Colleges & Universities

Almost 10M young Chinese just took an exam that will change their lives

Barry Huang | Special to CNBC
This could be the most competitive exam in the world
This could be the most competitive exam in the world

They studied non-stop for a year, sat in class from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., plowed through "tons of homework." Then it all came down to one big series of tests for 9.4 million stressed-out Chinese students.

Tuesday was the start of the "Gaokao," the two-day National College Entrance Examinations that dictate what Chinese university, and increasingly, as more international institutions recognize the exam, what overseas university, the students would attend.

And although there were now other avenues for young Chinese to pursue further study, the exam remained "a make-or-break challenge" for many high school students, particularly those from poor families, official news agency Xinhua reported on Monday.

A student waves to her family as she prepares to enter a Beijing exam center to take part in the Gaokao on June 7, 2016.
Barry Huang | CNBC

So make-or-break, Xinhua said, that while the students were examined on subjects including mathematics, Chinese and English, police would prevent drivers around the exam sites from blowing their horns, while hotels within easy reach of the Beijing exam centers were completely booked-out by parents who hoped to buy extra rest, or cram, time for their children.

Some parents even reportedly hired "Gaokao nannies" to offer their child company and advice while the teenager studied.

At the weekend, Beijing's Confucius Temple and the neighboring Guozijian - also known as the Imperial Academy, a higher-learning institute during Ming and Qing Dynasties in imperial China - were crowded with students and parents keen to pray to Confucius, the most revered name in the history of Chinese education.

Students queue outside a school in Beijing on June 7, 2016, to take the first exam of their National College Entrance Examinations.
Barry Huang | CNBC

Lin Ye, an 18-year-old student who told CNBC that she hoped to study education and become a teacher, said she had been preparing for the Gaokao for six months.

"It's non-stop, 24-7," Lin said. "If you take a sick day off and come back to the classroom, you will find a stack of new papers to be done."

Li Cong, also 18, said her preparation started even earlier.

"We started intensively study for the exam a year ago, mostly following the reviewing process from the teacher and finishing tons of homework everyday," she said, adding that her family had tried not to heap additional pressure on her.

"But I can feel that they are all very nervous and it's affecting me a little," she added.

Li Cong, right, and her classmate An Meng walk past a statue of Confucius at the Confucius Temple in central Beijing on June 4, 2016.
Barry Huang | CNBC

But Zhao, a father in his 30s, who declined to give his first name, said that the pressure on young Chinese doing the Gaokao was actually lower than in the past.

"It's much better than 10 or 20 years ago, when it was like a Chinese old saying 'tens of thousands of people crossing a single-log bridge'," Zhao recalled.

"Right now, the students have more options, some of the students from my daughter's school have already gone studying abroad. But Gaokao still remains as the most important chance for most Chinese students, so us parents get very nervous when the date approaches."

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