Guokao time

Every year on the 4th Sunday of November more than a million people write the National Civil Service Examination (NCSE) required to apply to positions with the national government. This selection process launched in 1994 is modeled on the imperial examination, which goes back to the 6th century. The purpose is to provide equal opportunity to people across the country for desirable positions within the national government.

ncsvApplicants getting ready to write the China’s National Civil Service Exam. Source: Getty Image

In 2016, a record 1.5 million people from across China applied to write the common exam for 27,061 openings. Candidates are invited to apply to the positions that are of interest, with some positions garnering more than 10,000 applicants. At the same time, roughly 800 positions had no applicants as they are located in faraway regions or require particular training or knowledge.

Chinese citizen are eligible to register for this exam if the candidate is under 35 years old (40 for Master’s and PhD (age discrimination!)) and have a college degree as a minimum. People can apply as often as they want. In 2016, a woman wrote it for the 6th time.

The NCSE is a test that comprises two phases: the written test, and if you pass an interview. The written test comprises 130 multiple choice questions that need to be answered within 2 hours. These questions cover topics in language, math, logic, data analysis, politics, law, culture, etc. The following are two examples of questions that may be asked. The answers are provided at the end of the post.

  1. Observe the images below and pick out the right one that belongs to the blank or the group.


  1. The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami showed humans the power of the nature. Although we have islands and submerged reefs as natural barriers to tsunamis, we need to be prepared for potential dangers. Sometimes the earthquake in the deep ocean does not cause any loss as the epicenter is far from the land, but the tsunami generated by the displacement of the water can cause huge damage. Tsunami waves can move at 800 km per hour in the ocean and can be several meters high. The main argument in the paragraph above is
  1. Earthquakes and tsunamis warn people to pay attention to the ocean
  2. Earthquakes and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean warn us to focus more on oceanography
  3. Tsunamis generated by earthquakes can cause huge damages
  4. Natural disaster is cruel

If a candidate is caught cheating, the person is banned for life from applying for a government job, and for serious cases, a criminal charge can be brought against that person possibly resulting in a prison term of up to 5 years.

The second part of the written exam, of a 3-hour duration, is an essay writing on policies with topics covering social issues, civil disputes, etc.

Applicants often begin studying for the exam months in advance. A small industry has been created to respond to the needs of preparation material, which is not unlike what is offered in the West for GMAT, LSAT, and others. Books, online material and classes are sold to potential candidates.


Study material to prepare for the National Civil Service Exam. Source: JOJBuy

Once the results are available in January, the successful candidates are then invited to an interview. Once a further screening has been done, the results are shared with the respective government departments who have posted job openings, allowing these departments to invite candidates for further interviews and evaluation.

Numerous people are interested to work for the government as these jobs are for life. Unless a person abuses their position (i.e. corruption), the employee will not be let go, regardless of personal performance. A steady income is offered along with good benefits, and a work environment with limited stress.

In addition, public servants have a good reputation and are well respected. To work for the government implies that the individual is helping build a better society. The extended family of the employee will be proud to see that one of their own is now a public servant.

The other point that has to be taken in consideration is the job market. With 7.6 million college and university graduates a year, and a soft job market that is not able to absorb this number of graduates, students are pursuing all job opportunities.

Unfortunately not all is rosy. Generally jobs are paid at a much lower level than in the private sector. Middle managers in their 30’s will be paid around 120,000 RMB (C$24,000) a year, while in the private sector, they might be paid 3 to 5 times that amount. Job security comes at a high financial cost.

Government employees will generally work in a system that is not conducive to personal growth or development as there are limited opportunities for horizontal transfers or promotion. This will often lead to boredom and low motivation.

Also, as employees progress within the civil service, they will reach a level where being a member of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is often required. This might further curtail opportunities for promotion of non-CPC members.

In regards to the selection process, the high standards that are applied and the desire to apply a meritocratic process can only be lauded. China is a society that prides itself in being inclusive. Unfortunately, this system is rigid; offered only once a year and standardized (i.e. one size fits all) for all job types. There are no signs of nimbleness and capabilities to adjust to rapidly evolving situations. In an era where the government is pushing to realign the economic model of China, with a substantial emphasis on innovation and creativity, is this system preventing changes within the government?



Question 1: From left to right, there’re increasing numbers of small shapes in each image. 1. One round 2. Two quadrangles 3. Three candle-shaped images 4. Four trapezoids 5. Five triangles. The image with six small shapes is the correct answer.

Answer: A

Question 2: Answer: B

2 thoughts on “Guokao time

  1. I hardly think it’s an age discrimination. People usually graduate from University at age 23 or 24. Another 2.75 years for post-graduate period, hence obtained Master’s degree at about 26. However, if he/she continues with a PhD, then it takes at least another 4 years. I got my Phd at 30, and my roommate finished at 33. If the age limit is 35 for everyone, then the government may lose the chance to hire PhDs who are better educated. If a person without a Master degree wants to attend the exam again after 35, he can try to get a Master’s degree to get 2 or 3 more tokens.
    Anyway, the most important factor for passing the exam is your family background. In old times, background was helpless. There was no interview unless you got the chance to be interviewed by the emperor. If you were a son of somebody, you were not allowed to attend the exam until your father was retired or lost power. But now, the interview period is full of dirty stuff.


    1. I agree with Yao. The same idea occurred to me given that the higher degrees take much longer to achieve, and some people may not proceed directly to the next stage of studies. Having said this, the path to employment looks particularly daunting. Such fierce competition does leave the door open for cheating I am sure. It also raises the very interesting issue of compensation versus job security and entitlements. Given the lower compensation, do all of the best students compete for these posts, or just a percentage of them. I would like to know how general the interest is in these jobs.


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