Beijing — Millions of Chinese students sit for notoriously tough college entrance exams on Wednesday, the first since the country lifted zero-Covid rules that forced classes online for months on end.
China’s education ministry says nearly 13 million students, a record, are registered to take the “gaokao” exams – billed by state media as the “world’s toughest” – this year.
“I’ve been waking up at 4 am every day, except on Sundays, to study for the past four years,” Jesse Rao, a 17-year-old high school senior in Shenzhen, told AFP.
“I’ve done everything I can, but I still feel a bit nervous.”
In Beijing, anxious parents gathered around exam halls as their children knuckled down, many wearing red for good luck.
Zhang Jing, a mother in her forties, compared herself to Bai Suzhen, a character in Chinese folklore who is locked in a tower until her son passes an important test.
“A record 12.9m Chinese high-schoolers will start the feared gaokao exams on Wednesday. They will solve equations, parse English sentences, and write about disparate topics (last year’s papers mentioned fireworks, covid tests and Go, a board game).” | @TheEconomist
— Ifeanyi UDDIN (@IfeanyiUddin) June 7, 2023
“My son is quite relaxed, I think I am more nervous than him,” Zhang, wearing a red qipao, a traditional Chinese dress, told AFP.
“I have been accompanying my son and instructing his study from the first grade of elementary school to the first year of high school,” she explained.
Another mother, Fang Hong, told AFP she had prepared a simple breakfast of bread and eggs for her son.
“My son is a bit nervous, I told him we can accept any results of the gaokao and not put any pressure on him,” she said.
Testing high school students on their Chinese, English, mathematics and other science or humanities subjects of their choice, the exams are critical to landing coveted spots at China’s top universities.
Many parents shell out hundreds of dollars a month on cram schools or hire graduate students to sit with their children while they study late into the night.
Exams are notorious for testing the ability to compose essays in response to oblique prompts, with sample questions published Wednesday by the People’s Daily newspaper requiring students to contemplate the effect of technology on time management and the impact of a good story.
Another sample question asked them to muse on two aphorisms by President Xi Jinping, adding that they would be marked in part on whether they write from the “correct angle”.
Adding to the stress, this year’s exam-takers have spent the bulk of their high school years under pandemic restrictions, which ended abruptly in December.
“Gaokao Jiayou!” British football star David Beckham sends encouraging messages in Chinese to Chinese students who are going to attend this year’s college entrance exam, also known as Gaokao, to be held on June 7-9. A record 12.91 million people will join the test.… pic.twitter.com/iLbhaByUMH
— Zhang Meifang (@CGMeifangZhang) June 6, 2023
“I struggled to follow online lessons last year,” Katherina Wang, a high school student from Shanghai who has been through two snap lockdowns in the past two years, told AFP.
“Our teachers held extra classes in the evenings and on the weekend.”
The high stakes have led to elaborate attempts at cheating.
Several provinces this year have installed scanners with facial-recognition capabilities to ensure that candidates do not hire proxies to take the test on their behalf, the state-run Global Times reported.
‘I will try again’
Exams can last up to four days, depending on the province, taking between an hour and 150 minutes per subject.
The maximum score is 750, with over 600 required for a place at top-tier universities – for years a ticket to personal and professional success in China.
Very few make the cut. Last year, only three percent of exam-takers in Guangdong, China’s most populous province, scored over 600.
And for students with more modest ambitions, scores still play a critical role in securing spots in universities and what subjects can be taken.
For those that do not get the results they need, there is always next year. In 2021, 17 percent of students nationwide retook their gaokao.
“If I don’t get the results I want, I will try again,” Benjamin Zhu, a high school senior from Guangzhou, told AFP.