The Gaokao, Exquisitely Explicated

ETP HB won the library contest (they read the most books), so we threw them a party. Aren’t they awesome? (note: pictures in this post are not related to the gaokao because that subject matter is just too depressing)

Two weeks ago, my third-year students returned to Rebgong to choose the universities (or university-prep programs) they would attend. I thought the process would be a simple matter of, after due consideration, writing one’s top choices (or, at least, those choices available for any given gaokao score) onto a form and, after completing the requisite background information, sending said form to universities.

I should have known that the above imaginary process was just too simple, logical and efficient to be real. What should have been a comparatively simple exercise in form-filling was transformed into a three-day mad scramble involving teachers, administrators, parents and relatives, contacts at universities in Xining and around the country, and seemingly hundreds of little red 2012 Chinese University Admissions books.

But one positive thing came from this process: by the time the madness was over, I had finally – due to patient explanations from students and teachers – gotten a (loose, shaky) grip on the Chinese college admissions process for minority students. Here, I will proceed to explicate what these poor kids have to go through to get to university.

the class had decorated the board for the party

…with peach juice

First, the students must take the gaokao. There has been a lot of recent coverage of this demanding and life-determining test in the western press; this New York Times video (at the top of the page) is at least worthwhile to get a sense of the steps many (wealthier) students take to pass. While the test for Han student is two days in length (with four tests: Chinese, math, English and a “comprehensive” science or literature/culture test based on the student’s track), for Tibetans and other minorities it is three, with an additional test in Tibetan. After staggering out of the testing building on day three, the students wait several weeks to hear about their scores. The turnaround time on these more than nine million exams is rapid enough that I assume anything written (e.g the English essay) is not actually read by the graders.

The scores finally come back, to much hue and cry across the nation, for now it is finally clear which universities a given student may or may not attend. And by “clear” in the previous sentence I mean obfuscated and opaquely confusing.

Ben and Isaac singing མཚོ་སྔོན་པོ། (and Tom just looking on)

To start with, minority students actually have two different gaokao scores which are produced from the same test. There is the 民考民 (min kao min) score, which includes 100 percent of both the Tibetan and Chinese tests while disregarding the English score. Given the horrific English marks at our school (outside of our program), this is the route most students take. However, students with better English scores (e.g. my students) often choose to use  their 民考汉 (min kao han) score, which includes 50 percent of both the Chinese and Tibetan scores and 100 percent of the English score. As such, minority students don’t have one gaokao score – they have two, and different choices come with each number.

The government then publishes a set of standards for entry into different levels of higher education: BA programs, one-year university preparatory programs, three-year university preparatory programs and vocational colleges. These standards are different for the 民考民 and 民考汉 scores; within each of these, they are also different for students on the “science” (li ke) track than for students on the “literature” (wen ke) track. In the chart below, note that “ben ke” is BA, “yu ke” is the one-year preparatory program and “zhuan ke” is the three-year associate’s degree program (after which one can attend a BA program). The “yiben” “erben” categories refer to the official national rankings of Chinese schools.

2012 年青海省高考上线率     QINGHAI GAOKAO STANDARDS 2012

民考民 (Min Kao Min)    文科 Wenke                  理科 Li Ke
本科 Ben Ke



预科 Yu Ke



专科 Zhuan Ke



民考汉 Min Kao Han
本科一本 Ben Ke Yiben



本科二本 Ben Ke Erben



本科三本 Ben Ke Sanben



专科 Zhuan Ke



Remember, when looking at this chart, that these are only the scores for Qinghai province. Each province publishes their own scores based on the number of places available in Chinese universities (taken together) for students from that province, as well as the number of places available at universities within that province. These numbers are often arbitrarily decided and seemingly ridiculous. For example, this year was an absurdly difficult year for getting into Xining universities. Due to the large number of out-of-province student – as well as students in one-year university preparatory programs – there were very few spots available in Xining schools. There were places for 35 new students (from all of Qinghai!) at Qinghai Nationalities University (青海民院), 25 new students at Qinghai Normal University (青海师大), and at Qinghai University (青海大学) there were a whopping zero (0) spots. As it was so difficult to get into local universities for Qinghai students,  the overall gaokao standards for Qinghai (especially for directly entering a BA program)  jumped upwards by a significant margin.

the library contest award-winners

Once these gaokao standards are published, a minority student must look through a massive book of Chinese universities, first to see which schools their scores permit them to attend and then to decide which schools to list on their application form. The students must choose two schools they would like to attend, alongside which they must list their major (which may be different at different schools depending on a given university’s particular strengths). These forms, after much wrangling and handwringing and editing and constant calls to parents and relatives, are finally sent off to the bureau of education, which sends them directly to the universities. Then, through a ridiculously opaque process, the universities decide which students to accept and notify the eagerly waiting soon-to-be-freshmen in August. If a student doesn’t get admitted to the schools she chose, she’s simply out of luck. Therefore, the entire school-choosing process is an exercise in balance: finding the two best schools you can possibly attend – and that will actually accept you.

Xander had drawn a beard on his face so he “looked like teacher Jonas”

Right now, my students are waiting to hear back from the universities. Some students have already said they want to repeat gao san (the third and final year of high school) to take the gaokao again in hopes of a higher score. When I first arrived in Qinghai, I couldn’t imagine why anyone might want to do such a thing. Now that I better understand the exquisitely labyrinthine, supremely byzantine world of Chinese college admissions, I have slightly more sympathy for such a worldview.

Pity my students. For they all, in their time, must navigate this hellish maze to attain the bright and shining futures of which they’ve always dreamed.

Janglung valley looking SUPER green

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1 Response to The Gaokao, Exquisitely Explicated

  1. W says:

    Beautiful and confusing for everyone – and obviously opaque. The spirit of your ‘kids’ who are bearing the challenges of the system is amazing – your energy clearly has helped drive them forward.

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