Toughest entrance exams in the world
The Gaokao exam is one of the toughest entrance exams in the world, and with many of its candidates vying for a spot at China's most coveted universities as well as overseas institutions. Source: Jade Gao/AFP

Are you a university attendee who thought your entrance exam was unreasonably difficult? Wait till you come across five of the toughest entrance exams in the world that put even the best and brightest students — and even graduates — under a lot of pressure.

In many education systems, college or university entrance exams are an inevitable part of a student’s life. The results you receive are a culmination of years of hard work and burning the midnight oil. The same can be said of candidates for some of the toughest entrance exams in the world.

Many students of these tests are subject to a gruelling and rigorous academic regime. For some, early mornings, cram schools and dedicated revision time are the norm.

Many candidates of the toughest entrance exams who do not fulfil the cut-off score for their desired programme or university will end up retaking it until they boost their scores to satisfy the programme’s academic requirements.

Entrance exams aren’t just for universities — even graduates vying for coveted positions in government have exams to sit through.

If you’re curious about what are some of the toughest entrance exams in the world, we’ve broken them down for you here:

Toughest entrance exams


The Gaokao or the National College Entrance Examination — is a university entrance exam taken by nearly 12 million students in China this year. It is the sole requirement for entry into some of the country’s most coveted institutions.

It is taken over two days and spans a total of 10 hours of pure concentration and quick and skilful thinking to answer the tough questions posed — spread over subjects such as Chinese literature, mathematics and a foreign language (in most cases, English).

The Gaokao may differ provincially, and the cut-off score to get into some of China’s most prestigious universities may differ from year to year. Gaokao is typically scored out of 750, with 150 points allocated for the three compulsory Gaokao subjects, and the additional 300 accumulated through integrated subjects.

It is not uncommon for students to retake the Gaokao exam if they failed to meet the necessary score to get into their dream programme or university on their first try.

IIT-JEE Advanced

One of the toughest entrance exams, particularly to qualify for the most coveted engineering schools in India such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), requires candidates to sit for the Joint Entrance Examinations (JEE) Advanced level exam.

Last year, 250,000 students cleared the JEE Main exam, with 141,699 advancing to the JEE-Advanced exam — taking two exam papers (paper 1 and paper 2). As many as 41,862 candidates qualified for the JEE-Advanced exam, securing a spot at 23 IIT campuses across the country.

The subjects that are tested among JEE-Advanced candidates are physics, chemistry and mathematics.

UPSC Civil Services Examination

The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) conducts the Civil Services Exam (CSE) also known as the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) exam. They are held for candidates who want to qualify for Central Government job vacancies. Many consider this exam to be among the toughest in the world.

This exam is applied by over one million candidates each year, with the entire exam process (from the day you apply to the day you receive your results) spanning an entire year. In 2022, the UPSC exam will begin in June and the final results will be announced in April of the following year.

The CSE is conducted in three stages. The first round involves a preliminary assessment. Candidates who pass the first stage advance to the “mains” stage, and the final stage will involve an interview. More details about the exam can be found here. Of the 1,057,948 million candidates who applied for the preliminary assessment of UPSC in 2020, only 796 secured the vacancies offered by the Central Government.

All Souls Prize Fellowship Exam

If you’re an outstanding student vying for a promising career in the academic field, the All Souls College — a constituent college of Oxford University  is looking for a candidate (or two) to join their establishment which covers a significant portion of your academic pursuits.

However, getting this seven-year fellowship is no easy feat as the college only elects two candidates from a field of a hundred or more applicants.

The exam component tests your ability to answer a written examination of four specialist subjects, with each paper lasting three hours. The subjects include classical studies, law, history, English literature, economics, politics or philosophy.

However, the reward that successful candidates known as an Examination Fellow receives is phenomenal. Besides being appointed as a member of the College’s governing body, you will also receive a vote, a stipend or a scholarship allowance, if you are eligible for scholarship status.

You will also be entitled to free board and accommodation, alongside other benefits.

 Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)

In the world of finance, the chartered financial analyst (CFA) exam is one of the toughest entrance exams in the world.

The notoriously tough paper is divided into three levels, and the qualification you obtain ensures that you have the required knowledge to work in certain parts of the financial industry.

Around 100,000 candidates sit for the CFA exam each year, with a pass rate of only 25% for CFA Level 1 recorded for the May 2021 exams. The average candidate would have spent more than 300 hours doing revisions in preparation for each level of the exam.