Surviving India’s Examination System

Children, sitting, exam, rural, students
© Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Every year millions deal with the stress of surviving India's competitive exam system. How do students cope with the pressure?

At 33, Mridul J. Prakash quit an IT job he had worked for over ten years, to start preparing for the civil services entrance examination. By then, he was no longer the student he was in his youth. His handwriting had degraded over years spent in front of a keyboard, and the IT world had cut him out of a feel for the current affairs of the times. He struggled to put his many thoughts to word, and after two attempts, at 35, he crossed the age threshold to be eligible for the exam.

Every year, millions like Mridul take competitive exams for the second, third, fourth (or so on) times – hoping that this attempt, unlike the last, will pan out differently.

“I do know people who have given up their jobs and careers and written six to seven attempts, and still haven’t made it. It hasn’t demotivated me at all, because there is an element of luck in all exams. That’s the nature of all competitive exams, so one person’s failure should not get you down,” says Niranjana, as she prepares for her second attempt.

Nor has Mridul lost his enthusiasm. Like any IAS aspirant with a hands-on approach, he says:

I have the fire and the motivation… [this] Motivation is a kind of spirit actually. The more we get into this, the more we get pulled into it. But we should learn to not burn ourselves in this.

What keeps Mridul going is being able to use his experience to help fellow students realize their dream of getting into the civil services.

The motivation is all about the power which we get, with which we can make some change in the system. The dream, the change we can make in the common man’s life, when we can make a small change to some poor man’s misery.

Now back to his old IT job, he has a wistful yearning for what could have been. For him, it’s a future spent looking backwards, wishing he had written the exam earlier in life. In hindsight, he says the key is to take out 15 months to prepare for the exam – and nothing else.

The Rush to Compete

Coaching, centre, ad,
(Image: Riyaz Shaik/ 7MB) A typical ad for a coaching centre

In 2016, 11.36 lakh wrote the UPSC exams across India. This was a roughly two lakh increase from 2015, when only 15,008 candidates cleared the prelims. The same year, 12.07 lakh wrote IIT-JEE – the exam for admission into India’s most reputed set of universities for engineering – for a grand total of 10,575 seats.

If those numbers seem large, consider the online examinations for the Indian Railway Service, testing 90 lakh students for 18,000 vacancies in 2016.

Across India, education’s best offerings are held out to those who clear these mega-competitions. Since the competition is so high, the exams themselves change up every year, keeping students on their toes. Complicated exam ‘patterns’ can require months of study and practise – spawning a coaching centre industry worth $45 billion today.

Coaching has become ubiquitous – so much so that the Centre fully funds that of Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Caste students. Students can now start training for IIT-JEE from sixth grade – when they can be just ten years old.

Competition Blues

Not everyone is a fan of this culture of competition. Shweta Rajiv is in 12th grade. While most of her classmates take up IIT coaching, she’s decided to focus on her school’s annual exams.

With pre-pre-boards, pre-boards, and the dreaded board exams itself, her school keeps her busy as is. She feels IIT-JEE coaching has an adverse effect on schooling, and life.

If you go for coaching classes after school, either you’ll go weekends – 9am to 7pm, or you go in the weekdays after school, between  6-9 pm. Which is a lot… I wouldn’t have time for dance.

Coaching might be for her classmates, but she has her own standards to set – and wants in on the research route, less competitive and more interesting to her than the traditional engineering one.

Shaji, a father of two, had an ordeal trying to find admissions for his children in primary school. In an age where even Kindergarten students have to face interviews, primary schools have become choosy – with expensive institutions fostering a culture of exclusion.

They make us buy a Rs. 1000 curriculum to even get as far as writing an application form.

What drew him away from the school in question was the different nature of the competition there.

We saw students, who were not just competitive in terms of academics, but also in terms of lifestyle. Children would not want their parents to pick them up in a smaller car, or for them to wear western clothes. These are things we heard from parents whose kids studied in these schools.

After many ordeals with snooty and discriminatory school principles, he settled on a private school that had fewer strings attached to his child’s admission.

With no examinations until grade seven, it gives his daughter room to breathe, encouraging a holistic level of education that was exactly what Shaji wanted.

“When I had my exams [in school], we had to mug up a lot of things. I do not remember those things today,” he says, “I don’t see her in that position. Because they take her out for field trips, and once they teach her something, they make her do a little play about it – so there’s retention in the memory and understanding of the concept.”

On competitive exams, he knows she will have to write her share of them when the time comes.

“When the time comes for competitive exams, her engineering or her medicine, whatever she chooses – maybe she’ll have an entrance exam for whatever her university is. I don’t see her writing any competitive exams except the college ones …If she has it in her, she’ll have to make it worth it. I have already decided that we shouldn’t pay any donations. That’s ok, I think everyone of us has to go through some trial, and that will be her trial.”

The author got a rank of ten lakh out of the eleven lakh who wrote AIEEE in 2010. His IIT-JEE rank was basically the word “NO”. 

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