24% pass rate: The toughest exams in the world aren’t for mere mortals

toughest exams in the world
The toughest exams may make you shed some tears. Source: AFP

Some exams might be easy peasy lemon squeezy, but the toughest exams in the world are difficult, difficult, lemon difficult.

They are infamous for their complexity and are designed to assess deep understanding, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

While some people can get by without ever encountering these exams, others will have to brave the challenge as it could be their much-needed — and only — ticket to gaining the qualifications they need for their careers.

toughest exams in the world

Some of the hardest exams are notorious for having low passing rates. Source: AFP

Are the toughest exams in the world worth it?

Taking the toughest exams in the world can be stressful and gruelling, but the rewards often outweigh the challenges. Succeeding in these exams can open doors to prestigious degree programmes which in turn lead to excellent career opportunities. 

For example, passing the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) is an essential step for medical graduates aiming to practise medicine in the US. These qualifications prove your knowledge and skills while placing you among the top candidates in your field.

Those in finance who wish to advance their careers will usually take the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exam. Though one of the toughest exams in the world, earning it can lead to new job opportunities and higher salaries. Charterholders often report a 53% increase in their salary after passing the Level III exam.

So, while these exams are stress-inducing, the potential for career advancement and financial growth makes it worthwhile —  if you survive.

But before we take a look at the toughest exams in the world, here are some of the easiest.

toughest exams in the world

Candidates study for months and even years to prepare for their exams. Source: AFP

Easiest exams in the world

While ease is subjective and depends on a student’s background, preparation, and proficiency in the language, a few exams are considered to be less challenging due to their format, content, and pass rates. 

1. General Educational Development (GED) 

The GED is an alternative to the high school diploma in the US. Many students find it less challenging than completing a traditional high school curriculum. The pass rate is relatively high, with about 85.3% of test-takers passing on their first attempt.

2. Cambridge English Key (KET) 

The KET exam is an elementary-level English language test administered by Cambridge Assessment English. It is considered one of the easiest Cambridge English exams because it tests foundational language abilities. 

15 toughest exams in the world

toughest exams in the world

Many of the toughest exams are your gateway to university or career advancement. Source: AFP

1. Gaokao

The Gaokao (translated as “Higher Exam”) in China is known to be one of the toughest exams in the world. As the national college entrance examination, it determines the academic futures of millions of students each year. The exam lasts nine hours over two days, covering a number of subjects, including Chinese literature, mathematics, a foreign language, and additional subjects depending on the student’s chosen field.

With around 12 million candidates taking the exam each year, the competition is fierce. Less than 0.25% of students qualify to join some of China’s most elite colleges. In 2021, these top universities accepted an average of 0.67 million students out of the 10.78 million who applied, an acceptance rate of 6.7%. By comparison, the University of Oxford accepted around 14% of applicants for undergraduate study in 2022.

2. Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) Advanced

The IIT JEE Advanced exam ranks as the second toughest exam globally and the most difficult in India. This national-level exam is a student’s sole gateway for entry into the prestigious IITs across the country.

The JEE has two stages: JEE Main and JEE Advanced. Only those who clear JEE Main can sit for JEE Advanced. It tests not only your knowledge but also your ability to apply concepts to complex problems efficiently under time constraints.

In 2023, out of 189,744 candidates who took the exam, only 24.26% passed.

3. Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)

The Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exam is known to be one of the toughest exams in the world. It is designed to test finance professionals on tools and practices within the finance and investment management disciplines.

The CFA programme consists of three levels: Level 1 focuses on financial analysis using the tools of the 10 topic areas of the candidate’s body of knowledge; Level 2 focuses on the valuation of various assets and emphasises the application of investment tools and concepts in contextual situations; and Level 3 focuses on effective wealth planning and portfolio management. Level 3 also requires the candidate to synthesize all the concepts and analytical methods learned from the entire curriculum.

Only about 35% of candidates pass Level 1 on their first attempt, with pass rates for Levels 2 and 3 being slightly higher but still difficult.

4. Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE), administered by the Educational Testing Service, is designed to assess your readiness for graduate-level academic work, particularly for programmes in the US.

The GRE evaluates skills across several areas: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Critical Thinking, and Analytical Writing. These sections collectively test your ability to comprehend and analyse complex texts, solve quantitative problems, and articulate well-reasoned arguments.

Earning a high score is essential for admission to prestigious institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Despite being accepted in over 90 countries and attempted by more than 319,100 candidates annually, the pass rate is quite low, with only about 43% achieving the needed scores.

5. Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE)

The Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) is a national-level test conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). It evaluates the knowledge and skills of engineering graduates who want to pursue postgraduate studies.

The test consists of 65 questions, including 10 general aptitude questions and 55 technical questions, which must be answered within three hours. It covers various subjects, including mathematics, science, engineering, and general aptitude.

The exam is highly competitive — of the 500,000 candidates who took the test in 2023, only 18% qualified.

6. Master Sommelier Diploma Exam

The Master Sommelier Diploma Exam, administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), is designed to enhance the quality of beverage services provided by sommeliers.

The exam has three main sections: Theory, Service, and Blind Tasting. The Theory section tests a candidate’s comprehensive knowledge of wine, including its history, production methods, and regional specifics. The Service section evaluates a candidate’s ability to provide high-quality beverages in a restaurant. The Blind Tasting section requires candidates to identify the year, grape variety and region of wines through taste alone. This level of precision and expertise is what makes the exam exceptionally difficult.

The pass rate for the exam is quite low, with an average success rate of only about 10%, even after multiple attempts.

7. Mensa International

Mensa is not an exam itself but an international organisation of individuals who score in the top 2% on standardized IQ tests. These tests evaluate your intellect across various domains, such as logical reasoning, problem-solving and analytical thinking.

However, boasting your IQ won’t necessarily land you the job — in fact, according to hiring managers, it could even negatively affect you. Some Mensa members on this Reddit thread go as far as saying that they never mention their membership in any event or interview. Still, the networking opportunities and experiences offered by the organisation are something to appreciate.

The pass rate to gain entry into Mensa is low, with only 0.02% of test-takers qualifying.

toughest exams in the world

While the passing rate is low, many still choose to take these exams to advance their careers. Source: AFP

8. Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE)

The Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE) exam is one of the toughest exams in the world. This exam, administered by Cisco Systems, assesses a candidate’s ability to build, maintain and troubleshoot complex network infrastructures.

The exam is divided into two stages: a written exam and a practical lab exam. The written exam lasts two hours and tests candidates on different aspects of networking technologies. Upon passing this stage, you will move on to the lab exam, which lasts eight hours and involves hands-on tasks to demonstrate real-world networking skills.

Only 3% of all Cisco-certified engineers attempt the CCIE and the estimated pass rate is only around 26%. Candidates are recommended to have five to seven years of industry experience before attempting this exam.

9. Indian Engineering Services (IES)

The Indian Engineering Services (IES) exam, conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), is one of the toughest and most prestigious exams in the engineering field. It is designed to recruit engineers for technical and managerial roles within the government of India.

The exam covers various engineering subjects and has a rigorous selection process. It includes multiple stages: a preliminary exam, a main exam, and a personality test. Each stage is designed to test not only your technical knowledge but also your problem-solving abilities, decision-making skills and overall suitability for a career in public service.

Every year, thousands of candidates compete for a very limited number of vacancies. The competition ratio for IES is around 1:300, meaning that for every available position, around 300 candidates compete for it.

toughest exams in the world

California bar exam is widely considered to be the most difficult of all state bar exams in the US. Source: AFP

10. California Bar Exam

Those who want to become lawyers in California must first take the California Bar Exam. Beyond taking the exam, examinees must undergo a background check and receive a positive moral character determination, and prove that they have complied with any court order for child or family support.

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

Around 16,000 people attempt the exam each year, and the pass rate is around 50%

11. United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE)

As if medical school wasn’t tough enough, aspiring doctors in the US must complete one of the toughest exams in the world to obtain their medical license in the country. 

The USMILE is a compulsory three-part exam covering over ten different medical disciplines. The first step takes eight hours, the second nine hours, and the third two days. Applicants must also ensure they meet the state-specific requirements to earn their licence. 

In 2023, examinees from US and Canadian schools (including first-time exam takers and repeaters) saw a 90% pass rate. International examinees, on the other hand, saw a 68% pass rate.

12. Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) 

Invented in 1922, the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) selects the best candidates for positions in civil service organisations such as the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and Indian Police Service (IPS).  

The maximum number of attempts general candidates can take the test is six, while Other Backward Class (OBC) candidates can take it nine times. 

So, it’s no surprise that students spend years preparing for this highly competitive and rigorous exam. However, the UPSC pass percentage, or the chances of an applicant becoming a Civil Services officer, is only around 0.2%.

toughest exams in the world

The entrance exam for All Souls College at Oxford University has been called the world’s hardest test. Source: AFP

13. All Souls Prize Fellowship Exam

The All Souls Prize Fellowship Exam is a historic test held every year by Oxford University since 1878. Known as one of the toughest exams in the world, it is done to grant a seven-year fellowship to students. 

Applicants are expected to submit four essays on any topic within the humanities field. However, each essay has a three-hour time limit. The exam aims to discover students with exceptional skills in debate and analysis who can assist the college in electing new examinations or prize fellows. 

Only two students are elected yearly from one hundred fifty or more candidates.

14. Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT)

The SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) is known as one of the toughest exams in the world. In fact, less than 1% of test-takers achieve the perfect score of 1600. 

The exam is considered difficult because it covers multiple subjects, including critical reading, mathematics, and writing. Each section assesses a student’s analytical and problem-solving. The worst part is that each section has a time limit, which makes it even more stressful for students. 

The SAT’s significant role in college admissions decisions, scholarships, and academic placements increases the pressure to perform well. The Ivy League colleges have actually brought back this standardised testing for fairer admissions for marginalised students. 

15. Certificate in Legal Practice (CLP)

The Certificate in Legal Practice (CLP) is a compulsory 9-month post-graduation and professional examination if you wish to gain admission to the Malaysian Bar as a qualified advocate and solicitor. It is known to be one of the toughest exams in the legal field. 

This perception is due to the amount of knowledge required and the demanding preparation process. Candidates must be able to demonstrate proficiency in several areas of law, including civil procedure, criminal procedure, evidence and ethics. 

The CLP exam is notorious for having low pass rates. For example, in 2023, only 439 out of 1,297 (34%) candidates passed the exam