Record 13 million Chinese students tackle gaokao exams after zero-COVID rules lifted

A record-breaking 13 million Chinese students are set to take the notoriously challenging “gaokao” college entrance exams this year, following the lifting of the country’s zero-COVID rules. These exams, which test high school students on subjects such as Chinese, English, mathematics, and their preferred science or humanities subjects, play a crucial role in securing places at China’s top universities.

“I’ve been waking up at 4am every day, except on Sundays, to study for the past four years,” said Jesse Rao, a 17-year-old high school senior in Shenzhen. “I’ve done everything I can, but I still feel a bit nervous.”

In Beijing, anxious parents gathered around exam halls, many dressed in red for good luck. Zhang Jing, a mother in her forties, said, “My son is quite relaxed, I think I am more nervous than him. I have been accompanying my son and instructing his study from the first grade of elementary school to the first year of high school. After the exam, I’ll be completely relaxed.”

Many parents invest hundreds of US dollars each month in cram schools or hire graduate students to support their children’s studies. This year’s exam-takers have experienced additional stress, having spent most of their high school years under pandemic restrictions that only ended in December.

Katherina Wang, a high school student from Shanghai, said, “I struggled to follow online lessons last year. Our teachers held extra classes in the evenings and on weekends and helped us to catch up!”

The high stakes of these exams have led to elaborate cheating attempts, with parents hiring graduate students to take the test on behalf of their children or students using electronic devices to communicate with experts outside. Several provinces have installed scanners with facial-recognition capabilities to prevent proxy test-taking and detect hidden electronic equipment used for cheating.

Exams can last up to four days, with each subject taking between 60 to 150 minutes. The maximum score is 750, with over 600 needed for a place at top-tier universities. Last year, only 3% of exam-takers in Guangdong, China’s most populous province, scored over 600.

Scores are also crucial for students with more modest ambitions, determining university places and subject options. For those who do not achieve their desired results, there is always the option to retake the gaokao next year. In 2021, 17% of students nationwide did so.

“If I don’t get the results I want, I will try again,” said Benjamin Zhu, a high school senior from Guangzhou.

World News


Sara is a journalist and content writer who specializes in lifestyle, wellness, and travel topics. Sara's journey in journalism began as a copywriter, and over time, her portfolio expanded to include articles and features for some of the nation's top lifestyle publications. Outside the office, she enjoys practising yoga and exploring hidden locations in Bangkok.

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