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A student takes a nap on a desk during his lunch break in a classroom in Hefei, Anhui Province June 2, 2012. The National College Entrance Exam, or "Gaokao", is held in June every year. (JIANAN YU/REUTERS)
A student takes a nap on a desk during his lunch break in a classroom in Hefei, Anhui Province June 2, 2012. The National College Entrance Exam, or "Gaokao", is held in June every year. (JIANAN YU/REUTERS)

‘Big Test’ a battle for China’s students vying for better life Add to ...

China’s rigid household registration system forces students to take the gaokao in the place they were born, rather than where they live, meaning hundreds of thousands of students – the children of China’s legion of migrant workers – have to travel long distances just to reach the exam room. Then, China’s biggest universities tend to discriminate against them again by favouring students who take the gaokao in big cities, where standards are considered more rigorous (the test itself is also different from province to province).

Beijing’s notoriously noisy streets will be silenced as much as possible Thursday and Friday, with construction crews taking a break and extra police directing traffic to reduce snarls and honking. Even still, many parents refused to take the risk that their child would be late. Hotel rooms within walking distance of the exam locations were booked solid, the rooms filled with students desperately reviewing their books.

“It’s a nervous time for everyone. We have only one child,” said Wang Xiuling, a 46-year-old saleswoman who sat on the only bed in the tiny $44-a-night hotel room she rented this week in east Beijing so that her 19-year-old daughter, Zhao Qing, wouldn’t waste precious study time travelling to and from the exam.

Though Ms. Wang said she was sharing the five-square-metre room in order to support, rather than supervise her daughter during the exam period, her presence reflected the pressure many students are under at gaokao time.

Ms. Wang has no education beyond junior high school, and Ms. Zhao’s father is unemployed. If Ms. Zhao passes the test and wins the spot she dreams of in the teacher’s college of Capital Normal University, she will be the first of her family to go to university. “If you study to be a teacher, you have a guaranteed job,” Ms. Wang reminded her daughter during a study break.

If only it were as easy as that. On Thursday and Friday, Ms. Zhao will be taking the gaokao for a second time, after failing to score high enough to win a university spot last year. Even with the extra year of study, she has struggled to learn enough English and – with dark circles under her eyes from late-night cramming in the last hours before the test begins – she admitted the stress was even higher the second time around. “This is the turning point of my life,” she said, her feet tapping nervously on the hotel room floor.

For many students, the only good news is that the battle is almost over. “I feel like I’ve been closed in a cage. My life right now is a circle between three points: home, school, and the dining room,” said Ms. Cui, the Hubei student, whose own father is a truck driver and her mother a housewife.

“After the gaokao, I want to take a driving class, because I’m dreaming about getting in a car and travelling.”

Gaokao results not key to university admission here

Excelling on the gaokao isn’t a make-or-break proposition in the eyes of most Canadian university admissions officers.

The level of scrutiny of the test’s results varies across the country, but most Canadian admissions departments consider a patchwork of factors when admitting Chinese students, including secondary-school marks, awards and scholarships, as well as English proficiency tests.

Queen’s University and the University of Toronto list gaokao results as required for Chinese applicants who have finished high school, in an effort to mirror China’s own university standards. But both schools will also accept a letter detailing reasons for not sitting for the exam, as well as other supporting materials. Despite the requirement, “We do not place a lot of weight” on the gaokao for admission decisions, said Queen’s admission manager Andrea MacIntyre.

At the University of Victoria, gaokao scores are now “recommended,” after being required for years – a change driven by increasing numbers of Chinese students choosing to skip the big test and look abroad. At the University of Manitoba, the scores are accepted, but not required. Some schools pay them little attention.

“Wherever a student has studied, they have the same opportunity to do well on the gaokao, so in that sense it’s what we’d call a leveller,” said Merike Remmel, U of T’s director of admissions. “But we look at everything they have. We don’t ignore school results, we don’t ignore ranking-in-class ... and many of them will also present SATs or something else.”

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