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'Gaokao': make-or-break exam takes over China

This week more than nine million Chinese high school students sat the two-day national examination that decides who will go to the universities of their choice. Many Chinese believe this exam determines their future.

The notoriously stressful two-day exams, also known as 'gaokao,' take place in early June every year.

There are two sets of exams, with one focusing on scientific subjects and the other on liberal arts. But all students are required to take tests in math, Chinese language and a foreign language of their choice, usually English.

For many Chinese students, getting admitted into a good university also means getting a decent job and promised prosperity in the future. Thus the exams are seen as a rare opportunity to climb the social ladder.

The importance of the 'gaokao' can be seen on Chinese social media. Every year during this time, topics related to the exam trend among Chinese netizens.

Questions from the exam are already circulating on the internet. One question requiring examinees to write an essay based on a comic was debated among social media users, many of whom commented on the difficulty of the test.

Students received extra encouragement this year, as Stephen Hawking, the celebrated British scientist, wished the more than nine million exam takers success on his personal Weibo account.

"Whether you aim to be a doctor, teacher, scientist, musician, engineer, or a writer - be fearless in pursuit of your aspirations," said the professor, a day ahead of the exams.

The post received more than 420,000 likes and seemed to have encouraged a lot of students.

"[I] believe that a lot of students see you as a role model, including me. Thanks for your words," one Weibo user commented.

A year of preparation

But words of encouragement are not enough for these success-thirsty teenagers.

Most high schools in the country base their final year curriculum on preparing for the exams. Many students also spend hours after class with private tutors to get extra help.

In the eastern province of Anhui, about 10,000 students every year spend up to 16 hours a day at Maotanchang High School - also known as the "gaokao factory" - preparing for the tests. Many of these students flocked to this school from provinces far away in order to get its renowned intense training.

Some parents also hire professional "gaokao Nannies," usually highly-educated students or recent graduates, to study with their children, even pulling all-nighters, reported the English-language website Sixth Tone.

During the exam days, police and ordinary citizens are required to cooperate in providing a favorable environment for the examinees.

China einheitliche Hochschulaufnahmeprüfung Gaokao

Buses carry students who are travelling to attend the college entrance examination at Maotanchang High School

In many Chinese cities, traffic lanes are reserved to give way for cars transporting students or test papers, while police officers patrol outside exam sites. Drivers are also ordered not to honk - a common and frequent sound in most Chinese cities.

Cracking down on cheating

Chinese media described this year's exams as "the most highly guarded ever." Cheating will be treated as a criminal act for the first time. Students who get caught will be banned from taking other national education exams for three years and will face up to seven years in jail. These measures are a response to the increasing use of wireless devices for cheating in recent years.

Authorties are also cracking down on stress-releasing practices. A few weeks ahead of the exam, some students in a high school in Xiamen, a city in the southeastern province of Fujian, tore up textbooks and papers as a way to blow off steam. After the photos went viral on social media, the practice is now officially banned.

"The ban, issued by the city's Education Bureau, required high schools to give proper psychological guidance to the students and encourage them to let off their stress in a more healthy way," CCTV News reported in a Facebook post.

Despite intense preparation, not every student will have their efforts rewarded.

According to College Stat, a website that publishes information and statistics about higher education, only around 60 percent of those who sit 'gaokao' exams are admitted to university, while only two percent can make it to the top-five universities, including Tsinghua University and Peking University.