China’s National Exam Inspires Outsized Fear of SAT

Imagine you’re an American high school student, and you dream of attending Beijing National University. That’s not an unreasonable aspiration: Beijing National has a great reputation, and many of its graduates deserve credit for China’s astounding economic boom (as well as for its not-so-astounding political structure).

How, though, would you gain admission? How would you compete against the millions (literally) of Chinese high school graduates who compete for those spots? Unless the university offers a separate track for foreign applicants, you’d have to do it the same way everyone else does: you’d have to take the gaokao.

If you think the gaokao is anything like the SAT, you are  mistaken. You don’t just sign up for the gaokao (meaning “high test”) and take it some bright Saturday in October, hoping that it will complement your grades, extracurricular accomplishments, and sunny disposition.

The gaokao is a two-day, nine-hour ordeal that nearly every Chinese high school graduate endures. Each year, as many as 10 million students take it, as compared to 3 million for the SAT.

The gaokao encompasses the entire high school curriculum, and the final year of high school – usually known as Senior 3 – is often dedicated entirely to reviewing for the gaokao. I mention those millions of competitors because in China you don’t pick your schools based on personal criteria and then decide where to apply. In crudest terms, everyone who takes the gaokao is applying to every Chinese university, and everyone knows the hierarchy of schools. Unless you have some serious guang shi, your score alone determines where you get in.

An all-encompassing national exam is not to be taken lightly. It’s been called China’s “national obsession” and described as “soul-crushing.” (It’s worth noting that many countries have equivalent exams; China is not alone.) Parents pay particular mind to their children’s gaokao preparation. With such a clear path to upward mobility, it’s hard not to demand top scores and acceptance to top universities.

This fervor is magnified by Chinese culture’s traditional reverence for elders as well as the fact that China’s controversial One Child Policy puts all the pressure on a single progeny. This pressure leads to a lot of late nights for Chinese high schoolers. The New York Times reports that students are known to spend 14-16 hours daily studying for the gaokao, with breaks only once every three weeks.

Parents force children into sleep deprivation and make offers of cars and cash if they score well. It is administered once per year; showing up even a minute late can result in disqualification. Two-fifths of test-takers fail to gain entry into any university, much less one considered prestigious.

Were a non-Chinese student to try to take the gaokao (which probably isn’t even possible), he or she would therefore have to learn the entire Chinese high school curriculum, and learn it well. They would essentially have to earn two high school degrees at once.

Now change roles: Imagine you’re a Chinese student applying to the U.S. That scenario isn’t merely realistic; it’s downright commonplace, with nearly 200,000 Chinese graduate and undergraduate students currently enrolled in the U.S.

You may be vaguely aware that U.S. college look at grades, extracurriculars, and whatnot, but there’s one part of the application process that will be especially familiar, comforting, even. You might know that the SAT is a nationwide exam, taken by the vast majority of college applicants. And if you rely on your own cultural experience, it’s not hard to imagine that the SAT is a culminating exam that tests students on their knowledge of the entire high school curriculum.

That curriculum—and the values it embodies—bears little resemblance to those of American high schools. In an segment on Chinese art museums, NPR notes that “China's hypercompetitive educational system still emphasizes rote learning and tests….most schools see no practical value in field trips to art museums. ‘The sole purpose for parents to send kids to school is that they can get into college,’ says Li. ‘Anything that's not related to the college entrance exam will not get parents' and teachers' attention.’”

If you are a Chinese parent who does not speak English and who wants to send your child off to a land whose soil you will never touch, then you might naturally make this perilous assumption. And you might direct your child’s test preparation accordingly. Students in America know that the SAT is important, and they know that it’s tough. Fair enough.

But we also know that, for all the hype surrounding it, it’s a pretty straightforward exam covering a surprisingly narrow range of skills. I say “skills” because we’re not dealing with names, dates, facts, and theories. We’re dealing with the proper use of grammar, vocabulary, and basic computation.

The skills covered on the SAT are hard to master, but they’re hardly voluminous. A single high school course contains more information and concepts than the SAT measures. (By contrast, the gaokao has, reportedly, been known to test students on made-up trivia like the difference between saying “my pleasure” and “it’s my pleasure.”) But the test prep programs in China, and elsewhere, don’t tell parents that. They often recommend prep programs that take up almost as much time as does school itself – because they pretend that the SAT covers an entire curriculum.

Students can spend entire weekends, or entire summers, at “cram schools” where they memorize questions – some of which may be stolen, as we saw in the lamentable scam in Korea last month – as if each one is a discrete concept that must be learned on its own, rather than a skills that can be applied as needed when certain test questions arise.

This approach can be  effective: many students end up with astronomical SAT scores. But you would too if you spent 500 hours studying in one summer. The point is, the reward-to-effort ratio is vanishingly small, especially when you consider that a 20- or 30-point advantage over a student who studied more efficiently is negligible in the eyes of the colleges.

And that’s where unfamiliarity with the U.S. educational culture becomes truly lamentable: the SAT is a straightforward exam that carries some weight in the application process. But it’s no gaokao, and the contents of the SAT are limited and transparent. Treating it as anything else can turn the SAT into a burden that robs students of valuable free time, infringes on their studies and their activities, and gives rise to opportunism that betrays the value of the liberal American education that rightly populates the dreams of so many students who want nothing more than to learn, succeed, and do right by their families.

So worthy are these goals that no one can blame students for going to goakao-esque lengths to master the SAT. But, my hope is that as successive generations of Chinese students go through the American application process and, ultimately, graduate from American colleges, they will bring back to China a more sober understanding of what American colleges are and are not looking for.

Are they looking for the drive, determination, and focus that the gaokao requires? Absolutely. Are they looking for savvy, intellectually creative students who want to develop themselves in ways that a single exam could never measure? Absolutely. This is the lesson – more so than anything asked of the SAT or the gaokao – that will serve Chinese students better than any all-night study session will.

--Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens is ArborBridge's Director of International Development. He can be reached at


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