In around a week, China's 10 million high school seniors will take the National College Entrance Exam—known as the gaokao. Every year, police set up road blocks around schools to ensure exam rooms are silent while students take six tests—covering everything they've learned over the year—over just two days.
The gaokao, which means "big test" in Mandarin, is incredibly competitive. It determines which university a student gets into and in turn, whether or not he or she can get a good job. In a country with a huge focus on academia, and while competing against millions of other students, the pressure to succeed is immense.
In response to the pressure, students have been known to tear up textbooks while waiting between exams and throwing them off school buildings in a form of cathartic protest. In fact, the practice is so common that China's Xiamen Education Bureau has recently had to ban it.
While state media CCTV brushed these "confetti parties" off as an "unconventional measure of blowing off steam," the education bureau believes schools aren't doing enough to address the stress of the gaokao. Now all high schools in Xiamen must provide students with psychological support.
David, a Chinese student studying at Melbourne's Monash University, says he never ripped up his books, but describes how stressed he was during exams. "I had no time to relax. I went to school Monday to Friday, then an educational institution on the weekends to help me study," he says. "I rarely had days off for the whole year. I don't think anyone has time for rest."
The tests are so strict, one misstep can mean a student ruins his or her chances of getting into college. "One student didn't make it to the exam because of a traffic jam in the morning," David recalls. "I heard that another miswrote their student ID and got a zero as a result."
Cheating is also a big problem. To prevent students smuggling smartphones into exam rooms, schools have installed CCTV and metal detectors. One hall in the Henan province even uses a drone with radio scanners to monitor students during the gaokao.
Cici, another Monash student, also described the gaokao as a battlefield. "There are no good times in the year leading up to the exam, only bad times," she says. "It decides your future and your life. Everyone is incredibly nervous."
"I sat mine on a really hot summer's day. They closed all the windows and turned the air-con off during the dictation section, so students could hear the tape, but it was so hot—I could hardly breathe afterwards," Cici explains. "You can definitely feel the pressure in the air."
The stress of the gaokao has been criticized for encouraging a culture of cramming and pushing students to their limits. It's even been linked with clinical depression and suicide.
Gloria, who has many friends who took the gaokao back in China, explained that students will do up to 200 practice exams to study for the test. They will be reminded every day by their teachers how long they have left to study. For some, the pressure can be too much.
"Some students redo the whole year if they don't get into the uni they want. It's a lot of pressure on the family and yourself," she says. "I've heard some people have committed suicide."
Given how high these stakes are, it seems "gaokao fatigue" is slowly sweeping China. In Beijing, participation numbers have halved over the last decade. David says students were being put off by the amount of pressure surrounding the exam—they just can't cope while their chance of success is so small.
Despite all the hours he put in, David says he wasn't even close to getting into his dream university. "No, absolutely not," he says. "It's so competitive for so many, and that makes it so difficult."
According to the Global Times, many Chinese students are opting for less prestigious courses at universities with lower intake scores or choosing to study overseas. In Australia, Flinders University, the University of Western Australia, and Monash are all taking students on their gaokao scores.
Cici says this is a good thing because it relieves some of the pressure on students. "It definitely gives us another option," she explains. "I've learned that the standards are not set as high in Australia compared to China, so it gives us another chance."
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