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The “weekend from hell” – reckon you’re up to the world’s toughest exam?

What it's like sitting the Gaokao, the world's most notoriously difficult exam?


Halfway through the year, millions of Chinese students take a gruelling three-day exam that could impact the rest of their lives. Photo / 123RF
Halfway through the year, millions of Chinese students take a gruelling three-day exam that could impact the rest of their lives. Photo / 123RF

Halfway through the year, millions of Chinese high school students will sit a gruelling university entrance examination.

Dating back to 1952, the “Gaokao” is a notoriously difficult three-day test with incredible demands – both academically and socially.

It’s far more intense than Australia’s high school exams, with more competition and societal expectations adding an exhausting amount of pressure to the estimated 9.4 million students who experience the “weekend from hell” each year.

Some parents even pay for “Gaokao hotels” close to exam centres, so children can save commuting time to study.

In several cities, “test taxis” are provided with yellow signs, and receive right of way when taking examinees to test sites.

In short, the test is so important that daily life across China turns upside-down to accommodate examinees.

And it makes our end-of-school exams sound like a luxury cruise.

What it’s like to take the Gaokao?

Students sitting the Gaokao are tested on their Chinese, mathematics, English and either a science or humanities subject of their choice.

These are some examples of essay questions from previous years:

  • A teacher asked the students to look at butterflies under a microscope. At first, they thought the butterflies were colourful, but when they looked at them closely, they realised that they were actually colourless. Based on this story, write an essay.
  • Who do you admire the most? A biotechnology researcher, a welding engineering technician or a photographer? Based on this, write an essay.
  • You are free because you may choose how to cross the desert; you are not free because you must cross the desert either way. Write an 800-word essay on this.

Yang Wang, 26, officially completed the Gaokao in 2008.

He scored well enough to gain entry into Peking University, one of China’s leading research universities in Beijing.

After a few years working in China, he eventually moved to Sydney, where he completed a Masters in Commerce at the University of New South Wales.

But it wasn’t without an extraordinary amount of effort that he gained access to Australia’s tertiary education system.

Yang told news.com.au Chinese students spend up to 80 hours or more studying every week. Holidays and school-breaks are extremely rare, and your social life is limited.

From his experience, students had at least 11 classes every single weekday, with nine classes on Saturday and up to five on Sunday.

Total daily class-time is roughly 10 hours, but in the actual year of the exam, students cram in as many extra hours as they can, feverishly doing past papers in private.

It’s the norm to spend every waking moment studying.

“In order to make sure students were focused on studying, there weren’t many extra-curricular activities at my school,” said Yang.

“Sport was maybe the only thing that was encouraged, as good health is important for students studying and living under pressure.

“It’s like living in Exam Week for Australian universities, but every single day for three years.”

Mock exams would be held up to six months before the real thing. Students faced immense pressure – but you just had to grin and bear it.

The Gaokao is controversial, even in China. Yang said it receives much more criticism than praise, because it largely focuses on rote memorisation learning rather than actually applying that knowledge using analytical skills.

But at the same time, it’s crucial for any Chinese student seeking a decent future.

Students throw up exam papers after finishing the college entrance examination. Photo / Getty Images
Students throw up exam papers after finishing the college entrance examination. Photo / Getty Images

Why is the Gaokao so important?

Every year during the exam season, it’s common to hear testimonies from previous students saying failure “is not the end of the world”.

In China, end-of-year exams are a different story. The competition is fiercer and the pressure to succeed is greater.

For one thing, according to Yang, a high exam score is the easiest way to gain tertiary education in China, which increases your chances at a better life.

While we are inclined to emphasise a variety of career paths and choices, the Gaokao is the only assessment criteria for university entrance in China.

“High competition in the labour market makes a candidate’s education background more important,” said Yang. “The reason behind this – sadly – is because it’s cheap and easy to use.”

He also said the quality of education in China varies greatly depending on which university you’ve gone to. It’s not enough to simply get into university – you need the best institution you can possibly access.

If a student receives a low score, they’ll most likely go straight into menial work.

“It’s difficult to get a decent job with only a high school degree in China,” said Yang. “Most of them have to do manual work, which is low-paid in China due to the high supply and low level of minimum wages.”

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule.

Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, is arguably the most famous Gaokao “loser”.

Ma failed the exam twice – and the chief executive billionaire is now one of the richest men in China.

Last year, he penned an open letter to Chinese students which fast went viral.

“Life is so changeable,” he wrote. “Today it goes well, yet tomorrow it may not; today you fail, but it doesn’t mean you have no chance to succeed in future.”

The “Asian parent” stereotype

There’s a well-documented stereotype about ‘Asian parenting’ – that Chinese “tiger mothers” place harsh and unrealistic expectations on their children to succeed academically, and work them to the bone.

In 2011, Chinese-American author Amy Chua created a storm of controversy in the western world with her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

An excerpt published in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Why Chinese mothers are superior”, detailed the explicit rules and restrictions she placed on her children to make them thrive academically.

A student walks with flowers from her relatives after completing the Gaokao in Guangzhou, China. Photo / Getty Images
A student walks with flowers from her relatives after completing the Gaokao in Guangzhou, China. Photo / Getty Images

Following its publication, Chua received death threats, racial slurs, and calls for her arrest on child-abuse charges.

But ironically, the controversial book was actually perceived in China as a guide to western parenting – a how-to on being more friendly with your kids.

Yang said some families in China definitely operate this way, but not all. He explained that Chinese culture is “social-oriented”, in that people aren’t shy about publicly using each other’s scores and opinions as benchmarks for their own families.

“Unfortunately some of them use that logic on their children and would benchmark their children’s performance against their peers,” he explained. This contributes to the feverish atmosphere that surrounds the exam.

But Yang himself was fortunate – his family was incredibly supportive, even changing their place of residence so he’d be closer to school, meaning he could sleep more.

He said his family expected him to do his best, but would have accepted any result, which helped him stress out less.

William Zhao, another Gaokao survivor who is now the national general manager for the Australia-China Youth Association, told news.com.au he prefers China’s teaching methods to Australia’s.

He too said the Gaokao was a brutal experience – consisting of 14-hour study days and fierce competition – but believes it laid the foundation for success.

“In Australia, students are given more time to develop their interests and engage in extra-curricular activities,” he said.

“I personally preferred having a solid academics foundation in primary and secondary school before receiving a world-class high education in Australia.”

By Gavin Fernando

SOURCE: NZ Herald/news.com.au


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