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Top Toughest Exams in the World (2024)

Top Toughest Exams in the World (2024)

Erudera takes a closer look at the most challenging tests on the planet

The article will delve into the specific characteristics and requirements of each exam, as well as the level of difficulty and preparation required to succeed. Whether you are a student preparing for a challenging exam or simply curious about the most difficult tests in the world, this article will provide valuable insights and information.

Life is tough… but some exams can be tougher!

Jokes aside, after thorough research, Erudera has listed some of the top toughest exams in the world! Mainly considering factors such as syllabus, pass rate, and competition, we managed to list the top 10 of the toughest exams in the world, starting from the Gaokao Exam to the California Bar Exam.

Since an exam’s difficulty level is as subjective as it is objective, we have focused our research on concrete components (detailed below).

Here’s the list of the top toughest exams in the world:

  1. Gaokao Exam - China
  2. IIT JEE Exam (Joint Entrance Exam - Indian Institute of Technology) - India
  3. UPSC Exam (Union Public Service Commission) - India
  4. Mensa - England (found)
  5. GRE (Graduate Record Examination) - United States
  6. CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) - United States & Canada (first started)
  7. CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert)
  8. GATE Exam (Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering) - India
  9. USMLE Exam (United States Medical Licensing Examination) - United States
  10. California Bar Exam - United States
Examination Country Duration of exam Preparation time Pass rate % / score No. of candidates (yearly)
Gaokao Exam China 9h 12 years does not have a single threshold for pass/fail 12 million
IIT JEE Exam India 3h continuous efforts through two long years 1% 1,026,799
UPSC Exam India 2-3h 12-month advanced preparation success rate is just around 0.1% - 0.3% 500.000
Mensa England 1-2h don't use IQ scores 134,000 candidates
GRE USA & Canada 3h 45min 4-12 weeks
1 - 5 months studying
any score above the 50th percentile 700,000/ yearly
CFA USA & Canada 4.5 hours 300 h 43% 175,000 charterholders
CCIE USA around 120 minutes 9-15 months 26% 8,000/ yearly
GATE exam India 3 hrs 6 months 18% 700,000
UMSLE exam USA 8-hour 6-12 months 77% 19,210
California Bar Exam USA 4h 40 hours per week over 8-10 weeks 52.4% 7,164

1. Gaokao Exam in China

This is one of the most challenging exams in the world, necessary for applicants who wish to pursue undergraduate courses in China. Students in their third and final year of high school take the Gaokao (高考). Dates usually fall from June 7 to June 8 or 9. It lasts about nine hours over two to three days (depending on the province).

Less than 0.25% of students get the qualifying score for admission to some of China’s most elite colleges. In fact, due to the exam’s difficulty, some European and American universities have started accepting Gaokao marks.

The exam is also an internet sensation. The term “Gaokao exam” has 14,000 monthly internet searches.

But what makes the Gaokao exam so difficult? A student from China has a perfect answer to this question. Referring to the exam as something that “promises a bright future” to kids from low-income backgrounds by being the only way to gain admission to China's Ivy League.

“Imagine that you're a kid from the working class in China, and you want to move to the upper class by yourself, so your best shot is this exam. And you know there are 20 million students to take this exam, but only 150 thousand of them get to be admitted to China's Ivy League, which promises a bright future for those kids from poor families.

So everyone is really serious about this exam, or you will get bad grades and waste a year's time,” the Quora comment read.

In such instances, the exam is especially challenging for high schoolers who desperately “need” to get a good Gaokao score.

But the fact that the exam is tough does not stop students from getting high scores. Siblings in a family in China got outstanding scores:

Zhao Zhenxing, the eldest, and Zhao Zhenhua, the youngest, were admitted to the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences with scores of 664 and 654. The middle brother, Zhao Zhenzhong, received a pre-admission offer from Peking University, scoring 674 out of 750.

2. IIT JEE Exam (Joint Entrance Exam - Indian Institute of Technology)

IIT JEE Exam also ranks among the top toughest exams in the world. IIT JEE is an engineering entrance exam in India through which NTA (National Testing Agency) examines admission to undergraduate engineering programs in Indian universities (IITs).

The exam is divided into two parts, each taking three hours to complete. The exam measures skills in physics, chemistry, and math. It also tests comprehensive, reasoning, and analytical skills.

In 2022, 155,538 candidates appeared on both JEE (Advanced) papers, and a total of 40,712 qualified. Acceptance rates are IITs are at about 1%. The numbers speak for themselves, and if you consider the vastness of the syllabus and the unpredictability of the questions, the exam becomes among the toughest in the world.

“IIT jee” gathers up to 32,000 monthly internet searches.

IIT-JEE is really important in India. “The demand for technology increases day by day,” a student wrote, while “the worth of IIT-JEE increases year by year,” the student added.

“Lots of people have done B-Tech in India from several private colleges, and you also heard that most of the engineers are jobless.” the student concluded in a Quora comment.

With increased competition, the exam’s difficulty is also increasing yearly. Over 1.2 million candidates appear every year, for around 11,000 seats in 23 different IITs.

3. UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) in India

The Indian Government conducts the UPSC examinations to fill vacant spots in departments like the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Foreign Service (IFS), Indian Police Service (IPS), and other Central Services and posts.

The test begins with prelims, comprising two general-topic objective papers. Candidates that qualify appear for the other group of Mains examination, comprising seven personal papers.

Around 500,000 students take the prelims for less than 1,000 seats. The success rate ranges from 0.1% to 0.4%. Passing the second stage means you get to interview with a panel that will assess your personality, awareness, and reasoning.

With around 67,000 monthly searches, the exam is a popular area of interest among people.

As for what makes the UPSC a tough exam, a student stated that individuals who are not particularly “studious” will find the exam’s vast syllabus difficult, adding that there’s a plethora of books needed to study for the exam.

Competition is also among the factors contributing to the exam's difficulty.

“Each stage (i.e., prelims, mains, interview) in this exam is like a marathon & participants are too high. So, [you] have to face experienced players,” the student added.

“If anyone says this exam is not very tough, they must have been too good at studies but don't know about the competition,” they added.

4. Mensa

As an international organization, Mensa is available to everyone with authorized intelligence test results in the 98th percentile or higher. This means to become part of Mensa, you must initially score in the top 2% of test-takers in an objective, standardized IQ test.

Mensa's minimum score is 130, according to an average test score of 100 and a standard deviation of 15.

The IQ test will analyze one's intelligence in areas like reasoning, problem-solving, and logic.

So is getting into Mensa easy? Not really! Or, as someone in Quora puts it:

“Is extending your arm and touching a standard-height ceiling easy? Sure, if you are tall.

Is getting into Mensa easy? Super easy if your IQ is 132 or above.”

5. GRE (Graduate Record Examination)

Owned and administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), GRE is among the world’s most difficult exams. The exam is administered both online and in person.

As a standardized test, GRE measures the overall academic readiness of students who want to attend graduate school. As such, it is a requirement for admission to many graduate schools in the US, Canada, and a few other countries.

The GRE is computer-based; however, paper-based exams are also available where online examinations are not possible. It comprises six sections, including analytical writing, verbal reasoning, mathematical reasoning, and a research section. Candidates can take the GRE once every 21 days, up to 5 times in 12 months.

What makes GRE particularly challenging is its more complex vocabulary and reading sections. Candidates are expected to have high reasoning skills to crack the sections.

Being among the main admission requirements for graduate school aspirants, GRE is rather popular. As for its online popularity, GRE has 77,000 monthly internet searches.

6. CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst)

A Chartered Financial Analyst is a professional designation given by the CFA institute. The aim is to measure the competence and integrity of financial analysts.

To get this designation, candidates must pass three levels of exams covering areas such as accounting, economics, ethics, money management, and security analysis.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the CFA exam is the most difficult exam in the world, with less than 1/5th of candidates clearing it, after repeated attempts, on a yearly basis.

To register, candidates must have a bachelor’s degree or be enrolled in the last year of an undergraduate program. Alternatively, completing 4,000 hours of professional work experience can also be a basis for qualification. A combination of professional work experience and higher education is also possible.

What makes the exam so challenging? According to the CFA institute, successful candidates spend approximately 300 hours studying for each exam level. The exam pass rates stand at 37% for the first level, 40% for the second level, and 48% for the third level as of August 2022.

As of March 2022, around 175,000 people are charterholders globally, a 3.5% annual increase since 2012.

With up to 39,000 monthly internet searches, the CFA exam secures its spot as one of the toughest exams in the world.

7. CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert)

CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert) is a technical certification offered by Cisco Systems to networking professionals.

The test is administered in two stages. Candidates must first pass a two-hour written exam to proceed to an eight-hour lab exam. The areas covered include configuration, troubleshooting, and integration.

The CCIE certificate cost is around $2,050. The cost of the CCIE written exam is $450 for each attempt. The lab exam cost is about $1,600 for each attempt. All CCIE certifications are active for three years from the date of certification. When recertification requirements are met, the certificate's active status is extended for three more years.

Globally, there are only around 55,000 certified individuals. About 8,000 candidates take the CCIE lab exam annually. According to Cisco, the average pass rate of the CCIE exam is 26%.

CCIE has 25,000 monthly internet searches, which signifies its popularity stands strong, as does its spot among the top toughest exams in the world.

8. GATE Exam (Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering)

GATE is aimed at engineering students who want to study for a master’s degree in India. This exam is accepted by prestigious Indian institutes, including IITs, IISc, and IIMs.

This computer-based, three-hour examination is held in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates. It covers areas such as engineering, mathematics, science, and general aptitude.

The exam contains multiple-choice questions and numerical questions. While the exam is not impossible, it can be tough. It requires candidates to have a thorough understanding of the subjects at hand. Combined with competition, the exam becomes a challenge for engineering students.

Nearly 800,000 to 1 million candidates apply for the exam. An average of 16–18% of them qualify for the test.

9. USMLE Exam (United States Medical Licensing Examination)

Referring to the United States Medical Licensing Examination, USMLE is a three-step examination for medical licenses in the US. The exam is sponsored by the Federation of State Medical Boards and the National Board of Medical Examiners.

The first step of the exam takes eight hours, the second step takes nine hours, and the third step takes two days (seven hours for day one and nine hours for day two, respectively).

The exam tests the candidate's ability to apply the taught knowledge, concepts, and principles. It also tests the physician’s ability to demonstrate patent-centered skills.

Preparations for the exam can take a long time. Candidates usually take 6-12 months to prepare for the Step 1 exam and around 4-7 months to prepare for the Step 2 (Clinical Knowledge) exam.

The passing percentage of Examinees from US/Canadian Schools is 95% for Step 1, 98% for Step 2 (CK), and 97% for Step 3, as of 2021 performance data. Examinees from Non-US/Canadian Schools have a lower passing percentage, ranging from 77% to 88%.

10. California Bar Exam

The California Bar Exam is given over two days, and it comprises five one-hour essay questions, one 90-minute performance test, and The Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), typically 200 multiple-choice questions.

Just over 52% of test takers passed the July 2022 California Bar Exam. The pass rate on the July 2022 exam was slightly lower than the preceding year’s pass rate of 53%.

A total of 7,164 applicants completed the July 2022 General Bar Exam, 77.8% of which were first-time applicants. The passing rate among first-time applicants stood at 62%, while the pass rate for repeat applicants was 17% overall.

California Bar Exam has 9,600 monthly internet searches, further enhancing its recognition as one of the most challenging bar exams in the nation.

Typically, it is recommended that candidates take about 400 to 600 hours to study for the bar exam.


Last Updated: 5 December 2024

Speaking of California, did you know that the oldest college in California originally dates back to 1777 and is known today as Santa Clara University? Well, now you do. Head over to read more about the history of higher education in each US state and see which state takes the lead with the oldest institution!