Snapshots into the GaoKao: China’s Infamous Standardized College Entrance Exam

This post was written by Project Pengyou intern, Guantao Xu, who is a current student at Beijing High School No. 4. Although he plans to study in the U.S., he is curious about how his peers dealt with the Gaokao, and interviewed them about their experiences with the infamous test.


Slogans in the classes when students are preparing for Gaokao

If you have lived or studied in China you may have heard about the dreaded “Gaokao”. Gaokao stands for “Putong gaodeng xuexiao zhaosheng quanguo tongyi kaoshi” (普通高等学校招生全国统一考试) which translates to the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, and has long been regarded as the Chinese version of SAT.

What is the Gaokao?

Shanghai 2012, after arriving late, a student was refused entrance to a testing room.

You may have heard about the Gaokao, however, haven’t seen slogans plastered all over classrooms encouraging students who are preparing for the SAT, or heard about parents kneeling in front testing rooms to beg entrance for their child who arrived late. You probably haven’t thought about how a test can affect the economy of a district or even a city. To a student in China, the Gaokao is not just about education, it’s a ticket to a better life.

The results of the Gaokao can make or a break a Chinese student. The American college system may consider other factors in a college application such as the student’s extracurricular activities, essays, leadership, community service, etc. However Chinese students have only a razor thin margin of their Gaokao score on which to hang their college dreams.

Because the Gaokao is held annually, students only have one chance to take it. It’s a high school senior’s worst nightmare that there will be some accident or mishap on the scheduled day and they will have to wait another year and try again.


The Gaokao is an industry that creates more than 100 million yuan a year. Maotanchang is a small village in a remote valley with one of the biggest Gaokao prep schools in the country. More than 20,000 students and parents flood into to prepare for the test.

Stories from the Frontlines of the Gaokao

With all of this pressure, I wondered how anyone could manage to enjoy high school. Curious, I decided to interview a few students in one of the best high schools in Beijing. Some had already taken Gaokao, while some are still preparing to take the test. I found that there were a wide variety of thoughts, feelings, experiences, and suggestions from my peers about taking the Gaokao, and even how to balance life in highschool in China. Read the excerpts below for their stories:


1. “Your interests are the best teacher.”


GENDER: Female

RANK: 15/70

GRADE: Sophomore

Li has a handle on all things fun. How did she prepare for the Gaokao?

In my opinion, high school is a time for having fun. I enjoy reading novels, playing sports, playing video games and watching movies. As students, we should not only focus on preparing for class and tests.

Play itself is actually a process of studying. When playing sport, the coach will stop me from drinking cold water immediately after running, which may help me to better understand principles of metabolism. When reading a book, the author may mention Ninety-five Theses, which will help me imagine how the Reformation happened.

Moreover, having fun is also a key factor to developing my interest in a certain subject. When I was young, a game called Sanguo-Xia sparked my interest in history. After playing, I found it more interesting to discuss with the teacher.

I’m not really worried about the Gaokao, since I can definitely get into Peking University with my current score. I am a relatively good student, but I don’t thank for Gaokao system for my success. If there was no Gaokao, I could have had more time to develop my own interests. 

Is the Gaokao the only topic of high school life? Is studying the only thing to do in high school? Should forcing a student to get into a better school at any cost be the result of education? 


2. “Life is a quite long time”

NAME: Yang



GRADE: Junior

Yang seemed to be the authority in political science. However, he used to described himself as a pure chemistry student. We found it totally crazy when he changed his subject from Science to Arts, because of numerous disadvantages in career and major selection for him to choose from. Let’s see what changed his mind so abruptly:

I was in the best class in this so-called best school. We did research cooperatively with real scientists; we performed experiments with the most sophisticated instruments and tools. It’s hard to say why I changed my mind so abruptly.

The answer is not that I want to pursue a certain future job, since I haven’t decided what I will do in the future.  I don’t think anyone my age can accurately predict their future. Chushijian, a famous entrepreneur, didn’t find his niche until his 60’s. How can I know exactly how and where I will be?

The answer is not that I want to get a higher grade on the Gaokao, since studying in art may fluctuate my ranking. Scores of art students are typically very close, a small mistake can ruin your test. So I don’t think I will get any advantages in the art subjects’ test.

The real reason is that the Art subject will really help me to be a better person. I after several years, people won’t use or remember Le Chatelier’s principle or the Induced formula, but everyone wants to know how to fit in, how make friends and how to get along with your neighbors.

Some regard Gaokao as their only purpose during their high school years. People choose to study their strengths but not the subjects they are actually interested in. People get huge mental stress struggling for a higher score; they spend all day sitting at their desk. That’s not what humans are meant to do.

If I failed to get into Peking university at the age of 18, I can still work hard in my 30s; I can still carve out a life in my 40s; I can even do something like investment in my 50s. Life is quite a long story, instead of only focusing on one test, I prefer focusing on long-term self improvement.


3. “Do the right thing in the right time.”

NAME: Zhang


CLASS RANK: 80/270

GRADE: Junior

Zhang is the former president of the student union of BHSF. Spending lots of time participating in the campus activities, how can he fight for the battle of Gaokao?

As a senior, I definitely feel a huge amount of pressure. I have seen huge changes in my classmates as well. Students who are interested in sports no longer play basketball, the biggest sleepyhead tries his best to focus on the class, even the class clown doesn’t crack jokes any more. To make matters worse, I have to spend time I used to have for my own social activities for studying.

Do you have regrets?” 

No, not at all! Being the president decreased my time for study, but it didn’t hurt my chances. I have a whole year to get all of these missing points back, but others cannot find the experiences I had in the future. The best way to live life is by doing the right thing at the right time. During the first year of the high school, play as much as you can; in the next year, achieve as much as you can; during the last year, study as much as you can.


4. “Choose your goal to pursue.”

NAME: Chai


CLASS RANK: 80/270

GRADE: Already graduated!

Chai did really well on the Gaokao, but he chose to attend Beijing Sport University, which was not regarded one of the best school in Beijing. Why did he make so many “mistakes?”

Once, I had a chance to be exempted from the Gaokao because of my performance in sports. In my fathers eyes, going to Renmin University as a sport student and majoring in management is a perfect life. However, it is not my thing. By taking the exemption, I would lose a great opportunity to apply for my ideal major. Moreover, I would have to spend a lot of time just monotonously playing basketball, which means I would be distracted from my academics. That’s why I refused the exemption.

I did very well on Gaokao. My high score allowed me to go to a selection of good colleges – Renmin University, Xiamen University, or Wuhan University. I chose Beijing Sport University, because I love sports.

When it comes to success, the first thing comes to a students’ mind is Tsinghua University and Peking University. Truly, going into these two giant school attests one’s enormous ability. However, besides the ability, getting a high enough score in Gaokao also requires luck. Going to your own ideal school to pursue your own dream is also a success.


5. “Our parents influence us a lot”

NAME: Wang

GENDER: Female

CLASS RANK: 100/270

GRADE: Junior

Wang is an introverted girl that you might write off as “normal” if you don’t get to know her. In her last year of high school, her biggest challenge is her family.

I think I am a traditional “good girl”. I follow all the instructions of my teachers and parents. There used to be barely no conflict between my and my parents, however, I find my parents increasingly annoying these days.

First, they started suspecting me. Whenever I use my phone to look up English words, they will come in and watch me to prevent me from playing games. The thing is, I’ve never shown any interesting in playing electronic games. Furthermore, sometimes I don’t feel very hungry at meals, my parents say that I ate snacks with other male classmates, and emphasize the detriment of falling in love before the Gaokao. I know and understand all the principles they tell me, and there is no reason for me to lie to them just to playing games in secret. I think there should be basic mutual trust between people, their words really hurt.

Second, they are too utilitarian. Springtime class trips are a good chance to promote my relationship with my classmates, but my parents won’t let me go. “Can your classmates send you to Peking University?” they complained, “Why are you trying to make a bunch of friends?” It is embarrassing for me to hear others talking about their adventures and I don’t get it at all.

Third, they make my choices for me. For example, there are lots of elective courses and without notifying me, they chose the Gaokao English course for me. I took me half an hour to convince my history teacher to recommend me for the class Wars and Peace in the 20th Century. You can’t imagine how I was chided when I had to tell my history teacher that I would not attend this class after all.

I love studying, and I am eager to get into a good university, but please don’t force me to do that. It’s really discouraged me.


Future of the Gaokao

The students highlighted in this article represent the cream of the crop in China, but many other students are betting their whole future on their Gaokao results. Not all Chinese students have the flexibility or the means to choose their own path.

The Chinese Gaokao system originated during the Sui dynasty and seems to be outdated. From hearing my classmates struggles and seeing the effect it has on society, it seems it is facing difficulty blending into this modern world.

Eager to develop multiple skills and talents, students are seeking a better path to education. The soaring trend of studying abroad is also a good reflection of students’ disappointment in the Gaokao system. For our future overseas students, struggling with the SAT, TOEFL, GPA, and a great variety of extra-curriculum activities will not necessarily give us an easy high school life. However, the choice to choose a better future is worth these challenges. I hope one day through the efforts of teachers, government and parents, Chinese student will have more choices to live their life the way they choose.


Image sources: slogans about Gaokao ( the kneeling mother ( Maotanchang School (