Defenders of the gaokao, which has its roots in the imperial exam system, say the test is a crucial component in a meritocratic education system, allowing students from poorer backgrounds or rural areas to compete for spots in top universities. However, the odds are heavily against those students, since a quota system based on residency means it is much easier for applicants in cities like Beijing and Shanghai to get into universities in those cities, which are generally considered the best in China. Peking University, among the most prestigious universities in China, does not release admission rates, but Zhong said in his television program that a student from Anhui Province had a one in 7,826 chance of getting into Peking University, while a student from Beijing had one in 190 odds, or 0.5 percent. (Harvard had a 5.9 percent acceptance rate this year.)
Even supporters of the gaokao system acknowledge the level of anxiety involved in taking the exam. It is not uncommon for Chinese to have recurring nightmares about cramming for and taking the gaokao, years after they have graduated from university. Many schools in China set aside the final year of high school as a cram year for the test. Yang said that, during his senior year, he spent 13 hours a day studying. He also said his parents even rented an apartment for him near his school so he would not have to waste time traveling back and forth to his parents’ home.
“When I was getting close to the test, pretty much all I did, besides eating and sleeping, was study,” said Zhao Xiang, a high school graduate from Zunyi, Guizhou Province.
He said that before the gaokao students’ lives were full of suffering.
“Sometimes it was pressure from my family, sometimes it was the expectations from my teacher, and sometimes it was pressure from myself. In the period before the gaokao I was constantly in a really bad mood. I was really confused,” he said.
A report by Xinhua news agency said that of the 9.15 million students who took the gaokao this year, about 75 percent would be admitted to universities in China. Once the students get their scores, they submit a list of universities to education officials, ranking them in order of preference. Administrators at the universities then look at the students’ scores and decide whether to admit them for the coming academic year.
Many universities do set aside a few slots for students admitted on the basis of special merit, thus allowing leeway for students who do not take the gaokao or have low scores. Admission in those cases can be based on factors like musical talent, foreign language skills or athletic prowess, similar to universities in the US. Ethnic minority students sometimes get an advantage.
Of course, children of senior Chinese Communist Party members, government leaders and prominent businesspeople have their own back channels to admission, a phenomenon that exists, too, in the West, though perhaps not to the same degree.
There has also been a growing trend of Chinese students applying to universities outside China. Many Chinese parents — including the party’s top leaders — not only value a degree from a foreign university over one from a Chinese university, but also want their children to avoid the stress of taking the gaokao. An Education Ministry report last year said the number of high school students from top cities leaving the country to pursue higher education overseas rose by 20 percent each year from 2008 to last year.