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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Parents and JEE Counseling

Today, early morning, I posted on my Facebook wall a message about how parents are asking all the questions and their wards keep quiet. The post has gained huge traction with almost 2000 likes and 350 shares in less than 24 hours. Several comments and lots of emails. And more than 100 new friends requests. One of those emails suggested that I post this as a blog, since blogs have a much longer shelf life. People can read it not just this year but next year and year after that, while facebook posts fade away within a couple of days. And hence this post, which is an edited and expanded version of the FB post.

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In the counseling season (which starts on the day of JEE Advanced and continues till the options have to be frozen at the counseling site), I typically get about 10 emails a day, or about 400 emails overall, each seeking advice on what college/program should one prefer. Surprisingly, about 90% of those emails are from parents and not from the boy or girl who is seeking admission. From the language and email address, I have a strong suspicion that even some of the remaining 10 percent are actually from parents.

If you look at the comments on my various blog articles about choosing a college/program, a very large number of them are from parents.

I used to think that part of the reason is that students have their own sources of information. They would rather talk to their seniors from schools who are in college now, or ask questions on social media like quora and FB pages of various colleges, or ask their teachers at coaching places. Parents don't have as many sources, and they perhaps have more respect for an IIT professor.

But this thinking changed a couple of weeks ago. We were having an open house session at IIIT Delhi, and after my presentation, all the questions were from parents. Not even one question from any student. After a while, we said that we will only take questions from students. And something very strange happened. Parents writing questions on a paper, and asking their wards to ask those questions. I couldn't believe this.

Then yesterday, I was invited by IIT Gandhinagar to have a session in the open house that they were organizing. I gave a small talk on how to decide the college/program combination. I explained to them that the confusion is only partly because of lack of complete information, and is largely due to our inability to think logically. Before I invited the questions, I told the parents the following.

"If your son or daughter cannot ask a question even in such a friendly environment where s/he is not competing, s/he is not being judged, and it is about his/her life, then it shows how much freedom they have at home. How much pressure you must have put on them to study for JEE. How much stress must be building inside them. If tomorrow they give up on studying after moving to a hostel or worse, cause self injury, please blame yourself and not IIT."

I reminded them that most of the suicides in Kota as well as many suicides in various IITs have been attributed to pressure from well meaning parents who loved their kids but didn't realize when they crossed the line between advising and taking decisions on their behalf, particularly decisions that their wards did not like but had no courage to tell them so.

These students have achieved remarkable success. And if they are capable of being in the top 10,000 in a country of 1.25 billion they are certainly capable of taking their own decisions on the college/program they want to pursue. Why should parents be afraid that their wards will take a wrong decision. And what is a wrong decision anyway. Will a different program or a different IIT be the end of the world. NO. The only thing that will happen is that if they decide on a less popular program, their bragging rights in their friends' circle may reduce. This should be accepted as a legitimate cost of parenting.

It is not to say that parents should have no role in this decision making. They most certainly do. They are an important stake holder. They have sacrificed many things to ensure success of their wards. So the parents should do their own research. They should ask questions in such forums and anywhere else. And they should advise their wards. But when it becomes so lopsided that only parents ask questions and the ward is silent, that is a strong indication of stress in their relationship. Parents should introspect and make sure that they listen to their wards and give them space to take decisions.

While I was giving this little speech, I was a bit afraid - I am taking this stand that students are not asking questions because they are afraid of their parents, what if they are not asking questions because this is not the forum that they trust for answers. But immediately after the speech, I was inundated with questions from students, and very incisive questions that showed that they had indeed thought a lot about what they want to do, much more than what their parents would give them credit for.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Non-Guide to JEE Counseling 2016

First of all a statutory warning: This post is really not about telling you how to choose IIT and a program, and is full of sarcasm. If you feel hurt by sarcasm, please do not read further. You have been warned.

Congratulations on your success, on winning the rat race. There are still a few days before you start filling up the choices in the order of your preference. Choices of which program in which Institute, etc. So what do you plan to do in these few days so that you are ready with your list.

First, rue your performance. Unless you are JEE number 1. Tell the whole world how you deserved a much better rank. How that day you had a slight headache, or the invigilators wasted your 30 seconds in making the announcements twice which they were supposed to make only once, or they took your paper away 1.3 seconds before they took others'. Or you were so stressed because you didn't know you were not supposed to wear a full sleeves shirt on the fateful day. This will not change anything, of course. Your rank will remain the same. But your true friends will respect you even more if they know that you are not merely a person better than 99.99 percent of your cohorts, but a person better than 99.991 percent of your cohorts.

Having established that JEE is a poor quality exam which cannot place gems like you at the right position, get down to the business of telling everyone how great you are. Call every friend, family, neighbours, and relatives. Post it on Facebook (which has other advantages as we will soon see). Of course, don't forget to order tonnes of Laddoos and of course, share a Coke to share your happiness. In our days, we used to have Limca before Limca and Limca after Limca.

The problem is that all these people who come to your house will have a few questions and tonnes of advice. How you wish that all these people will just come, take a laddoo, drink coke, and leave and of course, tell the story of your great success in that exam called JEE to everyone else in town, including the bit about how the poor quality exam couldn't really recognize your talent fully. But they will stay on and ask those questions and give that advice. So you need to be ready.

Number Two, Create your passion or at least interest. I know it is difficult. You wouldn't even know if Kota has a cinema hall or an industry. Studying for JEE would not have given you any time to explore your interests. But it really isn't as difficult as it sounds. If you are in the top 500 ranks, just remember that your first toy was a computer, and you have been on the Facebook for the last 3 weeks, ever since the JEE Advanced was over. If someone tells you that this does not prove your interest in computers, tell them that you know the names of all programming languages, that you are logical which is good enough evidence that you will do well in computers. On the other hand, if your rank is between 500 and 1000, it is reasonably safe to tell people how you are so excited about owning the iPhone 6, and how you actually opened up the PC one day (hide the fact that you got a scolding from Dad since you had no clue how to close the box). All this will convince anyone that ECE is your real passion. Beyond that, robotics is a very safe passion. It can lead you to CS, or Electrical or Mechanical. Rank beyond that, physics should become your favorite subject, and if you are so good at Physics, you would obviously be good at Mechanics, and by extension Mechanical Engineering. If you are a 2000-ranker, then switch your interest to Chemistry which has so much overlap in its spelling with Chemical, so your passion becomes very obvious. There will be some who will see through this. If Physics is your interest, why not study Engineering Physics. If Maths is your strong point, may be you should consider Maths and Computing programs. And for Chemistry, maybe IISERs would be options worth considering. Just take out your phone from the pocket, and loudly proclaim that it is your uncle from US calling, and go out of the room.

Three, Sort all choices in order of last year's closing ranks. This will do two things. Convince everyone of your interest in computers. You know sorting, which is an extremely important problem in Compooters. Second, it gives you the order in which you should be filling up your choices. After all, the students, the parents, and the whole Internet (particularly quora) couldn't be wrong. Don't even think about the possibility that last year too, everyone filled up the choices based on previous year's closing ranks.

But you should be seen as doing due diligence. This is, after all, the most important decision of your life. And you shouldn't only follow the right methodology (which is, of course, to follow the last year's closing ranks), but should be seen as actively trying to do due diligence.

Four, Ask for placement data on quora. Quora is obviously the most trustworthy source of all important data (which most placement offices do not even release). People on quora will claim that the "best" IIT had only 99% of its job offers from within India, while the other run-of-the-mill IITs had a huge 99.5% of their job offers from within India. And this huge difference (which you should trust since it is on quora) is the best predictor of the success of ALL students of that IIT over the next 50 years of career. Quora will also tell you that the average offer in IIT-1 was Rs. 15 lakhs, while it was Rs. 14.8 lakhs in IIT-2. That the percentage of students placed is 93% in IIT-3 versus 92.5% in IIT-4. These huge differences can not be because of different way of computing these numbers, and of course, could not be questioned because they are on quora, and the only significance of these differences is that IIT-1 is better than IIT-2, and IIT-3 is better than IIT-4. (Don't even think about what happens if IIT-3 is same as IIT-2, and IIT-4 is same as IIT-1. We will come up some other metric to justify which ever IIT you want to join.)

Five, Arm yourself with other very important facts. Metro cities have more than 1000 restaurants, while other big cities have only 100 restaurants. And having a larger number of restaurants will force you to become an expert in evaluating choices and taking decisions when the number of options is very very large. And these skills will obviously help you in your career. You could also count the number of movie halls, but that is not very impressive since every screen is going to show "Udita Punjab" anyway. A bigger city would mean that you need to fight for your space in public transport and your career is nothing but a fight for your survival. The hair saloons in big cities will develop your personality so much better than the barber in the hostel of that small town IIT. On the other hand, if you are seriously considering a smaller town, you could read about the pollution numbers or just make them up. Who will know the difference anyway. You can also find out if the boys to girl ratio is 90:10 or 89:11. You can gather all these and more from quora or go to your coaching center. Believe in their wisdom. If they can get you through JEE, they know it all. (Oops, it is not clear whether they got you through. Normally, all successes are mine, and all failures are others'. So may be you passed JEE not because of coaching but your hard work and intelligence.) And come to think of it, since you are not particularly keen on facts being true or relevant, you don't need to go through quora for them. Facebook would be just fine.

And if all this does not convince some uncle that you have actually done due diligence, just ask them what their JEE rank was in their youth. That almost always works.

Six, Ask your Dad to contact me. I reply very quickly if someone my age contacts me and that is the only reason why mostly dads ask me questions. They may not have foggiest of the idea about what you want, but that does not matter. At the end of the day, or the week, they will sit with you when you login to the counseling portal, will give their mobile number and email address lest you should do something without their involvement, and they will tell you the order in which you should put your choices. So they need to do due diligence as well, and they would have followed exactly the steps outlined above.

Seven, some more questions to ask on quora:
  • Is there an MBA coaching place near IIT. You know that IIT is just a degree for you, a membership of the alumni association. The real action (read, real money) is after IIMs.
  • In which IIT, the professors give easy grades, is attendance compulsory. (So that you can do proper time management, another useful skill for the career. Avoid classes and build personality.) And of course, this information is easy to get, verifiable and can be completely trusted. The companies would love it when you say that you are a very focused person, the only thing you look at is the short term profit for yourself.
  • Which IIT allows you Internet access 24x7 to play those multi-user games which develop so many skills of coordination and team work.
There are many more things that I could suggest that you do in the next few days. But you also need time to deal with all those uncles. So this much homework for now. More when you take my class.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

JEE used to be student friendly

I am surprised by looking at this news item today. All sorts of restrictions on the students sitting for JEE Advanced next Sunday. I must thank my stars that JEE used to be so student friendly in my times.

It now appears that JEE wants to put the students through extreme stress (as if the stress of JEE was not bad enough) and the selection criteria is not who knows Physics, Chemistry and Maths, but who can handle stress. Obviously, anyone who can handle this kind of stress, is less likely to feel stressed once at IIT, and IIT Guwahaty should prefer that.

Reporting 90 minutes before the exam. Not everyone lives near the centers. Someone traveling long distance, of course, would have to come to town the evening before. But now you are insisting that even people coming from 50-100 KM distance check into a hotel near the center the previous evening. That will allow the candidates to have a proper sleep in the night, get up at a reasonable time and still reach 90 minutes before the exam. May be the hotels near JEE centers should have a special JEE offer. We will drop you at the center in the morning, keep your mobile and other things, bring you back for a quick lunch, and so on.

Does frisking take that much time. At the airports, we see lines moving rather quickly and they handle a huge amount of traffic under quite stressful conditions. Why can't we plan to have multiple frisking points at each center. I also understand that collecting biometric data for each candidate takes time, but is it necessary to ask everyone to report 90 minutes before the exam. Of course, an easier solution would have been to do the biometric data collection during the exam. Increase the time of the exam by 2 minutes, and every candidate will be disturbed once for 2 minutes during the exam for biometric. But that would be student friendly.

No watches. Of course, Samsung watch can communicate with the outside world, and you can't differentiate between one kind of watch and the other. But I won't be able to give an exam with this condition. When I am under stress, I need to have the time in front of me continuously. Even 1 minute is important. Announcing the time every 30 minutes is quite useless. (Wouldn't it be better for IITs to insist that there be wall clocks in every room, may be more than one, where exams are being held. But that would be student friendly.)

No shoes. I guess, you could hide a bluetooth device in the shoes. But how would one use that device without the invigilator noticing it. Wouldn't it be better to ensure better invigilation than to put such kinds of restrictions.

No full sleeves shirts or . I guess the idea is to bare more of your flesh since the hidden parts of the body could be carrying small communication devices. But where do we stop. May be force shorts instead of pants. And frankly, if someone wants to put a small communication device inside the clothes, even small size clothes are good enough for that. The rules also say that large buttons are not allowed. Apparently, large buttons could be the communication devices. Now, who decides what is large. And what happens if the size of the button is slightly larger than the normal. There is a disagreement between the student and the invigilator on what constitutes large. Would that person be allowed to sit in the exam without a shirt.

No metal. Many girl candidates are unlikely to realize that ear rings are made of a metal. What happens - you put away that gold ear ring outside and we are not responsible for its safety? Would my spectacles be allowed. Or would I have to buy a new pair made of plastic. Would the bracelet worn by Sikhs be allowed. Why no metal. I am sure IITs want to make sure that those with various superstitions about some rings doing wonders for them are not selected. Only those who have a strong belief in rationality and scientific processes should study in IITs.

The primary reason to do all this is to avoid cheating, which can normally be done by good invigilation. But instead of seeing how invigilation can be improved, we will put all the burden on the students. I recall when IITs had moved to 2-stage process in 1998. It was said that it is impossible to be fool proof about security when 10 lakh students are taking the exam. So in the second stage in which a much smaller number will be allowed, we can have a much tighter security and invigilation. So you can't do a tight invigilation when there are 2 lakh candidates. But what was the need to shortlist 2 lakh candidates. Why can't we trust JEE Mains a bit more and shortlist say only 1 lakh or even less.

If you look at the recent history of IIT JEE, the thought process is not "will this give us better students" "is this going to be student-friendly" but only "how can we organize JEE in a way that courts don't intervene and its reputation remains intact."