The Gaokao, and the key it holds to your future

高考 (gāo kǎo, which is soon to happen at the beginning of June, is the government-organized entrance exam to Chinese public universities. Since the overwhelming majority of Chinese universities are public, it’s safe to say that it’s the golden gate to any university here. I will be addressing  the key to every Chinese student’s future simply as “Gaokao” in this post. This name is very Chinese, very short, very powerful, very simplistic.

A lot of you might have already heard about how it’s practically the only way Chinese students can have a (hopefully) glorious future, how an insane number of students try to fight each other through the exam each year, how hard it is, and how miserable failing might be. To my knowledge, few western media has yet to explain the Gaokao process. Just in case foreigners are mislead and are given the wrong impression that “you study so hard till your head explodes, you get a great score in the exam and Bob is your uncle,” here I present a quick tour to the entire Gaokao process. For foreign educational organizations who have been hearing China is a very promising market but do not know why, reading this post might also answer the following questions:

  • What exactly is Gaokao?
  • Why is the Gaokao so frequently criticized?
  • What other possibilities are there for a high school student besides Gaokao?
  • Why are more and more Chinese students are choosing foreign universities?

The prelude: 1st day of high school

So cometh the day one stops messing around as if they were in junior high, the day to really start the first league of the long voyage to one’s great expectations. There’s something else special about the day. No, not the brutal start of the Spartan textbook cramming session that will last for a full three-year period as some of you might be thinking. It’s the day one must pick which direction you will go: 文科 (wén kē, humanities) or 理科 (lǐ kē, science).

High shool desks

Desks of students in the final year of high school.

Choosing the science stream will take you on the pursuit of science and technology. From the next day on, your subjects will include Chinese (much easier than if you took it under the humanities stream), English, math, physics, chemistry and biology. Subjects such as history, politics and geography will be taught during the first two years of high school. You don’t have to study for them though. Your school either won’t give you exams for these subjects at all, or they won’t blame you for getting a zero points if they did give you an exam. In the last year of high school, such courses will be cut entirely since they are not required by Gaokao, which will help you to focus on what matters.

The humanities stream, on the other hand, is the start of a path to culture and obviously, humanities. Your main subjects will be Chinese, English, math (much easier than if you took it under the science stream), politics, history and geography. As for “irrelevant subjects” such as physics and chemistry, they’re only taught during the first two years of high school, but will not be tested during the Gaokao, much like history, politics and geography for students in the science stream.

As a kid just out of junior high, you might not know what these subjects will be like, or where your interests might be. However, you have to make the choice on the spot. Before 1998, the policy was different. Fresh high schoolers were allowed a full year’s trial period, and would pick if they wanted to do humanities or science from their second year on.

In theory, you can switch between the two paths any time. However, due to the entirely different priorities in each stream, switching means you will have to start from the beginning, while your classmates have already covered a lot of the curriculum. Switching during the first year is wise, during the second year is somewhat possible if you can persuade your parents, and during the final year is suicide. The universities and majors that humanities and science students are allowed to apply for are vastly different. By picking a path you are effectively deciding what you will be able to choose to study at university. One wrong decision will end up with you walking the wrong way in the following three years at high school, plus four years at university, which means that you might waste seven years.  Maybe you want to be a linguist (definitely a humanities student) but your parents desperately wish to make a programmer our of you (absolutely a science student) because they hear programmers make more money. Or maybe you are very proud of your physics grade in your junior high exams, which is really kids play, thus you pick science without knowing what kind of monstrosity awaits. Anyway, you are to make the decision, right here, right now. You can consult your parents (actually most folks I know have their paths picked by their parents), ask your teacher, or just flip a coin.

Stanza 1: Gaokao

The much dreaded Gaokao is just the start of the rest of your life. You’ve studied hard (or pretended to do so) for three years. It’s finally the day to reach out to your dreams or end your misery. Make sure you don’t fall ill the week before. Checking everything you should be taking before going for the exam. Your town will very likely forbid drivers to sound horns on that day just for you and your classmates to take the exam in peace, and taxis might drive you for free if they see that you are one of the stars of the day. [Note: this is NOT a joke.]

Cops escorting Gaokaoers

Chengdu, Sichuan. Traffic cops escorting Gaokaoers to make sure they get through traffic without a jam.

Take the test proudly. Do your best. This is about the least stressful event between you and your university. It’s just two days, only exams. But do remember whatever you write on the answer sheets. You will soon understand why that is necessary. The most ridiculous step is soon to follow.

Stanza 2: Gufener

估分儿 (gū fēn er), or “estimation of points (one should get)” is probably harder than the Gaokao itself. Anyone who has done his homework could take the Gaokao. Gufener involves a student who has just finished the Gaokao estimating roughly how many points he should get. This is why a Gaokaoer *must* clearly remember what he wrote on the answer sheets and write as much down as possible after the exam. Soon after the exam, the government will distribute the answers to each school and education portal websites. You will be comparing your answers to these answer sheets and assessing yourself.

If you are a Gaokaoer, you will want to do this as objectively as possible. The closer to your real exam results it is, the easier your next phase will be. An insanely optimistic Gufener might win praise and rewards from your parents for the coming few days, but ultimately, the result will be grave.

And it will be a shallow grave.

Probably without a coffin.

Stanza 3: Zhiyuan

报志愿 (bào zhì yuàn), or applying for your intended (universities and majors). You will receive a booklet from your high school which will include all the universities and majors available to you through the Gaokao. This booklet will tell you:

Students finishing Gaokao

Changsha, Hunan. Students who have finished Gaokao going home.

  • Exactly what schools there are.
  • A short introduction to each school.
  • What majors each school has to offer.
  • How many Gaokao points each major requires in your region in previous years. (The Gaokao these days is more or less regional-dependent. Depending on which province you are in, Gaokao, Gufen’er and Zhiyuan could happen in any possible sequence)

You should now have a clear idea about how many points you probably will get from the Gaokao through the Gufener stage. Examine yourself, and consider your options. Each Gaokaoer will be given 3 Zhiyuans (school choices): the ideal, the live-with-it, and the failsafe. The catches in this stage are:

  • First, if you made, a grave or overly optimistic calculation during the Gufener stage, R.I.P.
  • You don’t have any real idea about how many points you need to have in order to get into your preferred university and major. Previous years’ records are nothing but history. The major you are not confident enough to apply for might be falling out of the spotlight this year, thus lowering its standards dramatically. Things could happen the other way too.
  • As a high school graduate, it’s very likely that you don’t know exactly what computer science or international trade is be about. Your parents might not be of much help either. You will ask relatives, friends, research online, and you’ll get a million vastly varied answers, which usually serves to add to the confusion.
  • Your parents, although not knowing much more about those majors than you do, will very likely make every decision for you since you are obviously confused, and as parents they “obviously” have more sense than you do. Or so they think in typical Chinese families.
  • You might want to study English literature at university, but alas, you chose the science stream at the start of high school, and therefore will not be able to.

So far, you might feel that it is totally ridiculous that deciding one’s further education is based on so much guesswork. However, one should be grateful as before 2001 or so, THIS was stanza 1 in the Gaokao saga. During that time, you would have to submit your Zhiyuan (school choices) before you even take the Gaokao, and that’s based on pure guesswork. You would then grind your teeth and fire everything you’ve got at the actual exams whilst hoping for the best.

The finale: enrollment

Congratulations on surviving so far. You made it through 3 very busy years of high school, the legendary Gaokao, the painful Gufener, and the confusing Zhiyuan stage. You could relax for a few weeks until your enrollment letter arrives, but it’s not going to be a peaceful journey. You will go through one of the following possibilities:

  • If everything goes well, you will be enrolled into your 1st Zhiyuan. Congrats!
  • If you failed to get into your 1st Zhiyuan, you will in theory get into your 2nd Zhiyuan. But in reality this is wrong. Your make do choice is also the ideal choice for a lot of other students. By the time the university and the major consider you, they might already have filled all available places.
  • If that happens, you are left with your “failsafe” choice. Usually these Zhiyuans are less desirable schools and won’t have that problem, but the possibility is still there. Your failsafe could still fail on you.
  • There is still hope. If you can’t get into the major you wanted at the university you applied to, it might offer you a spot at another totally unexpected and unpopular major, adding more randomness to your already random future. Of course, it’s up to you to accept or refuse.
  • And here’s more hope. If the university you applied to has shut its door on you completely, there’s a chance of other public universities sending you an offer. They might have failed to get enough students due to various reasons. Your major and courses will of course be random at these schools. It’s up to you to make the final call.
  • And the last bit of hope that is not really hope. Even if you failed everything, there might still be 大专 (dà zhuān, colleges or vocational institutes that don’t offer bachelor degrees) offering you a spot. Dazhuan are usually considered undesirable because bachelor degrees are already commonplace after China’s educational reform. Dazhuan graduates will very likely have difficulty finding a job although they are actually better trained and are more work-ready than university graduates. It’s not a pit of doom though. After 3 years in a Dazhuan you will have another chance to take yet another big exam and apply to a university if you choose to do so.
  • If the world has forgotten about you, there are still private universities out there. A great portion of them do enrollment exams outside the Gaokao system, usually before it. Taking part in those exams will work as a more reliable failsafe.
  • Of course you always have the last resort of going back to high school, studying harder for another year, and go through this process again.

After all this finally comes your university days! I think we’re all pretty clear on what that entails. Only your first week at university might have some annoyance. We mentioned previously that those enrollment point requirements are regional. Yes, all provinces of China are not treated the same. Universities generally give preference to local students, then they allocate a target number to each province depending on a number of factors. It’s very possible that you fought with all you’ve got to get into Tsinghua University, only to find that the Beijing kid sitting next to you got a whopping 100 points less than you did in Gaokao. But that matters not. You next target will be a bachelor’s degree, then begins another intense fight for a master’s degree or a reasonable job after that.

Article by Illuminant’s head of research, Kane Gao.

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