Beyond the Gaokao: How Chinese Students Earn Tickets to College

05/10/2015 01:28 am ET | Updated May 09, 2016

Qi recounts three stories of students making to college through ways other than the Gaokao.

Mention China's university recruitment process to any American and they will immediately talk about the Gaokao. When it comes to Western news reports, the Gaokao, or the national higher education entrance exam, dominates the media. Students in uniforms bury their heads in piles of problem sets; red motivational banners that state "Diligence for one year, comfort forever" hang on classroom walls; the count-down board stands menacingly at the school gate. Such is the image conjured up in the Americas when speaking of the Gaokao. Most people, however, are unfamiliar with the prevalent alternatives to the university recruitment process offered in China today.


Eleven hundred students in their last year of high school applied to Fudan University's independent recruitment program in the humanities. Commonly known as Boya Bei in Mainland China (directly translated as Liberal Arts and Sciences Cup), the program is the first among all programs of its type. It is open to all Mainland Chinese students in their last year of high school. Successful individuals have to pass three rounds of stringent selection--an essay, a two-day Experiential Camp at Fudan and an interview with 10 university faculty members. Among last year's forty-five students who were accepted was Huang Yifan, a graduate of Shanghai Nanyang Model High School.

In Huang's year, Fudan invited the top 150 writers to its Experiential Camp held on campus from December 8th to 9th, 2013. Huang earned his ticket to the annual camp with his philosophy essay on David Hume. Like other 149 articles from his peers, Huang's essay stood out among over one thousand submissions on Philosophy, History or Chinese Language.

For Huang, now a freshman at Fudan School of Philosophy, the camp started with an address by the Dean of the School of Philosophy, followed by a sample university lecture at the Guanghua Building. He later joined an informal group interview with other 13 students and 3 faculty members.

"We had to present our opinions on two current affairs. " Huang recounted his interview, "I had a question on the reform of the Gaokao English exam. Our positions did not matter, for I am now classmates with students who voiced completely different views."

His first day of the camp ended with a 1600-word written reflection of his experiences that day and his personal goals. The second day was much more intense. Fudan randomly assigned two essay prompts to each applicant and allowed seven hours to complete an article on a prompt of the student's choice. Huang's first prompt focused on Mengzi's understanding of love, and second prompt Hume's philosophy towards love. Like Huang's prompts, every set included one Eastern and one Western philosophy question on the same theme.

Huang spent his day reading relevant passages and writing his paper at the Philosophy Room, interrupted only with a rushed lunch. "We finished our lunch quickly and silently, all the while under scrutiny, " Huang recalls.

Only 62 students made it to the last round: an individual interview with three Fudan professors of the student's chosen major and seven other faculty members. Professors asked Huang about public's misconception of Buddhism, the practical utility of morality, and reasons for upholding virtues.

"The professors could always detect my ambiguity and challenge me with deeper questions." Huang mused on his interview experience, "They did not stop challenging us further until we failed to answer."

Though acknowledging that he could still enter Fudan through its other independent recruitment program such as Qianfen Kao, the thousand-point exam encompassing topics from both the science and the humanities, Huang praises Boya Bei and similar systems. According to Huang, such programs benefit students with special interests, especially those who are unaccustomed to the typical study method for Gaokao--rote learning and endless problem sets.

"Such a program frees me from the torture of Gaokao. It allows me time to read books that both interest me and prepare me for the selection process," Huang comments.

He adds that Gaokao becomes less intimidating in Beijing and Shanghai, regions with more developed university independent recruitment programs, as compared with that in Zhejiang Province and Jiangsu Province. "Gaokao is anti-humanity in those provinces," he says, "2 to 5 percent of students are admitted to mental health clinics each year."


Cao Rui, a junior at Guangzhou Sport University, earned his admission ticket to college with exceptional performance in soccer.

During his time at Jiujiang No.3 High School, Cao was a core member of the school soccer team, the winner of the annual interschool soccer tournament in Jiangxi Province in 2010. In recognition of sportsmanship, China awards each player of the top three teams the Certificate of National Second-Level Athlete.

"That certificate is a stepping stone to college application, if one follows the sports track. I received mine in my first year of high school after the team's victory." Cao explains.

The university recruitment process for athletes starts in March. Individual university sets different rules, but generally the process includes a written test on Chinese Language, mathematics, English and politics, and a test on the student's chosen sport. A student can only apply to one university, because it is impossible to be physically present to take those tests at more than one university at the same time.

"My father accompanied me to Guangzhou. We stayed in a hotel near Guangzhou Sport University." Cao remembers. With nearly 1,200 applicants for soccer and many more for other sports such as badminton, cross-country and swimming, the hotel room rates doubled and even tripled during that test period. However, the price did not deter parents from accompanying their only children at the supposed turning point of their future

Cao's two-day soccer test included a timed shuttle-run, a shooting test within a designated distance, and a match with randomly assigned teammates. By the end of each day, the university put up the applicants' grades and rankings on the wall. According to Cao, approximately 150 lucky ones, out of the pool of 1,200 for soccer, eventually passed the test.

The cutthroat competition demands thorough and intense preparation in sports. Cao had to get up at 5:30 am for his physical training. "It was winter. It was dark outside. There was no one but cleaners on the road." Cao recalls his high school life. After Cao and his teammates arrived, they changed into sports gear and started their one-hour training. They returned to classroom once school started at 7:30 am. His daily afternoon training began at 4:30 and did not end until it became all dark at 8:00 p.m.

Cao has less to say on the written test and its preparation. Compared to the Gaokao, the written test for athletes are twice as easy. "I did not pay attention in class," Cao confesses, "I couldn't even if I wanted to do. The teachers had lower expectations for us too." Months before Cao's test at Guangzhou, he attended regular crash-courses offered by an external teaching agency.

Despite his passion in soccer, Cao admits that were he better at schoolwork, he would have chosen the Gaokao rather than the athletic track. "I am worried about employment. Many of my schoolmates share the same concern," he says. "They chose this track simply because they could not have entered prestigious universities and received good paper qualifications if they had chosen the Gaokao instead."


Nanchang Foreign Language School (NFLS) is one of China's seventeen foreign language schools that can recommend students who are excellent in foreign languages to earn direct admission to universities. Fu Shuning, a graduate from NFLS in 2014 and now a freshman at Tsinghua University, was guaranteed a place at Tsinghua six months before her peers took the Gaokao.

NFLS has a quota of 135 for such recommendations. It gathers the top 135 students in school in an almost fate-determining meeting. At the meeting, the students, proceeding in the order of their ranking in school, make their university choices. Fu, who was top in her class, chose Tsinghua.

Because each university allocates a quota for recommendations, the higher the student's ranking in high school is, the earlier he gets to choose his university, the better his chance of getting into his dream school is. "That process is similar to game-theory," Fu recalled. "Everyone came to the meeting with a list of schools in their mind. Students with lower rankings, in addition to considering their preferences, have to guess what the students before them might choose."

Fu described the direct admission process as "no less competitive than the Gaokao." The relationships among students became "strange," when gossips and suspicions prevailed during that period of time.

With the recommendation from NFLS, Fu is eligible for Tsinghua's direct admission recruitment. In preparation for the recruitment that includes a written test and an interview, she, like the other 134 at NFLS, has to compromise their schoolwork. The written test is very different from Gaokao because it demands broader knowledge often not found in the Gaokao syllabus. "The stakes are high. If we did not pass direct admission selection, we would have to take the Gaokao. But since we were already spending less time on Gaokao preparation than others did, we would lose out." Fu explained the trade-off of the process.

The direct admission program at foreign language schools began in the 20th century when China was in need of foreign language talents for its Reform and Opening Up Policy.. The program is a channel for selecting and nurturing such talents. Students selected are extraordinary not only linguistically but also holistically. "Often the students are street-smart. They are wise beyond their years," Fu describes in fluent English. "Although it is an alternative to the Gaokao, the results are the same--the students will end up in the same universities even if they take the Gaokao. Universities want the best. If you are the best, it doesn't matter how you get there." Fu comments, saying that she didn't feel "that much benefit" of the direct admission process.

A Common Struggle

The three students' stories echo tens of thousands of students in China, as they struggle for security amidst the uncertainty in university entrance, adapt to the changing selection process, and constantly face trade-offs. But the students are not the only ones struggling--Chinese universities are struggling to find the fairest college recruitment process. They are experimenting, whether with the Gaokao, independent recruitment, sports recruitment, or direct admission. This is the same with universities in the U.S., with ACTs, SATs, APs, and different application requirements. Both countries are searching for the best and fairest way.

Qi Xu is a freshman at Yale University and an associate editor of the magazine. Contact her at

This article also appears in China Hands.