What is life like in China at High School?

I attended a typical Chinese public high school with the Gaokao (National college entrance exam) curriculum in a third-tier city, which is a lack of educational resources, in Grade 10 before my family immigrated to Canada. As a high school senior who has taken both Gaokao and AP courses with a bunch of friends enrolling in IBDP or IGCSE, I think I could review my school life in China critically.

Preface: College Admission Process in China

Most colleges in the United States or Canada review applicants holistically, which means that admission readers will make their decision based on a broad range of factors such as experiences, attributes, and academic metrics. Even though test scores play a crucial role, they will consider the student’s GPA, which reflects student’s knowledge and skills, and the educational disadvantages they met. However, the counterpart process in China is quite simple: Colleges merely consider student’s test scores in Gaokao.

There’s a misconception I frequently heard about: standardized tests, such as the SAT or the ACT, is the equivalent form of Gaokao in the United States, but the fact is that it won’t affect your chance even though your score is lower than the average. Nonetheless, if your score in Gaokao is slightly lower than the requirement, you will be rejected without any chance to argue.

Although it seems horrible, that process provides chances for impoverished families: Their children could be admitted by prestige colleges if they put all their efforts into test preparation, which is hard to imagine for their counterparts in North America because they probably have difficulties in filling their extracurricular activities. Thus, high school life in second or third-tier cities is tedious: student’s daily life mostly consists of taking courses and preparing for tests.

Daily Schedule

In Grade 10 (equivalent to sophomore year), I typically wake up 6.20 in the morning, have a quick breakfast, and rush to school or I might be reported to my counselor.

In China, students will be split into several classes according to their test results, and each class has its mandated course schedule, which means that students couldn’t pick the level of courses based on their interests and knowledge.

There are 9 courses (around 40 minutes in length) per day: 5 courses in the morning and another 4 in the afternoon, covering all subjects in Gaokao. During the meal break, I will take a nap in the classroom and review my study notes to prepare for upcoming tests.

Physics Practice Tests

Besides textbooks, most students will regularly purchase test preparation manuals and practice tests published by tutoring agencies similar to Kaplan or Princeton Review in North America.

Chinese high school sucks…

The above image is all the third-party manuals and practice tests I bought through my sophomore year, and nearly all of them are hard to read due to the tiny font size.

Physics Practice Test and Barron’s AP Calculus Review

Courses

Students are required to take Chinese, English, and Math courses, and they could choose two categories of courses: social science, which consists of History, Politics, and Geography, and natural science, including Physics, Chemistry, and Biology.

I think Math is the most selective subject in Gaokao, which covers lots of topics from algebra to analytic geometry and differential calculus with complex questions in the test, much tougher than AP Calculus BC or IB Math HL.

Chinese subject in Gaokao is similar to the reading section in the SAT, in which we will read passages in different categories such as social science or history and answer questions based on the content. An additional essay is required but not crucial, since readers typically have 30 seconds to score it and most test takers receive an average result in that section.

English is easy for me, and the test is consists of stupid reading questions and a short essay. However, most students cannot speak English fluently, since speaking is not included in Gaokao. Here’s a sample question of Gaokao English subject:

For Canaan Elementary’s second grade in Patchogue, N.Y., today is speech day, and right now it’s Chris Palaez’s turn. The 8-year-old is the joker of the class. With shining dark eyes, he seems like the kind of kid who would enjoy public speaking. But he’s nervous. “I’m here to tell you today why you should … should…” Chris trips on the “-ld,” a  pronunciation difficulty for many non-native English speakers. His teacher, Thomas Whaley, is next to him, whispering support. “…Vote for …me …” Except for some stumbles, Chris is doing amazingly well. When he brings his speech to a nice conclusion, Whaley invites the rest of the class to praise him.

What made Chris nervous?

  • A. Telling a story.
  • B. Making a speech.
  • C. Taking a test.
  • D. Answering a question.

Academic topics covered in natural science courses are similar to those in the United States, but the test questions are more tricky. For instance, physics in Gaokao is significantly harder than AP Physics C, and I’ve met lots of Chinese students who could easily get a 5 in the latter one without much preparation.

Although history courses in North America focus on critically analyzing historical events and write essays, history courses in China are quite different: students keep remembering their study notes and content in the textbooks, and they are not allowed to express their ideas in the free-response questions.

Geography is a fascinating subject, which also requires a lot of remembrances. Politics consists of diverse topics in Micro Economics, structures of the Chinese government and Communism Party, and Philosophy.

School Life

Monthly Exams

In my school, students take exams monthly, including the mid-term and final. After each exam, results will be ranked and each student’s scores and ranking will be thoroughly listed and analyzed on the chalkboard.

Electronic Devices

Mobile phones are not allowed in my school, and teachers routinely walk in classrooms or watch monitors check whether students are using it. Students will be punished and their phones will be kept by their counselors until they graduate if they break regulations.

Literally all parents won’t allow their children to own smartphones, but my classmates sometimes reduce their budget on meals, purchase for mobile phones secretly, and conceal it in their backpack or dorms. Mobile phone trading gradually emerges into underground markets: I’m able to rent a phone from my friend at an acceptable price if I can’t keep myself from social media.

Relationship

Having a relationship is banned and will be strictly punished, except for those restrained couples which are yet to be noticed by counselors. Since there’s a bunch of nerds in my school, lots of guys find difficulties in starting a relationship.

Weekends and Holidays

In order to maximize students’ efforts on our exams, we typically have courses for the entire week except for Sunday afternoon.


After my family immigrated to Canada, my blurred memories remind me that I don’t belong to this place anymore. Although my description might give you the impression that Chinese high schools seem like hell, I could feel that the education system is continuously improving. I hope one day all Chinese students can escape from the situation that their future merely depends on the test scores.

Published by

Siujoeng Lau

Liberty will never perish.

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