By Megan Zhang | June 18, 2020
China’s college entrance exam can propel young people to prosperity — or dismantle their dreams — and it faces mounting criticism and pressure to reform.
Illustration by John Oquist
Every year, China grinds to a halt for a few days in early June, as millions of students in their third and final year of high school sit for the college entrance examination, or gāokǎo (高考, literally, “high exam”).
This year is an exception, though, because for the first time since the exam’s resumption in 1977 after the Cultural Revolution, it has been delayed nationwide by a month to July 7 and 8, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the unusual circumstances, the stakes remain as high as ever. The notoriously grueling standardized test — a two- or three-day event, depending on the province — sees 10 million students across the country vying for admission to the country’s top colleges. High performance in the gaokao can secure students’ acceptance to a leading university, foreshadowing future prosperity and impressive earning potential. For students from poorer rural areas, top scores are