Let me serve you a sandwich of Indian high-school and pre-engineering education …

Two days back, I was at a restaurant in Atlanta with three of my friends and somehow, we started reminiscing about our school and undergraduate days. All of us were from some ‘elite’ schools and colleges at different parts of the country but there was a melancholic resonance in all our upbringing. Lets take a step back and try to relive through those past moments.

It was the last day of high school and time for 10th state board exams. You were the ‘first’ boy/girl in class and people had huge expectations from you. You felt good. Why wouldn’t you, after all, you were the center of attraction. You were expected to slog for the next three months to be in top 10 in the state.

Next three months, you didn’t study even close to what you should have.  Because, there were few subjects in the entire curriculum which actually interested you. You truly felt happy when you solved a difficult problem in mathematics or science but somehow, you could not concentrate in other subjects. You were asked to be systematic and methodical in the exams. Instead, you liked solving challenging problems but you were haphazard. You were asked to improve your handwriting but it was too late. It was time for the exams. You felt confident for some of the exams and for others, you studied frantically to cram in everything few days before the exam.

Three months later, it was time for results. There was rumour all around that you got 4th place in the state. Everyone congratulated you beforehand. You went to the result’s office. You did great but you were not in top 10. Deep inside your heart, you agreed with the results. It rewarded discipline and hard work, which it should. But, instead of enjoying your results, you felt like you let everybody down. Your parents were very welcoming nevertheless and they tried to cheer you up but you could see and feel that others were disappointed. Your first taste of failure, not because you did bad but because the expectations were unmatched.

Things became normal again for the next two years. You were in HS. You were in science stream because you love science. Though for many students, they chose science because it has good job prospects. It was time for 12th (HS) state board exams. You did great in 11th. And, expectations were back. People expected you to be in top 10 again. And, you failed them again. Your neighbors and others were of course disappointed. However, this time what mattered more was the engineering entrance exam. Your teachers, other fellow students only waited for results for entrance exams for IITs and NITs. HS didn’t matter. In fact, you were not supposed to study for HS. You were only supposed to study for these entrance exams. So, you took admission in an HS School where attendance didn’t matter and you could ‘pass’ irrespective of what you did in the two years of HS. Your were told that your only focus should be entrance exam. And, when the results of the entrance exams came out, you saw a weird discrepancy.  Students who excelled in the 10th and 12th board exams were not in top positions for entrance exams and vice versa.

But, wait a second! Why did you choose engineering? Well, for most of the students, you hardly knew what engineering entailed but you chose it nonetheless because almost everybody from science, if they have an opportunity, either chooses engineering or medical fields in India. It was a safe choice after all, because you would get lucrative jobs after you graduate even if a big chunk of the jobs wouldn’t be related to what you initially studied. So, you slogged for something that you were not even sure what exactly it meant. But, you enjoyed the Physics, Math, and Chemistry problems. So, you didn’t complain.

Is this expected ? Is this a success of our education system or is this a failure? Many of my friends faced continuous pressure that a neighbor’s son cracked IIT and therefore, they had to crack it too. They had to get in the top coaching centers which were expensive (and required affluent parents), and in turn required extensive preparation. Where to start? and Where does it end? You are expected to give up on life for these two years or maybe more. And by the time you get in, most of the students need counselling. Recently, the director of a top engineering institution visited my university to attract students to come back to India as faculty. He mentioned that students who get in, are in bad shape most of the time, and they need counselling, and they have a class in their curriculum just to take care of these students. I sometimes wonder, is all this rat race to get in these institutions worth it ?

Well, maybe… Because it does open a lot of doors and options for you. Of course, you can excel anywhere and you do not need to be tied to an institution for it. But, a top institution helps. Somehow, branding has become the norm of society. And, you can’t blame. How is a recruiter / admissions committee member supposed to know how good you are at what you do? How are they going to judge the things that you have spent time on for years, in a matter of minutes or hours? The issue is not the institutional dependence but rather the social dynamics associated with it. The issue is the process.

How can the process be revised? Well, for one thing, couldn’t the state board and entrance exams be revised to have more things in common? And, the irony is other than the fundamentals, we hardly use anything that we spent so much time studying so hard, once we enter the institutions we want to. In many other countries, to enter into top institutions, your application process consists of your performance throughout the school, community service, and your profile in general. There is a clear connection which is missing in Indian education system. Yes, we definitely learned a lot during the process but if it had been included in our school curriculum (rather than in coaching center’s curriculum), we would not have to divide our priorities and it wouldn’t feel like the schooling was not as useful as we would like. Because, it can be and it is sad that we think otherwise.

Another matter is the appropriateness of the testing methodology. It is not clear to me as to what the entrance examiners / recruiters are looking for in a potential candidate to justify the format and structure of the exams. If it is just problem solving skills and analytical skills, then this is definitely not clear. The tendency to judge a person’s capability in different spheres of Indian academic system only through tests in narrow fields is overlooking the holistic review process that a student should go through. And, this is becoming an issue not just in India but in other countries as well, which is evident from this interesting video on Standardized Testing.

What are the societal dynamics? The continuous burden of expectations to get in somewhere, the preconceived notion that your career is over if you cannot make it to those top institutions, the relentless comparisons with other students in your batch and in your locality, the surprise with which they greet you when they find out that you have a job even though you did not go to a top institution, the ignorance of the fact that you missed your chance by 1 mark but what matters is that you did not get in / did not get the top 10 position. I wonder, is there only one path to success? Yes, 1 mark is a significant difference in such a level of competition but it is definitely not a difference when it comes to the capability of a person. Yes, a matured person should be able to withstand all this because it provides perspective. But, for a child or a young student, it is too much of a pressure to handle. As a society, we should be more considerate and keep our minds open. That is why, I appreciate this particular aspect of the society in some other countries where they are more open as to how a student can succeed in life. Your results and academic achievements are private. This is not a metric by which you are judged socially. You are not supposed to ask how you did in an exam. The irony is, now after passing all those stages, if I look at my peers, I see people with more varied interests achieving wonderful things and from whom I learn a lot everyday. But, a majority of the students who slogged relentlessly and groomed themselves to be interested in a very narrow area, are lost somewhere in the middle. One could argue, maybe the system does work and it naturally sifts through the group. But, I think otherwise. Yes, kudos to those who have survived this mad race. But, there were many talented individuals who got ‘lost’ because of this format and unrealistic expectations about the ‘right’ path and metrics of success. Maybe, it is time to reflect and take a step back to think one more time..


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