According to the Chinese proverb, academic success will give you a house with a golden roof and a spouse as pure as jade.
But willing students need to pass the gaokao first, the annual university test that torments millions of Chinese students and their watchful parents. This year, some 9.57 million school-goers sat for gaokao, the dreaded entrance exam.
The gaokao resembles the American SAT, except that it lasts more than two times as long. The nine-hour test, which takes three days to complete, is offered just once a year and is the sole determinant for admission to virtually all Chinese colleges and universities. About three in five students make the cut (see WiC19).
This explains why those who score the highest marks in the exam – they’re called zhuangyuan – are commonly viewed as superstars. Many of them give interviews on local radio and television, answering questions from parents keen to prepare their own children to beat the competition in forthcoming years.
But critics now wonder if the gaokao is all it’s cracked up to be. According to the China Daily, the study of 1,000 top scorers on the gaokao from 1977 to 2009 did not find a single student who went on to achieve outstanding success in any field.
The case of Li Taibo has added fuel to the debate. Li topped Beijing’s gaokao in the sciences paper this year. But he was rejected by Harvard, Yale, Princeton and a number of top American colleges, says the Global Times.
The 18 year-old high school student certainly seemed to have a lot going for him: besides getting a score of 2,240 out of a possible 2,400 on the SAT and 112 out of 120 on the TOEFL, Li was chairman of his school student union, plays the piano (he loves Mozart), paints and even won the first prize in the national mathematics competition three times. And he’s been to the North Pole (twice, he claims) on science expeditions.
“I really did many things in high school. Perhaps I didn’t highlight what those universities were interested in on my applications,” he said disappointedly. “The things I thought were important may have failed to attract them.”
Netizens have concluded that Li’s application was probably too long and seemed “over-decorated”. Others were blunter. He’s a nerd, reported Beijing Youth Daily.
Or is the gaokao to blame? Guangzhou Daily argues that the rigidity of the exam stifles creative thinking, creating narrow-minded bookworms who only know how to take tests. US universities have twigged this, and look for more fully-developed individuals.
Take Liu Yiting. She enrolled at Harvard University as an undergraduate with a full scholarship in 1999. To find out how she accomplished this feat, some 3 million Chinese have bought copies of Harvard Girl Liu Yiting, a book written by Liu‘s parents. The bestseller’s central theme is that Harvard chooses well-rounded students who don’t just score perfect SAT scores.
Nevertheless, Li has his defenders. Shen Xianzhang, vice-principal of Li’s high school, said: “The standard used by the US is very much different from that in China and we respect theirs. However, it does not mean the US standard is the world standard. Being rejected by the universities in the US does not mean Li is not an accomplished student.”
Li himself is ready to move on. He told the China Daily that he has accepted a scholarship from the University of Hong Kong and doesn’t rule out the possibility of applying to the US again.
“It is possible I will seek higher education in the US in the future,” says Li. “To have an international outlook and diverse experience is very important.”
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