I have been through 5 years worth of the Chinese Gaokao stress. However, you would be wrong if you thought it was the exams that were the most stressful part of the ruthless process. Because I met my husband before he took the Gaokao I saw firsthand the unfairness in the system.
In the UK, we sit our university entrance exams after which we receive our grades. These grades are ours for life and don’t have a sell by date. I could use them to apply for university immediately or after a gap year or even after an extended gap year. I can apply for several universities at the same time and each application will be considered with the possibility of being given several offers for me to choose from. China’s Gaokao system doesn’t work like this.
After a student has sat the Gaokao exams, the answers will be posted for all to see. The students will then try their best to estimate their grades. With these estimated grades they will then apply for 2 sets of universities: the first tier (A grade universities); and the second tier (B grade universities). When choosing which universities to apply for they need to guess if many people will apply to that university or not. It’s often the case that if many applied last year leading to a high minimum entrance score, many will be put off applying this year. Or if few applied last year leading to a low minimum entrance score, then many will apply in hope that this year the minimum score will also be low. The application process is further hindered by each university and their degree subjects’ quotas. My husband wasn’t able to apply for many of the popular subjects in Beijing because he came from Gansu. A made up example: Economics at university X is seeking 10 students from Beijing, 5 from Shanghai, 3 from Tianjin, 0 from Gansu etc. Degree subjects more likely to be open to application from Gansu students would include areas such as forestry or soil etc.
Finally once applications are in the students receive their actual results. Did they estimate accurately can severely effect whether or not they applied to the right universities. If they estimated too high then they could risk not getting into any of their chosen universities as China doesn’t have clearing places. This would result in either re-sitting their final year of school to take the Gaokao again or simply giving up on the university dream. If they estimated too low then they are going to be kicking themselves for not applying to a better university and have just wasted their hard earnt high grades.
Unlike in the UK where each university will consider your application at the same time, in China the universities first look at those applications where you put them as your number 1 choice. If you are rejected by your number 1 choice, its unlikely your second choice university will have a space left to consider your application by the time it lands on their desk.
Finally having spent all that time choosing which degree to apply for it is likely that if you do receive an offer, it won’t be for the course you applied for. Imagine applying for English but receiving an offer for Japanese.
And just to demonstrate how unfair the quota system is lets take a look at some numbers:
In 2017 60,600 students took the Gaokao in Beijing and 234 candidates were accepted into places at Peiking University. In that same year, 234,800 students took the Gaokao in Gansu province but only 15 candidates were accepted into places at Peiking University.
I once asked a university lecturer in Beijing how this can be fair. I was told that if a Gansu student doesn’t get into university they can still be a farmer but what will a Beijing student fall back on. To me that’s a ridiculous answer.