New Delhi: Sunil Singhal was on a train to Kanpur. He had just cleared Class XII and on that train there were several others like him, students, all on their way to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) for their interview.
This was the summer of 1966, long before the frenzy surrounding IIT admissions took hold.
Singhal’s first love was the Indian Air Force but his parents wanted him to join the civil services. Getting into an IIT was not even part of the plan. In fact, writing the entrance exam was just a sort of rehearsal for the final goal: the civil services. Getting the IIT admission letter, however, changed all that.
“One of the students on the train asked me what my rank was. I had no idea so I was asked to check my letter. The letter stated that I had the first rank and that is how I found out that I had topped the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) that year,” he recalls.
Singhal’s blissful unawareness about his rank in the IIT entrance exam, albeit five decades ago, is in contrast to the near-hysterical adulation showered on students that top the exam now. In fact, going by the experience of Tanmaya Shekhawat, one doesn’t even have to be a topper anymore. Shekhawat, who secured the 11th position in the 2016 JEE exam, was gifted a BMW sedan by his coaching institute, Samarpan Career Institute in Sikar, Rajasthan. Sure, the ride is not brand new. In fact, it belonged to the director of the coaching institute R.L. Poonia but apparently the car was in “excellent condition” and had clocked only 1,500km. In an interview to the Hindustan Times, Poonia explained his largesse by saying, “For the first time someone in the district has scored a rank under 100 in IIT JEE Advanced.”
This is still welcome attention. In 2008, Shitikanth Kashyap, the topper, left his home town Patna for Mumbai, fed up with politicians and owners of coaching institutes landing up on his doorstep supposedly to felicitate his achievement but also keen to co-opt him and his success.
There have been more than 50 toppers of IIT JEE since the first IIT was set up in 1956 in Kharagpur. And the hype that surrounds the top rank in the entrance exam, as is obvious from Singhal’s experience, is a fairly recent phenomenon. But what happens once the arc lights have faded, the BMW has been driven away and the coaching institutes with their bill boards, flyers and posters congratulating you have disappeared?
In what way does topping an entrance exam impact the career paths pursued by these men (no woman has topped JEE till now). Mint set out to find an answer to these questions and the results were quite varied.
First things first—it is rare to find an IIT topper (at least the ones over the past two decades) who is still in India. Most of the toppers Mint tracked down and got in touch with were either in America or have done a stint there before returning to India for professional reasons. Arvind Saraf topped IIT JEE in 1997 and opted for computer science in IIT Kanpur. He moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) following his engineering degree but moved back to India midway. A few months later, he joined Google. “This is around the time people started looking at technology and development and it was all around me in 2004,” he says. But Saraf does admit that the traditional sector is quite different from academia or research, or even the corporate sector—specially in India. “There are always new and unseen situations in India, especially in an entrepreneurial set-up,” he says. Coming from a business family, engineering wasn’t a default option in his family. “In those days education wasn’t seen as linked to the textile business. My parents knew I was preparing for IIT, but it was a little difficult to avoid family functions at home in Surat. My boarding school in Delhi had a lot of noise around IIT JEE. For some of us, almost as if it was the only reason for existence,” adds Saraf.
None of the IIT toppers Mint spoke with anticipated their top rank. Yes, they were confident of doing well, yes they hoped they would get through but the top rank was not something they anticipated. “I signed up for a pan-India exam organized by Agrawal Coaching Classes and was ranked either fifth or sixth,” says Prasoon Jha who topped IIT JEE in 1993. “That gave me confidence that I will do well but I never imagined topping the entrance.” Jha grew up in Bokaro where in his own words the top five career choices were “engineering, engineering, medical, medical and engineering”. And he did well in all the other exams that year. Jha got 93.68% in Class XII boards (this was long before today’s scenario where it is considered just about an average score) and stood fifth in the Roorkee Engineering Entrance Exam. But does this mean he was one of the brightest young people in India that year? “I know people who were gifted. Who could solve calculus in the 2nd and 3rd standard, toppers in Maths Olympiad. Topping IIT is a mix of working hard and working smart,” says Jha. Today he is a lead system architect with Visa engineering though he too has done his obligatory US stint.
And those who have seen the system up close and personal, say that the first rank is often dependent on factors on the examination day. “For the first 10 ranks, the levels remain the same…for the topper, it turns out to be a big deal but factually it is those factors on the examination day which decide the winner although any one out of the first 10 could have been a winner. In an examination like IIT JEE, it is the relative performance which matters, notwithstanding the difficulty level of papers. Even few questions can make a difference,” says R.L. Trikha, director of FIITJEE Ltd, one of the older coaching institutes set up in the country to crack IIT.
Both Jha and Saraf are exceptions in that they are in India and working in the mainstream set-up. Most IIT toppers steer clear of the corporate ladder. In fact, quite a few of them are either in academics or research departments of tech companies like Microsoft and Google.
Subhash Khot, who topped the entrance exam in 1995, is a mathematician and theoretical computer scientist, and is a professor of computer science at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University. He declined to participate in this story citing personal reasons. Arvind Thiagarajan who topped the entrance in 2001 works for the research department of Amazon.
Shitikanth Kashyap topped the entrance in 2008 and had to leave home because of the circus that followed it. He is currently at Canada’s University of Waterloo, where he is completing a PhD in quantum computing. Both Thiagarajan and Kashyap did not respond to emails.
Rina Panigrahy, who topped IIT JEE in 1991, is now a research scientist with Google. With a master’s from MIT and a PhD from Stanford under his belt, Panigrahy says he has done a lot of back and forth between industry and academia. “I found the former to have more of an impact on society. Academic work is more theoretical,” he says over the phone from Bay Area. But most toppers gravitate towards academics as their bent of mind is such.
But how does being a topper affect these boys who are actually at the cusp of adulthood when they are subjected to this level of scrutiny and adulation? Is it something that shapes them for the rest of their lives or is it something that just falls by the wayside over the years?
Singhal ,the 1966 topper, laughs off the questions with a wave of his hand. He says the only time it was ever mentioned in IIT was when he was ragged (all harmless, he insists) for being a topper. For the others, it’s a tag that sticks with them for perhaps the first month or so of the course and then fades away into nothingness. “There are advantages and disadvantages to topping. In some ways it plays out even now in the sense that in some professional circles, people will remember my name, ask if I topped the exam that year,” says Jha.
The top rank, however, does not find a mention either in their resumes or Linkedin profiles. In fact, Nitin Gupta, who topped the exam in 2000 and is now an assistant professor at IIT Kanpur’s biological and bioengineering department, feels that “being a JEE topper makes no difference...than if you were a JEE rank 50 or rank 100 (except possibly in the initial allocation of the branch)—your career after that depends on what you learn and how well you do in IIT and afterwards”.
Till 1994 there were only five IITs in India. Then IIT Guwahati was set up, followed by the conversion of the Roorkee College of Engineering in 2001. In 2008-09, the government decided to expand IITs and eight new ones were set up in Bhubaneswar, Gandhinagar, Hyderabad, Jodhpur, Patna, Ropar, Indore and Mandi. All these IITs together take in around 10,000 students.
This year over 1.1 million students wrote the JEE Main exam for these seats. JEE is a two-tier exam system. While JEE Main is the first level of entrance for selection into hundreds of engineering colleges, it works as a filter to shortlist 150,000 top students for sitting in the JEE Advanced. JEE Advanced is conducted by IITs for selection of their prospective BTech students.
In 2008, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry had estimated the size of the coaching industry to be around Rs10,000 crore. Coaching hubs like Kota have come up, littered with institutes that include residential facilities where students are expected to stay while preparing for the entrance exams. Coaching institutes offer foundation courses for IIT JEE for students of Class VII and VIII, thus starting the chase for the elusive admission letter, very early on.
The growth of the coaching industry has led many to believe that it has compromised the quality of students who finally crack JEE as they are coached along those lines. In 2008, IIT Madras director M.S. Ananth had said that coaching institutes made it possible for some less-than-eligible students to get into the institutes. “I am looking for students with raw intelligence and not those with a mind prepared by coaching class tutors. The coaching classes only help students in mastering question paper pattern recognizing skills. With this, you cannot get students with raw intelligence,” said Ananth.
According to a 2015 Times of India report , a committee constituted by the IIT council known as the Committee of Eminent Persons submitted a report to the human resource development ministry suggesting a revamp in the pattern of JEE that will help break this coaching culture. The same report, however, also stated that according to statistics disclosed by IIT Bombay, which conducted JEE 2015, of the 9,974 students who finally cracked JEE this year, 4,892 said they had relied on self-study.
“In the current scenario…, it is a rejection process instead of selection. When around 14 lakh students appear for 10,575 seats available in IITs, it is the relative performance and not the absolute performance which will matter. Since school/colleges are not in a position to bridge the gap between learning and application of concepts, good coaching institutes help students in bettering their conceptual understanding and sharpening their analytical skills, giving them a much needed competitive edge…like healthcare, coaching is also a business with a difference,” says Trikha of FIITJEE.
But the toppers, even those who did take coaching, admit to being taken aback by the sheer size of the industry and how it has grown. Panigrahy remembers the cash money Brilliant Tutorials used to hand out even at that time but considers it pretty tame by what he hears happens now.
Prestige, a stamp of excellence and a well-paying job that ensures a comfortable lifestyle—the mecca of a middle-class Indian upbringing—are what a seat in the IIT ensures. But that’s for the outsiders. Those who have been through engineering institutes have stories of finding themselves if only to become a stand-up comedian (Biswapati Sarkar, Biswa Kalyan Rath) or chief executives of tech giants (Sundar Pichai) or to set up companies that are household names today (Flipkart). At the end of the day, it’s really not about the rank that gets you there but what you leave there with.
“What IIT teaches you, and not just the toppers is not as much as the chemistry or the advanced mathematics but the way of addressing problems. Every problem break it down, make it into smaller sections and solve it one at a time. It is the way I work even now and that’s what IIT is all about,” says Singhal.