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The National Higher Education Entrance Examination (also translated as National Matriculation Examination, often abbreviated as NCEE, short for National College Entrance Examination), commonly known as Gaokao (高考), is an academic examination held annually in 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.

In 2006, a record high of 9.5 million people applied for tertiary education entry in China. Of these, 8.8 million (93%) are scheduled to take the national entrance exam and 27,600 (0.28%) have been exempted from standardized exams (保送) due to exceptional or special talent. The rest (700,000) will take 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.


Tertiary education entrance examinations started in the early years when modern universities emerged in China, and continued after the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949 until the Cultural Revolution began in 1966 when the normal pace of the education system and other sectors of life were disrupted.

The unified national college entrance examination in 1952 marked the start of reform of National Matriculation Tests Policies 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 college entrance examination system was affected by the Great Leap Forward Movement. Soon, unified recruitment was replaced by separate recruitment by individual or unified tertiary education institutions. Meanwhile, political censorship on candidate students was enhanced. Since 1962, criticism of the NMT system had become even harsher, because it hurt benefits of the working class. On July 1966, the NMT 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 and 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% 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 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, students list their university or college preferences prior to the exam, after the exam, or after they learnt their scores. The preferences are given in several tiers (including at least early admissions, key universities, regular universities, technical colleges), each of which can contain around 4-6 choices in institution and program. In some places, students list preferences of different tiers at different times. For example, in Shanghai, students list their preference for early admission, key universities and regular universities prior to the exam, but 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 has 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 has 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 has 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 teritary 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.

Examination systems

"3+X" Examination 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, Hubei Province, Hunan Province, Shaanxi Province, Sichuan Province, Guizhou Province, Yunnan Province, Shanxi Province, Chongqing City, Gansu Province, Qinghai Province, Inner Mongolia, Guangxi, Ningxia, Xinjiang and Tibet

  • "3" refers to compulsory subjects, including "Chinese, Mathematics and English", each of which accounts for 150/750 in total score.
  • "X" means that students can choose, according to their own interests, one subject from either Social Sciences(including Politics, History and Geography), or Natural Sciences(including Physics, Chemistry and Biology), which accounts for 300/750 in total score.

"3+2" Examination System

  • "3" refers to three compulsory subjects, including "Chinese, Mathematics and English". "2" refers to selecting two subjects either from Politics, History or Geography for arts students, or from Biology, Chemistry or Physics for science students.

"4+X" Examination System

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

  • "X" means that according to their own interests, candidates can choose one or two subjects either from arts subjects, including Politics, History and Geography (Politics and Geography cannot be chosen simultaneously), or from science subjects, including Biology, Physics and Chemistry (Physics and Biology cannot be chosen simultaneously).
  • Chinese and a foreign language are compulsory. Two separate Mathematics tests are designed respectively for arts students and science students.
  • In addition to three compulsory subjects and X subject, arts students have to take comprehensive tests of arts, and science students have to take comprehensive tests of science.

"3+1+X" Examination System

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

  • "3" refers to three compulsory subjects "Chinese, Mathematics and a foreign language", with 150 scores for each subject.
  • "1" refers to one subject that candidates choose according to their own interests and specialty from "Politics, History, Geography, Physics, Chemistry and Biology". This subject accounts 150 scores when admitted by universities and colleges at undergraduate level. The score is not included in the total score when admitted by vocational and technical colleges. Therefore, candidates can give up this subject when applying for colleges at vocational and technical level.
  • "X" refers to comprehensive ability test, which is categorized into arts tests and science tests. Arts students can either choose one subject from Politics, History and Geography, or take an arts comprehensive test when giving up "1' subject. Science students can either choose one subject from Physics, Chemistry and Biology, or take a science comprehensive test when giving up "1" subject. Regardless of arts and science categories, all the comprehensive ability tests cover knowledge of six subjects, including Politics, History, Geography, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. In the first volume of the arts test, number of questions related to arts subjects exceeds science questions, and vice versa; the second volume of the two tests are the same.

"3+2+X" Examination 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" refers to three compulsory subjects "Chinese, mathematics and a foreign language", which are recorded in the total score.
  • "2" refers to choosing two subjects from the following six areas "politics, history, geography, physics, chemistry, biology", which are not recorded in total score but a class like A+, A, etc. will be recorded.
  • "X" refers to a comprehensive science or liberal arts exam, which is not recorded in the total score, only for university admission reference.

"3+X+1" Examination System

This is part of the curriculum reform in China.

  • "3" refers to Chinese, Mathematics and a foreign language, which are compulsory testing subjects for each candidate.
  • "X" means choosing one, according to the students’ interest, of the two comprehensive tests in either sciences or liberal arts.
  • "1" refers to a basic proficiency test on skills that high school graduates needs and should have in order to adapt to social life. This college entrance examination system was implemented for the first time in Shandong in 2007.
  • The examination system in Shandong Province will revert to the "3+X" system in June 2014.



Due to the importance placed on this exam, there has been strong pressure to keep the processes transparent and corruption-free. The government's efforts have not been entirely satisfactory. Leaking of exam content, bribery, and other abuses are still being constantly exposed.[4]

Independent proposition

Regional imbalance of social and economic development has resulted in disparity in education levels across China, which gives credit 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.

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, Henan province has fewer universities per capita. Therefore, Henan usually receives fewer admission quotas compared with Beijing, which makes a significantly higher position among applicants necessary for a Henan 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 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.[5]

In addition, regional discrimination is not only restricted to the ratio for admission. The national college entrance examinations in some regions such as Hubei and Anhui provinces are more difficult than in Beijing. This is best illustrated with the example of Hubei Province. Students who can just reach the admission cut-off score for a key university in their entrance examination are more likely to be admitted by a much better university if they take the entrance examination held in Beijing, which has now been prohibited.

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 students can only take this exam once a year, both teachers and students have too much pressure on it. For teachers, because the society focuses on the rate of admission into universities, teachers have to pay more attention to the ability of taking exams of students. 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.[6]

Further and more deep stemming criticisms have been leveled that the testing system is the "most pressure packed examination in the world."[7] 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.[7] 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


External links

  • Ministry of Education
  • Test Fever China Today, 2005. (English)
  • China's SAT Slate Magazine, June 4, 2008. (English)
  • National University Entrance Examination for China, Ji-heng Zhang Translator, Harry Manos, The Physics Teacher March 1994—Volume 32, Issue 3, pp. 187–189
  • PBS documentary on students preparing for China's National Higher Education Entrance Exam

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