The Gaokao Is the Nearly Impossible Chinese College Entrance Exam

Remember the SAT and the ACT? You probably don't want to revisit your stressed high school years, but just imagine for a moment that your future relies on completing one grueling 9-hour test. We're exhausted just thinking about it. The college entrance exams you took would feel like coloring books compared to the Chinese college entrance exam: the gaokao.

Put Your Thinking Cap On

The gaokao is like the SAT on super steroids. Many Chinese students have spent their entire lives studying for this monster test that occurs every June. Not only is it a long exam, but it's also impossibly difficult. Though many students have aced the SAT and ACT, no one has ever gotten a perfect score on the gaokao.

According to Bloomberg, the test "requires a mastery of Chinese history, English grammar, and complex calculus. Students seeking a future in science will be tested on physics, chemistry, and biology. Liberal arts students must show proficiency in political theory, history, and geology."

Related Video: China in Numbers

How Hard Could It Be?

Though most questions are multiple choice, it's almost unfair how hard this 750-point test is. "It's impossible to get full marks," Zhang Yi, a Chinese language teacher in a high school in Guangdong province's Zhuhai, tells Bloomberg. "You may get all the answers right in math, but for Chinese and other liberal arts subjects, students write many things, and that's highly subjective. Even bad handwriting will cost you points."

Want a taste? Here are a few sample questions:


If x+y≥a, x-y≤-1 and the minimum value of z=x+ay is 7, a=?

A. -5

B. -5 or 3

C. 3

D. 5 or -3


Between June and August, a cruise ship travels from Fujian province to Venice, passing by Mumbai. Which of the following would it experience on the way?

A. When passing through the South China Sea, the cruise will face continuous rain.

B. When passing through the Arabian Sea, the cruise will sail against winds and currents.

C. When passing through the Red Sea, large stretches of forests will be seen alongside the coast.

D. When passing through the Mediterranean Sea, the cruise will experience several days of rainstorms.


It's a ____ clock, made of brass and dating from the 19th century.

A. charming French small

B. French small charming

C. small French charming

D. charming small French

Essay Prompt

You are free because you may choose how to cross the desert; you are not free because you must cross the desert either way. Write an 800-word essay on this.

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Learn more about this tough-as-nails exam in "Gaokao: A Personal Journey Behind China's Examination Culture" by Yanna Gong. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto February 2, 2017

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