The exams are known for being difficult and many students take additional tuition to help them through.
A record number of Chinese students have begun sitting the country’s notoriously difficult college entrance examinations known as “gaokao”, the first since the authorities suddenly lifted zero-COVID rules that forced classes online for months on end.
China’s education ministry says a record of nearly 13 million students have registered for the exams, which began on Wednesday.
“I’ve been waking up at 4am every day, except on Sundays, to study for the past four years,” Jesse Rao, a 17-year-old high school student in the southern city of Shenzhen, told the AFP news agency.
“I’ve done everything I can but I still feel a bit nervous.”
In Beijing, nervous parents gathered around the exam halls with many of their children wearing red for good luck.
Zhang Jing, a mother in her 40s, compared herself with Bai Suzhen, a character in Chinese folklore who is locked in a tower until her son passes an important test.
“My son is quite relaxed. I think I am more nervous than him,” said Jing, wearing a traditional qipao dress.
“I have been accompanying my son and instructing his studies from the first grade of elementary school to the first year of high school,” she explained.
“After the exam, I’ll be completely relaxed.”
‘A life experience’
The gaokao tests school leavers on core subjects such as Chinese and English languages and mathematics as well as other science or humanities subjects of their choice. A strong performance is critical for entrance to China’s most prestigious universities.
Students spend between 60 and 150 minutes on each subject with the exams lasting up to four days.
The maximum score is 750, with students needing more than 600 points to secure a place at the best universities.
Very few make the cut: Last year, only three percent of those who took the exam in Guangdong, the country’s most popular province, scored over 600.
In an editorial, the state-run Global Times noted that while the exam had changed a little over the years, it remained a key test for young Chinese.
“To a large extent, gaokao is the first independent challenge that the majority of ordinary people face in their lives,” the tabloid wrote in an editorial on Wednesday. “It not only tests their knowledge but also hones their willpower and endurance. It’s not just an exam, it’s also a life experience.”
This year’s exam-takers have spent the bulk of their high-school years under pandemic restrictions, meaning many of their lessons took place online.
The curbs were suddenly lifted in December.
Many students take additional tuition to boost their performance in the exams but there have also been reports of cheating.
Several provinces this year have installed scanners with facial-recognition capabilities to ensure candidates do not hire proxies to take the test on their behalf, the Global Times reported.
The scanners will also detect “electronic equipment such as (hidden) cell phones, earpieces and electronic watches” that can be used for cheating, the newspaper said.
Students who do not get the results they need can sit the exams again.
In 2021, 17 percent of students nationwide retook their gaokao.
“If I don’t get the results I want, I will try again,” Benjamin Zhu, a high-school senior from Guangzhou, told AFP.