(CNN) — In China it’s known as gaokao — the college entrance exams — and for most young people it dictates the course of a life.
A good score in the gaokao will open the doors to the country’s most prestigious universities, granting access not only to the best education and the chance to work overseas but also to an elite Rolodex of upper-echelon contacts.
Chinese society, more than any other, is predicated on its networks, or guanxi, and grooming them is a lifetime’s work.
For those that miss out on their gaokao, the years of tutoring and months of cramming could mean relegation to a provincial university and the oblivion of a major city “ant colony” — the shared dormitory accommodation that awaits graduates trying to find work in China’s urban centers.
For others hoping to escape the ineluctable cycle of the gaokao, overseas study is only possible through a limited number of scholarships or rich parents.
Increasingly, however, Chinese private schools — with British A-level exams and the International Baccalaureate — are geared towards giving the children of the middle class the edge when it comes to gaining a place at a foreign university.
“What we are talking about here really are the upper middle class and above — people who are aware of what education systems are like in other parts of the world,” said Michel Hockx, Professor of Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.