New Zealand's gaokao exams

By Michele Ong (
Updated: 2010-06-08 08:56
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As Gaokao fever hits China, I am reminded of my own University entrance which I sat as a 17-year-old in New Zealand.

It was 2003 when I sat for my entrance exams, looking to apply to do a Bachelor of Commerce/ Bachelor of Arts conjoint at the University of Auckland.

We were the last batch to be examined under the old University Bursary framework. The years below us were examined under a new system known as the National Certificate of Educational Achievements (NCEA), which was rolled out in 2002.

NCEA, unlike Bursary examinations, are gained by building credits. Credits are awarded to each standard a student's achieve in the course they are studying. The New Zealand Qualification's Authority defines "standard" as "skills or knowledge that a student is expected to achieve or know in a subject". When a student has achieved a "standard", they are then awarded a number of credits. It is said to be a fairer framework. NCEA is said to be a "fairer assessment for students compared to Bursary examinations".

Bursary on the other hand, was based more around examinations. Students took up to six subjects, and the final grade of each subject consisted of work completed during the year plus the final national examination. Results were showed with grades and a percentage next to the grades (for example: A is within the range of 66% to 100%). Most universities required students to get either an A or B Bursary, or at least three C grades or higher for admissions. Of course, it also depended which course you wanted to pursue when at University.

Different universities had different entry criteria. For example, just a B pass might get you into a business degree at one University, but a more prestigious university would need you to have a high B average.

The majority of us were aiming for the highly competitive University of Auckland and the pressure was definitely there to do well to be admitted. Quadruple pressure points if you were aiming to study medicine with them.

I remember my principal telling us that our final year would be the most "stressful year... as you all prepare to enter university to pursue your chosen degree". It was his favorite speech at assembly.

It did not help an ounce with our teachers constantly handing out assessments and assignments, all of which counted towards our year end grades. You know you have hit exam year when teachers start encouraging you to attend lunch-hour workshops and afterschool Math clinics for homework help.

But looking back, the stress was nowhere near as bad as what the Chinese students have to go through.

For one thing, the exams were not a "make-or-break" for us. Yes it was essential for those of us wanting to get into Uni. But if we fail in our exams or did not do as well, there were many other options we could take to gain entrance into Uni or getting into our desired degree.

A friend's cousin who failed her entrance exams did instead a foundation year before cross-crediting her grades when applying for her science degree. She's now in her final year of her Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in food science.

Another friend who wanted to do a business degree but didn't have the grades to make it in his first year did a Bachelor of Arts. Once he had enough points, he applied for the business degree. He graduated last year with his much desired Bachelor of Commerce degree.

There were also those who chose to do a "gap" year after high-school. Some would go overseas for a bit of overseas experience. Some would work part-time as they figure out what course they would like to pursue at Uni.

University entrance was a way for us to get straight into a tertiary institution right after high school. But it was by no means the only way.