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."
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."