On China’s Biggest Test, Is Creativity Worth the Risk?
If it wasn’t the worst day of my academic career, it came close. Thirteen years have passed, but I still remember my humiliation like it was yesterday: The gaokao college entrance exam was less than half a year away, and I’d just posted my worst-ever score on a practice essay — a 51 out of 70.
On its own, a 51 wasn’t cause for despair. It was on the low end for a student at a top high school in Shanghai, but with a little luck — and near perfect scores on the rest of the test — it would still be enough to get into an elite university. Technically, the whole exercise was academic anyway: I was already set on going to college abroad and was only taking the gaokao because my school believed I had a chance to earn the highest score among all Shanghai liberal arts students that year.
Nevertheless, it stung. When I asked my Chinese teacher what I’d done wrong, she was just as perplexed as I was. Finally, after a lengthy analysis, we guessed that the grader had marked me down for not sticking to the formula for this particular kind of essay prompt. I’d taken a high-risk, high-reward approach by challenging the premise of the prompt itself. My teacher loved it, but the grader may have had less tolerance for going off topic or questioning the writers of the test.
It was a disillusioning experience, but not an uncommon one. The gaokao is a cultural event in China. Unlike the SAT, it is held just once a year, for two to three days each June. Roughly 10 million Chinese subject themselves to this test of knowledge and endurance each year; their final scores essentially determine their educational futures.
It’s a pressure cooker, and despite numerous attempts to reform college admissions and make them less test-centric over the years, no one has been able to come up with a better — or fairer — solution for deciding who gets into China’s best schools. For the most part, the scores are clear-cut, but the essay section is an exception. Unsurprisingly, it’s also the subject of intense speculation every year. News websites typically publish the prompts within minutes of the essay portion’s conclusion, and leading commentators will often try their hand at writing their own responses while readers debate which province posed the cleverest questions.
If the gaokao is often seen as emblematic of China’s rote-learning focused, exam-oriented education system, the essay feels like a window into an alternate world. One of the few sections that doesn’t require a “correct” answer, it occasionally even rewards experimentation. After the political and moralistic prompts of the 1970s and 1980s gave way to more open-ended formats in the 1990s, test writers allowed students more room to write what and how they want.
They’ve been rewarded with some truly creative responses. Formulaic structures, literary parallelism, the copious use of idiom, and clear handwriting are still the best way to guarantee a decent score, but standing out from a pack of millions often requires thinking outside the box.
Some have scored big with a more highbrow approach. Students still learn about “Death of the Red Hare,” a groundbreaking essay from 2001 that answered a question about integrity with a historical story told entirely in classical Chinese. Others use the space to show off. In 2020, a student in the wealthy eastern province of Zhejiang earned full points for an essay featuring quotes from Martin Heidegger, Italo Calvino, Max Weber, and Alasdair MacIntyre.
To ensure essays are graded fairly, at least two people read each response. In case of disagreement, a third reader is brought in to arbitrate. But there is always a risk in trying something different, no matter how well you write. In the abovementioned case from 2020, Zhejiang province’s head grader raved about the essay’s intellectual depth, but also admitted that the first person to read it had given the essay a low score. As my own experience attests, boundary-pushing essays can easily result in fiasco if they land on the desk of a more conservative grader.
I don’t regret the hours I spent toiling away at essay prep. Now that I’m safely beyond the graders’ reach, I can even find enjoyment in reading about the gaokao prompts each year. They offer a valuable window into what educators from different places and at different times deem important.
At the same time, given the pressure students are under, the uncertainty of the essay section presents a unique challenge. Even though I knew my score wouldn’t affect my university decision, it was frustrating to realize my success or failure ultimately rested not on my own abilities, but on who was assigned to grade my work. In the end, I chose to skip the test. Some things are best experienced from a distance.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Students celebrate after finishing the first section of the “gaokao” college entrance exam in Chenzhou, Hunan province, June 7, 2023. VCG)