Here at our CUSEF blog, we share news, updates and stories about China and the United States – the two world’s most significant nations. We wish you not only to have a glimpse of what’s going on between the two, but an in-depth knowledge of what brings them to where they stand today.

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Test of Your Life: College Entrance Exams in China and the U.S.

2019-09-30
College entrance exams in both China and the U.S. have a unique hold on the public psyche, including their rigor of each set of tests, the content of the exams, and the toll they take on the young adults whose futures they drastically impact.. Photo Credit: ACT.org
College entrance exams in both China and the U.S. have a unique hold on the public psyche, including their rigor of each set of tests, the content of the exams, and the toll they take on the young adults whose futures they drastically impact.. Photo Credit: ACT.org

Summer ends and the school year begins. The education systems between China and the U.S. might be different, but students have an important experience in common – college entrance exams.

College entrance exams in both China and the U.S. have a unique hold on the public psyche, with numerous articles comparing the rigor of each set of tests, the content of the exams, and the toll they take on the young adults whose futures they drastically impact.

There are two prominent college entrance exams currently in use in the United States: the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the ACT. Both are nationally recognized, and all colleges/universities accept scores from either one or both of the tests as a part of a student’s application materials-providing students with the flexibility to take both or either one. In some cases, the choice comes down to geography: colleges and universities in the western parts of the United States tend to emphasize the ACT, whereas institutions in the east tend to accentuate a partiality for the SAT.

These preferences can filter down to public high schools as well. In certain western states, there is a designated test day on which all students in their third year are mandated to take the ACT, with the costs covered by the state’s government. In some schools, students wear t-shirts with the logo of their dream universities as a positive omen for success on the test.

Differences in structure between the two tests also provide students the opportunity to showcase their individual strengths. As Mai Jumamil, director of college prep programs at Kaplan Test Prep, explains, students with a higher aptitude for literature and writing "may flourish on the ACT, which puts more emphasis on verbal skills” while students with stronger numerical skills are likely to have their skills better reflected on the SAT.

The gaokao has been crowned “the world’s toughest school exam” for its test content and ability to influence a student’s future. Photo credit: Business Insider

In China, students seeking entrance to universities must face the National College Entrance Exam, commonly referred to as the gaokao. Taken over a period of two to three days, this nine-hour exam is a prerequisite to enter nearly all colleges or universities in the country. Designed by the Ministry of Education, or by provincial Education Departments in some parts of the country, the exam is administered to students in their third and final year of secondary school. The gaokao structure also offers ways for students to emphasize their strengths, such as the option to select one of the subject areas to be administered in a foreign language as a test of their secondary language skills (though most candidates select English) and to choose either a concentration in social science or natural science.

Comparatively, the gaokao has gained more international attention than its American counterparts for its rigor, sometimes being called “the world’s toughest school exam,” not only because of the test’s content, but for the exam’s ability to influence a student’s future. Which do you think is harder? Test your knowledge by answering sample questions from the SAT, ACT, and the gaokao and let your results decide.

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