HONG KONG — The 27th time was not the charm, and for a Chinese man it could mark the end of a lifelong quest to get to university.

Liang Shi, 56, has been trying for 40 years to get a satisfactory score on China’s national university entrance exam, known as the gaokao.

“I just admire intellectuals. I have been in awe of knowledge and well educated people since I was a child,” he told NBC News on Tuesday.

Considered one of the most challenging and competitive exams in the world, the gaokao is held once a year for two to three grueling days. Unlike the United States and other countries where test scores are only one aspect of college applications, in China gaokao is virtually the sole determining factor of where most seniors will attend college. , if they enter.

Of the record 12.91 million students who took the test earlier this month, less than half will enter bachelor’s programs, according to data from previous years.

Liang, a native of the southwestern province of Sichuan, first took gaokao in 1983, but failed to score high enough to be admitted to any university, let alone his dream school at Sichuan University. In the decades that followed, he took the test over and over again a total of 27 times, more than anyone else in China.

Meanwhile, he worked for a state-owned factory, got married, lost his job when the company closed in 1992, and started his own business. He was a millionaire in the late 1990s, when the average salary in China was around 8,000 yuan ($1,105) a year, according to official data.

Throughout all these years, he has never given up the gaokao, taking it several times until he was no longer eligible due to his age. He started taking it again when the age limit was lifted in 2001 and has taken it every year since 2010.

In the years he was preparing for the exam, Liang said, he studied most days from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., with only a short lunch break.

“I usually start my review process in September, when students start their new academic year, and continue through June, when exams start,” he said.

High school students preparing for the national college entrance exam in Handan, China, in May.AFP Getty Images

“But my schedule is not as well organized as other students. After all, I have so many errands,” Liang continued, adding that she studied three to four hours less per day than high school students preparing for the exam.

But his efforts were not rewarded this time either. When Liang, like millions of others, received the results from him last Friday, he opened them in a live broadcast hosted by a Sichuan news outlet. To get into Sichuan University, he needed at least 600 out of a possible 750 points, according to the historical database of university entrance examination admissions in Sichuan province.

His score: 424, four points less than last year.

«It’s a shame!» said Liang, who hoped to get at least the 450 points needed to get into a second-tier university.

He got his highest score, 469, in 2018, but he was still not satisfied because it was not enough to get into Sichuan University.

Although gaokao is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most students in China, Liang is not the only one who has done it multiple times. Tang Shangjun, 35, has made 15 attempts in his search for admission to one of China’s top universities, Tsinghua, which has a lower acceptance rate than Harvard.

“But it is only one or two very rare cases among the tens of thousands of gaokao attendees, and it cannot represent any trend or social trend in China,” said Peng Hongbin, a professor with experience in education policy and law at the Normal University of China. South China. in Canton.

Most Chinese students and their families, especially those who cannot afford to study abroad, view the gaokao as the most important exam of their lives, one that will almost single-handedly determine the course of their future.

To prepare, Chinese high school students must study six subjects over three years, including the three required subjects of Chinese, mathematics, and English. For the other three subjects, Sichuan students can choose a set of sciences (chemistry, physics, and biology) or liberal arts (geography, politics, and history).

When students finally sit down to take the test, many parents wait anxiously outside.

Even for students who do well on the gaokao and graduate from university, the fierce competition continues: In May, China’s unemployment rate among people aged 16 to 24 was a record 20.8%, according to official data.

The rise in university tuition in China has also made bachelor’s degrees less advantageous than they used to be. State media reported in May last year that the employment rate among graduates with bachelor’s degrees was lower than that of vocational school graduates.

“With the declining birth rate and the trend of population aging, China needs and is carrying out educational reform now. Otherwise, Chinese universities may not be able to recruit students, as there will not be enough people to attend the gaokao,» Peng said. “At the moment, the country is on the way to diversify admission standards in terms of entering the university. But with that goal well ahead, China still has a long way to go.»

Liang said he is not sure if he will take gaokao again next year.

“I am afraid that my score may again not reach any university,” he said. “I may not get anything in the end. There’s no need.»

His friends have supported me, Liang said: “They encourage me not to give up. It’s a shame to throw overboard what you’ve been fighting for so long.»

Some members of his family feel differently, including his son, who took gaokao several years ago but studied separately from his father, who was also preparing for it.

«He is very contrary for me by taking the exams,” Liang said. “He felt embarrassed because I am at such an old age and even though I have attended so many times, I still can’t get a good score.”

Although bachelor’s degrees have been severely «devalued» due to increased competition over the years, Liang said, «universities are sacred to my heart.»

“I still want to be an intellectual,” he said. “Reaching this goal will be my most important success.”