The National Higher Education Entrance Examination, or commonly known as Gao Kao, is an academic examination held annually in the mainland of the People's Republic of China. This examination is a prerequisite for entrance into almost all higher education institutions at the undergraduate level. It is usually taken by students in their last year of high school, although there has been no age restriction since 2001. In 2006, a record high of 9.5 million people applied for tertiary education entry in China. 8.8 million of them (93%) are scheduled to take the national entrance exam; 27,600 (0.28%) have been exempted from standardized exams due to exceptional or special talent. The rest (0.7 million) will take other standardized entrance exams, such as those designed for adult education students. The overall mark received by the student is generally a weighted sum of their subject marks. The maximum possible mark varies wildly from year to year, and also varies from province to province.
Tertiary education entrance examinations started in the early years when modern universities emerged in China, and continued after the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949 until the Cultural Revolution began in 1966 when the normal pace of the education system and other sectors of life were disrupted. During the next ten years, the Down to the Countryside Movement, initiated by Mao Zedong, forced both senior and junior secondary school graduates, the so-called "intellectual youths", to go to the country and work as farmers in the villages. Against the backdrop of world revolution, millions of such young people, some full of religious-like fervor, joined the ranks of farmers, working and living alongside them. But they were soon disillusioned by the reality of hard conditions in the countryside. In the early 1970s, Mao Zedong realized that internal political struggle had taken too big a toll on him as well as the nation, and decided to resume the operation of universities. But the students were selected based on political and family backgrounds rather than academic achievements. This practice continued until the death of Mao in September, 1976. In late 1977, Deng Xiaoping, then under Hua Guofeng, the heir apparent of Mao, officially resumed the traditional examination based on academics, the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, which has continued to the present day. The first such examination after the Cultural Revolution took place in late 1977, and it was a history-making event. There was no limit on the age and official educational background of examinees, and consequently, most of the hopefuls accumulated during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution and many others who simply wanted to try their luck emerged from society for the examination. The youngest were in their early teens, and the oldest were in their late thirties. The questions in the examinations were designed by the individual provinces. Eventually, only about one percent of the examinees nationwide were admitted to universities. Starting from 1978, the examination was uniformly designed by the Ministry of Education, and all the students across the country took the exact same examination. In recent years, however, many provinces are allowed to customize their own examinations. Although today's admission rate is much higher than 1977, 1978 and before the 1990s, it is still fairly low compared to the availability of higher education in Western world countries. Consequently, the examination is highly competitive, and the prospective examinees and their parents experience enormous pressure. For the majority, it is a watershed that divides two dramatically different lives.
The National Higher Education Entrance Examination is not uniform across the country, but administered uniformly within each province of China or direct-controlled municipality. The National Higher Education Entrance Examination is graded variously across the country. It is arranged at the end of the spring semester and secondary school graduates across the country take the examination simultaneously, over a three day period. Prior to 2003, the examination was held in July, but has since been moved to the month of June. This move was made in consideration of the adverse effects of hot weather on students living in southern China and possible flooding during the rainy season in July. In different places, students list their university or college preferences prior to the exam, after the exam, or after they learnt their scores. The preferences are given in several tiers (including at least early admissions, key universities, regular universities, technical colleges), each of which can contain around 4-6 choices in institution and program. In some places, students list preferences of different tiers at different times. For example, in Shanghai, students list their preference for early admission, key universities and regular universities prior to the exam, but other colleges after they learned of their scores. The exam is administered for 3 days. Three subjects are mandatory everywhere: Chinese, Mathematics and a foreign language -- usually English but may also be substituted by Japanese, Russian or French. The other 6 standard subjects are 3 sciences Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and 3 humanities History, Geography and Political Education. Applicants to science/engineering or art/humanities programs typically take 1-3 from the respective category. Since 2000s, a integrated test, science integrated test, humanities integrated test or wider integrated test is introduced in some places. This integrated test may or may not be considered during admission. Besides, some special regional subjects are required or optional in some places. Currently, the actual requirement varies from province to province. Applicants to some specialist programs are also screened by additional criteria: some art departments (e.g. audition), military and police schools (political screening and physical exam) and some sports programs (tryout). Scores obtained in the examinations can be used in applying universities outside China. Among all the places, the counterpart Hong Kong is on their top list. In 2007, 7 students with overall highest score in their provinces entered Hong Kong's Universities rather than the two major Universities in China. In 2010, over 1200 students entered the 12 local institutions which provides teritary edcuation courses through this examination. In addition, City University of Hong Kong, Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the University of Hong Kong directly participate the application procedure like other mainland universities. The examination is essentially the only criterion for tertiary education admissions. A poor performance on the test almost always means giving up on that goal. Students hoping to attend university will spend most of their waking moments studying prior to the exam. If they fail in their first attempt, some of them repeat the last year of high school life and make another attempt the following year. Fear of failing the exam is such an issue that students who can afford to will sometimes go abroad to attend university despite the greater expense - up to 15 - 30 times the cost of an education in China.
Due to the importance placed on this exam, there has been strong pressure to keep the processes transparent and corruption-free. The government's efforts have not been entirely satisfactory. Leaking of exam content, bribery, and other abuses are still being constantly exposed.
A university usually sets a fixed admission quota for each province, with a higher number of students coming from its home province. As the number and quality of universities is very uneven across China, it is argued that people are being discriminated against during the admission process based on their geographic region. For example, compared to Beijing, Henan province has fewer universities per capita. Therefore an applicant in Henan needs a significantly higher position among applicants than his Beijing counterpart to get into the same university. This is not similar to the practice of regional universities in other countries which receive subsidies from regional governments in addition to or in place of those received from national governments, as universities in China largely depend on state budget rather than local budget. In recent years, varied admission standards have led some families to relocate for the sole purpose of advancing their children's chances of entering university. Through using a different benchmark examination and a separated admission procedure when intaking local secondary-education students in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Since the National Higher Education Entrance Examinations applicants shares the quota of the University Grants Committee(UGC, the major tertiary education governing body in HKSAR)'s funded degree (While about 30% (1200 students) of the non-mainstream intakes are come from the mainland mainly through this examination). Some local students in Hong Kong complained that it was unfair to the local applicants since the increasing intake from this examination increases the admission grade of universities. In 2010, more than 5000 students who met the minimum university entry requirement will end up not being offered by any degree courses from UGC-member institutes even more than 17000 students achieved it.
There are special concessions for members of ethnic minorities, foreign nationals, persons with family origin in Taiwan, and children of military casualties. Students can also receive bonus marks by achieving high results in academic Olympiads, other science and technology competitions, sporting competitions, as well as "political or moral" distinction. Some families try to exploit these concessions, especially that for foreign nationals. They immigrate to Vietnam, Singapore, India or another country in order to give their children less stringent university entrance requirements, because the minimum requirement score for international students (students holding a foreign passport) is considerably lower.
Further and more deep stemming criticisms have been leveled that the testing system is the "most pressure packed examination in the world." Behaviors surrounding the testing period have been extreme under some reports, with doctors in Tianjin purportedly prescribing birth control pills to female students whose parents wanted to ensure the girls were not menstruating at the time of examination. Testing pressure, for some critics, has been linked to faintings, increased drop out rates, and even increasing rates of teenage clinical depression and suicide.