Hu Huifeng, an 18-year-old high school senior from China’s Jiangxi province, is on a strict regimen. Seven days a week she rises by 6 a.m. for a day of classes in Chinese, English, mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology, with the last one finishing at 9:50 p.m. “Once I get home, I study until midnight,” she says.
Hu is among the 9 million students preparing for the biggest test of their life: China’s annual college entrance examination. Called the gaokao, or “high exam,” it will take place over nine hours on June 7-8 across China. It’s the culmination of years of memorization and test taking, capped off by at least 12 months of grueling preparation. With its roots in the imperial examinations that started more than 2,000 years ago, the gaokao decides what school you go to and what career you might have, says Xiong Bingqi, vice president at the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Shanghai.
The gaokao is an especially high hurdle for China’s more than 100 million rural students, who already receive an education of far lower quality than their urban counterparts. A quota system for allocating coveted college slots by province, which greatly favors local students, also works against rural youth who often live far from the better universities and need higher test scores than local applicants to gain admission. That means urban youth are 7 times as likely to get into a college as poor rural youth and 11 times as likely to get into an elite institution, according to economist Scott Rozelle, a Chinese education researcher at Stanford. “The current system itself is unfair,” Xiong says. “Inequality is inevitable.”