Producer 1990 Institute 
Overview The term Gaokao means “high exam” in Chinese. It is the common name for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination. The Gaokao is a college admissions test in China, similar to the SAT in America or the A-level test in the United Kingdom. However, it is also considered a crucial milestone for a young Chinese student to advance one’s socioeconomic status and bring honor to his or her family. It’s no wonder the Gaokao invokes a high level of anxiety and stress for students and their families.

There are different pathways to navigate through or around the Gaokao, but the long-held belief in education and its effect on one’s future and societal standing is the primary driver for many in China to go through this challenging process. Compulsory education ends in middle school in China. From there, students can opt to attend an academic track or attend vocational high school. Many who take the academic high school entrance examination are preparing themselves to take the Gaokao and hoping to get into a top-notch university at the end of this long journey.

Gaokao is a multi-day test covering six areas of study given only once a year. Students have to score exceedingly well in order to be accepted by their dream schools. Every year, a ranking and matching process takes into account each student’s test score and ranked choice of desired schools along with provincial quotas set by the universities and determines the one college each high school grad will be invited to attend.

In China, attending a top-ranked college has a significant impact on the jobs students can obtain after graduation and open up opportunities for future careers. For many who are poorer, it’s a way out of a life of physical labor. Some even consider the Gaokao to be the most formidable college entrance test in the world.

In “What is Gaokao?” three high school students, from different socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds, opened up to the 1990 Institute about their Gaokao experience and how important this exam is to their futures.

Time Codes:

00:01 Intro to Gaokao

01:04 Story of Dai Yan, art student from Ma’anshan

05:28 Gaokao – teacher’s perspective

07:24 Story of Jiang Xin, repeating senior from Shenzhen

12:05 Ma Jia, international high schooler from Shanghai

18:00 Life after Gaokao

Publish Date October 21, 2022, Updated on October 28, 2022
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Reference Materials Read:

Hao, Tony; As Gaokao Scores Roll Out, Netizens Wonder if There’s More to Life Than the Hustle, June 24, 2021, Radii (added 10/28/2022)

He, Kayla;  4 Wild Stories from China’s 2022 College Entrance Exam, ‘The Gaokao”, June 9, 2022, Radii

Wu, Cathy; Explainer: Everything You need to Know about the Gaokao, June 6, 2022, That’s Magazine

Zhaung, Pinghui; Gaokao: how one exam can set the course of a student’s life in China, June 8, 2017, South China Morning Post

Dou, Eva & Chang, Vic; China’s university entrance exams are already stressful. Now add covid., June 7, 2022, Washington Post

Heinz, Nicholas; Failing Grade:  How China’s all important exam is stunting National Growth,  December 7, 2018, Berkeley Political Review

Liu, Micky; How Chinese Students cope in the world’s most competitive education system, October 3, 2021, Sinorbis


Authoritarian schooling in Shanghai vs. the American approach, October 19, 2017, Sinica Podcast

Education in China, July 14, 2014 China File and Sinica Podcast


Relief for Chinese students at end of high-stakes ‘gaokao’ college entrance exams, June 10, 2022, South China Morning Post

The Chinese Education System, July 27, 2017, recording of Lenora Chu’s (author of Little Soldiers, An American Boy, A Chinese School, A Global Race to Achieve) 1990 Institute Workshop session about China’s education system. In this lecture, the Hukou system was mentioned as an important factor in the Chinese education system. Here is a link to an article that provides some more information about Hukou.

Data Sources Education in China: How the gaokao exam shapes Chinese students’ lives and futures, August 14,2019, The China Project (previously SupChina) 

Tse, Jasmine; Record number of students begin taking China’s gaokao national college exams, June 7, 2022, South China Morning Post

5 of the toughest entrance exams in the world, June 9, 2022, Study International

Recommendation Book:

Chu, Lenora; Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School, A Global Race to Achieve, September 19, 2017, Published by Harper

Chu followed Chinese students, teachers, and experts, pulling back the curtain on a military-style education system in which even the youngest kids submit to high-stakes tests and parents are crippled by the pressure to compete. Yet as Chu delved deeper, she discovered surprising upsides, such as the benefits of memorization, competition as a motivator, and the Chinese cultural belief in hard work over innate talent.

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