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September 2018


The world’s hardest exams

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist delves into the world of tough tests and pub quizzes  



Eight thousand candidates sat an accounting exam in India recently – and all of them failed. The passing rate for the 8,000 applicant-test for 80 government accountant jobs in Goa was precisely zero, the Times of India reported on 22 August.

This columnist loves stories like that – not because I am a twisted evil person who delights in the suffering of others – or not only because of that – but because there’s always a story behind the story.

Did the teachers fail to teach? Did the students fail to study? Did the exam-setters accidentally drop the entire box of exam papers off the side of a ferryboat while trying to juggle an extra-long masala dosa? (My money’s on the third option).

India, unlike Hong Kong, proudly claims its accounting exams are almost impossibly hard – as if that’s a good thing. (Our recruitment and training process totally failed again! Hooray! Break out the mango lassi!)

A comprehensive analysis (quick Google search) of super-hard exams around the world shows that many of the ghastliest tests are in the financial sector.

It seems that members of the professional classes (legal term “Suits”) love tough challenges – but only in left brain (logical, number- based) ways, as I found out to my cost.

This columnist was invited to be master of ceremonies at a charity quiz night for Suits at Exchange Square in Central. The applicants were ultra-competitive so the atmosphere became heavy and deadly serious.

To lighten the mood, we added an extra round – each team was asked to entertain the rest of the crowd by performing a song from a musical. This brought joy and laughter back to the evening – but triggered complaints from the most competitive teams. They could handle hard facts and numbers as well as any supercomputer, but to do something goofy/funny/human in public – well, they were as shocked as if we’d asked them to assassinate a Taliban terrorist leader between rounds (we’re saving that challenge for next year).


“When choosing a course, don’t look for how easy or difficult the exams are. Look for a professor who has low-self esteem.”

An accountant on one of the teams said that for logical, left-brain thinkers, the hardest test in the world would be the All Souls College Fellowship Examination in Oxford, United Kingdom. You can’t revise for it, because it features poetic questions such as “How can words be beautiful?” and “Is meaning best understood via the concept of truth?” One year, applicants had to write for three hours on a one-word “question.” The paper just said: “Miracles.” Pretty much everyone fails this exam. One failure was T.S. Eliot who went off to be an immortal literary genius instead, and another was Harold Wilson who consoled himself with an easier job – being prime minister.

Incidentally, this columnist once worked with a professor in Hong Kong who gave all his university students A grades, however well or badly they performed. I was puzzled about why he did this until I realized that he had a desperate need to be loved. I saw a book on his desk called Why Don’t People Like Me? (true story, not a joke). This is news you can use. When choosing a course, don’t look for how easy or difficult the exams are. Look for a professor who has low-self esteem.

Meanwhile, a colleague, seeing what I am writing, forwards a link to an article about a final exam in chartered accounting in India which is reputed to be “one of the toughest exams in the world” with a failure rate ranging from 84 percent to 92 percent.

The problem with a 92 percent failure rate is that you have to actually mark all the papers. But if you have a 100 percent failure rate, as in the example that started this column, you don’t have to mark any of them.

Which is vitally important, because it takes time to eat a yummy extra-long masala dosa. Bother! Now I’ve made myself hungry!

(Stops writing, goes foraging for food). 


Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices