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Record 13 million to sit ‘world’s toughest’ college entrance exam

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A record number of high school students across China have begun sitting a highly competitive exam that could decide their future in a country grappling with a slowing economy and diminishing opportunities for young graduates.

The two-day national college entrance exam, known as “gaokao,” is the world’s largest academic test. It has also been billed by Chinese state media as “the world’s toughest” college entrance exam due to its high stakes, competitiveness and intensity, with students pouring everything they’ve learned in 12 years into a handful of subject tests that each last less than two hours.

More than 13.4 million students registered for the exam this year, surpassing last year’s record of 12.9 million to make it the biggest “gaokao” ever held in China.

The overwhelming majority of students get just one shot at the grueling test, unlike US students who can retake SAT exams.

And the specter of China’s slowing economic growth and soaring youth unemployment has piled on the pressure to perform.

On Friday, the first day of the exam, parents waited anxiously outside school gates after sending their children off into exam halls. Many parents and teachers were dressed in red, the color of victory in China, and some held sunflowers – deemed an auspicious flower for academic success.

Authorities have rolled out a slew of measures to maintain order and stability around the examination sites.

In Beijing, traffic police appeared on the streets as early as 6 a.m. to help smooth and reduce the flow of traffic around a school near the Summer Palace, a famous scenic spot popular with tourists, state news agency Xinhua reported.

In Shanghai, taxi dispatch centers started accepting bookings for students taking the exam from a week ago, according to Xinhua.

Chinese social media was awash with good-luck messages and encouragement, with “gaokao” trending as a top search topic on X-like platform Weibo.

Many Chinese celebrities – and even some international stars – have posted on social media wishing the exam takers good luck.

British soccer legend David Beckham posted his well wishes on Weibo, where he boasts 10 million fans.

“I just want to say ‘good luck’ to all the students that are taking their exams soon. You’ve worked so hard. Jin Bang Ti Ming!” Beckham said in a video, adopting a Chinese phrase meaning achieving honors and success in important exams.

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