June 6 (Reuters Life!) - Millions of university hopefuls make a start on China's national college entrance examination, or "gaokao", on Saturday and Sunday, a fiercely competitive test that's seen as make-or-break for getting ahead.
Here are some facts on the exam.
* Poetically described in China as "thousands of troops on a single-log bridge", because of candidates' relatively low success rate compared to the number of applicants, today's gaokao is said to have its roots in high-stakes imperial civil service exams.
* About 70 million Chinese have taken the gaokao and more than 30 million have enrolled at universities over the last three decades. Last year a record 10 million high school students competed for around five million university places. This year the number will slightly rise again, and the number of university places will be about 6 million.
* The 2008 exams are being postponed for students in the quake-hit Sichuan and Gansu provinces. The Education Ministry has ordered universities to set aside places for students in these areas.
* The end-point of 12 years basic education, the normally two-day test is sat simultaneously across the country. Chinese, maths and a foreign language, (almost all take English) are compulsory. Three other subjects are either humanities, or sciences. Grades are on a 0-750 point scale. Above 500 points generally secures a place.
* The exam is seen as key to social mobility -- the best chance for school-leavers to land white-collar jobs. Students can nominate preferred colleges. Each set differing admission scores, so those that don't get their first choice can look to other provinces, or repeat a school-year and resit the gaokao.
* To help stressed and suffering students, big cities such as Beijing try to ease roaring traffic so they arrive on time, and police cordon off streets by schools to aid their concentration. Some taxis offer free rides to students who are taking the exam.
* Stories of cheating surface every year, despite stiff penalties. Students reportedly pay for leaked exam papers, smuggle in mobile phones and electronic dictionaries, or pay others to take the exam for them. Results are available online on June 28.
(Writing by Guo Shipeng and Gillian Murdoch, Beijing Editorial Reference Unit, editing by Miral Fahmy)