Chinese students choose to retake gruelling ‘gaokao’ college entrance exam, aiming for a school with more prestige

Even after winning admission, some choose another year of studies in hopes of better scores, and an even better university

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 June, 2018, 7:48am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 June, 2018, 7:25pm

For the past three years, Liu Yinuo has been doing little else but grinding away at his studies for the college entrance examination, which is given each June.

This year’s test, from Thursday through Saturday will be the third for Liu, 20, who is hoping for a seat at a top university.

The results from this exam, known as gaokao in China, are the sole criteria that most universities consider when enrolling first-year students. The test, which can make or break a young person’s future, is also intended to help level the playing field between the country’s rich and poor.

In 2016, Liu’s low scores kept him from gaining admission to any college. He then registered at a privately run education institution, spent a year studying and ended up in achieving better marks in last year’s gaokao, winning him a place at Northeastern University in Shenyang, Liaoning province.

But the university, ranked as one of top 100 in China by the state education authority, was still not what he wanted, Liu said.

“After staying there for three days, I found both the school’s atmosphere and the city where it is located are not ideal,” he said. “So I quit the school and returned to Shanghai to prepare for gaokao again.”

Gaokao: how one exam can set the course of a student’s life in China

In China, gaokao is considered vital for one’s future development, and many who fail spend a year on further studies before taking the next year’s test. Such people are called fudu (or, repeating the study) students, with some having to fudu several times.

Some celebrities have also endured gaokao failures. Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group; Yu Minhong, founder of the New York-listed education company New Oriental; and Tang Wei, who appeared in Ang Lee’s film Lust, Caution, all took the test three times before making it to university. Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post.

But compared with decades ago, when college entrance rates were low and people competed for the chance to attend universities, increasing numbers of young people who have gained college admission now choose to give it up and take the test again with an aim of studying at elite universities.

Zhou Yuzhi, principal of Shanghai Xinjiyuan School, which specialises in teaching fudu students, said as many as 80 per cent of those at his school had test scores high enough to secure enrolment at an ordinary college, but had loftier goals. That percentage is vastly higher than a decade ago, he said.

“They don’t accept small-time schools, so they take gaokao one more time,” Zhou said. “Their mindset is to pursue a top university.”

Jia Zengjian, vice-principal of Shanghai Minjin Ziqiang School, another institution for gaokao veterans, said her school witnessed many people leaving their university after several months to groom themselves for another try at the exam.

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Jia also said the number of those preparing to take gaokao again had actually shrunk in recent years, as there were fewer high school graduates and a higher college entrance rate.

“Among these people having another go at gaokao, we see with a number of them it’s not in the case of no college admitting them,” Jia said. “Rather, they have a higher goal. This is in contrast from before.”

Education authorities’ statistics show that in 2007, 10.1 million people applied for gaokao, with 7.1 million being fresh high school graduates and the other 3 million being fudu students. Last year, among the 9.4 million people applying for gaokao, fudu students dropped to around 1.48 million.

The Beijing News reported that fudu students in the capital city numbered around 3,000 in 2015, about one-third of the total in 2008.

In that period, China’s college enrolment rate rose from 23 per cent in 2007 to 42.7 per cent in 2016, thanks mainly to a growing number of colleges and their expanded enrolment, according to the Ministry of Education. The figure for last year has not been released yet.

Chu Zhaohui, a researcher at the National Institute of Education Sciences, said it was easier to get into a college or university during those years, but colleges and universities were in different tiers – measured either by the authorities’ evaluation system or by the public’s vision.

“The fact is, the job market prefers graduates from the first-tier universities,” Chu said.

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Li Tao, an academic from the China Rural Development Institute at Northeast China Normal University in Changchun, Jilin province, said there was a trend among employers of caring only about where job seekers got their bachelor’s degree.

Li said this was cause for concern, “since companies look at the school’s names but ignore the real capabilities these graduates have”.

He said the public’s emphasis on top universities could also be ascribed to China’s underdeveloped vocational education system.

Students who don’t gain university admittance will go to vocational schools or find jobs directly if they don’t want to prepare for gaokao.

“Graduates from vocational schools don’t receive high pay and don’t enjoy high social esteem,” Li said. “These schools are often dumped as an option for middle school graduates.”

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For Liu, the Shanghai student, his goal is to attend Beihang University in Beijing, as he believed its engineering majors are among the best in China.

“My parents support me and they don’t push me to find a job in a hurry,” he said.

Sometimes he envies former classmates who don’t feel the pressure of taking gaokao, but this doesn’t deter him from calling up his courage and energy to sit for the test again.

“I have my dream and my target,” Liu said. “I am more experienced at the test now, and I believe I will achieve a satisfactory result.”