Essay questions from China’s college entrance exam

Example of gaokao essay response, from 2013

JISHOU, HUNAN — China’s teenagers took the dreaded gaokao 高考 — the two-day national college entrance examination — two weeks ago. The gaokao tests specific knowledge of literature, politics, history, math, science, English and Chinese (putonghua 普通话), and requires an essay in putonghua.

This year, almost 9.4 million students sat the gaokao. That’s more than the entire population of New Jersey!

Students have an hour to wrote an 800-character response to the essay prompts. (Some versions require 1,000 characters.) Each province has a slightly different gaokao version from the others, and that includes the essay prompts, which are pretty cryptic — much worse than the freshman essay prompt I had, about the many uses of the paper clip. Shanghaiist has compiled translations of several gaokao essay prompts, some of which I share here.

Hunan Province (where I live): There was one a place where everyone was very poor. Most of the people who worked here left after two years. However, someone stayed for years and turned it into the most beautiful village with the others.

Write an argumentative article or a descriptive article on this topic.

Sichuan Province (west of Hunan): The world belongs to you only after you stand up.

Please choose your own angle and write about your thoughts on this sentence.

Anhui Province (east of Hunan): The artists say that the actors are allowed to change the screenplay, but the directors say that they are not.

Choose your own angle and talk about what’s your understanding and views on this topic.

Guangdong Province (south of Hunan): In the era of black and white films, there were not many photos. Although these photos only recorded a few magical moments of our lives, we enjoy reviewing them and they bring back precious memories. However, these old photos always got fate and yellow after years. And now, in the era of digital technology, there are tons of photos which record every seconds of our lives. They can be uploaded to share online and they never get fate or yellow. However, as the speed of people reviewing these photos goes up, these memories are not that “precious” anymore.

Choose your own angle and write an article on this topic.

I will note here that students in Guangdong generally begin learning English sooner than students in Hunan, Sichuan or Anhui, which may explain why the GD essay prompt is significantly longer than the others.

The gaokao is the only determining factor (officially, anyway) for acceptance to college. Students can choose three or four colleges to receive their scores. If a student’s gaokao score is equal to or higher than the college’s minimum, the student is generally accepted. Anything below, even by 1 point, disqualifies the student. As you can imagine, this draconian system puts a lot of pressure on students, teachers and parents, who all strive for the “key universities,” such as Beijing University or Qinghua University in Beijing.

Results will be published next week. If you hear cries of anguish from across the ocean, they probably came from China.

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