The JEE experience

The recent discussions around the IIT JEE got me thinking a little about the past 10 years of my life, specifically around the JEE experience.

I did pretty much all my schooling in the Middle East, where the most common options after school are to either return to India for undergrad (an easy option, since many good colleges like the NITs have an NRI quota for non resident Indians) or to come to the US (relatively easy for an above average student, although only a handful got admits to the top colleges each year i.e. Stanford/Berkeley/CMU/UIUC/Yale ).

For various reasons, I was interested in neither of these, but was interested in the IITs – the first time I had heard of them, was in an article that I had read when I was in class 6 (I believe it was http://www.businessweek.com/1998/49/b3607011.htm), which talked about this guy(I believe it was Rakesh Gangwal of US Airways/IITK)  who could crunch numbers in his head – the fact that he was a CEO didn’t mean much to me then (I don’t think I even knew what a CEO was), but the number crunching part seemed very cool.

This was a year or two before I had taken a liking to math and (much to the dismay of multiple math teachers later in my school life) started doing math problems mentally and minimized the number of steps in my math homework. For the record, class 6 math was simple algebra (2*x +4 = 8 therefore x=2 : so it wasn’t anything fancy). Nevertheless, I remember thinking as I read the article “hmm wait, I can do this too, so this IIT place must be where people who can do this go” (but no, I could *not* mentally juggle parts of a business model/do marginal cost/sensitivity analysis, at least not then).

Additionally, since that was also close to the time I had started getting more and more into coding (my fascination at that point was being able to compose a song using a QBASIC program that played notes via the computer’s beeper), I decided I had to try and study Computer Science at an IIT, preferably IITK (it wasn’t the best of reasons to decide on CS, but in my defense, I was 11 years old).

Deciding to give JEE is one thing – preparing is another – for the next 2 years I essentially tried to learn JEE math with little success – trignometry was all greek and I was always suspicious about that integration symbol. Part of the reason I found it tough was that I tried to learn by reading through a book, without using a paper to write things/practice what I had learnt. It was like trying to push a train, but slowly things started making sense.

From grade 9 to 12, I started looking at Physics and Chemistry too – essentially walking around the room with an Irodov (a book by a Russian author with hard Physics problems) trying to do the problems mentally – it didn’t work – needed paper in the end, although HC Verma (another Physics book) was easy to do mentally for the most part.

During this time, I was also wondering whether I should instead focus on applying to colleges in the US. One fine day, when I was talking about this, a classmate suggested that I should focus on applying to the US colleges since it was relatively easy to get into a top 20 college but it was practically impossible for someone who studied outside India to get into the IITs (leave alone getting to do Computer Science, which was the hardest to get among all the departments). This definitely made sense but the thing is, I was 15 years old then and when you tell a teenager that he can’t do something, he has *got* to do only that 🙂

I eventually gave JEE in 2004 (along with about 200,000 others) and barely scraped through to the top 100 ranks – IITK/CSE/BTech closed at a rank of 110 that year, and so, I got in – a happy ending, but in hindsight, the journey was as important as the destination for two reasons :

a) when you get past odds of 1:2000 once, the next time the odds are against you, instead of getting fazed and giving up, you try to analyze the situation (using decision trees, state transition matrices, directed acyclic dependency graphs and all those other cool analytical tools that you had to study about and now finally get to use) and identify things you could do to improve the odds, working as hard as needed.

b) a fair number of people (most?) who get through JEE develop the ability to crunch numbers in their head. This helps you develop a natural feel for many mathematical models and quickly evaluate multiple possibilities each of which would have taken at least 30 seconds to evaluate with a calculator.

Of the above, b) in particular, is useful in a business context – for example, just this morning, when I was talking to a partner at a VC firm, I wanted to make a point about a 4 level decision tree model that he showed me – instead of making a vague sounding comment about how a small change in a parameter might in some situations cause the decision to change, I was able to point to a specific node in the tree and say that if this increased from 1% to 1.2%, then the expected return would cross 10x which would change your decision – being able to back statements you make with analysis (performed in a split second) helps you feel more confident that you are making a valid point and generally, helps establish credibility.

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2 Responses to “The JEE experience”

  1. hauroon Says:

    Good for you. You may actually have been saved by the lack of classes as some of these coaching classes burn you out. I was IIT M ’88. Also was at MS – redmond but left by 2003. Take a look at my site where I am trying to push self study for IIT JEE. You would have been an ideal poster child :-). (www.iiteach.in).

    Have Fun,

    Hauroon Jamal

  2. rahul Says:

    Before time making up of mind regarding career options is essential for appropriate preparations. If the goal is not recognized on right time the outcomes will be negative.

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