MAOTANCHANG, China The air crackles with anticipation in China's tiny eastern town of Maotanchang ahead of the "gaokao", the annual national college entrance exam more than 9 million students are taking this year.
The town is famed for a middle school that puts students through rigorous 14-hour days in preparation for the exam, which begins on Wednesday and is usually spread over two days.
This year about 9.4 million students will appear, the Xinhua state news agency said, roughly the same number since 2014 and down from a peak of 10.5 million in 2010.
The fiercely competitive test is seen as a key to social mobility and the best chance for school leavers to land a white-collar job.
Just 40 percent of students are expected to enroll in undergraduate degrees subsequently, however, Xinhua said, citing the 2017 enrollment plan of the education ministry.
But the exception is Maotanchang Middle School, whose website says 80 percent to 90 percent of its students have won college acceptances since 2010.
"My mother gave up her job and came here to keep me company," said Xiang Licheng, a 20-year-old who came to Maotanchang to prepare for a second attempt at the exam.
He said the school had taught him endurance, among other life skills.
"Every time I don't feel like studying, I will not relax, as I see the hardship my mother goes through in caring for me," Xiang said.
Restaurant owner Zhang Xunze said he moved to Maotanchang three years ago so his son could attend the school.
"We thought life was too boring and had nothing to do. So we gathered some money and started this restaurant," said 49-year-old Zhang, whose business is a short walk from the school gate.
In the lead-up to the exams, students took part in incense-burning ceremonies to pray for good luck. They also released into the sky floating lanterns inscribed with "gaokao" messages.
China's education ministry has urged exam venues to "create an optimal environment for students", and guard against "extreme weather conditions, natural disasters and disease outbreaks that could occur during the exams," Xinhua added.
The parents of Maotanchang Middle School were doing their part to help. Students cramming on the weekend received tins of steaming soup their parents had queued patiently to deliver.
"What I am most worried about now is that I will not perform well in the exam," said Zhang Chenlin, who lives with his mother in a tiny room near the school to prepare for his second try.
(Writing by Karishma Singh; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)