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What is Gaokao, the World's Toughest Exam That Drew a Record 13.42 Million Chinese Students This Time?

The two-day national college exam is the lone criterion for admission to the top universities in China.
 A student revises lessons before the first subject of the China's Annual College Entrance Exams | Getty Images | Photo by Tao Zhang
A student revises lessons before the first subject of the China's Annual College Entrance Exams | Getty Images | Photo by Tao Zhang

A record number of high school students in China appeared for what’s dubbed by the Chinese media as the “World’s Toughest Exam.” The National College Entrance Examination “Gaokao” registered a record 13.42 million candidates this year, as per the Ministry of Education. The two-day national college exam will decide the future of these students as their country grapples with a slowing economy.

The exam usually takes place from June 7 to 8 every year, though in some provinces it can last for an extra day. Last year, a record 12.9 million students had appeared for the exam to make it the biggest “Gaokao” to be ever held in the country, a record that’s broken again.

A candidate reviews before entering an exam site for the National College Entrance Examination | Getty Images | Photo by VCG/VCG
A candidate outside an exam site for the National College Entrance Examination | Getty Images | Photo by VCG/VCG

The Gaokao exam is taken by Chinese students in their third and final year of high school. It is the lone criterion for admission to Chinese universities. In an atmosphere charged with high stakes, competition, and intensity, students channel all they've absorbed over 12 years into a test lasting just under two hours.

Varying from province to province, the test generally includes subjects like Chinese literature, mathematics, and a foreign language (mostly English).

Students choosing liberal arts need to take additional tests in subjects related to history, politics, and geography. While students of science, take physics, chemistry, and biology tests.

Students need to fill out a form listing their desired colleges before or after taking the Gaokao. Every college has the lowest intake score which varies by province. As per a report from The Guardian, a score of 690 out of 750 is good enough to get into the country’s elite universities.

However, if a student does not meet any school requirements, they lose the chance of getting into college and wait for another academic year. They will have to redo their final year to appear for the next Gaokao.

The Gaokao is considered the most important exam Chinese students will face in their lives. Thus, students spend years preparing for the exam, as a high score is the only way to get into the country’s top universities. Some even cram for 12 hours a day in the months leading up to the test.

The mathematics section of the exam has been referred to as the toughest math exam by many on the internet.

Furthermore, the toughest questions are the essays which can range from topics related to philosophy, history, the environment, and even President Xi Jinping's policies.

This year on June 7, the first day of the exam was smoothly conducted. On the day of the exam, Chinese social media flooded with good-luck messages and encouragement. Chinese celebrities and even some international stars like David Beckham posted on social media wishing the exam takers good luck.

Parents were especially dressed in crimson, the color of victory in China as they huddled together in drizzly Beijing after sending their children into an exam hall.

Authorities rolled out a slew of measures to maintain order and stability. Traffic police were deployed in the streets of Beijing as early as 6 am to help smooth and reduce the flow of traffic around centers and schools, Xinhua reported. Meanwhile, in Shanghai, taxi dispatch centers started taking bookings for students taking the exam from a week ago.