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also known as National Higher Education Entrance Examination, the National College Entrance Examination, or NCEE

Updated July 2016

  • China
Education context

Nine years of compulsory education, starting at six years of age. Generally this is divided into six years of elementary and three years of junior high school.

All students take the Zhongkao examination, a summative assessment of the compulsory phase of education and the entrance examination for senior high school.

Students at senior high schools generally choose to specialise in either a science or arts route for their final two years.

At the end of senior high school study students wishing to go on to higher education will take the Gaokao, the entrance examination to universities.

The subjects examined in the Gaokao tend to make up the overwhelming majority of the teaching time in the students’ final year at school.

The total period of study for Chinese students taking the Gaokao is 12 years.

Awarding organisation
  • International

Originally a common national examination, since 1985 Shanghai and Guangdong have offered their own versions, followed by other provinces. In 2015, 15 provinces and municipalities offered their own versions of the exam, although they are taken on the same days and to the same timetables.

Across China, provincial governments administer one of a range of exam types. The format 3+X is the most common – where 3 is the three national compulsory subjects of Chinese, mathematics and a foreign language and X refers either to arts or science subjects, depending on student choice. This is used in most provinces, and in Beijing, Tianjin and Chongqing. Some provinces add local requirements, for example in Shandong the format is 3+X+1 where 3 represents the three national compulsory subjects, X the arts or science subjects, and 1 a basic living proficiency test.

In all cases Chinese, mathematics and a foreign language are mandatory – the foreign language is usually English, although this may be substituted with Japanese, Russian or French. There are six other subjects, divided into two groups: science (physics, chemistry, biology) and arts (history, geography and political education). Students choose to follow one or other of these routes, and some versions of the Gaokao have an integrated science or integrated arts test, which assesses all three component subjects at the same time.

Subject areas
  • Chinese
  • Foreign language (English, Japanese, Russian or French)
  • Mathematics
  • Science (chemistry, biology, physics) or arts (history, geography and political education)
  • Local requirement (if applicable)

Broadly comparable to RQF Level 3 and SCQF Level 6/7 qualifications.

Regarded as similar level to the UK qualification benchmark of GCE AS. 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.

The information in this section is provided by the overseas authority or the British Council.

For further information on the qualification level you may wish to refer to UK NARIC, which is the UK body responsible for providing comparability of overseas qualifications.


The majority of Gaokao scores are out of 750, but there is some variation above and below this:

  • 750 – used by the majority of provinces and based on 3+X subjects at 150 for each compulsory subject and 300 for integrated subjects.
  • 485 – based almost entirely on the three compulsory subjects; other subjects are assessed by separate provincial examinations with up to 5 bonus Gaokao points awarded based on the number of “A” grades.
  • 630 – based on three compulsory subjects and one integrated test and a mark out of 30 based on senior high school performance.
  • 810 – based on compulsory subjects, integrated tests and additional local requirements
  • 900 – based on compulsory subjects, integrated tests and additional local requirements.

The annual provincial cut-off for entry into Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 institutions is determined once all the Gaokao results are known. A matrix of provincial quotas, university quotas, and subject quotas is negotiated annually between universities and national and provincial authorities. Nationally, around 10% of candidates receive a Tier 1 score (allowing them to apply to Tier 1 universities), while a further 20% receive a Tier 2 score.

Results vary between provinces and between years. However, cut-off scores are given for each province’s Gaokao – for the first and second tier universities. Students failing to achieve the cut-off score for first tier universities will not be admitted.


The Gaokao examinations last nine hours spread over two days. The various examinations contain a mixture of different question types, including an extended essay-based question as part of the Chinese examination.

Taken at the end of high school, the Gaokao is taken over a two-day period across the country in June.

The tests comprise a mix of multiple-choice and short answer questions covering each of the subjects. The Chinese exam includes an essay-based section where the students are required to write an extended response to a stimulus scenario or question.

On completion, the test papers are computer scanned and managed by the Provincial Education Authorities. Multiple-choice questions are marked through a computer program and the sections of the exam requiring individual marking are sent randomly (electronically) to two teachers for marking. If the variation on the mark is greater than five points, the paper is sent to a third teacher for the final mark.

For the provinces that design their own Gaokao, the Ministry of Education (MoE) conducts an evaluation on the quality of the examination papers, after the Gaokao each year. The results are not made public but used as a quality assurance tool to ensure that each province is operating in accordance with the guidelines provided, and is consistent in student outcomes across provinces.

Contribution of assessment components to overall grade

Each of the scores on the component examinations is combined to produce an overall Gaokao score. The total score will be placed in the context of the cut-off scores for the first and second tier universities. Students will be able to see their scores and to identify if they are eligible to apply for entry to Chinese universities.

Guided/notional learning hours notes

Students generally work towards the Gaokao in their final year of high school. It is therefore considered similar in size to 4 AS qualifications (4 x 180 = 720 hours).

UCAS Tariff points

Unknown qualification

Grade Points


Key issues for UK HE admissions

The Gaokao is considered by many UK universities to be at a lower level than those qualifications traditionally used to demonstrate readiness for undergraduate study, with students completing 12 years of education. Many students from China who are applying to international universities will also take SATs or other internationally-recognised qualifications. The Gaokao is sometimes considered for entry to foundation degree programmes.

Timing of assessments/results for learners

The examination is held toward the beginning of June every year, with results published towards the end of June (22-25 June), depending on each province. There is a limited availability of an additional ‘spring’ occasion in Shanghai.

Qualification dates notes

This qualification is current.

Reporting and certification information

Statistics are not available.

Progression information/access to HE within home country

The Gaokao is a prerequisite for undergraduate university entrance in China, and scores will determine which university a student can apply to. There are cut-off scores for top tier, second tier and third tier universities, but even within these tiers Chinese universities’ admissions decisions are based almost entirely on gaokao scores. The most elite Chinese universities, third tier, require significantly higher scores than the tier one cut-off.

Further information


• (Ministry of Education, China)



The Examination System in China: The Case of Zhongkao Mathematics Yingkang (2012) 12th International Congress on Mathematical Education