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We Need To Address the Hardest Exam in the World: the Chinese Gaokao

Every year, Chinese Seniors in high school are tested on what they’ve learned throughout their schooling by an intense test called the National Higher Education Entrance Examination or “Gaokao”. The test orginated in 1982 and is much like the SAT or ACT in the sense it’s a prerequisite into college; however, the Gaokao only occurs once a year, so if a student fails, they must wait an entire year for the opportunity to take it again.

This year, the exam was scheduled for June 7-9 and total about 9 hour days. The atmosphere around the Gaokao is extreme. All construction sites near the testing centers are shutdown, traffic is diverted, ambulances and police cars are permanently stationed outside the facilities, and teachers meander the premises to help students with some last minute teaching. 

On the day of the test, students enter the testing facility and leave parents and guardians waiting outside in anticipation. The Gaokao is used as motivation for students starting in as early as primary school because the college entrance program in China is one of the most competitive in the world.

Due to the stakes being so high, examination facilities have installed cameras and metal detectors to ensure there is no cheating. Answers or hints have been found in jewelry, glasses, wallets, pens, rulers, and even underwear. A high score on the Gaokao can guarantee a good college and a successful career, while a poor score can put a person years behind in the working world. There were even reports of doctors in Tianjin, China who prescribed birth control pills to female students who wanted to ensure they wouldn’t be menstruating at the time of examination.

After the test, it’s not uncommon to see a large spike in suicide rates by students who feel they have underperformed. A study in 2014 found that the Gaokao contributed to 93% of student suicides, but these statistics aren’t just for high schoolers – a 10 year old boy tried to throw himself into traffic after disagreeing with his mother regarding homework and the Gaokao. 

China has been criticized often for this intense testing method; however, their retort is the same every time, “China has too many people.” With room for only about 5,000 students in top universities, but 9.12 million students taking the exam at the same time every year, it’s hard to find a better way. Until a healthier method is developed, Chinese students will continue to face extreme pressure and undergo unnecessary amounts of stress for a three-digit score.

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Ariel Zedric is a student at Tufts University. When she's not studying, you can find her wandering around on her blog at Contact via email at or on Twitter or Instagram @arielzedric

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