The Re-examined Life: Retaking the Gaokao to Start Afresh

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Wang Xiyao was starting to feel the crunch. In 2019, she’d been running her boutique consultancy business in the central Henan province for more than a decade, but her clients one by one were scaling back their marketing budgets, even the big spenders in the auto industry.

In crisis mode, Wang did something she never dreamed she would: retake the gaokao, China’s make-or-break national university entrance examination.

Chinese students traditionally take the gaokao at the end of high school, around age 18, although anyone can register for the exam, regardless of age or educational background. In recent years, the central government has updated the system to cater to students interested in pursuing higher vocational education, part of efforts to cultivate more graduates with strong practical skills. These exams require only tests in Chinese, mathematics, English, and professional ability, and are less difficult than the standard gaokao.

It was this vocational route that Wang had decided to follow. Now in her early 30s, she planned to retrain as a dental hygienist to secure a more stable income.

Wang concedes she was initially reluctant, as students who take the higher vocational education exam can enroll only in programs at junior colleges, which carry relatively little prestige in China. However, a friend already working in the dental industry convinced her it was a good option: Compared with a five-year bachelor’s degree in medicine, this was only two years of full-time study and one year as a clinical intern. She also had industry connections that could help land her a permanent position.

She took the leap. In March 2019, Wang spent over 1,000 yuan ($140) on a set of textbooks and began gradually reducing the workload at her company to allow more time for courses on Chinese culture and professional skills. She even booked herself into an intensive, monthlong gaokao bootcamp, studying daily from 5 a.m. to well past midnight.

In July 2020, almost 15 years on from the first time she took the gaokao, Wang entered the examination room in Henan determined to start the next chapter in her life. She was not the only one.

Passion projects

About 700 kilometers away in Beijing, Dai Meng was waiting patiently for the standard gaokao to start. At 22 years old, she had graduated early from an elite Chinese business school with a bachelor’s degree in accounting after completing four years of courses in just three years and successfully defending her thesis. However, she had regretted choosing her major almost immediately.

In February 2018, an incident in a shopping mall in which someone was wounded with a knife had also ignited an interest in studying clinical medicine. Dai felt that saving lives was more meaningful than preventing fraud, so she decided to go back to the drawing board and pursue her passion.

Lü Xin was in a similar position. She studied computer science at a university in Henan, but in her junior year she began to fall behind in class, finding the course materials too challenging. She’d chosen her major for pragmatic reasons. College was going to be a financial struggle for her family, who filed for bankruptcy in 2017, so when applying to schools Lü had considered only majors that required minimum investment and promised well-paying employment. At the time, she knew little about computer science, only that it was a booming sector.

However, after scraping through her senior year, she discovered that the industry landscape had experienced a fundamental shift, and job fair recruiters for internet companies were no longer interested in fresh graduates who knew the Java programming language, like her. Today, she says, only a few of the more than 20 students in her class have jobs related to computer science.

As her university had a cooperation agreement with a nearby high-tech industrial park, Lü was able to land a job at a company she had interned at. Yet, after about six months of working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, she decided to quit and move back to her hometown. There, she found work as a supermarket management trainee, a server in a milk tea shop, and as a private tutor, but nothing proved suitable. “I knew that if I tried to work in the internet industry again I’d eventually have a breakdown,” she says.

When she thought about her four years at university, one of the few things that had brought her pleasure was playing guzheng, a traditional Chinese zither, in school concerts. “Since work is always going to be hard, I thought I might as well choose something I like doing,” she says. Soon after, she registered to take China’s art college entrance exam, which runs parallel to the gaokao, to study music.

Lü was worried her cash-strapped family would object to the idea, but her mother was supportive: “She told me, you just need to take responsibility for your own choices.”

In the lead-up to retaking the gaokao in June 2023, she tapped her savings to spend 18,000 yuan on a music theory class, and 14,000 yuan for one-on-one guzheng lessons. Afterwards, she also invested 15,000 yuan in a four-month, full-time cultural studies course.

Life-work balance

Tang Lingzhong was 28 years old when she decided to retake the gaokao in 2022 in Guangzhou, capital of the southern Guangdong province. A decade earlier she was studying life sciences at an elite Japanese university, but she was unhappy with her major and concerned that 18 months of foundational language studies had left her trailing her peers. So she dropped out and returned home to China.

She first worked in sales for a Japanese company and then started her own business, a study abroad agency primarily serving families who wanted their children to study in Japan. Yet, Tang’s life changed when she met a student older than her who was preparing for Japan’s undergraduate entrance examination. Realizing she felt unfulfilled in her career, in January 2021, Tang made the impulsive decision to register for the next gaokao.

As she was still running her agency, she had little time to attend exam preparation classes. She could only take online courses, and without a professional instructor, had to rely on practice tests and tips sold by former high school seniors.

Three months before the exam, Tang began to feel extremely anxious, as her work was constantly disturbing her attempts to study. To alleviate the stress, she would repeat a simple mantra to herself: “Remember you are doing this to study what you want to study. Don’t be fixated on your score.”

She eventually achieved 520 points out of a possible 750 in the gaokao. It was enough to earn a place on an undergraduate nursing program at a university in Dongguan, an industrial city in Guangdong, although she had hoped to study clinical medicine at a better institution.

In her first year back in education, Tang juggled studying in Dongguan with work at the study abroad agency in Guangzhou. After finishing class each Friday, she would take a 40-minute bullet train to reach her office and train students from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. On Saturdays, she would work the entire day before returning to her university dorm in the evening, ready for class at 8 o’clock the next morning.

Last fall, Tang changed her major to forensic medicine, feeling she had already learned everything there was to know about nursing. However, this required her to start again as a freshman, meaning that by the time she graduates she will have spent six years getting her bachelor’s degree. By then, she’ll be 34, “but I’ve already retaken the gaokao, so does age really matter now?”

She decided to suspend her business operations in November, choosing to focus all her energies on her classes as well as studying English. “If you spend your time doing what you love, your life will have meaning,” she says.

Mixed results

Dai ultimately turned down an offer to study preventive healthcare at a university in the northern Hebei province and instead took the gaokao for a third time in 2021, which earned her a place on a psychiatry program at a Beijing medical school. She now has her sights set on getting a postgraduate degree, which is essential for working at a top Chinese hospital.

Lü was admitted to the music program at Zhoukou Normal University in Henan and now plans to become an arts examination training instructor after graduation, using her experience to help future candidates.

As for Wang, despite all her preparation, she achieved a disappointing result in the higher vocational education exam, scoring 587(out of 750), meaning she missed out on her first-choice university. She was admitted to a vocational college in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan, to study dental hygiene.

After spending 10 years running her own business, Wang found it tough to adapt to life on campus. She says she was often mistaken for a teacher. When she graduated, the friend who had recommended that she retake the gaokao offered her a helping hand, but instead she went to work as a dental assistant at another clinic where she’d received treatment in the past.

She works from 9 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. every day, earning 5,000 yuan a month. Most of her colleagues are in their 20s, while the people her age on staff hold senior positions. Yet, she says she has maintained a balanced outlook: “I’ve already had my fill of fun, eating and playing. Now it’s time to properly hone my skills.”

Wang this year applied for a license to practice as an assistant dentist, which would allow her to treat patients under supervision, and in two more years she could potentially obtain a license to practice independently. By then, she will be around 40 years old, but she is determined to give it her all, with hopes of one day progressing from clinical work to management.

“If I retire at 65, it means I still have 20 or 30 years left,” she says. “What are the chances I don’t achieve anything this time around?”

Reported by Yang Xiaotong.

(Due to privacy concerns, Lü Xin and Dai Meng are pseudonyms.)

A version of this article originally appeared in Oh!Youth. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

Translator: Vincent Chow; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

(Header image: Guo Zhihua/VCG)

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