National Higher Education Entrance Examination

National Higher Education Entrance Examination
Traditional Chinese 普通高等學校招生全國統一考試
Simplified Chinese 普通高等学校招生全国统一考试
Higher education exam
A 2013 banner at Chongqing Nankai Secondary School announcing it as an examination venue for the 2013 National Higher Education Entrance Examination
Supporters outside Beijing Bayi Middle School during the 2016 National Higher Education Entrance Examination

The National Higher Education Entrance Examination (also translated as National Matriculation Examination or National College Entrance Examination or "NCEE"), commonly known as Gaokao (高考, "Higher Education Exam", Pinyin gāo kǎo, lit. "High test"), is an academic examination held annually in the People's Republic of China. This examination is a prerequisite for entrance into almost all higher education institutions at the undergraduate level. It is usually taken by students in their last year of senior high school, although there has been no age restriction since 2001.

The exams last about nine hours over a period of two days, depending on the province. Chinese literature, Mathematics, and English language (in most provinces) are required for all students. In addition, students have to choose between two streams, social-science-oriented area (文科倾向) and natural-science-oriented area (理科倾向). Students who choose the former take an additional paper on history, politics and geography (文综), while those who choose the latter take an additional paper on physics, chemistry and biology (理综).

In 2006, a record high of 9.5 million people applied for tertiary education entry in China. Of these, 8.8 million (93%) took the national entrance exam and 27,600 (0.28%) were exempted (保送) due to exceptional or special talent. Everyone else (700,000 students) took other standardized entrance exams, such as those designed for adult education students.

The overall mark received by the student is generally a weighted sum of their subject marks. The maximum possible mark varies widely from year to year and also varies from province to province.


A banner on the HUST campus in Wuhan congratulates top exam score achievers from the university-affiliated high school

The National Higher Education Entrance Examination, commonly known as the gaokao (高考) was created in 1952.

The unified national tertiary entrance examination in 1952 marked the start of reform of National Matriculation Tests Policies (NMTP) in the newly established PRC. With the implementation of the first Five Year Plan in 1953, the NMTP was further enhanced. After repeated discussions and experiments, the NMTP was eventually set as a fundamental policy system in 1959. From 1958, the tertiary entrance examination system was affected by the Great Leap Forward Movement. Soon, unified recruitment was replaced by separate recruitment by individual or allied tertiary education institutions. Meanwhile, political censorship on candidate students was enhanced. Since 1962, criticism of the NMTP system had become even harsher, because it hurt benefits of the working class. On July 1966, the NMTP was officially canceled and substituted by a new admission policy of recommending workers, farmers and soldiers to college.[1] During the next ten years, the Down to the Countryside Movement, initiated by Mao Zedong, forced both senior and junior secondary school graduates, the so-called "intellectual youths", to go to the country and work as farmers in the villages. Against the backdrop of world revolution, millions of such young people, some full of religious-like fervor, joined the ranks of farmers, working and living alongside them. However, they were soon disillusioned by the reality of hard conditions in the countryside.

In the early 1970s, Mao Zedong realized that internal political struggle had taken too big a toll on him as well as the nation and decided to resume the operation of universities. However, the students were selected based on political and family backgrounds rather than academic achievements. This practice continued until the death of Mao in September 1976. In late 1977, Deng Xiaoping, then under Hua Guofeng, the heir apparent of Mao, officially resumed the traditional examination based on academics, the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, which has continued to the present day.

The first such examination after the Cultural Revolution took place in late 1977 and was a history-making event. There was no limit on the age or official educational background of examinees. Consequently, most of the hopefuls who had accumulated during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution and many others who simply wanted to try their luck emerged from society for the examination. The youngest were in their early teens and the oldest were in their late thirties. The questions in the examinations were designed by the individual provinces. The total number of candidate students for the national college entrance exam in 1977 was as many as 5.7 million. Although the Ministry of Education eventually expanded enrollment, adding 63,000 more to the admission quota, the admission ratio of 4.8% was the lowest in the history of the PRC, with only 272,971 students being admitted.[2]

Starting from 1978, the examination was uniformly designed by the Ministry of Education and all the students across the country took exactly the same examination.

However, reforms on the content and form of the exam have never stopped, among which the permission for individual provinces to customize their own exams has been the most salient. The Ministry of Education allowed the College Enrollment Office of Shanghai to employ an independent exam in 1985, which was the beginning of provincial proposition. In the same year, Guangdong was also permitted to adopt independent proposition. Starting from 2003, Beijing, Tianjin, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang were allowed to adopt independent propositions. Till now, there have been 16 provinces and municipalities adopting customized exams.

Although today's admission rate is much higher than in 1977, 1978 and before the 1990s, it is still fairly low compared to the availability of higher education in the Western world. Consequently, the examination is highly competitive, and the prospective examinees and their parents experience enormous pressure. For the majority, it is a watershed that divides two dramatically different lives.

• In 1970, less than 1% of Chinese people had attended higher education; however, university admissions places are less than 1/1000 of the whole population of China. In the 1970s, 70% of students who were recommended to go to university had political backgrounds reflecting the political nature of university selection at the time. At the same time, the undergraduate course system narrowed down the time from 4 years to 3 years. According to incomplete statistics, from 1966 to 1977, institutions of higher learning recruited 940,000 people who belonged to the worker-peasant-soldier group.

For most provinces, the National Higher Education Entrance Examination is held once a year (in recent years some of the provinces in China hold examinations twice a year and the extra one is called the Spring Entrance Examination). The previous schedule (before 2003) of the National Higher Education Entrance Examination was in July every year. It now takes place in June every year. Partial Provincial administrative units determine the schedule of the exams on the 7th and 8 June.


The National Higher Education Entrance Examination is not uniform across the country, but administered uniformly within each province of China or each direct-controlled municipality. The National Higher Education Entrance Examination is graded variously across the country. It is arranged at the end of the spring semester and secondary school graduates across the country take the examination simultaneously over a three-day period. Prior to 2003, the examination was held in July, but has since been moved to the month of June. This move was made in consideration of the adverse effects of hot weather on students living in southern China and possible flooding during the rainy season in July.

In different places and across different time in history, students were required to apply for their intended university or college prior to the exam, after the exam, or more recently, after they learned of their scores, by filling a list of ordered preferences. The application list is classified into several tiers (including at least early admissions, key universities, regular universities, vocational colleges), each of which can contain around 4-6 intended choices in institution and program, though typically an institution or program would only admit students who apply to it as their first choice in each tier. In some places, students are allowed to apply for different tiers at different times. For example, in Shanghai, students apply for early admission, key universities and regular universities prior to the exam, but can apply for other colleges after they learned of their scores.

The exam is administered for two or three days. Three subjects are mandatory everywhere: Chinese, Mathematics, and a foreign language—usually English, but this may also be substituted by Japanese, Russian or French. The other six standard subjects are three sciences: Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and three humanities: History, Geography, and Political Education.[3] Applicants to science/engineering or art/humanities programs typically take one to three from the respective category. Since the 2000s, an integrated test, science integrated test, humanities integrated test or wider integrated test has been introduced in some places. This integrated test may or may not be considered during admission. In addition, some special regional subjects are required or optional in some places. Currently, the actual requirement varies from province to province.

However, the general requirements are as follows:

  1. Abide by the Constitution and laws of the People's Republic of China.
  2. Have High school diploma or equivalent.
  3. In good health.
  4. Read carefully and are willing to abide by the rules of the Register and other regulations and policies of the Institutions of Higher Learning and the Office of Admissions Committee about the enrollment management.
  5. If foreign immigrants who settle down in China conform to the enlists condition of the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, they can then apply for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination with the foreign immigrants’ resident certificate, which are sent by the Provincial Public Security Department at the location that is assigned.
  6. Willing to apply for the Military Academy; students who are going to graduate this year and have studied in high school for the first time can not be older than 20 years of age and unmarried; willing to apply for the Police Academy, and students who are going to graduate this year and have studied in high school for the first time can not be older than 22 years of age and unmarried; willing to apply for the foreign language major in Police Academy, and students who are going to graduate this year and have studied in high school for the first time can not be older than 20 years of age and unmarried.
  7. If the students from Shao Nian Ban want to take the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, their schools need to pre-select, send certification of approval, inform the exact required courses, and clarify the offices of Admissions Committee where they will take the National Higher Education Entrance Examination. After doing so, the students can then give the application. After the Office of Admissions Committee reviews and approves, they can apply for and attend the National Higher Education Entrance Examination at the right location. Students who apply for Shao Nian Ban must be part of the small percentage of the population. They have very high IQ, their grades are excellent, and they study at a secondary or high school under the age of 15(not including those who are going to graduate this year and has studied in high school for the first time).

And the following are restrictions for those who are prohibited from taking the exam:

  1. Students who are currently studying higher education.
  2. Students at high school who are not supposed to graduate from high school at the present year who impersonate the graduating students in order to attend the National Higher Education Entrance Examination.
  3. Students whose files are incomplete, such as no school status.
  4. One who is serving a prison sentence or is being taken action by the relevant departments because of violating Criminal Law of the People's Republic of China.

Applicants to some specialist programs are also screened by additional criteria: some art departments (e.g. audition), military and police schools (political screening and physical exam), and some sports programs (tryout).

Scores obtained in the examinations can be used in applying universities outside mainland China. Among all the places, the counterpart Hong Kong is on their top list. In 2007, 7 students with overall highest score in their provinces entered Hong Kong's universities rather than the two major universities in mainland China. In 2010, over 1,200 students entered the 12 local institutions which provide tertiary education courses through this examination. In addition, City University of Hong Kong and Chinese University of Hong Kong directly participate in the application procedure like other mainland universities.

The examination is essentially the only criterion for tertiary education admissions. A poor performance on the test almost always means giving up on that goal. Students hoping to attend university will spend most of their waking moments studying prior to the exam. If they fail in their first attempt, some of them repeat the last year of high school life and make another attempt the following year.


The subjects tested in the National Higher Education Entrance Examination have changed over time. Traditionally, students would undertake either a set of "arts" subjects or a set of "science" subjects, with some shared compulsory subjects. The subjects taken in the Examination affected the degree or career paths open to the student. In recent years, different provinces have included different subjects in the Examination, or implemented flexible systems for selecting the subjects to be tested, resulting in a number of different systems.

"3+X" system

As a pilot examination system used in order to promote education system reform, this examination system has been implemented in most parts of the country, including Beijing City, Tianjin City, Hebei Province, Liaoning Province, Jilin Province, Heilongjiang Province, Anhui Province, Fujian Province, Guangdong Province, Jiangxi Province, Henan Province, Shandong Province, Hubei Province, Shaanxi Province, Sichuan Province, Guizhou Province, Yunnan Province, Shanxi Province, Chongqing City, Gansu Province, Qinghai Province, Inner Mongolia, Guangxi, Ningxia, Xinjiang and Tibet.

Compulsory Subjects Score Elective Subjects Score
Social Sciences Chinese, Mathematics and a foreign language (mostly English) 450/750, 150 each Political Sciences, History and Geography 300/750, 100+100+100
Natural Sciences Chinese, Mathematics (including complex Hyperbolas and Calculus) and a foreign language (mostly English) 450/750, 150 each Physics, Chemistry and Biology 300/750, 110+100+90

"3+2" system

"4+X" system

This system was used after the New Curriculum Reform being employed in Guangdong province, and now it has been abandoned.

"3+1+X" system

This system has been implemented in Shanghai since the employment of comprehensive courses.

"3+2+X" system

This is a pilot college entrance examination system implemented by the Jiangsu Province in 2003 (still in use in 2012) after examining other testing systems.

"3+X+1" system

This is part of the curriculum reform in China.


Independent proposition

Regional imbalance of social and economic development has resulted in disparity in education levels across China, which gives rise to provincial proposition. However, provincial governments have to increase budget on education in order to offset the declining credibility of the exam caused by lack of experienced proposition experts and management personnel, which will, more or less, cause a repetitive investment in human resources, finance or material. Moreover, independent proposition covers regional discrimination generated by huge disparity of cut off scores between different provinces.

Academic segregation

Chinese students are required to choose either Social Sciences (political science, geography, and history) or Natural Sciences (physics, chemistry, and biology). This happens particularly at the end of the first year of high school, when students were mostly 15-16 years old. Once they make their decisions at such a young age, they have to start prepare for the subject tests, and no longer take classes of, or explore the other 3 subjects. The decision made at such a young age decides which college entrance test they are going to take at the age of 18, as well as their college majors and future career path. This testing policy limits the students academic interests and potential, and forces students to make decisions of their life at a particularly young age.

Regional discrimination

A university usually sets a fixed admission quota for each province, with a higher number of students coming from its home province. As the advanced educational resources (number and quality of universities) are distributed unevenly across China, it is argued that people are being discriminated against during the admission process based on their geographic region. For example, compared to Beijing, Jiangxi province has fewer universities per capita. Therefore, Jiangxi usually receives fewer admission quotas compared with Beijing, which makes a significantly higher position among applicants necessary for a Jiangxi candidate to be admitted by the same university than his Beijing counterpart. The unequal admission schemes for different provinces and regions might intensify competition among examinees from provinces with fewer advanced education resources. For example, Beijing University planned to admit 1800 science students from Beijing (with 80,000 candidates in total), but only 38 from Shandong (with 660,000 candidates in total). This is not similar to the practice of regional universities in other countries which receive subsidies from regional governments in addition to or in place of those received from central governments, as universities in China largely depend on state budget rather than local budget. However, this regionally preferential policy does provide subsidies to minority students from under-developed regions that enjoy limited educational resources, such as Tibet and Xinjiang.

The regional discrimination can be proved by the disparities between ratios of a province's enrollment of students to the total number of candidate students of the province. In 2010, acceptance rate for students from Beijing, Shanghai, Shandong and Henan who applied for universities of the first-ranking category were 20.1%, 18%, 7.1% and 3.5% respectively. High acceptance rates are likely to appear in the most and least developed cities and provinces, such as Beijing, Shanghai or Qinghai. In contrast, acceptance rates remain relatively equal among provinces of the average developmental level.

In recent years, varied admission standards have led some families to relocate for the sole purpose of advancing their children's chances of entering university.[4]

In addition, regional discrimination is not only restricted to the ratio for admission. This is best illustrated with an example of the Hubei Province, where students' exam scores have been higher than other provinces for a long time. A score for a Hubei student to just reach the admission cut-off line for a key university may be enough for a student from another province to be admitted by a much better university, and even enough for a Beijing student to be admitted by top universities like Tsinghua University and Peking University.

Some local students in Hong Kong complained that it was unfair that the increasing intake of Mainland students who have performed at a high level in this examination increases the admission grades of universities, making it harder for local students to get admission. In 2010, more than 5,000 out of the 17,000 students who achieved the minimum university entry requirement were not offered places in any degree courses in the UGC-funded universities.

Special concessions

There are special concessions for members of ethnic minorities, foreign nationals, persons with family origin in Taiwan, and children of military casualties. Students can also receive bonus marks by achieving high results in academic Olympiads, other science and technology competitions, sporting competitions, as well as "political or moral" distinction.

Psychological pressure

Because Gaokao is one of the most influential examinations in China and the fact that students can only take the test once a year, both teachers and students undergo tremendous pressure in preparing for and taking the exam. For teachers, because the society focuses on the rate of admission into universities, teachers have to pay more attention to each student's ability to take the exam. Because of this, teachers would like to give students more and more practice for exams. This teaching methodology, colloquially referred to as "cramming", involves students memorizing large volumes of information fed to them by teachers and undertaking many practice exercises in order to optimize exam writing ability. One of the disadvantages of this method is the lack of focus on teaching critical thinking and ignoring students' emotions, values and personalities. Many examinees suffer from severe nervousness during the test. In some cases, examinees may faint in the examination room.[5]

Further and more deep stemming criticisms have been leveled that the testing system is the "most pressure packed examination in the world."[6] Behaviors surrounding the testing period have been extreme under some reports, with doctors in Tianjin purportedly prescribing birth control pills to female students whose parents wanted to ensure the girls were not menstruating at the time of examination.[6] Testing pressure, for some critics, has been linked to faintings, increased drop out rates, and even increasing rates of teenage clinical depression and suicide in China.

See also


  1. Guodong Wei, “On the Reform of China’s NCEE since 1977” (PhD diss., Hebei University, 2008).
  2. Wei, “On the Reform of China’s NCEE since 1977.”
  3. This subject is partly a civics or introductory legal studies class, and partly ideology from the Communist Party of China.
  4. "Migrating college candidates could be left out in cold, News Guangdong, 2005".
  5. Xu, Xiuhua. "基础教育弊端日益显现 中国课程改革势在必行". People Website.
  6. 1 2 Siegel, Ben (June 12, 2007). "Stressful Times for Chinese Students". TIME magazine.

Further reading

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