Exams toughest
CAREER GOAL: The higher one's career goal, the tougher the learning curve. Image Credit: Seyyed dela Llata / Gulf News

Dubai: Burning the midnight oil is a given for students. Depending on one’s chosen career, some exams prove more difficult than others. The higher one's career goal, the tougher the learning curve. There’s the bit about social expectations that pile up pressure on students, too.

Whatever the chosen field — engineering, law, medicine, IT, natural sciences, classical art — there's an exam anxiety to deal with. However, there are millions of people passionate enough and have that mental fortitute to ace such mental hurdles.

Here's our list of the 14 toughest exams in the world (in no particular order).

toughest exams v2
Image Credit: Gulf News / Jay Hilotin

✅ Gaokao (China)

What is it?

The Chinese characters for gaokao (高考) literally mean “high exam”. It is also the lone criterion for admission into Chinese universities. The Gaokao is the feared university entrance exam at age 18, which lasts for 10 hours over two days of incredibly complex questions. Each year, millions of students in China take the gaokao, taken by students in their third and final year of high school typically from June 7 to June 8 or 9. It's China's version of the American SAT and British A-level tests, and is known as one of the hardest exams in the world. Officially, it is known as the National Higher Education Entrance Examination.

GAOKAO TAKERS: File photo shows Chinese high school students practicing yoga at a schoolyard as they prepare for the National College Entrance Exam, also known as "Gaokao", in Chongqing, China May 19, 2017. Pictures taken May 19, 2017.

Due to its difficulty level, some European and American universities have also started to accept Gaokao scores. To be able to apply students must have at least a score of 60% of the maximum score of their provincial Gaokao scale in the case of Mainland China or of their Liankao in the case of a Special Administrative Region of China.

Takers: Over 9.75 million registrations per year.

▶ ▷ Pass rate: 1:150 selection ratio; takers must achieve a score of 750 (for Beijing)

One Chinese saying aptly compares the Gaokao exam to a stampede of “thousands of soldiers and tens of thousands of horses across a single log bridge.”

 Suneung (South Korea)

Suneung is abbreviation for College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) in Korean. Every year in November, Suneung brings the whole country to a standstill. Silence descends across the capital Seoul as shops are shut, banks close, even the stock market opens late. Most construction work halts, planes are grounded and military training ceases. The Suneung is South Korea’s college entrance exam, a gruelling eight-hour marathon.

South Korea’s high university entrance rate has created a highly skilled workforce making South Korea among the most highly educated countries in the world with the one of the highest percentage of its citizens holding a tertiary education degree.

The stakes are high, with students feeling the pressure to perform well to secure university placements, jobs and even future relationships. South Korea’s high university entrance rate has created a highly skilled workforce making South Korea among the most highly educated countries in the world with the one of the highest percentage of its citizens holding a tertiary education degree.

▶ Number of takers: 530,000 (2018 data)

▶ ▷ Pass rate: Score of 1350~1450 sought for SKY universities (1400 for natural science)

✅ Joint Entrance Examination (India)


Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) is a two-level test (JEE Main and JEE Advanced) for high school students in India to pursue undergraduate education in reputed engineering colleges. Formerly known as the Indian Institutes of Technology — Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE), it was replaced by JEE in 2013.

JEE Main has two parts: Paper I is to gain admission for B.E. and B.Tech programmes, while Paper II is for Architecture and Planning courses (There is also a Paper III for B.Planning courses). JEE Advanced is to secure admissions to any of the 12 IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) and other prestigious universities.

Only candidates who finish in the top 250,000 in Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) Main can sit for JEE Advanced. So a candidate has to clear both the JEE exams to gain admission to an IIT (indian Institute of Technology) campus..


JEE Main: A candidate should have secured at least 75% marks (65% for reserved category) in Class 12 examination, or must be in the top 20 percentile in the Class 12 examination conducted by the respective Boards. There’s no age limit, but students should take the exams within three years of passing Class 12. Candidates can make only three consecutive attempts in three years.

JEE Advanced: Candidates should rank among the top 250,000 in JEE Main. Students who sit for 2022 exams should be born after October 1, 1997, and they can make only two consecutive attempts over two years.


JEE Main examination, organised by the National Testing Agency, is held four times a year from January to May. IITs take turns in conducting JEE Advanced. JEE Main: Three hours. Plus 30 minutes extra for Paper II. JEE Advanced: Three hours for each paper. Six hours a day

▶ Number of takers: At least 200,000 appear for the exams each year.

▶▷ Pass rate: 1 in 45 (About 10,000 in 500,000 in 2011)

✅ GRE (Graduate Record Examination)


What is it?

It is a standardised test used in many graduate and business schools in the US and Canada, which tests the candidate’s aptitude for abstract thinking in the areas of analytical writing, mathematics, and vocabulary.

There are no specific eligibility criteria for GRE Exam as prescribed by ETS. Anyone can register for this GRE, irrespective of age or qualifications. The candidates are expected to have completed the undergraduate course that makes them eligible for admission.

There are two types of GRE tests, GRE General Test and GRE Subject Test. The GRE General Test at home is available around the clock, seven days a week, with appointments available as early as 24 hours after you register.

There are two types of GRE tests, GRE General Test and GRE Subject Test. The GRE General Test at home is available around the clock, seven days a week, with appointments available as early as 24 hours after you register.

The time allotted to complete the GRE General Test is about three hours and 45 minutes. There is no limit on the number of times one can take the exam. However, in a calendar year, one can take it only five times. Also, there must be a 21-day gap between any two consecutive test attempts.

Fee: $205 is the fee for the test, except for China and India where it is $231 and 213 respectively. The GRE General Test is offered year-round at est centres.

GRE Subject test evaluates the student’s knowledge on a particular subject and is offered in Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics and Psychology.  The duration of the subject test is two hours and 50 minutes.

Ideally, a good GRE score depends on the programme you are considering and the college you are trying to get admission to. However, for most programs, a 75 or above percentile is considered to be good.  GRE scores are used by admissions or fellowship panels to supplement the candidate’s undergraduate records, recommendation letters and other qualifications for graduate admission.

▶ Number of takers: About 500,000

✅ CA (Chartered Accountant)


CA is the holy grail of accounting in India. CA exam is the qualifying examination conducted by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) for Chartered Accountancy professionals in India. There are three different levels: CA Foundation, CA Intermediate and CA Final. An aspirant has to clear all three levels to be certified as a Chartered Accountant.

A candidate seeking admission to the CA Foundation course should have passed Class 12 or equivalent examination from the central or state education boards. There is no minimum or maximum age limit for registering for the CA Foundation course. Once registered, the candidate has to wait at least four months for appearing in the examination. The minimum duration of the entire course leading to certification is 4.5 years via the CA Foundation. The registration fee is Rs9,800 for Indian students and $780 for foreigners.

CA exam is the qualifying examination conducted by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) for Chartered Accountancy professionals in India.

CA Foundation

ICAI conducts the CA Foundation exam twice a year, May and November.  Foundation Course exam comprises four papers, out of which two are subjective and two are objective types. Negative marks are awarded for choosing the wrong options in objective papers.

CA intermediate

This is the second level of the course and has eight subjects in two groups of four each. Students are required to obtain 40% marks in each paper and 50% marks in aggregate of all the subjects. The student has to pass in all four subjects in a group to clear the group. If he or she fails in one, it will result in the failure of all the other subjects in the group.

CA Final

The third and final level of the CA exam comprises 7 core subjects and one elective. It is divided into 2 groups, each one has 4 subjects.

A Foundation Course candidate needs to secure a minimum of 40% marks in each paper and a minimum of 50% marks in aggregate of all the papers, in one sitting, to pass the examination.

▶ Number of takers: 1,175,000 (total ICAI students)

▶ ▷ Pass rate: 8% to 12 % (8% of candidates require more than 3 attempts to clear the exam)

✅ CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst)

What is it?

CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) is a professional designation awarded by the CFA Institute to candidates with proven competence in investment analysis and wealth management.

The CFA exams are very difficult. Passing the CFA Program exams requires strong discipline and an extensive amount of studying. There are three levels of exams. Although the exams can be taken as many times as needed, to receive a charter, each candidate must pass all three exams and have four years of qualified work experience in investment decision-making.

Number of takers: 138,206 (in 2021)

✅ CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert)

This is not an easy one to crack. The CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert) has been considered the most difficult certification in the IT industry. The certification was launched in 1993. The exams are in two parts: written and practical lab tests.

The Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert, or CCIE, is a technical certification offered by Cisco Systems. Through a rigorous written exam and a performance-based lab exam, these expert-level certification programs set the standard for internetworking expertise.

Passing the CCIE lab exam requires studying hours together and maintaining a laser-like focus. The exams also cost a lot, with workbooks, preparatory courses, racks of Cisco equipment, exam fees and travel reaching as high as $20,000.

▶ Number of takers: 12,000 (average per year)

✅ Union Public Services Commission examination (India)


What is it?

The Civil Services Examination (CSE) in India is conducted by the Union Public Service Commission, hence the name UPSC exams. It aims to recruit the best talents in the country for civil services jobs, including the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Foreign Service (IFS), Indian Revenue Service (IRS), Indian Police Service (IPS), and others.

The 100-year-old examination starts with two general studies papers followed by the main test of nine papers and an interview. Writing skills, general knowledge and an aptitude for English are put to the test in the preliminary and main parts of the examination.

Some of the main categories like Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Foreign Service (IFS), Indian Police Service (IPS) are restricted to Indians. A candidate should be at least 21 years and should not be above 32.

Some of the main categories like IFS, IAS and IPS are restricted to Indians. A candidate should be at least 21 years and should not be above 32. The person must be an undergraduate and cannot appear for the exams more than six times. These crititeria are for general category. A successful candidate would have undergone 32 hours to complete the examination process, which is conducted in three phases and ends with a personality test.

The annual test is conducted in three levels spread over several months. More than a million apply for the exam every year, around 500,000 candidates sit for the exam, and only about 1,600 make the final round. The top-ranked students generally score around 40% marks.

▶ Number of takers: Around 500,000

▷ Pass rate: 0.1% to 0.4%

Sample question

With reference to ‘Global Climate Change Alliance’, which of the following statements is/are correct?

  • 1. It is an initiative of the European Union.
  • 2. It provides technical and financial support to targeted developing countries to integrate climate change into their development policies and budgets.
  • 3. It is coordinated by World Resources Institute (WRI) and World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

✅ Mensa


What is it?

Mensa is a high-intelligence IQ society whose members have a higher IQ than the 98th percentile, i.e. amongst the top 2% of the world. Mensa has a renowned presence in almost every country across the globe. The IQ test administered by society is an extremely demanding test that analyses one’s intelligence on parameters of reasoning, problem-solving and logic.

As the name suggests, it is a test for admittance into Mensa, the largest and oldest high-IQ (intelligence quotient) society in the world. Aspiring members can join the club only by successfully passing the test. The organisation has around 145,000 members spread across 100 nations. There are two ways to get Mensa admission: Take a test administered by Mensa or submit a test score from any one of the more than accepted, standardised intelligence tests.

There is no minimum or maximum age limit or educational requirement to join Mensa. However, the US Mensa chapter stipulates a minimum age of 14 years to undertake their supervised admission test. The admission test costs $99 in the US and is conducted by appointment only. In the US, an aspirant is allowed to take the Mensa-administered qualifying test only once in their lifetime.

The test:  The supervised test is taken in person and supervised by a volunteer. The standard test session consists of two timed sessions – Mensa Wonderlic and Mensa RAIT (Reynolds Adaptable Intelligence Test) — with a short break between them.

▶ Number of takers: No data available

▶ ▷ Pass rate: One must have a test score that places them at or above 98% of the population in terms of IQ to be eligible for admission to Mensa.

✅ GATE (Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering, India)

Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) is a national exam in India that is a mandatory requirement for seeking admission / financial assistance to Postgraduate programmes (Masters and Doctoral) with the Ministry of Education and other government scholarships. The computer based test is conducted jointly by the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and seven Indian Institutes of Technology.

The GATE score is also used by some Public Sector Undertakings for recruitment and by several other universities in India and abroad for admissions. The scores are valid for three years from the date of announcement of results.

The examination is of 3 hours duration, and contains a total of 65 questions worth a maximum of 100 marks. Out of 65 questions, 10 questions will be from General Aptitude (Verbal and Numerical ability) and 55 questions will be technical, based on the paper chosen.

Number of takers: 711,542 (2021)

✅ All Souls Prize Fellowship Exam

What is it?

All Souls College, University of Oxford, elects two Examination Fellows, or Prize Fellows, from a field of 100 or more candidates every year. The Fellowships last seven years and cannot be renewed. Examination Fellows are full members of the College's governing body, with a vote, a stipend or scholarship allowance if eligible for scholarship status, free board and single accommodation in College, and various other benefits.

The All Souls College written exam consists of four papers of three hours each. Two of these are in a chosen specialist subject – Classical Studies, Law, History, English Literature, Economics, Politics or Philosophy.

The College normally pays the University fees of Examination Fellows who are studying for degrees at Oxford. Most Examination Fellows follow an academic career, during which they get seven years of research in regular contact with leading scholars. Some Examination Fellows pursue careers outside academia in law, finance, journalism and the arts. Candidates with a degree are eligible to apply.

The written exam consists of four papers of three hours each. Two of these are in a chosen specialist subject – Classical Studies, Law, History, English Literature, Economics, Politics or Philosophy.

Frequency: Annual (those short-listed are invited to a viva on the morning of the last Saturday of October).

▶ Number of takers: 80 to 100

▶ ▷ Pass rate: 2%

Sample questions:

  • 1. Write an intellectual biography of Shakespeare.
  • 2. Explore the interaction of religion and politics in women’s writing during the seventeenth century.

✅ IES (Indian Engineering Services)

What is it?

The Engineering Services Examination (ESE) is considered as one of the toughest examinations in India. Owing to the highly competitive selection procedure, Indian Engineering Services officers carry high respect and status and are mandated to manage and execute activities in diverse technical and managerial fields.

The ESE is conducted annually by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) to recruit engineers in four domains - Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, Electronics & Telecommunications. The examination constitutes a two-stage written examination followed by an interview.

After the final selection, candidates are posted in various Ministries and Departments of the government such as Railways, Telecom, Border Roads, Naval Armaments and Ordnance Factories.

The selected candidates can also move to any cadre, organisation, agency, department, ministry and Public Sector Undertaking of the Government of India.

A candidate for the exam held annually must be between 21 and 30 30 years of age and must have a degree in Engineering. More than 200,000 students appear for the IES Exam every year for around 500 seats. The exam has a success rate of only 0.5%.

▶ Number of takers: 200,000

▶ ▷ Pass rate: 0.5%

✅ California Bar Exam

What is it?

The State of California conducts the prestigious California Bar Exam to select graduates who can be inducted into the Bar Society. The bar exam is a multi-day event consisting of hundreds of multiple-choice questions and other sections that require open response answers.

California used to be gruelling three days of morning and afternoon sessions. In 2018, almost 60% of the test takers failed to clear the exam. California later lowered this three-day exam’s difficulty by coming up with better metrics for lowering the cut-off score.

The two-day exam had several firsts in the state — the first remote online exam (due to the pandemic). The test was moved online and the minimum passing score reduced, to 1390 from 1440. The exam also was the first graded under a streamlined system. There are three major areas for California Bar Exam:

  • 1) Performance test evaluates the ability to handle legal challenges.
  • 2) Next is five essay questions meant to demonstrate the understanding of the law. Each one takes an hour to answer.
  • 3) Multistate bar examination is the next one, which consists of 200 multiple-choice questions, based on civil procedure, constitutional law, contracts, criminal law, criminal procedure, evidence, real property, and torts, according to the the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

▶ Number of takers: More than 9,300 (2020); 7,930 (2021)

✅ LNAT (Law National Aptitude Test)

What is it?

The LNAT, initially conducted by the University of Oxford, Law National Aptitude Test, has now become one of the leading law tests in the UK. The LNAT is 135 minutes long and consists of two sections: Section A includes multiple choice questions based on 12 text passages, with three to four multiple choice questions each. There are 42 questions in total.

LNAT: It is a computer-based exam required by 11 universities to differentiate candidates in their selection process for admission to their undergraduate law degree programmes.

Section B requires you to write one essay. You will be given three proposed prompts, and you can choose the option which suits you best. The test assesses general comprehension and reasoning skills, both of which are vital for the study and practice of law. A key skill: Practice writing essays in 40 minutes, incorporating 5-10 minutes planning time.

The exam is referred by various UK-based colleges and is conducted in more than 100 centres across the world. The test itself doesn't test your knowledge of law or any other subject. Instead, it helps universities assess your aptitude for the skills required to study law. The LNAT is a challenging one at the very least – after all, students who take it try to get into top law schools at the world's best universities.

▶ Number of takers: 4,345 (in 2004); 1,820 (in 2020)

▶ ▷ Pass rate: No pass/fail mark; a score of 27 or up ensures best possible chance of getting a place at a preferred university.