Exams can be a real challenge, no matter where you are in the world. But some exams are notoriously more difficult than others.
So which ones are the hardest tests in existence, and what makes them so challenging?
According to education experts, here are the toughest exams in the world, along with the reasons why.
Founder and CEO, Britannia School of Academics
Life is on the top of the list when we talk about the toughest exams as it gives tough time to almost every individual; whether you are rich or poor, you are a genius or an average person, young or old, beautiful or ugly.
But when we talk about students specifically, we can rate the toughness of specific exams.
SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test)
One of the toughest exams is SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test), considered one of the most challenging entry tests for admission to many US colleges.
The education testing service (ETS) conducts it on behalf of the College Board. Millions of students worldwide appear in this test with 1600 possible marks after completing high school, but in 2021 only 7% of students could score above 1400, and about 1% came up in the 99th percentile.
The SAT is conducted in the form of multiple choice questions and consists of two sections: the reading and writing aptitude section and the maths section, and each section’s scores can lie between 200 to 800.
Students are challenged with interpreting passages and identifying vocabulary definitions in the reading phase. In addition, numerous math subjects, such as geometry, algebra, and data analysis, are covered.
The writing test consists of essay questions on sentence and paragraph building, grammar, and usage. Time pressure, unfamiliar math concepts, challenging reading passages, and high-stress levels can make SAT challenging and difficult to pass.
GRE (Graduate Record Examination)
GRE (Graduate Record Examination) is also among the list of toughest exams in the world for entering graduate schools, mostly business and law graduate schools, also conducted by ETS.
It might include GRE general test and the GRE subject test, as some graduate schools may require a GRE Subject Test that examines technical knowledge relevant to a particular area, like physics, psychology, or mathematics.
GRE General has three primary sections: verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing. The highest possible score on these sections is a 170 on verbal, a 170 on quantitative, and a six on analytical writing.
Unfortunately, only roughly 2% of all learners achieve the highest score and rank in the 97th percentile. Challenging vocabulary, strong math base, tricky question wording, time pressure, and challenging writing section are the factors that account for the toughness of the GRE.
All Souls Prize Fellowship Exam
The test for All Souls College at Oxford University has earned the designation “hardest test in the world” because it is so challenging to prepare for, involves abstract questions, and has no right or wrong answers.
Hence, just 20 percent of Oxford graduates who take the test receive an invitation to move forward. A seven-year Oxford University fellowship is the award, which is generally given to two students each year.
To answer the questions of this test, you are required to stimulate thoughts and start the old brain-cogs turning. The answers should be personal and reflect who you are, how your mind works, and how you reason.
Many of the questions presented here are not particularly challenging to answer incorrectly; anyone may attempt them. However, they are exceedingly tough to answer since you have to personally and convincingly interact with the subject matter. That accounts for the toughness of this exam.
Founder and CEO, Test-Guide
We have experience with hundreds of exams, and we continually find that the following three exams give individuals the most trouble:
What makes these exams so hard? What is interesting about each of the exams listed above is that they are all very challenging for different reasons.
Law School Admissions Test (LSAT)
This exam is taken by students who wish to attend law school. Think of it like the ACT for law school. This exam is extremely challenging because it is unlike your typical standardized exam.
It acts more like an intelligence exam. Individuals will need to connect various concepts in order to arrive at the answer. There are sometimes multiple answers that could be correct, and you need to choose the best answer. Oh, and this all needs to be done in a timed setting!
This is an actual intelligence exam. It is mostly given by employers to prospective candidates during the hiring process. There are typically 50 questions with a 12-minute time limit.
The questions are not super challenging, but the time aspect makes this exam difficult for many people. 50 questions in 12 minutes break down to about 14 seconds per question! This is both challenging and very stressful as many people have a lot riding on doing well on this exam.
Certified Public Accountant Exam
Individuals who take and pass this exam will receive their CPA designation. What makes this exam so challenging is that there are four parts, and you need to pass all four to become CPA certified.
All four parts include a mind-numbing amount of information and subjects you need to know. You are allowed to take the four parts spaced out over weeks or months, but it takes some serious willpower to take a section, then goes right back to studying for the next section.
Dr. Alex Trevatt
Plastic Surgery Resident | CEO, Medistudents
The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)
The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is an exam taken by all medical school applicants in the USA. It is particularly challenging, and even students with a high college GPA can struggle with it.
When you combine the difficulty of the exam with the fact that doing well is imperative if students want to realize their dreams of becoming a doctor, you can understand why many doctors consider it the hardest exam of their careers.
There are several reasons why the MCAT is so challenging:
Length of the exam
At approximately seven and a half hours, the MCAT will be the longest exam most students have ever taken, requiring both physical and intellectual endurance. Concentrating for that long is no easy feat, and candidates must get lots of practice beforehand.
The breadth of knowledge required
The MCAT is a comprehensive interdisciplinary exam covering multiple subjects, including biology, chemistry, and physics. This makes it impossible to cram for the exam.
Candidates must do months of intense revision, in addition to their other college classes, if they want to achieve a high enough score to get into medical school. This requires excellent time management skills and plenty of sacrifices.
Don’t expect to see many of your friends and family during your revision period.
More than just information recall is required to do well
The MCAT requires a diverse skill set; simply recalling many facts will not be enough to score highly. Almost all the questions involve some component of reasoning or critical reasoning. Merely knowing a fact isn’t enough. Students must be able to apply it too.
High-pressure, high stakes
For most candidates, going to medical school will have been a lifelong dream. They will experience incredible pressure to do well, which can adversely affect their mental health.
Exams are stressful at the best of times, but with your whole career riding on the result, the MCAT takes this to another level.
Dr. Mark Farrell, FIA
Actuarial Science Senior Lecturer and CEO, ProActuary
Actuarial science has some of the world’s most difficult exams
“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future!”
The above quote has been ascribed to many people, from Yogi Berra to Mark Twain to Nobel laureate Niels Bohr. Regardless of its origin, the quote contains a lot of truth.
The future is increasingly full of complex factors that interact with one another, causing a seemingly, at times, a random cascade of events to arise. This makes predicting the future a challenging activity fraught with hurdles.
But did you know there exists a 300-plus-year-old profession that excels in doing exactly this for the business world? A profession that helps predict death, accidents, and extreme weather events. That profession is known as actuarial science.
As you can imagine, actuarial science has some of the most demanding exams in the world that students must pass if they are to qualify as an actuary.
Actuaries use their knowledge to predict the financial future of large companies, insurance reserves, and pension liabilities worth billions. Hence, to qualify as an actuary, you need to know a lot and to know it well.
To start with, you need to have a piece of good foundational knowledge in fields such as:
- Computer Science
Beyond that, you need to understand the intricacies of insurance, regulations, and business. The profession attracts intelligent people, and yet the dropout rate is exceedingly high.
It takes, on average, seven years to qualify, but once you get through the exams, there are immense global opportunities available with a strong demand for the skillset.
Learning never stops
The world is becoming more and more complex. Businesses are increasingly faced with new emerging and multifaceted risk exposures, changing regulations, and growing competition.
As actuaries are business professionals that deal with risk and forecasting the uncertain future, it is imperative that they keep on top of new and evolving knowledge.
In other words, learning never stops. This may sometimes mean doing even more exams to build credentials, but also having a growth mindset towards accumulating knowledge so they can keep adding value.
Peter Dufresne, Ph.D.
Chief Academic Officer, Knovva Academy
Many of the hardest exams in the world are designed to assess an individual’s mastery of a given subject. The purpose of assessment is usually to determine if a student is qualified to enter or graduate from a high-level program.
My experience as a teacher and administrator has led me to have the opportunity to serve as a principal at both large and small schools, as a curriculum director, and as an acting superintendent. This experience has taught me what exams are especially difficult for students and how to best prepare for each.
Medical College Admission Test and Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering
For example, before being admitted to medical school in several countries, applicants are required to take the Medical College Admission Test.
Similarly, the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering is necessary for undergraduates in India who want to begin a master’s program or pursue an engineering-related career.
These tests are difficult because they each last several hours and assess knowledge in multiple related subjects, making sure to completely assess a student’s true understanding.
California Bar Exam
Other incredibly tough exams include the California Bar Exam, which is required to work as a licensed attorney. The California Bar Exam is known for being the most difficult of all states, with a pass rate of only 26.8%.
While these are some of the toughest exams in the world, there are countless difficult exams for all levels of students. Whether you are studying for the SAT or earning a master’s degree, everyone needs to build the skills to prepare and work their way up.
Founder and CEO, Ivy Tutors Network
Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT)
I would say that the SHSAT is one of the hardest exams in the world because of:
- Competition. Around 30,000 NYC students take the test every year, and there is only a 16-18% acceptance rate.
- Pressure. The test is given once, and there is no opportunity to retake it. That’s a lot of pressure, and if you have a cold or a headache, you’re out of luck!
- Difficulty. Most students have to learn quite a bit of math that has not been covered in school when they take this test in the 8th grade. It takes a motivated student to go up to one year ahead of the in-school curriculum on their own or with a class or tutor.
- Stamina. The test is three hours long and doesn’t include a break. Students are not allowed to eat or drink (except for water) during the test.
- High stakes. The SHSAT is the only criterion for entry into one of the eight specialized schools in NYC. Grades, attendance, and other factors are not considered at all.
Education Technology Expert | Founder, My eLearning World
The California Bar Exam
With a pass rate of less than 50% (and typically hovering around 30%), the California Bar Exam is one of the toughest exams in the entire world. But if you want to practice law in California, it’s a must.
One of the reasons it’s so difficult is the minimum score required to pass is relatively high. However, in the last year, the cut score was raised, allowing a bit more people to pass.
Chief Marketing Officer, Crediful
(CFA) Chartered Financial Analyst
Probably the toughest exam in the world of finance is the CFA. The exam is split into three sections and covers all aspects of the practices and tools used in the industry.
Each section consists of 240 questions and takes about six hours to complete. The average candidate takes four attempts to pass the three levels.
After passing each level, candidates then have to complete 48 months of professional experience. The Charter is not awarded, however, until the candidate has completed a further four years of professional or work experience.
Sales and Marketing Manager, Heatxperts
Master Sommelier Diploma Exam
The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) administers this exam. It determines individuals’ knowledge of beverages and wine in the hospitality industry. This test seeks to improve the standards of service provided in hotels and restaurants.
An applicant’s theory, service, and blind tasting are put to the test. All these components determine if they are capable of working at a top-notch hotel or not.
The reason why the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam is considered one of the toughest tests in the world is that it only has a success rate of ten percent.
This is because a minimum score of 75 percent in all three sections is required to pass the exam, which isn’t easy to get by any means.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which country has the hardest education system?
The difficulty of an education system is subjective and often depends on an individual’s perspective and experience. Several countries have a reputation for maintaining rigorous education systems that push students to excel academically.
Finland is often hailed as a model for innovative and comprehensive education. It emphasizes critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which some may perceive as challenging. Additionally, South Korea’s education system is known for its high-stakes standardized tests and competitive college entrance exams, leading to substantial pressure on students.
Furthermore, in Japan, the educational approach prioritizes long hours of studying, strong work ethic, and strict discipline, sometimes making it difficult for students to balance work and personal life. The Chinese education system, on the other hand, has a reputation for strict rules and rote learning, focusing heavily on memorization and preparation for college entrance exams.
While these countries are known for their challenging education systems, it’s crucial to note that the difficulty varies depending on individual students, teachers, and socio-cultural factors.
Which is the toughest subject in the world?
Identifying the toughest subject in the world is a subjective matter, as it depends on an individual’s aptitude, interests, and personal experiences.
Nonetheless, some subjects are frequently considered to be especially challenging, including advanced mathematics, theoretical physics, and philosophy.
Advanced Mathematics: Often regarded as one of the toughest subjects due to its abstract nature and the requirement for rigorous logical reasoning. It demands a high level of intellectual capacity and the ability to understand complex concepts, such as higher-dimensional spaces, abstract algebra, and advanced calculus.
The difficulty in visualizing these ideas and solving intricate problems can make advanced mathematics quite challenging.
Theoretical Physics: This subject involves the study of the fundamental principles governing the universe. It requires a deep understanding of mathematics, as well as the ability to think abstractly and visualize complex concepts.
Theoretical physicists grapple with problems like understanding the nature of space-time, quantum mechanics, and the behavior of elementary particles. The sheer complexity of these topics and the requirement for innovative thinking contribute to the difficulty of theoretical physics.
Philosophy: Known for its emphasis on critical thinking, logical analysis, and abstract reasoning, philosophy is a challenging subject. It entails the study of fundamental questions related to existence, knowledge, and ethics.
Philosophers often engage in abstract debates and construct intricate arguments to defend their positions. The difficulty in philosophy arises from the need to develop a clear understanding of complex ideas and to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of competing theories.
Ultimately, the perceived difficulty of a subject is influenced by an individual’s personal strengths, learning style, and prior exposure to the topic.
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