Take the Test to Get Into China's Top Universities

The grueling nine-hour gaokao is all that matters when applying for universities in China. No one has ever got full marks.

Students take the 2014 college entrance exam in China, in Rongan, southwest China's Guangxi province on June 7, 2014.

Photographer: AFP/Getty Images

During two days in June, 9 million Chinese high school graduates will take a college entrance test that will decide their future. Many will have spent their lives preparing for this moment.

Think of the gaokao—the word translates as “high test”—as the SAT on steroids. Nine hours long in total, it requires a mastery of Chinese history, English grammar, and complex calculus. Students seeking a future in science will be tested on physics, chemistry, and biology. Liberal arts students must show proficiency in political theory, history, and geology.


“I studied 14 hours a day, six days a week in high school, and I wasn’t even the hardest-working student in my class,” says Shan Shuang, 24, from Qingdao in China’s eastern Shandong Province. She eventually decided she wouldn’t score well enough and went to college overseas.

Unlike in the U.S., no amount of community service, interview prep, or athletic heroics will help you get into a top school. With a few exceptions, all that matters is your gaokao score and how close you get to the maximum number of points—750 in most provinces.

Most questions are multiple choice. The essay portion asks students to delve into philosophical territory. Sample: “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.”

Students who score well on the test are celebrated as heroes in their home towns, feted with banquets, and written up in Chinese media. Acing the gaokao is out of the question: Since 1977, when offering it was resumed, no one has gotten a perfect score. 

It’s impossible to get full marks,’’ says Zhang Yi, who teaches Chinese language in a high school in Guangdong province’s Zhuhai. “You may get all the answers right in math, but for Chinese and other liberal arts subjects, students write many things, and that’s highly subjective. Even bad handwriting will cost you points.”

- Yuling Yang