How the pandemic made China’s tough college entrance exam even more stressful — and inequitable

This year, during the pandemic, things got much worse for Chinese students, as explained in this story by Rayna Song, a journalism student at Northwestern University. She spent two months researching the story, interviewing more than 30 people. It’s a fascinating look at a college admissions process even more frenzied than the one in this country.

By Rayna Song

Eighteen-year-old Jing Lin never dreamed that a virus would completely disrupt her meticulously designed plans to ace the gaokao, China’s college entrance exam. She saw an excellent score on the test as a ticket to a top university — and a better life.

When, like 10 million other high school seniors in China, she needed to switch to online classes from early February to early April because of the national lockdown amid covid-19, she found herself at a disadvantage. Whereas her wealthier peers could hire private tutors or pay for web preparation programs, she could only study in her noisy apartment with poor Internet connection.

“During online classes, I usually studied on the balcony, because there are five people in my home, and the balcony is much quieter,” Lin said. “Late at night, I studied on the balcony as well, and the LED desk lamp provided enough lighting. On average, I spent six hours studying during daytime, and three hours after nightfall.”

After April, most Chinese high schools resumed in-person classes for the graduating class in light of the declining number of positive cases in this country with more than 1.4 billion people. Lin recently graduated from a public school in Fujian, a southern province separated from Taiwan by a 110-mile strait. In her senior year, Lin lived with her parents and her paternal grandparents in a 16th floor apartment. In the end, she got into Hainan Tropical Ocean University, located on Hainan Island, 14 miles off mainland China. She said she would have done better in the exam, if 2020 had been normal.

The year 2020 stands out in many ways. Almost every high school senior in China took two months of online classes before taking the gaokao, and the Chinese Ministry of Education extended the exam date by a month, moving the first day from June 7 to July 7.

Despite these measures, gaokao 2020 widened the gap between the haves and the have nots, as the wealthier students could afford quiet rooms in their own homes and expensive private lessons, while the less privileged students had few choices other than taking the online classes offered by their high schools.

High school seniors traditionally take this exam after one year of preparation, and unlike the SAT or ACT exams, they only get one chance to take the exam each year. If they are unsatisfied with the score obtained, then they must spend one more year in high school and retake the exam the following year. Gaokao lasts three to four days, with different subjects tested on each day.

Besides Chinese, math and English, the student has some flexibility