Competitive Exam Culture in India
“(I) really, with all my heart, wish that my whole life, all 18 years of my life and what's left of it, did not directly or indirectly, depend on this one exam held on just one day. It's not fair and does not do justice to everything I've been through my whole life”, says an aspiring NEET candidate, which adequately sums up the feeling of many competitive exam applicants in our country.
No student in India is alien to this Race of entrance exams, how can we, when the minute we are born we hear something along the lines of “Mera bachcha engineer/doctor/businessman/CA/Lawyer banega” (job description subject to your family’s career). And as soon as we show an inkling to appear for any such exam, coaching centers come barging at our doors, stating its already too late and forgetting to enroll for a course is worse than being on the buffet for a starved lion.
Many applicants, few seats
“As for me, the biggest bummer about JEE has got to be the fact that no matter how good a student you are, you won’t get into a good college until you get a solid 98-99 percentile. There are more than one lakh people scoring 90 percentile plus. Luck plays a major role in such competitive exams because you can’t really guess what’s gonna happen at the day of exam, in those 3 hours, inside the examination hall. That one moment of you being unsure, panicking, or having anxiety actually puts your entire 2 years of hardwork into the gutter”, comments Sanskriti Panda, a JEE aspirant in grade 12th.
This highlights the primary issue with these examinations- bagging a rank among lakhs of students is accepted widely as a mark of excellence. A simple sentence like “results have been announced” can stop hearts, inevitably deciding whether it’s a day of celebration or if we don a black dress and attend the funeral of our academic brilliance and career paths.
On a similar note another comments,
”I took JEE exam in February (and) got a 98.8 percentile. This exam it's a rat race. People (are) obviously ready to eat each other up for like 0.001 percentile. I'm practically in the top 2% and somehow even that's not enough. It's good to set up a benchmark and give equal opportunities so that everyone can take the same test and get the results fairly. But is it really fair when people get the advantage of quotas. SC/ST kids who have the same resources as I do should get the admission for the exact same hardwork. Competitive exams are so much pressure, they genuinely make you want to leave the whole idea of a career. And every stupid Mark matters because India's population is well... so huge.”
After school competitive exams become the deciding factor, whether you get into your dream colleges, courses or have to settle for second tier. One exam makes or breaks aspirations, all prior work having no reflection on your ability.
Statistically, IIT’s with less than 1% acceptance rate are harder to get into than Ivy League schools with 115 aspirants for each seat across 23 IIT’s. NEET 2020 saw 15.97 lakh applicants competing for 1,150 MBBS seats in the AIIMS.
The morality of these quotas and reservations is another conversation altogether, but the fact is that they leave hundreds of thousands of students in the General category scrambling to receive recognition for their hard work.
NEET seat division
584 are reserved for the general category candidates; 311 are reserved for the other backward class candidates; 172 are reserved for the backward caste candidates; and 83 are reserved for the backward tribe candidates.
Test of abilities or Ability to give a test?
Utkarsh Vats, student of NLIU brings up another criticism, stating “CLAT is one competitive exam which has become increasingly popular in the last few years and has however been shrouded with controversies, the CLAT consortium trying new things and changing paper patterns hasn’t gone down well with aspirants and the recent changes have been described as largely “English centric” with non-English medium students at a significant disadvantage. I think Law is a subject in which one’s aptitude cannot be adjudged by a standardised object test in one language exclusively. As we move towards more equality in education, as exam in such a pattern only takes us further back.”
This problem is sadly prevalent in almost such examinations, with the questions providing unfair advantage to a particular group, testing archaic skills which are no longer needed, or being a jailer of critical thinking, placing all importance on rote learning and getting the correct answer by hook or by crook.
Putting the feeling of the grueling preparation and misuse of mental faculties into words another adds, “Well, for me, NEET didn’t happen in a day but initiated years before the exam. The pressure that revolves around the exam makes one starve themselves out of every possible hobby to only pay time for one exam. With all of the coaching classes capitalizing the stress, these exams turn to take a serious ridicule in their account. Moreover, the glorification of exhaustive practices and study patterns induce a sense of worthlessness and under-preparedness for those who decide to take modified approaches to prepare for the exam. In the prequels to the exam lies another aspect which usually is overlooked; is the preparation for the invigilators. The untrained invigilators’ passive aggressiveness towards any query conveys quite a lot about the hole in the system. Also, while being at the center, the condescending environment triggers a huge variety of intangible issues. The rigid system fails to facilitate critical thinking and hence only promotes objective know-how without any abstract aspect being taken into consideration.”
Memorization is the only key to success here, acceptable answers being those that were fed to us in class. We are made to believe that any deviation from this school of thinking is wrong and will be penalized. Prioritizing marks over learning extends onto our families, friends and social groups. Soaring percentages begin to demand almost perfect scores in all subjects, while the examination caters only to those with a database instead of a brain.
Preparation for these exams has become a sport, with coaching centres popping up more frequently than McDonalds. Kota in Rajasthan is notorious for being the competitive hub, children as young as 12 are expected to ascertain their future, leave regular schooling life and spend the next 6 years with their noses buried deep in books in the hopes that a prestigious college will be handing them a degree. School education, especially in the last two years becomes nearly redundant. Every single student knows that sitting for these exams with only your school curriculum under your belt is like sitting for a Japanese exam having only watched anime. As rightly stated, “Why do we have to go not even one but atleast ten extra miles to just be willing to sit in the exam. Exams like these just make me feel how what we study in our schools is not knowledgeable enough to help us crack the exam.”
“They're a system of utter determination and dedication. The toil that some people strive towards for the same is highly commendable and is often undervalued. That being said, the importance of these exams has been pedestalised for far too long and a lot of the aspiring masses are made to believe that the world is very tiny outside of their circle of education.”
As pointed out by Jeevesh, a NEET/JEE aspirant, placing heavy importance on such streamlined thinking has a counterintuitive effect. Hardworking Graduates often find that their courses didn't prepare them for or keep them up-to-date on the technical and practical skills they need in their first. The skill gap between what they learn and what is required of them in their workspaces makes them unemployable. The years of preparation also leaving lasting scars in one’s personalities.
Harshit, a JEE aspirant adds, “I'd define my experience preparing for one of the world's most competitive exams as mentally frustrating, socially isolating. The way we're taught encourages negative competition, jealousy and a 'anything to succeed' approach. I was lucky enough to know when to get out, other were not, sad thing being that they don't realize that.”
The social isolation directly undermines social skills, ability to communicate easily with others and of course, some part of their youth. Freshmen are desperately in need of re-orientation to society to salvage the soft skills crucial in a professional space. But that’s not all, another more devastating impact of the competition often goes overlooked, as stated by another, “Exams like JEE and NEET only increase anxiety and depression amongst the students, who are forced to give these in order to pursue their dreams. These exams contain so much competition that even if a student did their best, they cannot help but feel inferior to others and feel like a failure."
According to a recent study published by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, one in every five teenagers in India turns into a victim of toxicity or mental illness. Globally, anxiety is the most common psychological disorder amongst school students and teenagers. Each day, about six students commit suicide because of academic failure.
However, success and failure will follow in any endeavour we strive for, as Srimant Mohnanty, appearing for JEE says, “Any competition has two outcomes: WIN OR LOSE. Universally all desire for a favourable result, but fact is only a very small percentile actually qualify. So right at an early age of 18 years, these exams teach us how to handle success or failures and move on in life. If one is objective without being passionate about the results, one does learn to face the failures or success with equanimity. It is a matter of mindset to appreciate that it is JUST an exam not a life changing event. Whereas it is fair to expect good results after hard work, but it is even more important to positively respond to failures despite working hard. After all what we consider failure today maybe the route to success down the life lane.”
In principle, NEET and JEE are good ideas as they make multiple state-wise tests unnecessary. But conducting a professionally competent standardised exam is nothing less than a fantasy today. A single exam should not be the deciding factor of your ability to pick a career.
As Shriya Kaistha rightly states, "All of a us are not merely a percentile or a grade, that’s just a part of the whole and we are so much more. I’m sorry that the Indian education system doesn’t recognize that yet, but I hope it changes. I’ve been studying for JEE all my life and I frankly screwed it up. And I mean the feeling sucks but what I think is life doesn’t end at it and you learn. It’s great if someone does well. But it’s ok if you don’t do the same as them. Doesn’t mean you are any less.”
The Hindu (for suicide stats)
Society for Human Resource Management (soft and hard skills)
Times of India (JEE and NEET applicant stats)
*certain entries edited for length*