This information is summarized/compiled from:


The Commonwealth of Australia’s 2009 Research on China’s National College Entrance Examination (the Gaokao)


Brief Background:


The Chinese Gao Kao exam is also known as the National College Entrance Examination.  Created in 1952, the Gao Kao is a two day exam that is administered once a year in June.  It is the sole determinant of admission into the Chinese university system. Unlike the United States where institutions themselves determine the number of university graduates, the Chinese government regulates university graduates depending on economic and social needs by considering quotas surrounding provinces, universities and subjects.  China’s Ministry of Education works closely with educators to set policies related to recruitment that align with government priorities. With limited access to post-secondary education in China, the Gao Kao is a merit-based and transparent system which presents an opportunity for students to compete on an equal basis for university admission.


The top 10% of Gao Kao candidates are eligible for admission to Tier One (the “top”) universities, and the next 20% are eligible for admission to the Tier Two universities. While there is no official ranking of universities in China, institutions are categorized by tiers for the purpose of admission; those in Tier One are the coveted institutions.  Seven of the Tier One universities are ranked in the Top 100 World University Rankings by Times Higher Education in 2019. While there are no rankings per se, for those in China, achievement in education is not judged by how well students perform at university but rather, by which university a student attends–across the country, individuals “know” which the top institutions are, irrespective of any formal university ranking system.  Thus, success on the Gao Kao is equivalent to success in education.


In 2008, 10.5 students sat for the Gao Kao exam and in 2018, just under 10 million students took the Gao Kao exam across 22 provinces, four municipalities (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing), five autonomous regions and two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau) for a total of 31 jurisdictions from which students were considered for China university admission.


The Gao Kao Exam:


The Gao Kao generally includes three required subjects: Math, Chinese and Foreign Language along with one required comprehensive subject depending on whether the student is studying science, humanities or a speciality subject.  The test format is a mix of multiple choice and short answer questions covering each of the subjects.

Among China’s 31 provinces, 16 provinces are able to develop the senior secondary curriculum and design their own Gaokao following the requirements set by the Ministry of Education: Anhui, Beijing, Chongqing, Fujian, Guangdong, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Liaoning, Shaanxi, Shandong, Shanghai, Sichuan, Tianjin, Zhejiang. The other 15 provinces follow curriculum and Gaokao papers designed by the Ministry of Education (though there are three to four samples for provinces to choose depending on their individual circumstance): Gansu, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hebei, Heilongjiang, Henan, Inner Mongolia, Jilin, Shanxi, Qinghai, Tibet, Xinjiang, Yunnan, Ningxia, Hainan. The movement to greater provincial autonomy is all part of the broader curriculum reform.

There is little that is national about the Gaokao, therefore each province considers how it will grade its Gaokao based on its own scoring formula, hence why cutoff percentiles are important to consider for admission. The majority of provinces score out of 750:  based on the three required subjects (maximum 150 points) and one comprehensive subject (maximum 300 points).



Eligibility for Gao Kao:


Not all secondary students will take the Gao Kao.  Reasons for seeking other options include the financial means to study abroad along with reducing the pressure related to preparing for the Gao Kao exam itself.


Ministry of Education regulations state that students can take the Gao Kao if: they have completed senior secondary school (or equivalent), are physically healthy, obey the constitution and laws of the People’s Republic of China, and hold permanent residence in the province where they will take the exam.   Students who are already in a university undergraduate program, did not complete senior secondary school, have a criminal record, are in prison or have previously been engaged in cheating on the Gao Kao are ineligible to take the Gao Kao exam.


Reservations about accepting the Gao Kao in the U.S.:


There are a number of reasons why the Gao Kao has yet to be accepted unilaterally for U.S. college admission, including:  timing concerns for fall entry (the Gao Kao is administered in June, after most competitive U.S. institutions have established their fall cohort), lack of quantifiable data regarding Gao Kao equivalency to the SAT/ACT, and concerns about the intellectual demands of the Gao Kao exam. (e.g., its tests subject knowledge and theory rather than the ability to solve problems or carry out practical tasks).  Because longitudinal studies examining the Gao Kao score, retention and university success in the U.S. has not yet been conducted, progressive institutions seeking to create international diversity in their student body often find insurmountable internal debate regarding changing admission requirements.


Academic Integrity:


Each year, reports of cheating on the Gao Kao exam are subject to media scrutiny.  However, despite such sensationalized reports, the system of registration, computerized marking and on- line results make it a rarity for such means of deception to occur.  Furthermore, cheating on the Gao Kao exam is punishable by China law.


Comparability of Gao Kao Knowledge:


There is scant research about how the Gao Kao itself compares to Western methods of assessment and success in a Western style curriculum; we were unable to locate any specific data examining Gao Kao scores and success in U.S. universities.

One study has compared a Gao Kao mathematics submission with its A-level British equivalent, finding that the level of the Chinese paper was comparable.  In fact, this study concluded that the Gao Kao mathematics submission which was reviewed seemed to be “equivalent to entry into a good British university…but higher than the British requirement to support the study of another subject,” implying Gao Kao level math work, at the very least, is comparable to a British math curriculum.

The University of Western Australia (UWA) had its own subject experts examine the Gao Kao Math, Physics and Chemistry tests for equivalency, and concluded that Gao Kao knowledge in these subject areas were sufficient to satisfy its prerequisites for study.

What is notable is that UWA has stated that the Gao Kao English subject does not satisfy its English language requirement.

UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (a UK-based organisation whose main role is to operate the application process for British universities) regards the Gao Kao as similar to the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level, or A Level but recommends accepting those with a score of 85% on the Gao Kao “in addition to a very high level of English”.


Institutions wishing to accept the Gaokao for direct entry to the first year of undergraduate programmes may want to consider a very high score (above 85%) in addition to a very high English level.


Example Test Questions:


If x + y ≥ a, x – y ≤ -1, and the minimum value of z = x + ay = 7, what is a?

  1. -5
  2. -5 or 3
  3. 3
  4. 5 or -3


Write an essay on how Thomas Edison would react to the mobile phone if he visited the 21st century.


Between June and August, a cruise ship travels from Fujian province to Venice, via Mumbai, as part of Xi’s “21st century maritime silk road” strategy. Which of the following would it experience on the way?


  1. When passing through the South China Sea, the cruise will face continuous rain.
  2. When passing through the Arabian Sea, the cruise will sail against winds and currents.
  3. When passing through the Red Sea, large stretches of forests will be seen alongside the coast.
  4. When passing through the Mediterranean Sea, the cruise will experience several days of rainstorms.


Fill in the blanks on this English grammar question: Good families are much to all their members, but ___ to none.

  1. Something
  2. Anything
  3. Everything
  4. Nothing


President Xi has said that while art can release the wings of imagination, it should still be down-to-earth. There may be hundreds of ways to create art, but the best way is to have it take root in people’s daily lives, and create something based off of that. From a materialist point of view, this is because (pick two of the statements below):

  1. Art originates from people’s daily lives.
  2. Art depends on innovation.

III. The way art reflects on society and its style is unified.

  1. Art is a form of ideology that reflects people’s lives, while serving the people at the same time.
  2. I and II.
  3. I and IV.
  4. II and III.
  5. III and IV.


Choose one question to answer in 150 words or less:

  1. a) Review a Chinese classic
  2. b) Write a poem on “circle”
  3. c) Comment on uncivilized behavior in Beijing




Competitive institutions in the U.S. should assess English language ability through an option other than the Gao Kao English subject test.  We recommend Duolingo given the ease in which a student can take the exam along with Duolingo’s established TOEFL equivalency scale.


Conditional offers of admission, pending acceptable Gao Kao score, along with an English language ability test, and application for student visa could potentially allow for a student to begin studies in the U.S. in the fall immediately following the Gao Kao exam; U.S. institutions would need to reserve seats for such students and be willing to work quickly to assess eligibility for formal admission.


Accept students based upon percentiles within each province, particularly given that provinces may score the Gao Kao exam differently based on its own test.


Once a Gao Kao student matriculates at a U.S. institution, longitudinally track attrition, retention and other related education factors (e.g., GPA, academic discipline issues, graduate school admission) to contribute to a wider knowledge base about the Gao Kao’s utility in determining fit for U.S. college admission.