATs in the USA, it is a standardized test whose score determines which university you can be admitted to. Foreign media regularly cover the gaokao and the immense pressure it puts on students and their families from a young age. There are reports covering cheating scandals, suicides, money spent on extra classes, and how much families sacrificed (牺牲, xīshēng) for students who ended up failing the exam. With 10 million students taking the exam every year, are the stakes as high as the media suggests?
"Almost everyone cried after the math exam, " says Winona Liu, grimacing at the mention of the exam. Yet she acknowledges the opportunities (机会, jīhuì) the gaokao can provide: "it's a bridge... [otherwise] it's quite difficult to leave my hometown, to see the whole world." Winona wasn't a success story but she also didn't fail. She was admitted to a 2nd tier university and earned a Master's Degree (硕士学位, shuòshì xuéwèi) . She now teaches Chinese language to international students in Shanghai, China's bridge to the world.
"It's not fair (公平, gōngpíng)," agrees Clytie Yuan, a native of Suzhou and resident of Shanghai, "[but] it's still the best way for students to get to university." How else can 10 million students be evaluated for entry to the limited number of seats at China's 2,000 universities? There are creative solutions to college entrance evaluation but none that are ready for implementation at this scale. Even though the gaokao is nearly 70 years old, it has evolved to meet the changing demands of society. In just the last 4 years, the exam guidelines were updated twice, allowing students multiple opportunities to take the exam and expanding their options for the elective exam subjects.
There's no doubt that the gaokao questions are very difficult and require dedicated studying to do well. However, 75% of students who take the exam achieve a passing score and can attend college. While they can't all go to the top universities in the country, there is still opportunity for them to succeed in their studies and life. Clytie didn't do well on her gaokao and attended a 2nd tier university (二本, ěrběn). After undergrad, she completed a Master's Degree at the top school in China, Fudan University. "Gaokao is not the only way of changing your life," says Clytie. While she doesn't like the way schools teach for success on the exam and prefers more practical knowledge in the classroom, Clytie values the experience of studying for the exam. "I think it's a good challenge (挑战, tiǎozhàn) ," she says, "it's a way to know more about yourself and I developed a lot because of it."
While there are many hardships and sad stories surrounding the gaokao, there are many more successes and students who, like Winona, have achieved their dreams (梦想, mèngxiǎng), even if they don't score in the top tier. Ten years after sitting for the exam, Winona and Clytie groan and complain about the exam but also admit that they don't remember what they wrote for the essay question. It may have been the focus of their studies for 2 years in high school but it is by no means the most important day in their lives.