Explainer: Everything You Need to Know About the Gaokao

By Cathy Wu, July 7, 2020

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The Explainer is where we explain an aspect of Chinese life. Simple. So now you know.

The roadblocks are being set up, the police dispatched and the drones are hovering in the sky to catch cheaters. This year, China’s annual college entrance exam season has been delayed one month due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will run from July 7 to 8. You can almost smell the pressure in the air as more than 10 million students across the country prepare to take the National College Entrance Examination, aka the ‘gaokao,’ a high-stakes exam on which students’ entire future depends.

But what exactly is the gaokao?

Students bury their heads in "paper seas." Image via Quora

The gaokao (高考) is an examination that is taken by Chinese students in their third and final year of high school typically from June 7 to June 8 or 9 (however, this year it has been delayed for obvious reasons). It is also the lone criterion for admission into Chinese universities. One Chinese saying aptly compares the exam to a stampede of “thousands of soldiers and tens of thousands of horses across a single log bridge.”

Though varying from province to province, the gaokao generally includes tests of Chinese literature, mathematics and a foreign language (in most cases English). If students choose liberal arts as specialty in high school, they need to take additional tests related to history, politics and geography. If they choose science, they’ll take physics, chemistry and biology tests.

READ MORE: Students throw gaokao papers from school to relieve exam stress

Before or after students take the gaokao, they need to fill in a form listing the colleges they want to get into (the timing of which varies by region). Every college will have a lowest intake score which varies by province, and if students meet that requirement, they can be admitted. Otherwise, they will be rejected and passed on to another nominated school to see if the score meets their requirements. 

If a student does not meet any school requirements, he or she completely loses the chance of getting into college for the upcoming academic year (which has driven some to suicide in the past). But as the gaokao has no official age limit, students often redo the entire final year gaokao preparations to take the test again... and again, and again. One grandpa farmer went viral in 2014 for taking his 14th gaokao. Another brave 49-year-old man in Sichuan made headlines last year after announcing that he was on his 20th attempt at taking the exam in order get into his dream school.

How do Chinese students and parents prepare for the gaokao?

A student burns the midnight oil before the big day. Image via 新华网/Weibo

As you can imagine, the preparation for such a high-stakes make-or-break exam is a long and grueling process. The final year of high school is often devoted to preparations where students do practice exams almost every day while books and exam papers can be seen piled up on their desks. 

Maotanchang High School, a famous ‘cram school’ in Anhui province, came under fire when its drill-like 16-hour daily study schedule was exposed to the public. In an interview with the New York Times, a student in Maotanchang said, “If you connected all of the practice tests I’ve taken over the past three years, they would wrap all the way around the world.” 

The exam also came under further scrutiny in 2012 after images of students using intraveneous injections while studying were widely circulated online.

Parents are also known to not sit idle while their children are up to their ears in "exam paper seas." Some parents quit their jobs to accompany their children, while full-time gaokao nannies and hired exam-takers are also not uncommon. Some desperate parents even resort to burning incense and praying to Buddha to wish their children good scores.

When the big day comes…

Image via Sina

From priority access to noise control, the whole country tiptoes around during the exams. To ensure students get to their exams in on time, many different measures are taken by authorities. For example, transportation officials in Shanghai have allowed test takers to get priority access to all metro stations, and students holding admission cards can be waved through metro stations, free of charge. Volunteers and police are also deployed to help give directions, with more than 1,700 taxi drivers offering free rides to exam-takers in Beijing in 2014.

Parents wait in the rain outside a test center in Shanghai in 2015. Image via The Paper

While often criticized for prompting a culture of cramming, the gaokao is also regarded as the fairest way of screening talent in a country with such a large population. For students coming from rural places, the gaokao can be their ticket to big cities and more promising futures. 

For all its importance, one thing that should be noted is that the gaokao weighs more in less developed areas, as students in first-tier cities like Shanghai are more likely to choose to study overseas. Also, the intake scores in those cities are relatively lower than those in less developed regions. 

READ MORE: Check Out These Ingenious James Bond-esque Cheating Gadgets Confiscated During Gaokao

Despite all the stress and importance surrounding the gaokao, the number of students taking the exam has dropped in recent years, according to Global Times. The decline is partially due to population decrease, but also because more options for higher education are available to Chinese students than ever before. However, this year’s test taker sign-up has risen by 400,000 compared to 2019, China Daily reports.

In recent years, celebs have sent best wishes and messages of encouragement to students ahead of their exams. From Stephen Hawking, who passed away in 2018, to Jim Parsons (of ‘Big Bang Theory’ fame), celebrities have used sites like Weibo to say ‘jiayou’ to millions of test-takers on social media.

Image via 生活大爆炸TBBT/Weibo

Example questions

So what are some of the questions asked on the gaokao — and just how difficult are they? It varies by province and year. Here’s a sample of questions asked in 2014...


- You needn’t take an umbrella. It isn’t going to rain.

- Well, I don’t know. It __ do.

A. might B. need C. would D. should

I found the lecture hard to follow because it _______ when I arrived. 

A. started B. was starting C. would start D. had started


A tetrahedron’s edge length is √2 and its four points are on a sphere, so what is the sphere’s area?


Gaokao sample question, Chemistry

Under the agency of catalyst, NH3 reacts with O2, so the chemical equation of I should be __________.

This article was originally published on June 6, 2017. It has been updated and republished on July 7, 2020.

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