Which is the Toughest Exam in the World?


There are so many tough exams today that it becomes hard to precisely determine the most challenging exam in the world. Examinations have become an essential component of education systems all over the world. However, this was not always the case, especially in the Western hemisphere, where exams were not very popular in medieval universities, unlike in China, where writing merit-based exams were important for state employment.

However, the West eventually saw the importance of examinations, thanks to the efforts of Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest. He was sent to China in those days. On his return, he recommended the Chinese exam model to his bosses in Rome due to its competitiveness and emphasis on meritocracy, among other reasons. 

Below is AECC Global's compilation of the toughest exams in the world, based on extensive research.

TOP 10 Toughest Exam in the World

Here are the Top 10 Toughest Exam in the World : 

  • Gaokao
  • UPSC Civil Services Exam (CSE)
  • Joint Entrance Examination
  • Master Sommelier Diploma Exam
  • All Souls Prize Fellowship Exam
  • Mensa IQ Test
  • Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)
  • Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE)
  • Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE)
  • Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT)

Quick Read: Toughest Courses in the World


The National Higher Education Entrance Examination or National College Entrance Examination, popularly known as Gaokao, is a compulsory annual exam for millions of final year high school students who aspire for higher education in China. It is the Chinese equivalent of the SAT exam in the USA and the A-level exam in England. The exam is usually held between June 7 and 9 each year and can last up to 10 hours.

Though Gaokao is meant for third-year high school students with an average age of 18, preparations for it start much earlier because pupils are charged to commit 12 years of their early lives to prepare for this extremely tough exam. Gaokao's toughness has made it acceptable to some American and European universities.

This exam is so complex that it leaves much psychological trauma on students, parents, and teachers. It has been reported that the rates of suicide, depression and mental breakdowns spike around the Gaokao period. Documentaries have been made on students' mental discomfort sitting for the exam pass through.

Gaokao examinees are expected to tackle very difficult questions like math, chemistry, biology, physics, Chinese literature, geography, political science, etc. 

UPSC Civil Services Exam (CSE)

UPSC is an acronym for Union Public Service Commission. The Commission is a government organisation responsible for conducting India's Civil Services Examination (CSE). The primary objective of this 100-year-old exam is to identify the brightest candidates for employment in civil service agencies such as the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Police Service (IPS), etc. Only around 1000 applicants will eventually be employed out of an annual average of 500,000. You must be up to 21 years of age before sitting for this challenging exam.

The exam is administered in two phases:

  • The preliminary phase consists of two general studies papers with objective questions. It is conducted in March every year.
  • The main phase includes seven subjective-question papers followed by an oral interview. It is conducted in December every year.

The interview is for those that have managed to survive the rigorous objective and subjective exams. An interview panel determines each interviewee's suitability via intelligence, personality, and logical reasoning tests. The highest-ranked students in the UPSC exam often do not score more than 40%, a testament to how difficult this exam is.

Joint Entrance Examination

The Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) emerged in 2013 as a replacement for the Indian Institutes of Technology-Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE). It is designed to screen Indian high school students wishing for tertiary studies in its premier engineering institutions. Part of the reasons that make the JEE a nightmare for students is the vast syllabus they have to cover and the unpredictable nature of the exam.

Success rates have been estimated to be around 1%, telling you the herculean task JEE's candidates face. The JEE does not impose an age limit. However, candidates are expected to sit for it within three years of completing grade 12.

It is also conducted on two levels like the UPSC:

  • The JEE Main lasts for three hours and 30 minutes. It comes in three different papers that facilitate entrance into programmes leading to the award of bachelor's degrees in engineering, technology, architecture, and planning.
  • The JEE Advanced lasts for three hours and is meant for students seeking admission into India's dozen IITs.

Master Sommelier Diploma Exam

The Master of Sommelier Diploma Exam is conducted by individuals known as the Court of Master Sommeliers. It is an exam that seeks to encourage improved standards in beverage knowledge and the service provided in hotels and restaurants and the entire hospitality industry. This is one challenging exam to prepare for with a meagre 10% average success rate (often after several attempts). Since 1969 when it was first held in the UK, only 269 men and women worldwide have managed to achieve success in it.

The minimum passing score for each of the three sections is 75%.

Students must first pass the first part of the Master Sommelier Diploma Examination ( i.e. the Theory) and then have three consecutive years to pass the remaining two parts of the examination (Practical Restaurant Wine Service and Salesmanship; and Practical Tasting). Thus, a student who passes one or two parts this year must retake the failed part(s) within two years. If all three elements are not handed over in three years, the entire exam must be retaken.

Quick Read: Diploma Courses in UK for International Students

All Souls Prize Fellowship Exam

The All Souls Prize Fellowship exam is considered the most challenging exam by some. It is extremely hard to prepare for due to the abstract nature of the questions. The questions are also tricky because they are subjective and have no glaring correct or incorrect answers (e.g., is vegetarianism the future?). Consequently, only one-twentieth of Oxford graduates who initiate the process are invited to continue it.

It is conducted by the All Souls College of the University of Oxford. It aims to help the college elect new examination or prize fellows into its ranks by identifying students with exceptional abilities in argument and analysis. Other attributes sought include breadth of knowledge, independence of judgement and thought, clarity and carefulness of exposition, and awareness of unresolved difficulties.

Between 80 to 100 candidates sit for the exam every autumn (September/early October), out of which two (sometimes only one) fellow emerges. The prize is a seven-year fellowship at Oxford University that includes pecuniary remuneration, allowances, and entitlements.

Each of the exam's four papers lasts for three hours. Two of the four subjects are specialist subjects in any of the following areas or topics:

  • economics
  • classical studies
  • English literature
  • law
  • politics
  • history
  • philosophy

Candidates are free to write their two specialist papers under any of the above subjects. The very few candidates who survive the exam are invited to present a viva – an oral explanation of their answers. Among the many notable former fellows include Isaiah Berlin and Joseph Stiglitz. Harold Wilson and John Buchan are some legions that could not pass this very tough exam. Before the exam format was changed in 2010, candidates only had to write a three-hour essay about one word (e.g., love).

Mensa IQ Test

Mensa is the world's largest and oldest high IQ society. This non-profit organisation conducts a very tough test for intending members to measure their abilities in areas like logic, reasoning, and problem-solving. Any candidates who reach a score within the upper 2% of the entire population from the Mensa test (or any other tests it approves) becomes a member. Age is no barrier since Mensa's membership is known to range from as little as a 2-year-old to those over 100 years of age. Mensa currently boasts a membership strength of around 145,000 in nearly 100 countries.

In a nutshell, Mensa is one organisation that is highly respected all over the world so scaling through its very tasking IQ test is a cause for celebration.

Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)

This is a three-level test organised yearly by the CFI Institute to evaluate the capabilities of professionals in the field of finance. It has been described as one of the toughest exams in finance. The Wall Street Journal sees it as probably the most demanding exam globally. According to the journal, statistics support this claim because less than one-fifth of the examinees manage to scale through this mountain of an exam (though most succeed after multiple attempts).

There are 240 questions to be answered within six hours for each of the three levels of the CFA test. The questions in two levels are in the objective format, while the remaining level comprises subjective questions. After negotiating these three levels successfully (it will take an average candidate four attempts to achieve this), you must garner four years of professional or work experience before finally being awarded the CFA Charter. Over 100,000 finance sector operators in more than 100 nations seek this charter each year.

Must Read: CFA Course

Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE)

Introduced in 1993, the CCIE is CISCO's most prestigious certification for network engineers. It is also the most difficult. Some consider it the strictest certification in the entire information technology industry. According to CISCO, less than 1% of network engineers eventually acquire this career-enhancing certification. Because of its very tough nature, it is recommended that intending examinees have between 7 to 10 years of industry experience, including in-depth knowledge of networking technologies.

Cisco uses this exam to determine the competency levels of those seeking certification to plan, operate, and troubleshoot its vast networking technologies and equipment. The six-part exam comprises two phases – a written exam and an eight-hour practical lab test. In 2020, Cisco made specific changes, one of which saw the CCIE written exam (which can be written on the internet) double as the written exam for another Cisco certification, the CCNP (Cisco Certified Network Professional).

Quick Read: Masters of Information Technology in Australia

Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE)

GATE is a computer-based annual examination for engineering graduates pursuing postgraduate degrees or working in PSUs. Apart from India, GATE is recognised in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, UAE, Germany, and Nepal. The IISc and seven other IITs conduct it on behalf of the Indian government.

The 3-hour exam comprises 65 questions, 10 on general aptitude (verbal and numerical ability). At the same time, the remaining 55 are technical questions based on the paper chosen by the candidate. GATE exam questions may not be the most difficult in the world, but what makes the exam challenging is the vast syllabus the students have to contend with. On average, over 700,000 candidates sit for GATE every February.

Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT)

The LNAT is a test developed by some universities in the UK to evaluate candidates applying for a law programme. It is important to note that this complex exam does not seek to measure educational achievement directly but instead focuses on the aptitude of the examinees, especially crucial verbal reasoning skills needed to practice law.

These include:

  • comprehension
  • interpretation
  • analysis
  • synthesis
  • induction
  • deduction

These diverse aptitude measurements make this annual exam a tough nut to crack. The LNAT is divided into two sections and lasts for nearly two and a half hours. Section A consists of 42 objective questions to be tackled in 95 minutes. Section B has three essay questions from which the candidate is expected to select and answer one within 40 minutes.

Exams have been around in one form or the other since ancient times. They are usually meant to elicit particular responses from the examinees. With the rapid adoption of exams and expansion of education worldwide, many kinds of exams with varying levels of toughness are now available, including on the internet.The ten exams listed above are some of the toughest on the planet. However, this selection can easily be expanded because several other exams can also be considered strenuous. No matter how tough these and other exams are, a hardworking, diligent student will always be prepared and eventually overcome any examination.


Still unclear about anything? Well, not to worry. Contact AECC Global and get your queries answered today!

AECC Global is one of the world's leading educational consultancies with versatile expert professionals who are ready to help you with any queries you may have. Contact us so we can be of assistance to you in your journey to achieving your dream.


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