The 14 Hardest Tests in the World

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No matter what your degree or line of work, you’ll be faced with some challenging tests over the course of your education and career. If you want to pursue a high-stakes career like law, medicine, engineering, and others, you’ll probably need to sit for especially rigorous exams meant to assess your mastery of the competencies and knowledge you’ll need in the profession.

 

Countries around the world want to separate the cream of the crop from the rest of the pack, and they’ve devised different measures of gauging abilities in different fields. Curious about what you might face to make it in your chosen profession? Here are 15 of the hardest tests in the world.

 

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How We Made This List of the Hardest Tests in the World

 

To create this list, we considered the difficulty of the content, the length of the test, and how high the stakes are. Keep in mind, however, that how “easy” or “hard” you find the exam depends on factors like your personal strengths and your preparation.

 

14 Hardest Tests in the World 

 

1. MCAT

 

Before being admitted to medical school in the U.S., Canada, Australia, or the Caribbean Islands, you’ll need to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Used for over 90 years, tens of thousands of would-be physicians sit for the exam each year. The test is multiple-choice and assesses your knowledge and comprehension of subjects like biology, physics, chemistry, and social science, plus skills like problem-solving and critical thinking. The grueling exam lasts for approximately 7.5 hours, and some students even make studying for the exam a full-time task. Even worse, the test will run you $315 a sitting, not to mention the expensive study materials.

 

2. UPSC

 

India’s Union Public Service Commission (USPC) offers the Civil Services Examination for a range of government jobs in bureaus like the Indian Foreign Service and Administrative Service. There are three levels involved, with the entire exam lasting a few months. With a pass rate of well under 1%, it’s considered one of the most difficult exams in the world, meant to distinguish the most talented individuals.

 

3. Gaokao

 

Considered by many to be China’s most difficult exam, this college admissions test takes nine hours over the course of two days to complete. Any student hoping to attend an institution of higher learning in the country must sit for it, and less than .25% of students receive a score required for admission to China’s most prestigious schools. Some universities in other countries, such as the US, accept Gaokao scores, too.

 

4. CFA

 

Given by the CFA Institute based in the US, the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Program is a post-graduate certification recognized in countries around the world. To prepare for each of the three stages of exams, candidates study for more than 300 hours on average, according to the Institute. The payoff is huge: passing the exam designates you as one of the top finance and investment professionals in the world.

 

5. LNAT

 

The United Kingdom’s Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT) hasn’t been around for as long as some of the other exams on this list — it was created in 2004 — but it’s quickly found its place as one the hardest tests to crack. Lasting nearly 2.5 hours, it includes a reading and an essay section. The top law schools in the UK use it to assess the skills and aptitude of applicants. You can see sample LNAT questions and try them for yourself.

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6. Putnam Exam

 

The Putnam Exam is a math competition for college students, consisting of two 3-hour sittings on the same day. During each session, students work on just 6 complex math problems demanding creative solutions. The problems don’t require any knowledge past Algebra 2, but are difficult for even the most accomplished math majors (you can see sample Putnam exams from previous years here). Cash prizes are at stake for top individual scorers nationally, and for the math departments with the highest scorers. Some math departments also award prizes within their students only.

 

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7. All Souls Prize Fellowship Exam

 

Annually, Oxford University’s All Souls College holds an exam to select two Prize Fellows, who study at the university for free for seven years. The competition is open to bachelor’s degree recipients from Oxford who graduated from the school within the past three years and current postgraduate students. The exam consists of four papers, each lasting three hours. Students must complete two papers from their specific discipline (mostly humanities and social science subjects), and two general topics. Prompts include questions such as “What is the connection between knowing something and being certain of it?”, “Is there a trade-off between economic growth and inequality?”, and “Can we be forced to be free?”. You can see more All Souls Prize Fellowship Exam topics and grapple with them yourself. 

 

8. Mensa

 

The esteemed Mensa is the oldest society for people with high IQs in the world. It operates all over the globe. For entrance, you can take the admission test or another qualifying intelligence test at any age. You must score in the 98th percentile on the Mensa Admission Test to be admitted into the nonprofit society in the United States, although different countries have their own procedures for entrance. The test questions are logic-based puzzles that can be quite challenging. You can see some examples of questions on the Mensa Workout page.

 

9. CCIE

 

Administered by Cisco Networks, the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert certification is awarded to network engineers. The exam consists of a written examination and a hands-on lab. The written component takes 120 minutes, and candidates must pass this test before attempting the 8-hour lab, which takes place in a single day. Not only is the exam extremely challenging, but it’s also expensive to sit for, at $450.

 

10. IES

 

The Indian Engineering Services/Engineering Services Examination is also held by the UPSC. The exam is meant to assess the competencies of governmental engineering recruits. It includes four stages, including a General Aptitude Test, an Objective Technical paper, a Conventional Technical paper, and an Interview. The test is highly competitive.

 

11. All Souls Prize Fellowship Exam

 

Annually, Oxford University’s All Souls College holds an exam to select two Prize Fellows, who study at the university for free for seven years. The competition is open to bachelor’s degree recipients from Oxford who graduated from the school within the past three years and current postgraduate students. 

 

The exam consists of four papers, each lasting three hours. Students must complete two papers from their specific discipline (mostly humanities and social science subjects), and two general topics. Prompts include questions such as “What is the connection between knowing something and being certain of it?”, “Is there a trade-off between economic growth and inequality?”, and “Can we be forced to be free?”. You can see more All Souls Prize Fellowship Exam topics and grapple with them yourself. 

 

12. USMLE

 

The journey towards becoming a doctor is full of difficult tests. By passing the United States Medical Licensing Examination, students are eligible to apply for a medical license in the United States. The USMLE is a three part exam that takes over 40 hours to complete. Students take Step 1 after their second or third year of medical school, Step 2 at the end of third year, and Step 3 at the end of their intern year. 

 

The exam assesses a doctor’s ability to apply knowledge and concepts that were taught in the classroom or clinic. Step 1 is generally considered the hardest, due to the sheer volume of knowledge-based content. Step 2 and Step 3 are more clinically-focused. Students often complete 1,000 flashcards daily from a bank of 20,000 cards to study for Step 1. Put your medical training to the test with these USMLE Step 1 sample test questions.

 

13. California Bar Exam

 

To work as a licensed attorney, one must pass their state’s Bar exam. The California Bar Exam is notorious for being the most difficult bar exam in the United States. In February 2020, the California Bar Exam had an overall pass rate of only 26.8% due to California’s high minimum passing score and large candidate pool. The bar exam is conducted twice a year (July and February) and occurs over a three-day span amounting to eighteen hours of total test time. See this sneak peek of February 2020’s grueling exam to test your skills.

 

14. GATE

 

The Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering is a comprehension exam for undergraduates who plan to seek admission into a master’s program or aim to pursue an engineering related career in India. The GATE score is incredibly important as it reflects a students’ understanding of undergraduate topics in both engineering and science. It is one of the most competitive examinations in India. The 3 hour computer-based test is composed of 65 multiple choice questions and numerical answer type questions. 

 

Why Aren’t the SAT and ACT on this list?

 

Fortunately for college-bound students, the SAT and ACT aren’t the toughest exams in the world — but that doesn’t mean they’re not challenging or important. Both tests are around 3 hours long and are used by many schools as an important factor in admissions.

 

In fact, many selective schools use the Academic Index to condense a student’s GPA, SAT/ ACT scores, and class rank into a single number to expedite the decision-making process. Students who don’t meet minimum academic thresholds often don’t have the rest of their application read. So, your SAT and ACT scores are super important to getting over that initial hurdle, though this has changed with COVID and test-optional policies (of course, a strong score can only help you).

 

To learn how your test scores impact your college chances, you can use our free admissions calculator. We’ll let you know your chances at over 500 colleges in the U.S., plus give you tips for improving your profile. This can help you build a strong school list and learn where to focus your admissions efforts.

 

 

Also be sure to check out our tips and advice for cracking these standardized tests. We have tons of free study resources for the SAT and ACT.


Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.

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