Yesterday, we had our first Open House at IIIT-Delhi. And these are always fun events. Nice to meet potential students, feels good when their anxieties give way to a smile. Increasingly one finds that they are quite aware of their options, many of them have done their homework and are asking relevant questions.
There was an important difference between last year and this year. Both years I fielded questions for about 90 minutes. Last year, it was exclusively parents asking questions. This year, for the first 80 minutes, I answered only potential students. I announced in the beginning that we would prefer only such students in IIIT-Delhi who can ask questions in the class. So if they come from families where parents don't allow any questions to be asked, they might as well seek other opportunities. Further, I will take questions from parents only if there is no student asking a question. I know some of the parents must have been mighty upset and they may force their wards to not seek admission to a college which prefers students over parents, but we can only hope that there aren't many of them.
But the real fun starts after the formal part is over and some parents want to talk face to face. And most of them are never happy with my answers, and have a way to extract irrelevant information from me. One of those silly questions is, "treat my son as yours and advise him as you would advise your son." Well, it so happened that my daughter was also in 12th class and was looking for college admissions. And whatever advice I have been giving her, she has chosen to declare publicly that I am quite abnormal since I have been telling her right from her 1st grade that marks, schools, college degrees are not what would define her, but her values and compassion towards fellow beings. Can I give the same advice to your son? Choose whatever college and program and I would love you just the same. And the onus is on you to do the homework and ask questions, and I will find the right person to answer those questions.
No. That is not what they came to hear. So the question changes slightly. Assume you were in 12th class and have all the options available to you. (The boy apparently is expecting a very good rank in JEE Advanced.) What would you study. This is again a silly question because my interests could be vastly different from your interests. My optimization function in life could be vastly different from your optimization function in life. So how does it matter, what would I study. But the lady insisted.
I responded that I would choose Ashoka University. Would you prefer Ashoka over IITs. Of course, I will. And they felt that I was joking and not willing to help them and all that. But I was dead serious. You see, my father had studied three subjects at the Master's level - Mathematics, Political Science and History, and we had lots of books in all these subjects at home. I would read many of them and developed a love for these three subjects. I don't know how and why, but somewhere in school, I started liking Economics, even though I didn't study it formally. When I was seeking admission in 11th class, the question of careers came up. I was told that there are only three careers that can lift our family out of relative deprivation. They were engineering, medicine and chartered accountancy. Besides, only those kids took social science subjects in high school who didn't do well in 10th class. Did I want to study with such peers.
My father wanted me to become a doctor, but I flatly refused. I couldn't draw free hand and biology meant that every week we would be seeing something in the microscope and drawing that. (Yes, schools had labs then which were taken seriously.) And I wasn't excited by the prospect of dissecting a frog. Admission to Delhi College of Engineering was certain given my school performance till then. And I was told, once admitted, almost everyone got a degree in due course, followed by a job. But becoming CA involved lots of tests over the next few years and every exam had a very small passing percentage. So went with the safe choice of career. Also prepared for JEE, just in case lady luck smiled on me (which she did). So that is how I chose my career. But today, things are different. India of 80s and India of 2017 offer vastly different choices, and I am convinced that studying liberal arts would lead to a happy career as well. And hence I would follow my passion and choose Ashoka.
This didn't impress the lady. So she changed the question again. Assume you are JEE ranked 1 and you are forced to consider only programs in IITs. No Ashoka, No IIIT-Delhi. What would you choose? How would my choice help your son take a decision, but anyway, I would choose BS (Economics) at IIT Kanpur. And the reason is clear. I am interested in Economics among all the disciplines offered by IITs, and whatever little I know about Economics programs at different IITs, I think Kanpur's program is the best. But the lady is just feeling more frustrated. This is not the reply she was looking for. She, of course, had a very clear idea of what program she wanted to force her son into, and was hoping that I would say the same thing. But it wasn't happening.
So the question changed again. Assuming that I have no particular interest in any discipline but I know a lot about curriculum, faculty, pedagogy, life at different IITs (notice how people talking to me have learnt to avoid mentioning "placement" in their questions), and I am still JEE number 1, what will I choose.
I promptly responded, "IIT Gandhinagar." And she was completely flabbergasted. Why IITGN? Well, I have been to that campus about 50 times in the last 8 years and I see so many happy faces, so much innovation, so much care and concern, good faculty, good infrastructure, and so on. But are they better than all other IITs, I am asked.
How did you choose your husband? Did you collect CVs of every single male, shortlisted some (based on age/caste/religion/language, etc.) and then employed some complex algorithm over all those remaining CVs to judge who would make you the richest (and perhaps even a bit happy) over the next 50 years. I certainly didn't select my wife like that. Sometimes you just know that this is right for you. All that can be seen is positive. All that can be felt is positive, and I don't have a smart algorithm to predict the future.
But I must give full marks to the lady for her persistence. So, let us change the question again. You are JEE Rank 1. You have no particular preference of discipline. You haven't been to any IIT and you don't know enough about either the disciplines or the Institutes. How would you decide.
Well, 35 years ago, I was indeed in such a situation. Not #1, but close enough that I could get admission to any program in any IIT. And I didn't know much about any discipline, and hadn't visited any IIT. What did I do. I actually visited IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi, and talked to a few students of IIT Kanpur. And traveling in those days in the peak summer rush was very painful. So may be you and your son should travel to a few IITs in which you may have an interest and then decide.
No, no, no. Let us assume that because of some constraints, it is not possible to travel.
Well, basically, you are saying that the only information that I have is the counseling brochure (now online) from IITs, which gives last year's closing ranks. If this is the only information I have then I will use only this information and just order all my choices in the same order as last year's closing ranks, modulate that list with my geographical preference (want to be away from home). In short, I will select CSE program of IIT Bombay.
This was music to her ears, and she felt happy. Now, she could tell her son to look at last year's closing ranks and fill up choices based on that, since Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi would have done the same thing.