How does the Chinese Gaokao compare with A level?

UK universities may be looking at whether to accept applicants from China who have taken the Chinese National College Entrance Examination, commonly known as the Gaokao (高考),for direct admission to undergraduate study. There are many different factors to take into account, but how well the Gaokao prepares students for UK higher education is an important consideration.

UK NARIC assesses the Gaokao as comparable to the overall standard of GCE A level.

In response to a growing number of member requests for more detailed guidance, UK NARIC has conducted a review of Gaokao examinations and content, enabling us to provide more information on the comparable standard of individual subjects:

Mathematics (science stream) may be considered comparable to GCE A level standard, although specific syllabus requirements may differ. Other subjects passed may be considered at least comparable to GCSE A*-C / 9-4, with the exception of English language.

The Gaokao in context

There are two major examinations taken by senior secondary school students in China: the Academic Proficiency Test (学业水平考试), also known as the Graduation Examinations (毕业考试) or the Huikao (会考); and the Gaokao.

The Gaokao is taken at the end of senior secondary school by those wishing to pursue degree-level study. As well as testing compulsory curriculum content (which is also tested in the Huikao), the Gaokao also tests more advanced subject content typically only studied in the second and third years of senior secondary school.

In most provinces, students sit four examinations for the Gaokao: Chinese, English, mathematics and an integrated paper in humanities or science. The humanities paper covers geography, history and politics, and the science paper covers biology, chemistry and physics.

Comparing Gaokao subjects with A and AS level

A comparative analysis of the Gaokao and GCE A and AS level specifications was conducted for the following subjects:

  • Biology
  • English
  • History
  • Mathematics for humanities stream
  • Mathematics for science stream.

Curriculum content, learning outcomes, examination format and question demand were all considered. Gaokao English was compared with A and AS level French as an example of a foreign language subject in the UK.

In terms of overall demand and volume of study, the Gaokao was found to be at least as rigorous as A level. Examination style and question demand compared more favourably in mathematics and biology than in English and history.

Mathematics and biology

Gaokao Mathematics (both streams) and biology showed a significant amount of overlap with A level in terms of curriculum content. Mathematics for science stream compared particularly favourably with A level mathematics, covering much of the same content, with the exception of mechanics (which is part of the physics curriculum in China) and higher level calculus, including integration. Some topics in the Gaokao mathematics curriculum, such as regression analysis, inequality proofs and applications, logical operators, and conic curves and equations, are typically not covered in the A level curriculum.

Both Gaokao and A level biology contain practical components, although there isno separate endorsement for practical work in the Gaokao. Additionally, A level biology learning outcomes relating to practical design and procedures are more comprehensive than Gaokao. The Gaokao places more explicit emphasis on the development of social responsibility in the context of biotechnological investigation.

History and English

The Gaokao history curriculum is far broader than its A level counterpart.  It covers significant events in Chinese history ranging from early Chinese civilisation to the reform and opening up policy of Deng Xiaoping, as well as key topics in world history including ancient civilisations, the Middle Ages, the industrial revolution, the world wars and the Cold War. Whilst both Gaokao and A level require students to compare and analyse source materials from different viewpoints and make reasoned judgments of cause and effect, the Gaokao provides less opportunity for developing critical thinking skills and independent thought, and places less emphasis on structured writing skills.

Gaokao English is considerably different from A level French and is more akin to a typical English as a foreign language test. Extensive reading of authentic texts is not required, and the examination mainly tests grammatical knowledge and reading and listening comprehension.

Both the Gaokao English and history examination papers differ significantly from their A level counterparts in that they consist almost entirely of multiple choice and short essay questions rather than questions requiring longer essays and/or translations.

Changes to the Gaokao

The Gaokao is currently undergoing significant changes. Instead of taking one integrated paper in humanities or science, students will take three separate subject papers chosen freely from six or seven possible subjects. This revised format is currently being piloted in Shanghai and Zhejiang. It will then be rolled out across the rest of the country over a number of years, starting with Beijing, Hainan, Shandong and Tianjin in 2020. It remains to be seen how much, if at all, the new format will affect UK NARIC’s current guidance.

We would love to hear from you if you have further questions – please get in touch at

Leave a Reply