Exhausted, stressed out and thinner than she used to be, Duan Mengdi is enduring the most pivotal test of her life this week, and she's not even 18 yet.
Duan is one of nearly 10 million college hopefuls struggling through China's university placement exams, a pressure-packed, make-or-break ordeal that will propel her into the educated elite -- or trap her down in the faceless masses.
"The pressure comes from all sides -- from classmates, teachers, family, society and also myself," Duan said after completing part of her two-day test. She has taken supplementary classes throughout the year to prepare for the exam, known to all by its Chinese abbreviation "gaokao." She has lost five kilogrammes (11 pounds) this semester.
"Sometimes I can't sleep, though I'm very tired.
But it's worth it. This can change your fate," she told AFP outside her Beijing high school after sitting through more than four hours of exams.
The tests have been a rite of summer since their reinstatement in 1977 after a decade-long hiatus which was caused by the closure of all universities during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
The 30th anniversary of their return has been marked by increasing debate over the stress placed on children by a test that runs up to four days in some areas.
A recent government survey said 95 percent of respondents support the gaokao system but 93 percent also want it reformed, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
"Many talented students are excluded by very narrow margins.
It's very cruel," Zhou Hongbo, a Beijing college instructor whose own son is taking the test, told AFP.
China's rapid development is spurring record interest in a college education, and of the 9.5 million students sitting for this year's exams, only 5.7 million will achieve that dream -- about one out of every 230 people in China.
The pressure on parents is just as bad, said Wu Lan, one of hundreds of parents waiting for their children to emerge from the exams on Thursday. "I have more pressure than my son. I worry about his health and state of mind, in addition to his studies," she told AFP. Many parents unload their burdens online, with some individual blogs getting as many as 500,000 hits over the past three months, the China Daily newspaper said Friday.
Despite the growing fixation on a college education, degrees are increasingly unlikely to land students jobs once they graduate. More than one million of last year's four million graduates did not find jobs upon graduation, a problem blamed in part on massive redundancies at many state-owned companies amid China's economic transformation.
Yet students, parents and the government still go to great lengths in pursuit of a smooth gaokao. Parents in the eastern province of Anhui successfully lobbied for an airport in the tourist city of Huangshan to alter flight paths so that planes did not distract students taking the test, Xinhua reported.
Countless students are renting rooms near test venues or following strict diets believed to increase alertness, it said.
In southwestern Yunnan province, hit by an earthquake last weekend, hundreds of students displaced by the quake took the test in makeshift tents.
"China is in the grips of summer gaokao madness," Xinhua said. The pressure is driving growing numbers to cheat, some through ever-more advanced methods such as using wireless electronic devices, it said. About 3,000 students were caught cheating last year, up from 1,300 the year before, prompting new security measures including high-tech video systems at exam venues in more than 15 provinces and regions, according to the Ministry of Education.
Like millions of others, 18-year-old Zhou Xiaoyu emerged from his first day of testing fatigued but hopeful. "It has been hard work but it will help me find a way to better myself," he said.
"The important thing is the exam is fair. Everyone is equal before the scores."