If you have been a science student during your high school in India, it is impossible that you don’t have a story of an IIT-JEE (entrance exam for the IITs) success which would even today form stuff of legends.
I, for one, had a close friend (still is), who had suddenly become serious about studies at the end of 9th grade. We would spend most time of the day together, so I was privy to how much effort he put in for his exam. It was just 21 days prior to our exam that he started his preparation. I still remember how during the Mathematics exam, he was still on the objective part (Multiple Choice and Subjective questions formed 50-50 percent weight), when I was about to leave with just 10 minutes left for its close. Also, in the Physics exam, he did not remember the formula for heat transfer between multiple layers in thermodynamics. So, he first derived the formula and then solved the problem! He got an overall rank in mid 300s and ended up with a Mechanical Engineering seat in IIT-Delhi.
Just for context for the non-Indians, MIT (and other Ivy Schools in US) is a safety school for those who fail to get into IIT via the JEE (Joint Entrance Examination). So, interesting and bad for the ego for Ivy Schools in the US, one example of the prestige of the IITs is illustrated by this tweet.
Here is a complete 60 minutes program on what an IIT-JEE exam is and how tough it is.
For such a tough entrance examination, success is less and difficult to come by. So that is why some who succeed in the most unusual ways become part of legends. Like my friend in our group.
This one story of a village kid, who didn’t even know what IIT meant when he was in his 12th grade and went onto the crack the JEE and is now an engineer – will probably rank in my view as the most amazing.
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My name is Rajiv Dandotiya – Dandu Bhai for friends. I am writing this article today from Copenhagen, Denmark where I work as an Assistant General Manager in a drilling company – Maersk. This is the story of how I went from studying in a Govt. school in Rajasthan, sitting under a tree – to earning a PhD from a European University. This is a story about the IIT-JEE – how it taught me the meaning of Learning and thereby made me who I am today. And it is a story of my Board Exams. But most importantly – it is the story of how I achieved my dreams by never giving up.
I did my schooling from Govt. schools in Samod and Dholpur in the state of Rajasthan. My schools were barely one – the teachers would hardly ever come. Many students would take tuitions and just memorize lessons and somehow pass the exam. I was never able to bring myself to do this. We never knew about engineering colleges – or what it meant to really learn something. After the close of every school year – we would sell our books and buy some cricket balls with the proceeds. That was what the value of learning was for us. Most schools in the area were just like mine.
It is no surprise thus that I got poor marks in my school leaving Board exams – 39% – even though even at this level I was 5th in a class of 60! I was given grace marks in Chemistry. I still remember when I went to seek the blessings of my teachers after the Board Exams – and someone said “pair to aise choo rahe hain jaise merit main number laye hon”(translation – “it’s not like you passed with flying colors!”). One of the most disheartening things about my Board exams was how students paying for private tuitions were favored in Practical Exams. I got half as many marks as some of my friends – for no reason other than this.
My school education left me disinterested in further education. We were also financially distressed. After passing out of 12th in ’95 – I started helping out my father in his factory. Times were tough. It is very hard to run a small business in India and after a couple of years – the business closed down. Left with no other option – I started exploring whether I could get admission to any BSc. course – but quickly found out that my Board exam numbers made me ineligible for all of them. When I approached coaching classes to train myself for PET Rajasthan – they also turned me down for the same reason. Desperate – I asked our bookseller if there was any exam where my board exam results would not make me ineligible. He suggested applying for the IIT-JEE. In what looks very funny in retrospect – I asked him to give me the set of books for this exam (just like we used to get one for every class in school). He gave me three books – M.L Khanna, Gupta & Gupta and O.P Agarwal. Thus began my journey to IIT.
In my school – I had never really learnt English. This meant that I had to first learn English to read these books – so I bought a Dictionary as well. While the JEE is available in languages like Hindi – it is very difficult to train for JEE using Hindi alone. And yet – most students coming from my background do not get English education. In spite of these problems – I really started enjoying my studies. I realized for the first time what it meant to understand concepts and solve problems using first principles (and not by memorizing). I felt glad that I had not memorized everything up during my school days. My mind was unpolluted – like a fresh slate. Some problems would take a day to solve – but I liked that better than looking up the solution. I also got access to some old coaching material from Brilliant’s and that was also a turning point for me.
In the year 2000 – I cleared the JEE screening. Some people had made fun of me earlier – how can a person who barely cleared the Board exam even think about going to IIT (in my native tongue: “PET main pass hone ki aukat nahin hai, chale hain IIT main pass hone”)? But my parents and elder brothers always stood behind me. I was able to clear the JEE screening this year and this made me realize that I was on the right track. During this time my elder brother was taken severely ill and my mother had to be at his bedside to take care of him. His sickness made our financial condition even worse – but I kept preparing for the JEE while simultaneously helping my father in his business and doing all the household work and cooking. It turned out that the cooking skills I acquired then would help me during my education in Europe much later in life.
In 2001 – I reappeared for the JEE. Unfortunately – because of a mistake in reading one of the questions – I lost a lot of marks and could only manage a rank of 3453 and could not get a seat in IIT. But by now I knew I could clear the JEE with much better rank. My brother called me from the hospital and encouraged me to re-apply. I had also become an expert in the JEE – and I knew that if nothing else – I would be able to give Engineering coaching classes to other students. I was also approached by a coaching institute in this regard. Even though I had not gotten a seat in IIT so far – the JEE had made me a far better student with good career prospects.
In 2002 I took the JEE for the last time – and this time I got a rank of 1758. I still remember the counselling in IIT Bombay that year. I was desperately trying to hide my Board Exam results – hoping to not get rejected because of them. However my counsellor looked at them – and was not sure whether I could be admitted to IIT. After consulting his colleagues – he let me be admitted – and I got admission to 5 year Dual Degree program in Industrial Engineering & Management at IIT-Kharagpur.
The people who used to taunt me were all praise now. I had also left far behind so many talented friends from my school days – most of whom were now running small shops. By grace of God – my brother also got better. But I soon realized that the obstacles posed by my Board exam numbers were not all over. During my Third Year in IIT – I saw the job postings from well known companies in India. And they had a minimum cutoff of 60% in Boards. I realized that I would never be able to get these jobs. I also decided I want to be a real engineer – and not just do some boring IT job. Hence motivated and encouraged by my IIT batchmates Chintan and Anish – I applied and got internships at IIT Bombay and at RDSO (Indian Railways), Lucknow. My project on the latter became the basis of my BTech & MTech project – and I was awarded the best project for the same by IIT Kharagpur.
While I had not expected to get any jobs graduating from IIT because of my Board results – I was surprised to get an offer from a company Force Motors at Pune. I was selected from 600 candidates and I had a special interview loop and offer from them where they directly admitted me into the management cadre. However I felt like I could achieve even more with my life and decided to get a PhD from Lulea University in Sweden – one of the four Universities across US and Europe that offered me a scholarship. Over here I finished my PhD in only 3.5 years. We came up with a solution to a tricky problem in maintenance decision making – and this solution has helped achieve significant cost savings in the Mining industry in Sweden. We were given an award for the same by the Swedish Centre of Maintenance Management – and I have been elated by being able to use my engineering knowledge to solve problems in the real world.
Looking back – the critical thinking developed while training for the JEE gave me the versatility to work in domains as different as Railways, Aircrafts and Oil & Gas. I have also been impressed by the focus on applying engineering to practical problems during my PhD program in Europe – something that we did not see as much in IIT (leave alone school).
Even after all these years – my fondness for the JEE has remained. I have looked up the current JEE papers for fun. And I have been sad to see the changed pattern. Objective questions are much easier than subjective ones. After all – the correct answer is lying just before your eyes – just waiting to be guessed. And I have wondered – why has the JEE been made objective only?
In the last few weeks – there is a lot of discussion around IIT-JEE. What should be the format? Should Board Exams play a role? Do people who clear JEE really become good engineers or scientists? What happens to people who do not get through the JEE?
In my opinion – Board Exams are equally or more elitist (as compared to JEE). How many of our Board Exam toppers come from small villages like Samod? Getting admitted to DPS RK Puram (to ace the Board Exams) may be harder than getting admitted to Bansal Classes (to clear the JEE). While there are no easy answers to any of these questions – I believe that providing greater weightage to board exams will certainly not solve the problem of the JEE becoming an exam for the elites. It may actually make it worse. At least the old format allowed students like me to come up – will the new format do the same?
Every year I go back to my old school back in my village and meet students there. My message to them is always that you can do anything. You just need to have confidence in yourself and the perseverance to see your potential through. Just remember – what doesn’t kill us – makes us stronger.