Gaokao: Future and Fate
gune’s arrival sends many young Chinese people and their parents into a tailspin as the decisive national college entrance examination, popularly known as gaokao, approaches. After many years of educational development, however, today’s students are findi
A Youthful, Brutal Arena
This year’s gaokao drew 9.4 million test-takers. As always, most of their parents waited right outside the exam sites, with cellphones ready to take photos as soon as the kids walked out.
A few other ways to get admitted to college have emerged, such as recommendations, enrollment prior to the exam or studying abroad. But for the majority of Chinese students, the gaokao remains their best shot at getting into a good school, and most work extremely hard in the hope of achieving their dreams.
Hengshui, about 300 kilometers from Beijing, is a little-known medium-sized city in Hebei Province. It first caught attention because of its position at the bottom of the province’s cities in terms of GDP. Not so today. Over the last few years, Hengshui High School has become a gaokao powerhouse. In 2016, its students received the top four scores in the province and 139 graduates were accepted to Tsinghua and Peking universities—two of the most prestigious institutes of higher learning in China. That was more than half of all the students in the province to be admitted to the two universities that year. Not surprisingly, it is popularly referred to as a “gaokao factory.”
And the term “factory” is warranted. Students’ schedules are defined to the minute: Rise at 5:30 a.m., run with a book in hand. Then morning self-study, breakfast, and 13 classes with a lunch somewhere in between. After school they jog to the dining hall for dinner, and then continue studying until the lights go off at 10:10 p.m.
Zhi Chaoyang, 27, is a graduate of Hengshui High School. His days there remain fresh in his memory. “It was a rule that everyone had to go to bed when the lights went off in the dorm,” he recalls. “A teacher patrolled every hour afterwards. If you even turned over, you could have a talk in the teacher’s office.”
Zhi admits that his high-school days were boring. “My teenage years were filled with nothing but classes, studying and endless tests. The Saturday tests and the score postings made everyone nervous all the time.” Three years of painstaking efforts resulted in his admittance to Jinan University, and now Zhi is a senior analyst at Ernst & Young, one of the top four accounting firms in the world.
“My sterile high-school days made it hard for me to assimilate with the rest of the class during my early days at college,” he recounts. “They laughed at me because I knew nothing about Harry Potter or Star Wars. For quite a while, I stayed pretty quiet. Even now, I would make the same choice again if presented with the opportunity. Despite a lot of problems with the gaokao, I believe it’s a relatively fair battlefield. It was the only avenue for me to shake off poverty and become who I am. But I wouldn’t wish it on my kids. I want them to have more options.”
When everyone else was fidgeting anxiously as they waited for the gaokao results, Li Yao, a senior from Dongzhimen High School in Beijing, was as cool as a cucumber. Four months earlier, he had already received an offer to enroll in the Department of Anthropology at Mcgill University in Montreal, Canada. He didn’t even have to attend school in the second semester and stayed home to research courses for Mcgill. However, Li escaped the fierce competition of the gaokao by starting the race much earlier.
Li’s final exam started the day he entered high school. “Anthropology was already my passion,” he says. “It was my dream to study the subject at a university to establish a career.” Because of his passion for a soft science at such an early age, someone suggested he study abroad, especially considering his impressive scores in English.
An English performance examination is required for admittance to schools abroad. During a summer camp at a foreign school, Li worked hard studying for the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and ended up scoring far above the requirement for most foreign universities with 7.5 points, which was greatly inspiring.
During his final year of high school, Li prepared for the gaokao like his classmates and prepped on weekends for the SATS while studying materials required to apply to institutes of higher learning in North America.
“I eventually chose to study in Canada because of a trip there during primary school,” Li recounts. “It was my first visit to Canada with my family, and I was deeply impressed.” He chose Mcgill for its reputed teachers in the field, with hopes that they could broaden his vision and steer his future.
The comparatively affordable tuition was another consideration. “I’m so lucky that my parents could afford all the expenses.” For many families in China, an annual rate of about 300,000 yuan is far too much. But Li Yao is not an outlier. Recent statistics show that in 2017, 60,638 candidates registered for the gaokao in Beijing, 584 less than in 2016. Total registration has declined for 11 consecutive years.
Foreign universities have taken notice of the trend. So many Chinese parents are eyeing foreign schools that many have established offices in China. Streams of international exhibitions and education fairs have sold out in big cities as increasing numbers of younger students seek undergraduate opportunities overseas.
In some Chinese metropolises, high schools now offer international classes in collaboration with North American educational institutions that feature the exact system settings of high schools on the continent. Chinese colleges and universities are also launching such programs. Some parents simply send their kids directly to high school abroad.
The gaokao and the attractive market for studying abroad can peacefully coexist. Today, the once definitive gaokao has a new flavor in the new era. At an educational crossroads, the younger generation in China are enjoying greater options for their futures.
June 7, 2017: On the first morning of the gaokao, parents are waiting right outside an exam site with their cellphones ready to take photos as soon as the kids walk out.