Gaokao: how it differs from exams in the US

College entrance exams are something everybody has to confront. But in China, these college entrance exams have a little extra weight in the lives of young people.


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Anyone who has attended high school in the U.S. is well aware of the SAT and ACT- the two annoying standardized tests that every prospective college student must take. However, although college entrance exams are important in the U.S., they certainly are not a matter of life or death. Regardless of how well (or not so well) you score, you have options. You can attend university, enter the workforce, or attend a trade school or enlist in the military.  

In China, there is one and only one college entrance exam: the gaokao (高考). The gaokao has significant weight in the lives of young Chinese people, which weighs heavier than the SAT and ACT in the U.S. The exam doesn’t just determine the college that people will attend, it sets in motion the course of a young person’s life. 

In fact, it is so important, that high school students will take it multiple times (it is only offered once a year) to achieve the desired score.  Only 60% of students are accepted into college, and of that portion, not even 0.02% of the test takers are admitted to the universities that are considered “prestigious”: Peking, Tsinghua, Zhejiang, Shanghai, and Fudan University.

The gaokao is far more intense than any college entrance exam in the U.S. 

While the SAT and ACT are around 4 hours in length, the gaokao is spread over two days and takes about 9 hours in total. The SAT and ACT both cover English and math skills (ACT covers very basic science). The gaokao covers math, Chinese, foreign languages (English or French), and two optional sections in the arts and sciences. It’s evident how much more intensive the gaokao is in the breadth and depth of what it tests students on. 

Here is a sample gaokao math question (considered easy):  

The stakes are so much higher for a student taking the gaokao than a student taking the SAT or ACT. As gaokao can only be taken once a year, a low gaokao score means another year of study and prep.  A poor SAT/ACT score can be rectified by preparing more and taking the exam again in the same year. Some schools, even combine your best scores in each category across all of your tests.  

When it comes to preparing for the exams, the gaokao is more intense. For the SAT and ACT, students take practice tests, try to get a good night’s sleep before the exam, and eat a good breakfast. 

For the gaokao, students dedicate their entire senior year to the test. When exam days come around, families will take “by any means necessary” measures to ensure that their child is in the most optimal state to take the exam. Elementary and middle school located near test sites are canceled so that there is minimal noise in the surrounding areas. Planes are redirected so they don’t disturb gaokao examination centers.  Even police roadblocks are set up to minimize disturbances. This is quite different from the U.S. where people could care less that the SATs or ACTs are happening.  

The gaokao is the culmination of a Chinese child’s educational journey. At the same time, it has become a significant part of Chinese society. 

As gaokao season arrives for this class of Chinese high school graduates, we wish them all the best in their endeavors. Hopefully, they don’t have to take the exam again next year.


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