Grueling 'gaokao' test puts huge pressure on China's young people

Annual college entrance exams can trigger anxiety, depression, self-harm and violence, parents and teachers say.
By Kitty Wang for RFA Mandarin
2024.06.10
Grueling 'gaokao' test puts huge pressure on China's young people Staff members monitor the venues as students sit for the annual national college entrance examination, or "gaokao," in Xian, Shaanxi province, China, on June 7, 2018.
(Wang Jian/Xi'an Evening News via Reuters)

Millions of Chinese teenagers are taking the grueling 'gaokao' college entrance exam this week, despite fears that the system is rigged against them and amid growing concern over the psychological pressure they exert on young people, students, parents and educators told Radio Free Asia.

Most college entrance tests took place on Friday and Saturday, with a record number of 13.42 million candidates, a rise of more than half a million compared with last year, the Ministry of Education said. Some parts of the country have an extra day of exams.

This year's gaokao marks the sixth year in a row that more than 10 million students have sat the gaokao, with 4.13 million of this year's candidates coming back to take the test again.

The majority of candidates are likely to be offered some kind of place at university.

Colleges and training schools are currently posting admission rates of around 90%, compared with just 4.79% in 1977, when the exams resumed after a decade-long break during the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.

But questions are being raised about the level of pressure put on young people, and about the lengths to which some candidates are willing to go to achieve a high score and a place in a prestigious institution.

ENG_CHN_GRUELING GAOKAO_06102024.2.jpg
Parents wait for students behind a police line during the annual national college entrance exam, or "gaokao,” at a high school in Shanghai, China, June 7, 2023. (Aly Song/Reuters)

"The gaokao is pretty much the only way to get the benefits of higher education in China," college student Li Hao told RFA Mandarin. "If you don't take it, you won't get a job and you won't survive."

Yet it's still not easy to get into China's best schools.

Only around 10% will make it to honors degree programs across the country, and just 2% can hope to gain a place at the 39 highest-ranking universities, while a candidate's chance of securing an undergraduate place at Beijing's Tsinghua or Peking University is only around 5 in 10,000, according to data compiled by state-backed media The Paper last year.

Varying admission rates

And the uneven distribution of resources mean that admission rates vary hugely across China's major cities, provinces and regions.

Most candidates are competing with students from their own province, but there is stark inequality based on where a candidate lives.

While 79% students in Shanghai can expect the gaokao to yield them a place in a Chinese school, along with 77% of Beijing kids and 66% of candidates from the northern port of Tianjin, the agricultural province of Henan has an undergraduate admission rate of just 47%, which its residents attribute to unfair policies that rig the system against poorer, rural residents.

Around 1.36 million high school students are taking the gaokao this year in Henan, the largest number from any province, city or region.

Yet this province of 98 million people only has a single top-tier university.

"I can only describe it as tragic," a former Henan high school teacher who gave only the nickname Lucy for fear of reprisals told Radio Free Asia. "[The gaokao] really is torture for students. It's a very extreme exam."

‘Destructive to the human spirit’

The constant pressure and lack of recreation have two common outcomes for Chinese students, she said.

"One is self-harm, which comes from depression -- there are a lot of depressed people," she said. "Another is finding a way to take it out on others through bullying."

"Bullying that leads to death and disability is particularly common," Lucy said.

ENG_CHN_GRUELING GAOKAO_06102024.3.jpg
Students gather and wait to be taken to the venue for the annual national college entrance examination, or "gaokao," while their parents see them off, June 5, 2018, in Dandong, Liaoning province, China. (Reuters)

Lucy's students' day started with mass exercise programs at 5.30 a.m., followed by a full day of class, with personal study expected of students until at least 10.00 p.m.

"They got very little sleep, which meant they were tired all of the time," Lucy said, adding that the entire process did little to instill a love of learning in young people.

"As soon as the gaokao is done, they tear up all their books and go wild," she said. "They destroy all of it immediately, and never want to look at it again, ever."

"[The whole thing] is so destructive to the human spirit."

And regional disparities that were once baked into the system to give candidates in more deprived areas a fighting chance now make kids feel as if the system is rigged against them from the start, Lucy said.

"You can't get into Henan's Zhengzhou University even with a score of 600 [if you live in Henan], but you can get into Zhengzhou University with a score of 450 if you live somewhere else, like Shaanxi," she said. "It's unfair to children in Henan."

High expectations

A former Henan resident who migrated to the United States just before she sat the gaokao remembers how intense the pressure was.

"Long hours of study every day and very little time off," said the former student, who gave only the nickname Annie for fear of reprisals. "A lot of parents place very high expectations on their kids, and see the gaokao as the only way towards a future."

"The schools have high requirements too -- all of that puts a lot of pressure on students, who often feel depressed and anxious," she said.

Nothing will change unless there are other ways to secure a decent job, she said.

ENG_CHN_GRUELING GAOKAO_06102024.4.jpg
Students take an examination on an open-air playground at a high school in Yichuan, Shaanxi province April 11, 2015. (Reuters)

In the lowest-ranking provinces, which include Guangxi, Sichuan, Hunan and Jiangxi, less than 40% of gaokao hopefuls will gain entrance to a university or college.

And while the number of gaokao candidates just keeps growing, the number of top tier universities has remained fixed at 115, and admission rates are on the decline.

Even in Beijing, where the odds are heavily weighted in residents' favor, only 7.1% of applicants will make it into any of those schools.

And the rewards aren't guaranteed for those who do graduate from college.

"Twenty or 30 years ago, we could get a pretty good job if we got into a university, but things are different now," Beijing mother Chen Hui told RFA Mandarin. "Nowadays, it's all about getting into a better university."

And even though admission rates are high in Beijing, competition is fierce among the children of the elite, she said.

"The children of top students are more likely to become top students themselves, so the competition among them is even more intense," said Chen, whose daughter is in a top Beijing high school.

To achieve her family's goals for her, she only sleeps 6-7 hours a night, and is suffering from mental health issues from the stress.

"I told her not to stress about it too much, and that we could apply to study abroad if she didn't do well in the gaokao," Chen said. 

Preferential treatment?

Tianjin college student Li Bo said there were massive differences between his former high schools in central Hebei province and in Tianjin, a major port city that neighbors Beijing.

He thinks Henan students are particularly disadvantaged by government policy, something he believes is deliberate.

"Henan is a big agricultural province, and yet their required gaokao scores are the highest in the country," Li said. "The reason for that is that the central government doesn't want people from Henan to go to college and get educated."

"It wants them to stay and farm the land," he said. 

ENG_CHN_GRUELING GAOKAO_06102024.5.jpg
Students leave school after their last exam of the National College Entrance Examination, known as “gaokao” on June 9, 2022, in Huaian, in China's eastern Jiangsu province. (AFP)

Cheating is also a pervasive problem that can affect the fairness of the gaokao system, Li said.

"Cheating was rife when I took my gaokao in Tianjin," he said. "Several of my teachers told the students quite blatantly to copy from candidates nearby."

Yet everyone -- parents, schools, and most of all students -- appear locked into a system that plunges the nation into exam hell, year after year.

Lucy said one of her students, asked to tell the class a story, came up with the following fable: "There was a little bird that didn't know how to fly. Then it laid an egg, and wanted the egg to fly. The egg was under a lot of pressure and didn't want to fly, but it had no choice."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

POST A COMMENT

Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.