Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
August 12th, 2008
China Prep
Video: Students Around the World Relive Entrance Exams

Whether it’s the American SAT, the Chinese gaokao, or the Jordanian tawjehe, university entrance exams are a rite of passage for high school students around the world. In this WIDE ANGLE web exclusive, five students and recent graduates share their experiences with these stressful, sometimes life-altering tests. Special thanks to Peter, Janaz, Daniel, Alex and Shauna — these videos were shot by the students themselves, some with cell phones or digital cameras. Feel free to add your own story in the comments section!

Sorry, this video is not available.
  • Steven

    I enjoy the coverage this show is finally giving to East Asian countries as opposed to the heavy Middle Eastern focus last season. However there is a large problem, the voice actors for the dubs in the episodes are ATROCIOUS! I believe the audience for this show would have no problem simply reading subtitles as it helps to convey the speaker’s original intent better than the clearly mismatched English voice actors could ever do. Just a suggestion, thanks.

  • Graham

    Did anyone notice the phrase “Boycott CNN” written in red letters in English on the chalkboard of one of the classrooms? Interesting.

  • Steven Cheng

    I enjoyed the show. As a Chinese studying in the US, I can identify so much with the students portrayed in the documentary, and their lives filled with aspiration, hard work, persistence, and endurance.

    I think Aaron Brown asked a wonderful question during his interview with the Harvard professor at the end of the show, where he asked how much she thought the Chinese students’ hard word was geared toward competing with the United States. A great question, but a terrible answer. Competing with their peers in the United States is the last thing on the Chinese students’ minds – not even remotely their concern at all. I studied as hard as I did because I wanted to go to college, get a good education, and be less limited to the many opportunities in life.

    It is unfortunate that the Harvard scholar failed to take the opportunity to let the American audience know that there are Chinese, just like there are Americans, who work hard to pursue a better life. It is as simple as that.

  • ellen

    I taught in a university in Beijing in the late 1980s and was impressed at that time by the same focus, hard work, discipline and determination displayed by the students in this program. It is not a new development. They knew their educational regime was tough but they also believed it was the only way they and their country could progress. I thought at the time and continue to believe that American students would/could not work that hard. Too many other things to do or buy, too many distractions. The interviewer seemed shocked by the tough-minded view of the Chinese professor from Harvard. And he seemed to think the students’ determination was something the USA should fear. And that their focus and desire to achieve was somehow directed against the USA, as if the USA was the only country on the planet. I thought the program was well done, and the young Chinese professor captured the spirit of the Chinese students: cheery and lively and attractive, but behind the smiles, a strong mind and a strong will. And the interviewer came off as an ingratiating nice guy but a “late bloomer” who probably would not make it in today’s China.
    PS The Chinese university (one of the top two) is pronounced Bei DA, emphasis on the last syllable. I thought somebody would have caught that during the editing of the program.

  • Linda

    Thanks for a quality show showing how the “gao kao” (high test) experienced by China’s teens and their families affects their entire educational experience, family choices, and future. Having been raised in Taiwan (daughter of American missionaries), which (like Japan and other countries) uses the same “weed ‘em out” system, and having spent a year teaching graduate students in mainland China, I have the following observations:
    1. I didn’t see the very beginning. Hopefully you mentioned that Chinese teens do not get to pick their own major or school. There are two choices, and they get to pick one of them (often parents rule the day).

    2. Once Chinese youth have chosen a university program, they do not get to “transfer schools” until the end of the program. A college student at Chang’An University could go on to graduate school elsewhere (although this is rare), but would have the option of finishing that college program at Chang’An — or nothing. So, the discussion of freedom is appropriate and ironic. When your major is fixed before you ever attend college and see if you like it (and there aren’t “workshop” or “internship” type classes in most Chinese high schools), that is not freedom.

    3. The moderator’s interview of the Chinese Harvard University professor (Vanessa) was interesting. I agree with her — that everything I saw and heard on the news and from people, while living in China, confirms the fact that they desperately do want to be a superpower.

    4. I thought the show was excellent in that the “face” showed so many things. However, I think that the moderator’s focus, on whether the “gao kao” is fairly administered, was off-base from the main focus. I would agree with the professor that the gao kao is the fairest thing in China — I had students from literally everywhere, every situation. Many students told me, “I was the only student from my village to get in.” What should be questioned for fairness is: “Is the government exploiting young people when it recruits its nation’s best young minds with the promise of great economic advantage and job placement, if they only agree to become a Communist? What are they selling, to gain these perks? Do they know?” And — “If a person cannot choose their major, and their major determines their job, then will this lack of freedom result in a level of discontent that undermines the future of China?” I thought the point was made very well, about “second chances” and the lack thereof in China. As Taiwan has become more democratic, it has increased its “second chance” factor, allowing students who do exceptionally well in night school or a lesser school, to eventually move into a state-recognized school.

    Note: My students in China were also indoctrinated on a number of points. They saw Taiwan as “always” a part of China, because that’s what they had been taught (contrary to fact). They saw their country as “liberators” of Tibet (despite genocide). With the coming of the Internet, information cannot be as hidden, but old prejudices die hard. So much of the news is anti-America or one-up-manship of America. The professor was disingenuous on this point. China see America as king of the mountain — its only real competition — and their specific aim is to “beat” America.

    I would love to see a follow-up show on Chinese college students, and how they handle it. Some don’t, and become positively dissipated. When I was there, there was an occurrence of a young man who died after spending three days and nights in an Internet cafe, playing computer games. Many of my less bright students never studied at all; they played. Taiwan also had this problem — all that work to GET to college meant that, now independent and with some measure of freedom — quite a few students abused that freedom. Many of my students weren’t even grateful. All that hard work made the culmination — university — a disappointment. They had thought it would be Shangri-La. Would love to see this kind of sequel.

  • Richard Turk, Jr, California

    1st. Aaron? So good to hear and see you again. Woke up in Fernley, NV on trip home to hear female from China talking about their ambition to be the next superpower as if that’s a goal worth aspiring to. My God what a horrid thought process for 1.3 billion; that a future must be decided, a life planned nearly at birth so your nation can rule the planet. For those that do not choose a life path, nor believe thee insanity of modern education, testing, test results, etc.; their lives are just “too bad” in Chinese philosophy? And the world wonders why the Library at Alexandria was burnt. All such thinking will go up in smoke again. It’s called spontaenious human combustion of those that just don’t get the true meaning of life. It’ll be God’s way of sorting and clearing the lands of His worst thoughts.

  • iris

    Although I have some obvious reservations over the pressure that is placed on the Chinese (students and family members), I am proud of the Chinese and how disciplined they are able to be. What also I admire is the unquestioning commitment and responsibility they have with their family. My experience with North American children presently, is not only a lack of discipline but also a great lack of respect for their elders. This includes chinese children brought up from a very early age in America. I believe that this shows a potential huge influence of the strong American attitudes on all cultures. I hope that in the future, the Chinese and Americans can form such a relationship that would result in a healthy and happy balance in spirit and life in general.

  • Peggy O’Connor

    I am a Chinese Taiwanese and relived the stress by watching this program.Both my parents are uneducated poor farmers. Yet, I am so frustrated with American school systems.Our middle and high schools are at least 1 1/2 yearsd behind China and India in Math subject. In order to get my children ready for tougher competition in their life time, I am homeschooling my three children after one month trial in public school.We American should be afraid of our “relaxed” school system. At the same time, we also should improve our SAT and Act exams. They are just like the testing systems in China, predictable once a student does enough practice in older version of materials.

  • Ray

    What an eye opener. It seems the work ethic has fallen by the wayside for most of the children of the United States. I realize the kids in this piece are “the cream of the crop”, but the drive is evident.
    I’d like to know what China’s high school graduation rate is nationwide compared to ours. Great story, thank you.

  • Peggy O’Connor

    I have to agree the point that Linda had written regarding the ambition of China has–”beat” America. Saddly, I believe that China is closing in that goal. It will be interesting to see a sequal that shows the comparison how Americans high school students are lagging behind other develping countries, especially India and China and how screw-up our public school systems are. I am from Taiwan and not happy about the education systems either in Taiwan or China. But I am especially disturbed by the level of ignorance American parents, students, and people in charge of American school systems.

  • Richard

    Ten (now eleven) comments regarding the educational system and economic impacts of same of a country with 1/6 th of the world’s population?
    I suppose that we in the states have all become Alfred E. Neumann, to wit, “What? Us worry?”

  • Yoel Cohen

    Dear Editorial Staff:

    I guess my comments sent to you yesterday were not positive enough to post on your web page, I think you will do very well in China system of government.
    Yoel Cohen

  • Howard L

    I enjoyed the story the very much. I appreciate Vanessa Fong’s comment where she says that it is a good system where it is the only time in a persons life where there is a level playing field. All the discipline and hard work will allow China to catch up with the West. But to truly compete with the West in the latest technology, that level playing field must be made available in the working world as well, at least as much as possible. Aaron Brown makes a good point about late bloomers. America is full of stories of high school drop outs who later become successful in their careers and/or in business. A young person, whether in China or the US may have stresses in their family life that is beyond their ability to cope with at such young age. But as they grow and mature, they can blossom when the society around them provides them the opportunity. It would be tragedy if China did not adjust for the late bloomers.

  • Xiang

    Great program, it’s a funny feeling to the program as a person who knows it all. Couple of comments:
    1, In GaoKao system, you do have the freedom to choose major and school, as long as your score is good enough. The “two choices”mentioned by Linda is probably due to confusion: you have to choose one of two curriculum around 10th grade: Science or Humanity, which correlate to different majors in GaoKao; Science=Math,Physics,Chemistry,Biolgoy… Humanity=Law,Journalism,Business… It used to be, back at my time, the applications had to be filed before you know the score, nowadays in most Provinces you can decide more intelligently after knowing the score. Keep in mind that you can only pick three schools with two or three majors each. Yes,three, with great freedom but only three schools. Again, you do have the choice to allow random placement if your score can’t get you into any of your three, but most people opt-out and rather try again next year.

    2,You really have to put things into perspective while talking about fairness and freedom. The higher education resource is so scarce, let alone those top universities:the participants of 08 GaoKao were well over 10 million while the top 10 universities(a kid’s future is set at very different level between these 10 and everything else) will only accept about 30 thousands.

    3, You also have to put things into perspective when comparing American system with Chinese. I don’t see it as American kids wouldn’t/couldn’t work as hard, rather they don’t have to work as hard. Why would you? If the education system gives you much higher chance to enter the top playing field(top 30 school in USA?) with much more flexible rating mechanism.

    4, Don’t compare apple with orange, the kids you saw in the program and most of the Chinese students and scholars you met in USA are top 1% of the Chinese student population, you need to compare them to Harvard/MIT undergrad. I honestly don’t see any advantage there.

  • Melanie

    I enjoyed your program very much. The two Chinese universities in the program, Beijing University and Tshinghua University, are also the leading feeder schools to the Ph.D. program in the United States surpassing UC Berkeley, reported by Science Magazine’s July 11 2008 issue. Seeing the program, I’m impressed by the devotion of parents, schools and society to their best and brightest; whereas, I don’t see the same commitment in the U.S. My son’s school district is more concerned about political correctness than taking care of their smartest students. Whenever there is a budge cut, the funding to the gifted and talented program is the first one to get cut. Furthermore, if Beijing University and Tshinghua University are producing the most qualified students for the U.S.’s Ph.D. program, what does it say about our school and our students and where should our students go? If U.S.’s universities are training the Chinese students, what does it say about U.S.’s competitiveness?

  • Xian

    Great Program, my cousin have went through it 3 years ago, and I don’t think I would be able to do the same thing and do well. The Chinese literature portion of the test is ridiculously hard. (Much harder than the AP English Literature exam I took in the states)

    Linda, with your regard about 2nd chances. Perhaps you should investigate more into private colleges (民办大学, think of them more along the lines of DeVry and ITT rather than Stanford) in china as well of 2 years programs (大专 as opposed to the regular 4 – 5 year program 本科) many colleges and universities offer. These things are no where nearly as competitive to get in as regular 4 year programs at a national university and its quality are no where nearly as good. However, I do have a few childhood friends in China that went this route. Now they all seems to have semi-decent office jobs, and one of them started a business. So there definitely 2nd chances in China.


    Note to editorial staff, please delete my first comment. I forgot to look though it, and I correct some mistakes in there. Thank you

  • hombre desnudos foto

    Ringraziamenti molto! Lo avete aiutato molto!

  • girls beds

    well done. i’am gonna return in some time for sure

  • mshaku

    it is really a pity ,i cannot find any information about the entrance entrance examination around the world.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 WNET.ORG Properties LLC. All rights reserved.