Cui Mengwei is a smart and dedicated student, someone who gets good grades. Her only shortcoming, she thinks, is that she's not strong enough to study more than 16 hours a day.
Ms. Cui complains that other, fitter, students can put in longer hours than she can preparing for the gaokao, China’s massive university-entrance exam that is seen as crucial to not only the student’s own future, but that of their whole family.
“The gaokao is like a battle. I envy the students who are in better physical condition,” the 18-year-old says during a short break from last-minute cramming at her home in Hebei province, outside Beijing. “For the past six months, my parents have been telling me to take pills to help me sleep better… but I always forget to take them, because I’m already too exhausted by the time I go to bed.”
For Ms. Cui and 9.15 million other Chinese senior high school students, the “battle” nears an end Thursday as they simultaneously put pencil to paper and begin writing the two-day test they’ve been dreading, and preparing for, all year.
The stakes for gaokao, which means “big test,” could scarcely be higher. The outcome determines whether a student will get a university education and the hope that better jobs will follow. In a society where government policy restricted most families to just one child, the test is often the one chance a poor, rural family might have at moving up the social ladder.
With just 6.85 million university spots to go around (plus some at the University of Sydney in Australia, which this year became the first major foreign university to say it will consider gaokao scores from Chinese applicants), competition is fierce.
In 2010, China’s two most prestigious post-secondary schools, Beijing University and Tsinghua University, together admitted almost 600 of the 80,000 applicants who took the test in Beijing, according to the Shanghai Daily newspaper. The same universities admitted just 200 of the 195,000 test-takers from northeastern Heilongjiang province.
“The gaokao is the most important gate in life,” said Wang Yang, an independent filmmaker who recently released a documentary based on more than 70 hours of filming students preparing for the event. “To students from the poor countryside, [the gaokao] is … the only possibility of changing their rural identity and looking for an opportunity in the big cities.”
As of Thursday, almost nothing the student accomplished previously in school matters. Forget the grades: all success begins or ends with the test. Parents are bombarded with medical and nutrition advice about how to best prepare their kids for the test days. Doctors are known to hand out birth control pills to help female students avoid an untimely period.
The test is taken in four, two-hour chunks over the two days – one for each of math, science, Chinese literature and English – with a three and a half hour lunch and study break each afternoon.
Despite it all, there’s little evidence that the pressure-packed gaokao is a good way of identifying the top students universities are looking for. In 2010, the state-run China Daily newspaper reported on a study that traced the top 1,000 scorers of the past 30 years. None had gone on to a notable career.
Nonetheless, local newspapers were filled in recent weeks with reports of the lengths some students (aided in many cases by their teachers and parents) go to in order to ensure a good score.
Police reportedly broke up an exam-cheating ring and arrested 1,500 people involved in selling electronic devices such as wireless transmitters and clear plastic earphones that would allow a test-taker to communicate with helpers outside the exam room. Photographs were circulated online of a classroom in central Hubei province where teachers had hooked 30 students up to intravenous drips, reportedly pumping them with amino acids believed to help their brain function.
Meanwhile, copies of the big test were being kept in secure locations and under armed guard, according to the Ministry of Education, which promised that 94 per cent of exam rooms around the country would be under video surveillance to prevent cheating. Nonetheless, alleged copies of the test were still being sold online for up to $1,000 each.
“The gaokao is the only hope many Chinese have for vertical mobility, so [the students] are under great pressure,” said Zhu Dake, a professor in the Institute of Cultural Criticism at Tongji University in Shanghai, who said that student suicides are not uncommon. A degree from a top university can mean an almost guaranteed post in the civil service or, even better, a job at a foreign firm. “Failure to go to university means they will linger at the bottom of society.”