Students taking China’s hypercompetitive college entrance exam, according to a popular saying, resemble an army of 10,000 rushing across a narrow log. So what happens to those who fall off?
Each year, more than 9 million Chinese students endure the gaokao, as the exam is known. A grueling two or three days’ experience — it varies by region — the test covers Chinese, mathematics, a foreign language, chemistry, physics, geography, and history, among other subjects. The test results, which range from the 200s to the 600s (scores of over 700 sometimes make headlines), comprise almost the entirety of a student’s college application portfolio. While some of the multiple-choice questions would be familiar to U.S. teenagers sweating over Advanced Placement exams, gaokao essay prompts are sometimes so bizarre that even Chinese state media challenged its mostly adult readers to answer some of the more notorious essay prompts, such as this one: “It flies upward, and a voice asks if it is tired. It says, ‘No.'”
Because Chinese parents often expect their children to become family breadwinners, the pressure to perform is intense. Faced with the gaokao’s high stakes and frustrating unpredictability, tens of thousands of test takers choose to sit through the ordeal again, when their scores fall short of their — or their parents’ — expectations. Having already graduated from high school, some of these re-takers hunker down at home for a year to study. Others attend cram schools like Maotanchang High School, which lies tucked away in a small town in the mountains of central China’s Anhui province and specializes in the dark art of military-style test prep. With an annual enrollment of more than 10,000 students, the school, known as Maozhong, has earned the dubious honor of being called “China’s Largest Gaokao Factory” in Chinese state media.