2 million+ students
helped annually

Subscribe Today

For exclusive college and grad school planning content.

Subscribe Today

For more exclusive college and grad school planning content.

100+ guides
available for free

7+ years
worth of content

2 million+ students
helped until now

ResourcesTop 10 Toughest Education Systems in the World

Top 10 Toughest Education Systems in the World

Education systems worldwide differ, with some being more demanding than others. Several factors shape a country’s education system, such as its culture, government rules, and economic situation. In certain places, students spend extra time in school or face more challenging academic standards.

MastersDegree.net has listed some of the world’s toughest education systems, taking into account factors like the education system’s structure, the country’s most challenging exam, tertiary education attainment, the most popular degree, the prevalence of stress among students, the acceptance rate of the best college in that country, and average national IQ scores.

Here are some of the toughest education systems in the world:

Country Education System Structure Country’s Toughest Exam People with tertiary education
(appx. 25-64 years old)
Most Popular Degree Prevalence Of Student Stress National IQ Scores Country’s Top College Acceptance Rate
South Korea 6-3-3-4 Suneung 52% Art & Science 35.6% 106 15%
Finland 9-3-3 Ylioppilastutkinto 39%-40% IT, International Business & Logistics 40% female 28% male 101.2 17%
Singapore 6-6-(3)-3 GCE A-Level 91% Engineering, Business, Health Sciences 63% 105.9 16%
China 6-3-3-4 Gaokao 59.6% Clinical Medicine International Economics & Trade Computer Science & Technology 67.50% 104.10 1%-15%
Japan 6-3-3-4 National Center Test (Center Shiken) 61.5% Economics & Business, Science & Technology 84.0% male 95.1% female 106.5 5-30%
Hong Kong 6-3-3-4 HKDSE (Hong Kong Diploma of Education) 104% Architecture, Commerce & Business, Engineering, Health Care. 48.6% 107 37%
Taiwan 6-3-3-4 General Scholastic Ability Test (GSAT) 45% Engineering & Technology, Social Sciences 45.6% 106.5 50%
South Africa 4+3+3+3 National Senior Certificate (NSC) 25% Business, Economics, Health 58.2% female 41.8% male 69 50%
United States K-12-4 The GRE (Graduate Record Examination) 44% Business, Health, Social Sciences 67% 98 4%
Russia 4-4-2-4 EGE (Unified National Graduation Exam) 54% Business, Finance, Engineering, Area Studies 55.4% 96 12%

South Korea

Education System: The school system in South Korea follows a simple structure with four main stages: 6 years in elementary school, 3 years in middle school, 3 years in high school, and then either 4 years at a university or 2 to 3 years at a junior college. The school year typically starts in March and then has a second semester beginning in late August.

Hardest Exam: In South Korea, there’s a tough college entrance test called Suneung. It lasts eight hours and covers various subjects. Considered one of the world’s hardest exams, it’s a big deal because it decides which university you can go to, what job you might get, and can even impact your future relationships.

After school, Korean students attend tutoring classes and exam centres until 10 PM or 11 PM. When they get home, they continue studying on their own until 1 or 2 am. On average, high school students in Korea study for about 16 hours a day to get ready for the Suneung exam.

Stress Level Among Students: A survey in South Korea from 2022 found that approximately 35.6% of students experienced stress in their school life in the span of two weeks. Interestingly, college students and those beyond college reported higher stress levels compared to elementary, middle, and high school students. The average IQ in South Korea is 106.

Most Popular Degrees: In South Korea, most people prefer studying arts and sciences, and business courses are also quite popular. In 2021, about 52 percent of adults between 25 and 64 years old finished higher education, which is more than the previous year. The number of adults completing higher education in South Korea has gone up by 33.6 percentage points since 1995.

Every year, Seoul National University welcomes more than 27,000 students to its undergraduate and postgraduate programs. However, the number of international exchange students is relatively small, usually in the 200s. In terms of admissions, the acceptance rate at SNU is 15%.


Education System: The Finnish education system follows a 9-3-3 structure. It begins with a 9-year compulsory school education, followed by a 3-year upper secondary education phase and a 3-year higher education phase.

Hardest Exam: The Finnish Matriculation Examination is a nationwide test usually taken at the end of high school in Finland. Its main goal is to see how well students have learned the required knowledge and skills during their high school years and if they’ve matured in line with the goals of their education.

If students pass this exam, they can go on to study at universities and other higher education institutions. Around 30,000 candidates pass the examination annually, of which 25,000 pass it in the spring.

Stress Level Among Students: As per the most recent survey on the health and well-being of Finnish students, university students in Finland experience more mental health issues compared to other adults in the country. Specifically, 40% of female students and 28% of male students reported feeling anxious or depressed.

Most Popular Degrees: The most sought-after fields of study in Finland are IT (Information Technology) and International Business Logistics. The percentage of adults in Finland with tertiary education has stayed steady, increasing from 39% to 40%.

Finland’s leading university, the University of Helsinki, has an admission rate of 17%. The average IQ in Finland is 101.2.


Education System: Education begins with 6 years of primary school, followed by 4 to 6 years of secondary school, and then 1 to 3 years of postsecondary education.

Hardest Exam: The Singapore-Cambridge GCE A-Level exam is a really tough test to face in Singapore. It’s not an exaggeration – you’re up against some of the top students in Singapore, and the questions are very challenging.

A total of 10,930 candidates participated in the 2022 GCE A-Level examination. Impressively, 93.4% of these candidates, amounting to 10,206 students, achieved success by securing at least 3 H2 passes, including a pass in either General Paper (GP) or Knowledge and Inquiry (KI). This level of performance aligns with the historical trends observed in previous years’ GCE A-Level Examinations.

Stress Level Among Students: In a recent survey about mental health and well-being in Singapore, conducted in May 2022 by Rakuten Insight, 63% of young respondents aged 16 to 24 said they felt more stressed or anxious in the past year.

Most Popular Degrees: The most popular degrees in Singapore are in Engineering, Business, and Health Sciences. In 2021, 97.1% of eligible students in Singapore were enrolled in tertiary education. Singapore also boasts an average IQ score of 105.9.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) welcomes students from various backgrounds and countries. The university has a competitive admission rate, with only 16% of applicants being accepted.


Education System: 6 years of elementary school, beginning at age six and ending at age twelve. After that, students attend 3 years of middle school and then 3 years of high school.

Hardest Exam: The Gaokao, which stands for the Nationwide Unified Examination for Admissions to General Universities and Colleges, is China’s national college entrance exam. It takes place annually in early June and is a crucial test for students seeking admission to undergraduate programs.

Beginning on June 7, the Gaokao exam period spans from two to four days, varying by province. In 2023, a record-breaking 12.91 million students participated in the Gaokao, which was 980,000 more than the previous year, marking the highest number of participants in its history.

Stress Level Among Students: Research shows that college students in China experienced elevated stress levels before and after returning to school. In fact, approximately 67.50% of students had moderate to high stress levels, which is in contrast to an earlier study that reported only 28.79% of students experiencing stress.

Most Popular Degrees: Popular degrees in China include Clinical Medicine, International Economics and Trade, and Computer Science and Technology. In 2022, about 59.6% of the eligible age group in China were enrolled in tertiary education, with a total of 46.55 million degree students. China has an average IQ of 104.10.

When it comes to China’s best university, Peking University, it’s extremely competitive for domestic students, with an acceptance rate of only 1%. However, it’s more accessible for international students, with a 15% acceptance rate.


Education System: Students start with 6 years of elementary school and then move on to 3 years of lower secondary school. This adds up to 9 years of mandatory education. After that comes upper secondary school, which lasts for 3 more years.

Hardest Exam: Japanese students applying to universities take an important test called the National Center Test for University Admissions. It happens over two days in January, and over half a million students take it. There are 29 different tests in six subjects, and which ones a student takes depends on the university they want to go to.

Stress Level Among Students: Around 84.0% of male students and 95.1% of female students experience stress in Japan.

Most Popular Degrees: The most popular degrees are in Economics and Business, as well as Science and Technology. Around 61.5% of people have tertiary education. The average IQ in Japan is 106.5.

Typically, acceptance rates for undergraduate programs at these institutions are very low, often ranging from 5% to 30% or even lower for highly competitive programs.

Hong Kong

Education System: Students start with 6 years of primary education, followed by 3 years of junior secondary education. Afterward, there are 3 years of senior secondary education, and finally, 4 years of tertiary education.

Hardest Exam: The HKDSE (Hong Kong Diploma of Education) is the main exam for students in Form 6 in mainstream schools. This exam is known for its difficulty, especially the Chinese and English Paper 3 sections.

It’s a good choice for students who prefer traditional learning methods, memorization, and plan to attend a Hong Kong university, although some international universities also accept this diploma for admission. The Chinese language level in the exam is quite high, using traditional characters.

Stress Level Among Students: In Hong Kong, the stress level among students is reported to be around 48.6%.

Most Popular Degrees: Popular degree choices include Architecture, Commerce and Business, Engineering, and Health Care. The tertiary school enrollment rate was 104% in 2022, indicating high participation in higher education. The average IQ in Hong Kong is 107.

As for the University of Hong Kong, it has an estimated acceptance rate of about 37% during the 2019/2020 admission cycle.


Education System: 6 years of elementary education, followed by 3 years of junior high school, then 3 years of senior high school, and 4 years of tertiary education.

Hardest Exam: The GSAT is an important test that assesses high school students’ fundamental knowledge to determine their readiness for college. It covers subjects like Chinese, English, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Science, with a maximum score of 75.

The test includes various question formats, such as multiple-choice, response writing, and essay writing, depending on the subject. Students planning to join certain programs or apply personally need a GSAT score. The exam is typically held in January each year.

Stress Level Among Students: School-related issues and academic tests are the top stressors, with 56.7% of respondents affected by school factors and 45.6% by academic tests.

Most Popular Degrees: Popular degrees include engineering and technology, as well as social sciences.

In Taiwan, 45% of the population has tertiary education. The average IQ is 106.5.

The University of Taipei has a 50% admission rate, one of the leading universities in Taiwan.

South Africa

Education System: Students go through 4 years of primary education, followed by 3 years of lower secondary education, then 3 years of upper secondary education, and 3 years of tertiary education.

Hardest Exam: The National Senior Certificate (NSC) exams, often called “matric,” are a significant yearly event in South Africa. They mark the end of twelve years of formal education and serve as a gauge of the education system’s overall health. The first national exam under the new democratic government took place in November 1996, using a highly decentralized approach.

Stress Level Among Students: Among students, 58.2% of females and 41.8% of males experienced mental distress.

Most Popular Degrees: Some of the popular degrees in South Africa include Business, Economics, and Health. The average IQ is 69.

In South Africa, the gross tertiary enrollment ratio remained steady at approximately 25.24 percent in 2021. However, 2021 marked a peak in the gross tertiary enrollment ratio for South Africa at 25.24 percent.

One of the best universities in South Africa, The University of Cape Town, has an acceptance rate of approximately 50%.

United States

Education System:  The United States follows a K-12-4 education system, which consists of 13 years of formal education. This includes kindergarten as the starting point, followed by 12 years of primary and secondary education, and an optional 4 years of higher education for those pursuing university degrees.

Hardest Exam: The GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, is a standardized test commonly used for admissions into graduate programs (master’s and doctoral degrees) in various fields, particularly in the United States and some other countries. It is designed to assess your readiness for advanced-level academic work and your potential for success in graduate-level studies.

Stress Level Among Students: In the United States, 67% of American students experience stress during their academic journey.

Most Popular Degrees: The most popular degree programs pursued by students include Business, Health, and Social Sciences. Around 44% of Americans aged 25 and older have attended college and successfully completed their degree programs, with the majority holding bachelor’s degrees. The average IQ in the United States is 98.

When it comes to prestigious universities, Harvard University stands out as one of the best in America. Gaining admission to Harvard is highly competitive, with an admission rate as low as 4%.


Education System: Students undergo 4 years of primary education, followed by 4 years of basic secondary education. Afterward, there are 2 years of full secondary education and 4 years of higher education at the university level.

Hardest Exam: The Unified State Exam (abbreviated as ЕГЭ or EGE in Russian) is a set of exams in Russia that every high school graduate must take in order to qualify for admission to a university or a professional college. These exams are a mandatory requirement for further education in Russia.

Stress Level Among Students: The stress level among students is 55.4%.

Most Popular Degrees: Some of the popular degree fields include Business, Finance, Engineering, and Area Studies. Approximately 54% of the population has completed tertiary education, and the average IQ is 96.

For admission to leading universities like Moscow State University, the acceptance rate is quite competitive, standing at just 12%.

Methodology for Evaluating the World’s Top 10 Toughest Education Systems

In assessing the world’s top 10 toughest education systems, our methodology includes seven key metrics:

  • Education System Structure: Assessing curriculum rigor and educational standards.
  • Toughest National Exam: Identifying each country’s most challenging exam, focusing on difficulty and significance.
  • Tertiary Education Prevalence (25-64 years): Measuring the percentage of the population with higher education.
  • Most Popular Degree: Determining the most pursued degree or field of study.
  • Student Stress Prevalence: Evaluating academic pressure and mental health status among students.
  • National IQ Scores: Including average IQ as a supplementary measure of cognitive ability.
  • Top College Acceptance Rate: Analyzing the selectivity of the country’s leading higher education institution.

Disclaimer: This article does not intend to rank but simply list some of the world’s most challenging education systems. The list is a compilation of various education systems globally that are recognized for their rigorous and demanding nature. The information provided should be used as a general guide and not as a conclusive ranking of the world’s toughest education systems.

Featured Guides You Should Read

How to Choose an MBA Program: 9 Things to Consider

Choosing the right MBA program starts with knowing your goals well, especially your career objectives. Take time to think about where you see yourself professionally...

Best MBA in Cybersecurity Programs (2024)

If you're considering advancing your career in cybersecurity, an MBA might be just what you need. Unlike a master's degree, an MBA equips you...

Best US States for International Students (2024)

Studying in the United States is an experience like no other, which is why the country attracts students from all corners of the globe....

Best MBA in Finance Programs (2024)

Pursuing an MBA in Finance goes beyond mere number crunching; it's about learning to decipher the pulse of global markets, anticipating trends, and shaping...