It's that time of the year again. Amid all the graduations and celebrations, spare a thought for the poor souls subjecting themselves to the "Gaokao", China's national college entrance examination. The grueling two-day test is often seen as one of the hardest exams ever made. It is for the most part, the one and only exam that matters for Chinese high school students hoping to pursue a secondary degree.
Around 9.4 million students are taking the Gaokao on Wednesday and Thursday this week. How well they do will ultimately decide their future, determining whether they go to university or not, or perhaps more importantly, if they are accepted into their preferred school.
The two days are split into four sections, with Chinese literature and Math being tested on the first day. On the following day, liberal arts and science students will be split into their respective groups to be tested on their preferred subjects in the morning, followed by English in the afternoon.
This system has often been criticized, as the performance of the students over the two-day test can have a significant bearing on their future studies and working lives. With so much riding on the results, preparation for the exam is grueling and time-consuming. However, some students choose not to take the exam, perhaps because they have already been accepted into their dream schools, or they plan to embark on overseas study, for which taking Gaokao is unnecessary.
Among the throng of students, parents and well-wishers outside Beijing's High School Affiliated to Renmin University, two bright sparks have already been accepted into the prestigious Peking University after winning a nationwide science award. Meanwhile, other abstainees have already made plans to study in the UK or the U.S. instead.
A recent graduate from the High School Affiliated to Renmin University said: "I took the test here last year and I'm here to support my schoolmates. I am off to London next year but I wish to give all my luck to the students taking the exam today."
In addition to teachers and peers, even Beijing itself is helping the students to achieve the best results. Police cars and ambulances are stationed outside the test center to ensure the safety and security of the students. But of course, the students' biggest fans are their parents. Many waited in the heat for hours to welcome their children out of the exam hall first.
"We can't help too much with their academic life but we try our best to provide comfortable living conditions, ensure they get plenty of rest and just be generally supportive," said one mother outside the exam center. "I just hope he can perform as well as he usually does and hopefully receive a good mark so he can attend his dream school and enroll on his preferred major," She added that she is much more nervous now that her son is taking the exam than she was when she took it almost three decades ago.
Another parent said: "Gaokao is one of the most important events for Chinese students, in a way it is the fairest way to reward hard work through meritocracy."
But tenth grader Dai Xusheng has already made up his mind not to go through with all this. He plans to head to the U.S. for his bachelor degree. In order to prepare himself for the big leap, Dai is taking extra math courses and reading a hefty amount of classical English literature in addition to his regular schoolwork.
"I have gone abroad several times and I like how they value personalities. I think Gaokao can decide which college you can go to but it can't decide which direction your life will go in," says Dai. "I think Gaokao lacks emphasis on students' extracurricular activities, as it only focuses on your grades."
The High School Affiliated to Renmin University is one of China's most prestigious high schools, with many alumni having gained admissions to renowned colleges both in China and overseas. For many Chinese students, this examination is a one-way ticket to a better life.