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Monday, February 25, 2008

Exams. ahoy!

Come end-February, and this country is gripped by examination fever. Several tens (or more likely hundreds) of millions of youngsters are going to sit for all kinds of examinations in the weeks to come – from annual examinations in school to board examinations, as well as all kinds of college-entrance examinations, from the IIT-JEE to dozens of similar but less 'exalted' kinds of tests that will decide where our young are going to study after school, and what. Once upon a time, for two decades, I was myself a part of this grind, now my daughter is (and will be for more than a decade yet), and having been a teacher all along, I have observed and learnt a few things about the whole process that I would like to share with my readers – many of whom, I suppose, are students or ex-students of mine who are going to be examination candidates themselves, or maybe their parents. So, before saying another word, here’s wishing the best of luck to all of them!
1. First, let me make it quite clear that I do understand how bad most candidates feel at this time. The mental pressure on them is tremendous, whether it is imposed by parents, relatives, neighbours, peers, teachers, or self-imposed (as it used to be with me – I cannot blame anybody except myself for all the horrors that I suffered: I had this compulsive urge to be first in class, as though that would compensate for all the other good things that childhood had not given me!). However…

2. Much of the anxiety-related suffering of both students and parents will vanish if they can accept a few things: a) in the case of those who are at least moderately intelligent and study all year round, the anxiety is needless; bad luck alone can spoil their results, and what is the point in worrying about which way the dice will fall? b) in the case of those who are stupid, careless as well as lazy (a very large proportion of the present-day student population is like that!), again, it’s pointless to worry, because luck alone can get them ‘good’ results (that does happen pretty often in India, actually – I have lost count of ex-students who were duds in school but have gone to the best engineering and business schools in the country, thanks to Lady Fortune and daddy’s money and quotas and contacts and cramshop tutors – things which have nothing to do with how good a student one is); c) much of the anxiety is not only needless but fake. Why do I say this? Because, considering primary school children first, it is ridiculous to suppose that the child’s test performance in class one will be a big determinant in shaping her career – her parents are merely spoiling her life pestering and nagging her night and day just because ‘everybody else is doing it’, just because a child’s marks, like the new car and mobile and flat-screen TV, has become an idiotic middle-class status symbol, just because most such parents are utterly frustrated with their own lives and have very little serious work to do, so they find obsessing over their children’s school performance both a necessity and an enjoyable luxury (and talking point: 98% of the parents I know have very little else to talk about). Taking a higher level of exam. candidate next, stop bothering about board examination results and just do the best you can (anxiety can actually lead you to underperform!), remembering, again, that this particular examination is not the end of the road, that board examinations are so hamhandedly conducted that your scores don’t really say much about you (lots of people who ‘shine’ in ICSE go on to get very mediocre marks in HS, and vice versa), that various kinds of competitive entrance examinations coming up next will be far more decisive in shaping your future, and, finally, lots of people who have never done well in either kind of examination have gone on to make brilliant careers for themselves!

3. Going on to those competitive entrance examinations next, today’s candidates should take heart from the fact that in many ways things have gotten far easier than in my time, broadly speaking. Take engineering – back in 1982, the year I wrote the West Bengal Joint Entrance Test, barely two thousand people, I think, got seats in engineering colleges; these days I hear that even those whose ranks are 70,000-plus find a berth in this college or the other. Apparently you cannot be so poor a student that you cannot become an engineer! Enjoy your life, I am telling my daughter, and if you score only around 50% marks in the science subjects in class ten, and you are still keen on engineering, you will get in somewhere, no fear – at most I will have to shell out a few lakhs at admission time: but much better that than wasting thousands of hours and lakhs of rupees on stupid tutors (most of them are both stupid and misguided!) all through your school life. Better concentrate on your music practice and drawing and karate lessons. Indeed, it is far harder to get into the English department of St. Stephen’s or Economics at Jadavpur, or into some place like the NLSIU or NID on your own merit than to get into engineering college. As for sour grapes in case you don’t make it to one of the IITs, no fear, again, because the lines are blurring rapidly – over the last ten years I have been seeing how so many old boys from the humblest of ‘general’ colleges and bottom-of-the-pile engineering colleges have been getting in along with so many IIT-wallahs into the same IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Infosys, TCS, Wipro, Cognizant, Satyam, Pentasoft… (funnily enough, many of these kids, even if they are ‘engineers’ after a fashion, don’t have a clue about computer science, having studied things like civil or chemical engineering, yet that doesn’t stop the IT firms from hiring them – am I missing something here? And what exactly do IT firms need to hire tens of thousands of ‘engineers’ every year for? I know for a fact that steel plants don’t hire even day labourers on that scale!) while a great many IIT-wallahs are chucking up the jobs which they got through on-campus placements within a year or two to cram again for the CAT so that they can become certified ‘managers’ – getting into IIT really cannot be that ‘cool’ (except perhaps in the marriage market) if the jobs it fetches are that yucky! … getting into medical school is still tougher by far, but that’s only because (for reasons I won’t discuss here) our government has not been able to let med. schools proliferate at the same pace as engineering colleges have. So good luck to all those who are aspiring to be doctors, but remember that it’s going to be a long, hard grind, and in your line perseverance, patience, good people-skills (and a thick skin!) are going to matter far more than brains and exam. scores in helping you to mint money a couple of decades down the line. But my daughter has told me categorically that she doesn’t want to be a doctor, for almost the same reasons that I chose not to, despite qualifying, so I shan’t give much space here to that particular aspiration any more.

4. What I am trying to tell my daughter – and all my students and ex-students alongwith who are right now suffering from exam. nerves – is that you ought to keep looking steadily at the big picture, the long-term picture. Just open your eyes and acknowledge reality, will you! Given innate talent, some sort of hard-won skill, ambition, diligence and a large dollop of luck, so many people are doing so well all around you, as teachers, lawyers, photographers, journalists, bankers, insurance agents, bureaucrats, sportspersons, actors, businessmen of one kind or the other, politicians, writers, musicians and what have you. At the same time, lacking one or more of those ‘essentials’ listed above, so many are languishing despite having followed the most ‘tried and tested’ career options. Oh, of course, any doctor or engineer can buy a house and a car, but these days so can any modestly successful shopkeeper or even a couple if both of them are bank clerks (I saw one last night in a spanking new Maruti Swift!) – so what’s the big deal about becoming doctors or engineers really if the purpose is only to make money (my brother-in-law, a doctor himself, used to lament routinely that the B.Com-pass Marwari who owned the hospital he worked for earned several hundred times more than he did! - and I certainly have nothing other than admiration for that Marwari). If you are keen on making money, I tell my daughter already, go in for the stockmarket or real estate brokerage after finishing high-school, and God willing, you will be a multi-millionaire by the time your doctor and engineer friends are just beginning to find a footing in the job market. If, on the other hand, making big money is not your top priority, consider why you wouldn’t want to be, say, an IAS officer or a teacher of some kind (with perhaps writing or music on the side, to stay happy and keep the brain cells alive), or a journalist worth the name, or a lawyer with aspirations of becoming a Supreme court judge someday, or a research scientist – such people don’t exactly die of starvation, and in my experience they wield much more power, enjoy their jobs far more, and do much more social good (or at least no more social harm!) than the average quack or seller of credit cards or soap. Find out what you are really good at, what you really want to do, and then follow your heart’s bidding: I am still sure, at my age, that while nothing is absolutely certain in life, this strategy comes far closer to guaranteeing a successful and happy life (with or without millions in the bank) than any other. And meanwhile, stop agonizing over piffling examination results.

5. Besides, look at what examination nerves do to you, and then decide whether it’s all worth it. It hurts your health – so many candidates (and even their parents sometimes) fall ill just before exam. time. It makes you selfish (don’t share your notes with a classmate!), unsocial (don’t visit your old Sir once in two years – you’ll lose precious study time!), silly (getting up late is okay, watching TV is not!) and often downright cruel (‘it’s so unfair of grandpa to have a heart attack during my JEE’!). Since so many people blindly cram things without love or interest, they neither understand nor remember for long what they have ‘learnt’ to get through exams, or else they get into the habit of cheating routinely by the time they are in high school (an open secret we take great care not to acknowledge publicly): that way we are not only making a great mockery of education but also creating millions of fundamentally ignorant, dishonest and opportunistic citizens of the future – how much does the country gain from it? The most pathetic thing is that people lose all sense of proportion at exam. time, so (as I saw in a recent newspaper photo) parents allow their children to cram while pillion-riding on motorcycles to their exam. centres, completely oblivious of the fact that a freak accident can spoil not only the child’s immediate examination but her whole life for good, and the way parents celebrate and preen about ICSE or JEE results, you’d think their children had won the Nobel Prize (perhaps that’s because deep within we know we are congenitally incapable of winning Nobels and Olympic golds and Oscars, so we prefer to go gaga over trifles? That these things are trifles is best proved by how incredibly quickly people forget the same ‘wonderful’ results – I find very few people who can recall the names of those from our town who got into IIT three years ago, unless it’s their own sons or nephews!)

6. To come to the last and most important point – and I can talk about this because, unlike most parents and teachers I know, I have always kept in close touch with hundreds of old boys and girls as they pass through school and college and then enter and struggle (and rise or flounder!) in the workplace, and keep giving me valuable updates on the real-life situation out there – the biggest mistake that most students make (alas, their parents and most teachers encourage them to make) is to imagine that the real fight will be over once you have gotten into college: after that life is sure to be a cakewalk, especially if your examination scores have always been good. You will sail into a well-paid job, and they will pay you by the sackfuls merely to sit in a perfumed and airconditioned office, giving orders and looking good! Sounds absurd when I put it that way, but I have found out that that’s what lots of supposedly clever boys and girls believe, this naïve daydream, this advertising blurb, and so when they ‘discover’ at last that real adult life is a long, long grind, and even with all the good report cards and high ranks, you must start at nearly the bottom of the pile, where the pay is paltry, the tenure is uncertain, the hours are long, the work is either hard or risky or boring (or, in the most unfortunate cases, all three together), the competition is unfair, the office politics is dirty, and you get paid essentially for how much you can earn for your boss, not for the marks that you got ever since kindergarten – that’s when the rude awakening happens, and so many of them just cannot take it! That’s when the frustration sets in, and the loneliness, grouching or alcoholism or endless quarrels with parents and spouses, the unhappy realization that this is not what one had dreamt of, and the pot of gold is still far away at the end of a very long rainbow! It is to those medical interns and lawyers’ clerks and shop-floor supervisors (junior engineers) and young MBAs who are basically doing door-to-door salesman’s work right now that I keep saying, ‘Slog on, slog on … this is what real life is all about, son, it’s the grime and the sweat and the lost sleep and the ability to bear with your boss’s insults that count – you might still make it big if you survive past forty, and thank your lucky stars for it. If daddy is still alive and has a pension to bank upon, you are luckier than maybe 800 million Indians! Nobody lives a life of luxury at 25 unless it is on daddy’s (usually ill-gotten) money, or one is a genius, a workaholic and very very lucky to boot: a Sachin Tendulkar or a Larry Page. In any case, virtually all my old boys and girls who are now approaching 30 agree that low-level examination results hardly matter in the long run at all. I hope they remember to pass on that hardearned wisdom to their children in the fullness of time!

So take heart from that, all you young people out there. Work hard, stay calm, stop consulting last-minute advisers, and sleep well at night. Go and watch a good movie or two. I went off to the cinema to watch Zanzeer on the night before ICSE began. I have no regrets, and I want my daughter to suffer less than I did from exam.-phobia. Even if everything doesn’t always go too well, I tell her all the time, it won’t really matter.

... and meanwhile, since I have made a lifelong habit of listening to my own advice, I’ll go travelling every year at the end of February once my daughter goes off to college. Not only will the weather be balmy then, but all the holiday hotspots will be empty of tourists – since they are all busy with examinations countrywide – and so I will travel in comfort and still get the best bargains! How about that?


Tanmoy Chakrabarti said...

Dear Suvroda,

Coincidence is that - I am the first one to read and post comments. I remember all these you told me before my exams too (fourteen years back!). Amazing isn't it?

Experience tells me too that it is actually possible for a student to do "whatever one feels like" as far as career goes. Each option comes with its own unique set of problems but that is a necessary evil. Having said that to-day one does not need to choose a specific career option just because one perceives that shall make him earn a lot. In my batch perhaps I was the only one who did not feel interested in either engineering or medical because I wanted to be in SXC to enrich my quizzing prowess and simulatenously study Economics. I have my own set of problems in profession BUT having said that i am much happier studying and working on the subject. I know many people who have not depended on their marks or depended on herd mentality to choose a career.

Thus, my good wishes to everyone. I shall urge to all that do not pressurise yourself for marks, entrance test too much because as Suvroda rightly says none actually bothers towards the end. If you are good, smart and of course a little lucky you shall definately do well in the jungle called profession. By doing well, I don't say mere survival but living amidst all the problems that it has.


Sudipto Basu said...

Ah exactly! Which is why I am feeling quite relaxed at the moment with my CBSE tests just days away. Of course, I am studying but I am still into things like reading (from blogposts like this one, to novels), listening to music (in fact, I am studying to the tunes of my favourite artists at the moment), watching movies (just watched The Devil Wears Prada today: didn't find it quite good!) and enjoying myself. To be truthful, I still am not having the exam-blues, and I don't know if that is dangerous (as it does not seem to be after I've read this post!), or praiseworthy. And that's because I am more or less sure that I have read all my chapters well a certain number of times before: what do I gain from being apprehensive about examinations after that? Fact is that I am living life the way I enjoy doing it: with a fair share of everything I love.

Which brings me to the point that I am not much worried about what will happen to me later: most people would say that is bad and being over-confident; I think it won't matter much anyway if I start tearing my hair in vain now! What will matter much more is whether I work hard or not later on, and what kind of decisions I'll take regarding my career (and ultimately, my life).

A guilty feeling though: have I become 'unsocial'? The answer is yes, to a good extent. I don't enjoy being in gatherings anymore, but that's because I always have a dearth of like-minded people in parties and social occasions. But if my being unsocial has extended to me not being able to visit you a good number of times in these two years, I should feel quite guilty (and I am, in fact!). Ah! Of course, I have kept in contact with you through email, orkut and this blog: but am I not beginning to sound like the ideal net-nerd, who mails even his next-door neighbour? That's the single thing in this whole post that is keeping on disturbing me, to be true...

Shilpi said...

Nice post, Suvro da! Some weeks ago when Pupu told me about her exams, I started getting the butterflies in my tum'. I had no 'advice' for her whatsoever apart from saying 'they'll be fine", and "All the best..." Having flunked in almost every subject (as I told boudi and you) over the course of the 9 years that I was in school – I didn’t think I had any right to tell Pupu anything but wish her all the best. But I’m glad you put up the current post…I think I can grin a little easier for reasons of my own.
You're so right about the ‘exam fever’ and how little the results mean that it's not even funny - or else it's funnier than anyone can ever imagine.
It really does not matter how well one does in school exams. That is, results neither reflect true merit, talent, intelligence - or the lack of the same. Neither do school exams give a good enough indication as to what the said student will 'do' or 'be' later on in life.
I won’t get lost in my own memories (some of them which still make me giggle hysterically) – but yes, one thing is for sure: people should decide early on what they love doing and what they want to do….sometimes it’s also good to figure out what one ‘doesn’t’ want to do (as I did after my +2).
These days after dealing with Sociology for over 14 years within a formal setting and for much longer in an informal one – I sometimes wish that I’d gone in for journalism (yes, Suvro da. I remember!) or had had the necessary gumption and disposition to ‘make’ it as a published and famous writer, and never had to set foot within an academic institution again. Not that I regret studying Sociology – given another chance I’d most likely have done the same – but there’s not much that one can do or ‘be’ being a sociologist apart from ending up being a pontificating professor or a cloudy professor (the one who stays up there in the clouds, and doesn’t really care about anything else) – and writing papers that nobody reads but other students who are planning to write papers which nobody else will read! One doesn’t even get to make much money, and I’ll eat my hat the day I hear a Sociologist winning a Nobel or doing any ‘real’ work, which counts for something! Ah well…
No matter what though, and where one is on the path to one’s own ‘salvation’ …school exams count for precious little. The college results do count for a little more (depending upon where one wants to go and what one wants to do) as do the +2, but only (as Suvro da says) if one is interested in going in for a Bachelors in the Humanities, or the Sciences.
There were some other thoughts…but now I’ve lost them. Anyway – it doesn’t matter. If they’re that important I’m sure they’re going to call again…Tata.

Subhanjan said...

If there is anything in our education system that needs to be thrown out, that is definitely the 'examination' system in schools. The fault is not entirely of the system, but of us - this arrogant and ignorant population of 'grown-ups' in this country - that makes one of the most disastrous blunders that totally misguide the young generation. And that is the deliberate generation of eccentricity in us as well as in our children surrounding school, board and competitive exams. That school exams are mere trifles and that board exams do NOT matter THAT much as we believe or want to believe, is a truth that we have DELEBERATELY perverted for God knows why! I do not know whether any parent (apart from Sir and the sensible ones) is reading this post of mine. But there is something that I want to tell exclusively to the young people visiting this blog.

The world out there is a thousand times more harsh, crude, ruthless, falsifying as well as genuine, than your exams. Your scores are NOT given a DAMN if you have not developed several soft skills, personality, attitude, skill and knowledge. Along with that if you are a man of strong principles; the world is going to be a very tough place for you. And the sooner you acknowledge this, and devote yourself to things much more important than your exams, the better it is for you. If you think that after studying engineering or MBA from some top institutes you will be sitting in cool plush offices with a sweet and sexy assistant and the office boy bringing in cocktails for you, YOU ARE TERRIBLY WRONG. If you are paid fifty thousand Rupees a month, it is because your company want a business of twenty lakh Rupees from you every month. And if you can’t, you will be kicked out the next month; no matter how “GREAT” you were at the IITs or IIMs. Believe this my friends; I’m not lying. I have seen many MBAs lost in their lives; switching over from one company to another frequently in search for a better work environment, and in the process becoming frustrated because of the immense work pressure, breaking up with their wives and finally having a heart attack in late thirties (some even in early thirties). And there are engineers from “good” colleges and institutes ending up with jobs offering merely four or five thousand Rupees a month (as it is in the factories of a rich industrialist I happened to meet on one of my return flights from Delhi to Kolkata); I believe my driver earns at least three thousand Rupees a month.

And this is happening only because our parents have always taught us that life will always be rosy once we get ‘six points’ in ICSE or get into the IITs. How long will this blasphemy go on? How long? And once the young people come out in the real world, they find it terribly hard to survive when they realise that all their parents, neighbours, relatives, and idiotic teachers had totally misguided them. EXAMS ARE NOT THE DETERMINING FACTORS. Please acknowledge this. If you take these ‘exams’ so seriously and loose attitude, you will loose ‘every thing’ once you step in the real world.

In stead of giving so much importance to the exams, read as many books as possible on facts like biographies, reports, management, economics and history.

Try to develop a pleasing personality.

Learn to talk politely even in the most annoying situations.

Learn to control anger.

Learn to smile gently while you are talking so that the other person is impressed.

Even when someone is insulting you or humiliating you, learn to give a mysterious smile that would bold him out.

Learn to take pressure.

When pain comes to you, take it to your heart and learn from it.

When trouble comes to you, enjoy it. Embark on the adventure of finding out ways to solve the problem, and enjoy the adventure.

While communicating to people, develop an eye to eye contact with him, so that he never dares to take his eyes away from you.

Learn to observe people and try to look deep into them so that you can understand them. Throughout your life, this will play a very important role in helping you to find out who is the one that you should develop relationship with and with whom you should not.

Try to understand yourself. Try to learn what it is that you want and what it is that you do not. And for that you have to practice a few things at the same time with the same amount of practice and concentration – like singing, painting and writing. If you do not try to explore what you are good at, you will never know why you have been sent to this world.

Always try to follow these wise words that come from ZEN:

“A wise man keeps his sorrows to his heart, draws his energy from the rising Eastern sun, and the warrior prepares his cup of tea.”


Rajdeep said...

Your article is inspiring to say the least. We ex-students have been hearing them for quite some time now. More people should be made aware that there is more to life than passing examinations. Passing tests in the hope of making money just for the sake of it or to overcome peer pressure is actually taking the short cut to life. Life lived fully has no short cuts. Overcoming peer pressure, family pressure etc. is a huge task though not an impossible one. But as you succintly put it, the battle is mostly within one-self and it is a matter of choice after all in what ways you want to put pressure on yourself. Following the oft trodden path without thinking too much is the easy way out rather than taking the road not taken. And making choices for yourself and living by them is after all the task of a valliant human being. And as most people discover sooner or later, there are far more difficult things in life like raising children, being a good husband, balancing problems at home and at the workplace, than passings exams. Your choices may after all reflect not on your life but on that of others around you as well. In life it does not matter how many times you fail. What matters is how you get up every time you fall. By making examinations the "only" way towards success we are in a way training for success and not how to handle failure. That is what gives rise to so many problems amongst the young of today. Even the greatest of men fail many times more than they succeed. So why should all the mortal men train for success only? And that too success in some examination? "Failing Forward: How to Make the Most of Your Mistakes" by John C. Maxwell, should perhaps be made part of compulsory reading?

pramit said...

Dear Sir,
Reading this particular article I could relate to some of the thoughts which I often have. Passing out of IIT doesn't make a very big difference in your life, yes it does have an impact, many firms presume that you have certain skill sets which students of other colleges supposedly don't have. However we'll notice that most of the successful entrepreneurs are not from IIT or IIM yet they have made a mark through sheer hard work, determination and of course some help from lady luck. Entrance examinations are important, however many parents tend to over emphasize their importance and in doing so the pressure on the student is enormous. In my opinion we should try to do what we like- things we enjoy so that despite not having the kind of wealth that some of the people have (more often than not it is ill gotten) we are happy and peaceful. Also there's no end to aspirations (I mean material wants). The moment one is fulfilled we are left wanting something else. So we should rather focus on trying to be happy and stay fit and healthy.
My advice to all my friends is just stay calm, I know its not so easy as it sounds, but not very difficult at least it'll do you more good than staying tensed(so it is the better alternative).


Mayuri Mukherjee said...

The more I read your post, the more I love and respect my parents. For one, I am glad they did not push me (or Manjari, my younger sister)into studying engineering/medical. Secondly, never did they encourage things such as 'exam.-fever' at home. We were always told to lead normal lives.
Manjari will be taking ber ISC examinations in a matter of days. Yet she is expected to practice her dance lessons atleast twice a week and work out at the gym everyday. Her only indulgence - the midnight snack.
Ultimately, i just wish parents were more 'intelligent' when it came to dealing with their children particularly during the exam season. To know that you mean more to your parents than just the marks you being home, that your value as an individual is not measured in terms of your GRE score is so wonderfully reassuring. Let me share with you this one incident: On her first day at the National Level Balshree Camp in Delhi, Manjari fell very sick. She was probably anxious about her performance and maybe even a little scared since that was the first time she was expected to live away from us in a dormitory in an alien city. She got through the day somehow but couldnt take it at night. She called Ma (who was in Delhi) and then spoke to Dad as well. Both of them told her, in no uncertain terms, that she had the freedom to walk out anytime she wants, that Ma would be waiting outside the dorm to pick her up even if it was in the middle of the night. "Your happiness, and that alone, is what matters. You made it to the Nationals and we are proud of you anyway," is what they said.
And this, when Manjari was just one step away from winning a national award.
The rest as they say was history- she did stay on at the camp and ultimately went onto win the award.
But had it not been for the support of parents on that crucial night, I doubt she would have made it.
No creativity can stem from a bundle of nerves and nothing good can have its source in a fearful heart.

To those who will be taking their class 10 and 12 examinations this season, I would like to say please, pay heed sir's words. You school-leaving examinations (10 or 12) will not determine whether or not you will have millions in the bank. And this I say from personal experience. When I applied for my internship at The Statesman they did not care for my marks, they valued the 50+ bylines I had to my credit. Later, they offered me a full-time job, not on the basis of my college scores but on basis of the work I had done during my internship; they even ignored the fact that I was not a graduate and it was against company policy.
My point being therefore - that scores and degrees dont affect the larger picture. At best, it may decide which college you will be attending for the next three years and thats a very small part of your life.
As for now, study well and stay healthy. The ultimate result may not be in your hands but from your side, try to make an honest attempt.
Best of luck!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Nearly a hundred visits and six comments within a day of writing this last post - that's nice! Keep the comments flowing, folks. and if even one examination candidate writes in to say that reading that post helped him or her to face the upcoming ordeal with a more relaxed and composed frame of mind, that will make my day!

Sayan said...

I was having a discussion with a like minded friend who is presently a student at the Indian Statistical Institute and both of us agreed that even the competitive exams after plus two do not judge how much 'brainy' you are ( this is for people who think that getting into a top ranked college is similar to Einstein discovering the General Theory). It only indicates how well prepared you are for that particular exam. A good score tells you that you are technically sound and practice has given you some skills. The only thing that decides whether or not you are 'brainy' is whether you can do something new with your aquired skill (a chess player inventing moves not in the chess textbook to win for example).What most students do while preparing for a test is that they study the 'type' of questions generally asked in that exam and study accordingly. That is why I have seen many people who can solve IIT level problems and yet can't talk intelligently on that subject. If you don't believe me try this exercise - ask the person to explain some concept to you; then keep on asking 'why?' at each and every turn. At most times he will stumble at some point or the other or tell you- "The book tells it's right" and you will know that he doesn't know the concept to the very core. If I remember right it was Feynman who had said that while studying you have to be very honest with yourself;that is, you must not tell yourself that you have understood a concept when there is even an iota of doubt in your mind. And if someone has that much of honesty, to him I would like to say- no one can judge you as much as you can judge yourself; certainly not trifling exam scores.
Sayan Datta.

Shilpi said...

I finally remembered what my other point was. I don't think that exams by themselves are necessarily bad 'things' or 'evil' things. There are different reasons that exams have become evil monsters. It's true that the GREs or the SATs and other standardized tests don't really make sense to me. Some of my friends and I have never quite been able to figure out how certain people, all hailing from China score incredible points on their GREs and TOEFLs - and then are unable to speak a single sentence in correct English. Well, we have our suspicions - but we can't really test them out.
Yet in spite of all that I still don't agree with people who say that exams are nothing but evil. Just because they are 'evil' under the current system, it doesn't make the 'idea' of exams something inherently bad. We just haven't found out a proper way of 'measuring' the ability/talent/creativity of the people of this world for different activities. I don’t even know how or whether indeed it can be done. It's easy enough to find out who runs the fastest and to test who is better at long distance running as opposed to the 100 metres. It’s also easy enough to find out who has an ‘aptitude’ for marathons as opposed to sprinting. Anyone who has taken singing lessons or karate lessons or painting lessons – knows that one has the ‘option’ of taking exams – if one wants to move onto the next level. There is nothing seemingly arbitrary in a singing exam – as far as I can see. You need to sing! People judge you on the basis of how you sing. Of course there might be an unfortunate element of luck in that your voice may be broke or that you don’t get the pitch right on that one day…but barring unfortunate incidents such as these – these exams do make better sense in my mind than the current state of intelligence/ability exams. And of course, one doesn’t have to take any exams whatsoever – if one paints well – one paints well. And that’s that.
So the problem – at least from my perspective is that we haven't yet found ways to 'test' forintelligence/sensitivity/creativity in ways that are not arbitrary or meaningless. However, as Suvro da mentioned elsewhere – even the format of the GREs is changing somewhat. Now one has to write an essay and defend an argument for the analytical section on the GRE. And that I do think makes some sense (although I wonder whether the ETS provides a list of all the 'possible' topics that examinees might come across!). Also, I have no empathy or sympathy for some students who complain right before they are supposed to take their PhD sociology qualifiers that they can’t write five pages on Marx, Weber, and Durkheim or write sensibly on certain modern sociological theories that they’ve been reading on/about for the last 6 years (if not longer!). Yes, sure the PhD qualifiers were removed in our department after my cohort was done with them – because the department found out to its dismay that there was only a 50% pass rate! In the U.S students sometimes take their first ‘exams’ in college. However, that doesn’t make them any more or less intelligent or brilliant or profoundly stupid. On the flip side I’ve had students handing in completely shoddy assignments because, they inform me quite arrogantly, “..I’ve never had to write for any other class that I’ve taken…”
For folks who are in the middle – I think there will be exams for a while. But I hope to God that we are able to come up with better measures of testing whatever we are testing for – so hopefully there’ll be some attention to both validity and reliability. Brilliant folks don’t need exams – and the couple or more of brilliant folks that I’ve come across (who probably won’t go onto be very famous – but that’s beside the point) – they’ve stuck out their tongue at exams and gone onto do far more interesting things in their lives.
I’ll end off with one last funny thing I remember (and this is in the context of something that you once told me, Suvro da – I don’t remember whether I got around to telling you the following) – is a delightful snippet which came out in The Telegraph quite some years ago. A young chap in Britain who was applying for the post of a police constable was rejected. He later on got to know that he had been rejected because he had come across as to intelligent in his entrance exam! This story always makes me laugh every time I think about it!
Take care.

Subhanjan said...

The purpose of these posts is not served if the ones who 'are' giving exams or 'will' give exams in the coming days do not participate in this discussion. Come on fellows, where are you all? It takes five minutes to read Sir's post and ten more minutes to write a few words in response to the post. Fifteen minutes do not matter much when you have already devoted a lot of time for your exams. And if you are too nervous and too much tensed to spare even fifteen minutes, I strongly suggest you to cool down, or else the examination hall would be Satan's paradise. And I suppose it would NOT be pleasant.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Exam. nerves sometimes really do get on my nerves! As in every year, today (the first day of ICSE and ISC) my phone kept ringing, until I had to switch it off for a while to preserve my sanity. It would have been tolerable if they had called only to seek blessings and to hear a 'Best of luck!' from me, but some people insist on pestering me with a barrage of last-minute questions. This sort of thing irks me for four reasons: 1) they have practised so much with me, so they ought to have no such lingering doubts at the eleventh hour; 2) by ferreting out all sorts of 'problems' at this time, they are merely working themselves into a blue funk, and I have warned them again and again in class to avoid precisely this trap - and they can't even complain they are always doing it under parental pressure, because I know lots of sane parents give the same advice I do; 3) it doesn't occur to them that they are irritating me - nobody's patience is infinite, and they should have asked all such questions in class, when there was time enough; and, worst of all, 4) I know that for most of them, in a few hours' time the examination, the subject and I alongwith will be completely forgotten: for most young people these days, gratitude is a forgotten or never-learnt idea! A year later most of these same youngsters, if asked, will say they have been too busy to ring and say hello.

Arnab said...

As Sir and many of the seniors have already commented on this topic there hardly remains anything more to be said. Just to be repeat what has been said a number of times, school examinations do not play any vital role in one's career in the end. To verify this ask the father who is right now telling his son to score 90+ in his upcoming exams (else his prestige along with his lads will go down in the locality) does not remember how much he had secured when he wrote an exam when he was of his sons age.

I am becoming restless to quote few lines from Robert Frost's poem "TWO TRAMPS IN MUD TIME"

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

The names of various examination s like GRE have already come up in the comments of this blog. I would like to make a small remark on the selection procedure to most of the famous universities abroad. They hardly pay much attention even to the GRE scores, they mainly select students on the basis what the student has read up in his undergrads. One has to show them his or her motivation for the subject of your choice by writing a statement of purpose. All this would be accompanied by few recommendations from some professors to certify your statements. I think that I have been able to point out to you the fact that the so called glamorous and most sought after universities of the world also do not have any entrance examination. All you need to show them in the end is your interest in the field you want to pursue and how well versed you are in that field.

Oh yeah I just wanted to mention about a way of testing students which I came to know after coming to CMI. Over here at times our professors give take home examination. In this we are giving a question paper having some tough problems and we are supposed to do a lot of reference work to solve it and submit it after a day. By this we actually avoid the so called exam phobia and solve the exam paper peacefully in our rooms and learning new things on our own.

Well now I would to like to comment on something that Sir has pointed out in the sixth point of his post. College going students generally try to show off their status by wearing costly clothes, going to parties now and then, all at the cost of their parents money. They do not have the competence to earn a single penny on their but are expert at spending them. Now the frustration probably starts off at the point when the rich parents of some students gives his son more pocket money than his friends and the student getting less pocket money is not able to spend that lavishly starts cursing his parents.The student forgets that the whole purpose of coming to college was to study and not enjoy life at the expense of Hotel de papa.

Well I just tried to put in my thoughts over here and do not know how successful I have been in discussing about the topic of the day.

Greek.theatre said...

I have never done well in most of the examinations that I took. I was mediocre and lazy and a day dreamer. Yet, I have a strange confidence that my critical reasoning skills in the subject I have a degree in are sharper than most people in my country. I can beat many scholars hollow when it comes to independent analysis. This does not imply that I am a genius; it suggests that examinations in India do not test or foster independent reasoning. Even the civil service examinations aren't different. This is precisely why tutorial homes flourish. They can 'train' people to sharpen their 'mental abilities'. In other words, they have a pattern for us to emulate. If done with some diligence, success is not easily denied. There is little in most examinations that test anything more than how much one can mug. A friend of mine who has gone to a B grade university in the US for her PhD. is at a total loss when she has to teach the subject she wishes to research on. If she doesn't she'll starve or fly home. All the examinations she cleared (she scored much more than me in HS or Madhyamik) proves little when it comes to the real 'test'- explaining what you know to those who don't. No wonder my professors with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge were such trite bores!- Arani

Sayan said...

After reading the last comment I couldn't keep myself from saying a few words. After some fruitful discussions I had with you I am slowly begining to appreciate that most people are indeed born unequal; especially in aesthetic sense, love for truth and beauty and ability to think deeply. Sharp critical reasoning skills(in my opinion) stem from this very ability. For the vast populace who can't put their minds to one thing for even a few hours at a stretch (much less meditate deeply)mugging is the only way out to cover up their inadequacy. And as examinations test nothing but how much you know (not how well you know), most(certainly not all)people with fancy degrees are in fact very mediocre. As has been rightly put, the real test of how well you know is in explaining something you know to someone who doesn't with clarity, lucidity and conviction; and that applies to all spheres of learning.
As Plato put it-"Only those whose hearts are fixed on reality itself deserve the title of philosophers". Which examination in the world can judge a person's love for truth and beauty? Which examination can judge ones ability to think deeply? It has been rightly put that examinations are nothing more than 'patterns' which if diligently emulated will bring success (meaning good scores).
I found the following words in the preface of a textbook of mine and I have never forgotten them. With your permission I would like to share it with others- ".... most students read much and think little. My earnest request to all my readers is to read less and slowly and think more".
Sayan Datta.

Anonymous said...

Hello Sir

Its a matter of chance that I typed you name in Google search and this Blog cropped up.

You have chosen the right moment to write this article, when exam fever is slowly getting every happless child in its grip.

Remembering these frenzied times , I can re collect some funny instances of " Exam time " in Durgapur.

1)It is this time of the year that Parents go on a Overdrive to have their cable connection disconnected. I am sure the "cablewaallahs" must be cursing these exams !!

Another scene is I remember from my observations during exam time in Durgapur is - anxious mothers( who always seem to have wet hair and cheeks rubbed with Nivea cream??)waiting for their wards outside the schools' gates. And the moment they catch hold of them , the question paper is Snatched and "Interrogation " begins. Such an Interrogation would have the put CBI to shame. Even Quattrochi would have confessed to everything in the Bofors case , if he was subjected to Mrs Biswas/Bose/Das/Chatterjee/Ganguly's torture.( Its better that 3rd degree)
Within a few minutes the kid is forced to repeat Exactly all the he/she has vomited(thats what most of us do ") in the answer paper.
And the interrogation is never over without the most FEARED question - " Tomar Bodhu Kemon koreche " . Which translates to " how has your friend fared ". After all all,it is the answer to that question which shall decide which tuition teacher the kid shall be sent to for his/her next exams.

It is also my obserrvation that it is the ladies( mothers') who seem to be most tensed, stressed, and worried during exam time, which makes me wonder how come the child' father seems relatively relaxed( I guess the mother worries for both of them ).

finally thank You Sir, for providing us all a platform to speak.

Abhijit Bharadwaj


Kishore Penmetsa said...


I posted a comment last week but an error came up and it got erased somehow. I thought I would pen down a few words as a few fresh thoughts crossed my mind since I last posted on your column.

First of all I appreciate your creating a blog and sharing your views with everyone. I would say if a handful of visionary teachers like you did something similar, the mindset of today's students would change for the better.

I admit there used to be a herd mentality when I was in school in
'94 for a huge number of reasons that you've highlighted in your blog (parents' pressure, peer pressure, thinking about satisfying your neighbours, gossipmongers, relatives....and so on and so forth), but I feel things have changed over the years and Indian students now are more diversified in their interests and ambitions. I realize things have become far more competitive but there are far more choices than there used to be back then. I see more and more students make use of their creativity in art, advertising and internet entrepreneurship, their analytic abilities in finance, commerce, real estate, geology and core sciences and their interpersonal skills in mass communication and organization. I accept that engineering and medical fields are still the most sought after but things are changing slowly but surely. You cannot blame students who want to become engineers or doctors by any and all means possible as the foremost thought that crosses a student's mind when he embarks on a search for a career is compensation. Quite a few people have to quell their ambition to become teachers or artists because the remuneration is ridiculous. The day schools and colleges in India understand the importance of teachers, India will produce more talented people than anywhere in the world. As you mentioned in your blog, a majority of teachers in Indian schools chose that profession because they got rejected in all their other endeavors. A student is scared of his/her teacher and does not ask questions for fear of losing grades. This situation has to change in order for us to become more competitive.

One more thing that you've mentioned in your blog is that sub-standard students are making it to elite colleges and are becoming successful. I agree with you but I would like to comment that life throws many opportunities at a person and it is up to him to grab any one of them to be successful. In my case, I was not a bad student by any means. I used to read a lot (not text books, but literature, history, civilizations and other general knowledge books)but I found out that my quest for diversified knowledge landed me in trouble after I graduated high school. I went to a mediocre college, graduated and moved on in life. Now, after a few years in my career, I've realized that all the books I read and knowledge I imbibed back then has benefited me tremendously. I am much more "aware" that most of my colleagues. I have much more common sense and can carry out any conversation comfortably on almost any topic. I have never quit reading over the years and I would like to thank you amongst all for cultivating that habit in me. I am a successful man now but I've become successful in phases. I've mentioned all this because I've made use of opportunities thrown at me by life albeit at a much later stage than most other students do but that is irrelevant. All that matters is that one knows what he/she wants to do and chooses the right path to reach his/her goal.

All that said, I would like to thank you for creating this blog and I hope many students benefit from your teachings as I most definitely did.

Best Regards,

Kishore Penmetsa
Class of 1994

raya said...

The mad rush about following stereotypical fields of education which land the students in utterly monotonous careers[and the parental anxiety associated with their kids following the hackneyed career options]reminds me of a character in Charles Dicken's novel called Thomas Gradgrind.[The novel is Hard Times.]
Gradgrind always tells his kids to concentrate on one thing -"facts".His school of education never pays heed to "fancy" and imagination.He instructs his children never to read poetry or fairy tales and strictly tells them "never to wonder".But it is Sissy Jupe the child of fancy and imagination who attains ultimate bliss.
I think Gradgrind serves as a prototype of all those parents today who inspire their kids to do nothing but follow humdrum career paths and strictly forbid them from choosing interesting options like writing or movie-making.This book by Dickens provide is an excellent critique of such mentality.I think it is a must read for all parents who blindly follow what Tanmoy rightly calls"the Herd Mentality"

Paulami Sen

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,

I was going through all your posts under the label 'world view', to search for those which are interesting and thought-provoking and I couldn't resist commenting on this one. The exam fever of Durgapur is nothing less than a madness.
I remember my ICSEs in 2004 when my grandfather had suffered a stroke and was admitted in a nursing home nearby and our house was teeming with visitors. Most neighbours, relatives and parents of my classmates were more concerned about how I was managing to study with so many visitors in the house rather than my grandpa's health. Some had even suggested that we should not have admitted him so near, as that would adversely affect my results. However, with the blessings of grandpa (who passed away just before my last paper), I fared quite well in the ICSEs.
And during the HS, my mother started complaining because I never opened a book on the day of the exams. She showed me how my classmates had taken all their books to the centre in huge bags and were reading them an hour before the exams began. I had replied, "They didn't study the entire year. I have studied and another hour of reading won't get me any more marks."
I have always liked the exam time, because it meant all tuition classes were off, (though sir, I enjoyed going to your classes, but that's an exception, not the rule) and hence I could study as I liked.
My cousin is sitting for her HS this year and I am going to pass this message to her, it would certainly make her worry less.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Delighted that someone has taken the trouble to look up an old post and comment on it! Thanks, Sayantika.