Beijing (CNN)Imagine taking a five-hour exam just to get a job interview.
That’s what nearly one million people did in China Sunday, taking the country’s grueling civil service entrance exam, or Guokao.
Test-takers had two hours to answer 135 multiple-choice questions on topics covering language, mathematics, logic, politics, law and culture. That was followed by 3 hours of essay questions.
The exam is only held once a year, so for those taking part, it’s do or die.
They are competing for 27,000 jobs. The odds of getting one — after the exam and a subsequent interview — are about 36 to 1.
Wang Caizhen, 23, is one of those people. A graduate of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, she took the exam in hopes of an entry-level job with China’s Ministry of Commerce.
She spent nearly four months studying for the test, reviewing old questions, taking mock exams and attending preparatory classes on the weekend.
“The questions on the test were different from the exercises I did to prepare for it,” Wang said, adding that the timing of the exam was “very tight.”
In order to complete the aptitude test in the time limit, “you have to train to answer each question within 50 seconds,” she said.
“One of the (essay) questions was about modern governance based on the ancient Chinese understanding and metaphor of water.”
Civil service jobs in China are known as the “golden rice bowl” due to their stable pay and generous benefits. The jobs can also lead to membership in the ruling Communist Party, which brings additional prestige.
Those hoping to take the exam must have at least a junior college degree, and be between the ages of 18 and 35. They have to choose the jobs they’re interested in when they register.
Wang’s desired role pays only 6,000 yuan ($870) a month, but includes benefits such as Beijing housing registration, free accommodation and free food at the office canteen. Such jobs are especially appealing at a time when economic growth in China has been steadily slowing.
“The civil service is a good career option because it’s stable,” she said.
For now, Wang and other applicants will have to wait. Results of the exam won’t come out until January, and if they’ve scored high enough, the actual job interviews will take place in February or March.