Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Chinese college admissions exams

Americans have the SATs, Chinese have the gao kao:
All-Nighter? For This Test, Some Chinese Cram All Year

"China may be changing at head-twirling speed, but the ritual of the gao kao (pronounced gow kow) remains as immutable as chopsticks. One Chinese saying compares the exam to a stampede of “a thousand soldiers and 10 horses across a single log bridge.”
The Chinese test is in some ways like the American SAT, except that it lasts more than twice as long. The nine-hour test is offered just once a year and is the sole determinant for admission to virtually all Chinese colleges and universities. About three in five students make the cut."

Many students who don't do well in one year study for an additional year and take the exam again:

"Mr. Liu calculated that his score leaped by more than 100 points over last year’s dismal performance. But he was still downcast, uncertain whether he would make the cutoff to apply to top-tier universities. The cutoff mark can vary by an applicant’s place of residence and ethnicity."

That last point is actually a very interesting feature of college admissions in China. As I understand it, the exam for the elite universities is the same exam everywhere, but it is administered and evaluated differently in different regions. Thus Peking University (whose name in English survived the change in the English spelling of the city to Beijing) sets a different admissions threshhold for different regions. I believe it also has a different quota of students from different regions, so that students from a given region compete only with each other for admission to PU (or Beida, as it is known in Mandarin).

Furthermore, different regions have different rules about how the exam is used in the application process. In some regions, students take the exam and learn their scores before deciding how to fill out a rank order list of applications (in which the first choice is a critical one). These students know how well they did on the exam compared to others in their region, so the only uncertainty is how many other students will apply to each top university, and hence where the exam cutoffs will be that will be needed to get in under quota.

In other regions, students make their applications after taking the exam, but before the results are announced, so they only have an estimate of how well they did compared to others. And in still other regions, students must decide on their applications before even taking the exam, so they only have information about how well they have performed on other measures compared to other students.

Thus, along with the ordinary difficulties of applying to university, different strategic decisions about how to deal with the application process face students in different regions.


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Unknown said...

So glad to read "Chinese college admissions exams" here! I am a Chinese student, and I am currently studying Chinese college admission mechanism. Actually situation in China is more complex. And China is now taking some reform by introducing another kind of mechanism like serial dictatorship to some regions in order to reduce such strategic behavior and relevant risk for students. However, there still have some problems about this new mechanism. Welcome to discuss with me! My email address is