BEIJING - The 14-hour study sessions were over but the nerves remained for Tong Dan as she squeezed in some last-minute cramming during a lunch break Monday from the most important test she and millions of other Chinese teens will ever take.
Each year, 10 million high school seniors across China take the gaokao - the exam that is the sole determinant for whether they get into a university. About 68 percent of test takers this year are expected to pass - but for the vast majority who don't, it means heading straight into the search for a low-paying, blue-collar job.
But even a college degree no longer guarantees graduates a good job in China's increasingly competitive workplace. With 700,000 of last year's university graduates still unemployed, there is added pressure on students such as 17-year-old Tong to do well on the two-day entrance exam and gain one of the few coveted slots at the country's elite colleges.
China has poured billions of dollars into a massive university expansion for the last few decades, meaning the number of graduates will rocket to a record 6.3 million this year, compared with 1 million in 1998.
The expansion has also led to a widening gap between the quality of education at many universities, especially those in poorer provinces, and the top schools.
"Students only want to go to [top schools] because they think those graduates are more likely to find jobs. But those spaces are limited and most [other] universities inadequately prepare students for the workforce," said Zhang Juwei, deputy director of the Institute of Population and Labor Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
That leads to massive pressure on students to do well on the gaokao, with extra evening study sessions focusing on rote memorization and essay preparation considered essential in the months leading up to the exam.
"I want to get into the Beijing Dance Academy, so I can find a job as a teacher after graduation," said Tong, who is from a rural town in nearby Shanxi province and goes to the Beijing International Arts School.
While most students ate or rested during Monday's three-hour afternoon break, Tong sat on a curb outside a downtown Beijing testing center and reviewed math questions with her mother, Guo Caihong.
For Guo, the hope of a better future for her family rests on her only child's shoulders. Guo, 41, took a 16-hour train ride from their hometown of Yuncheng this month and rented a hotel room, all to help support her daughter.
"Hopefully her test results won't reflect her nerves," Guo said, said looking more nervous than her pigtailed daughter.
Job-market worries and increased competition for slots at top schools mean more students, especially those with the financial means, are looking overseas for a university education. In 2009, 27 percent more Chinese students, about 229,000, chose to study abroad compared with the previous year, according to the official China Daily newspaper.
The government has recognized the stress students face, and officials intend to take another look at the generations-old method used to winnow a massive population into a small educated elite.
Ministry of Education officials announced plans earlier this year to allow students to take subject-specific tests and introduce other measures besides the exam, such as considering leadership and volunteer experience, to decide on how students get into college.