Torquing About IIT-JEE

The Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) is the sole entry point into India’s best engineering colleges – the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). Students have to battle it out to solve the most challenging questions from Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. With an acceptance rate of 1.5%, it is notoriously known as one of the toughest examinations in the world. Aspiring students sign up at coaching academies for two, sometimes four years. Even coaching institutes have selection screening tests to tutor only the best students. With a large population and much talent, it can get extremely competitive.  Ambarish Srivastava is the Dean of Physics and Centre Head at FIITJEE Faridabad, one of the most coveted coaching institutes in India. He’s also an alumnus of the prestigious IIT Delhi.
I was his student once, and am fortunate to be interviewing him today. Let’s ask him what it takes to crack the test, his thoughts on the disturbingly high student suicide rates it is known to cause, and more.


When and how did you start teaching for JEE?

It’s an interesting story. I had always dreamed of teaching in an engineering college, and had a clear road map planned ahead. So I completed my B.Tech and M.Tech from IIT Delhi and did research for 3 years. Then, I joined IP University in New Delhi as a professor. And then I got the shock of my life (chuckles).

Shock of your life?

Yes. The students weren’t serious. They didn’t want to study. One day before the finals they used to ask, “Exam mein expected questions kya hai? Important kaunse hai?” (What questions are expected in/important for the exam?)
It made me wonder; had I graduated from the renowned IIT Delhi for this?

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Taking a class at FIITJEE Faridabad

Then how did FIITJEE happen?

Shortly thereafter there was this full length advertisement in the Times of India. They were offering a decent salary too. I thought about how sincere students in Class XI and XII (A levels) are. They know their future depends on these two years, so they are ready to work for it. Once they’re in college, they’re burnt out and done with studying. I didn’t want to teach an audience without motivation.

Do you think that a sacrifice of social life and extra-curricular activities is necessary to study effectively for JEE?

Unfortunately, yes. But I think this is because schools don’t teach up to those standards. Since the Central Board (of Secondary Education, or CBSE) groups all students together until the 11th grade, they have to keep the syllabus generic. So they have to jump suddenly from 10th grade Math to Engineering Mathematics. It is an uphill journey, and to manage their time students have to cut down on their social life.

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Speaking at the FIITJEE results convention

Well, there is this stereotype associated with engineers: that they’re smart, but are low on social skills.

There’s a reason behind it. There are so many children, for instance those who go off to places where they run a very hectic schedule from morning 6:00 a.m. all the way up to night 10p.m. (Yes! There are places like that) with very few breaks in between. The children don’t get any time to socialize or develop their social skills. Particularly in Hyderabad and some other cities in Andhra, this is very common.

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So how does a student balance it out?

My advice is, do not enroll in non-attending programmes. They make you skip school completely and only focus on JEE for two years. There is no scope for personality development in such a claustrophobic environment.
Instead, join weekend study programmes. Go to school on weekdays. Interact with colleagues during the day, and study for 3-4 hours in the evening. There’s no harm in even pursuing a hobby by the side.

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In some European countries, students are required to work in universities or organisations to gain hands-on skills in their pre-university years. Do you think Indian students would benefit from such a system?

I think that’s a great idea, especially because Indian students get little hands-on experience before they enter university. Though they also catch up fast, because they are theoretically very sound.
The main problem is that in Germany or the UK etc., those who pursue engineering are actually interested in it. Unlike in India, where they do it because their parents are after them. So I’m not sure how willing they’d be, to do all the practical stuff.

There is this joke. In India, you become a doctor or an engineer first. And then decide what you really want to do.

(laughs) Sadly, it is true. That is why it is extremely important for parents to not pester or force their children. Let them do what they want to do or be what they want to be. For example, there was this girl in your batch, Pallavi Prasad. She left the FIITJEE coaching to pursue journalism. Her father was an IITian. But he didn’t pressurize her, and she went for it- I really appreciate that.

Did you pursue your degree out of interest?

No, not at all! My story is just the same (grins). My mother kept reminding me of how all my uncles were engineers, and how I need to be one too. I only chose Mechanical engineering because I liked the Mechanics part of Physics!

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Ambarish celebrating JEE results with his students

You teach the top batches now, where most of the students make it to IIT. What’s different about these kids? What do they have that most students don’t?

I feel that those who excel academically don’t study because they have to, but because they want to. Most other students compartmentalize their lives into ‘study’ and ‘fun’. But the students in the top batches find studying fun. They get a kick out of it. Like I have this brilliant student, Aditya Sharma. He goes far beyond what is expected, finding and solving questions from multiple sources, on his own. So self-motivation is very important.
Once they’re in that space, it’s no longer an effort. They get into the flow, forget the time, forget to eat…

So it isn’t related to genetics?

I wouldn’t say that is not a contributing factor. It is a combination of both nature and nurture. Some skills like Math and Music are definitely inherited.

But most of us never get into that zone where work equals fun.

That can only happen if you are doing what you love. Which is why it’s important to pursue your passion. In India, people waste the first 24 years of their life doing engineering and law due to societal or parental pressure. And then start thinking about what they want to do.

There are some people who might be resourceful, but fail to perform under pressure. Or just anyone having a bad day. Do you think grades from one exam conducted on one day is sufficient to justify a student’s worth in the admissions process?

You are right. It is unlike the US or other foreign countries, where they look at academic and non-academic projects from the past before selecting someone. In JEE, if you lose one mark you are down 250 ranks – which means losing your major of choice. If there’s negative marking and you make a couple of silly mistakes, you could fall from rank 7000 to rank 30,000. It can be devastating for the students. Because they put in two years of intense study and strict discipline just for that one day.

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Class in session at a coaching institute in Kota

Also, it must take a toll on mental health. This is evident from the increasing number of student suicides every year.

Oh yes. Last year in Kota itself, there were 20 suicides. Institutes need to get out of the commercial mold and be more empathetic towards students. A student teacher ratio of 250:1 is simply unacceptable. At the end of the day we are talking about children. They are homesick and stressed out. These institutes need to give up being so impersonal and offer them counselling services or assign mentors. At FIITJEE for instance, we have regular parent-teacher meetings where we try to understand what the student is going through and decide the best way to help them.

When I was studying, there were some students who came from poor families. They were highly-driven and traveled long distances every day to attend class. To them, clearing the exam was a do-or-die.

Absolutely. In fact, I had a student- Anuj Chaurasia, from Jaunpur. He told me that in the 36 villages around him, no one had cleared JEE. He went out of his way to ask questions, and was very eager. His father had noticed a spark in him and had enrolled him in the Fortunate 40 program.

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An advertisement of FIITJEE’s Fortunate 40 program

What is the Fortunate 40 program?

It is one of FIITJEE’s programs, designed for brilliant but underprivileged students. All expenses, including food and clothing, are taken care of.

I feel that in India, the system is designed to benefit the rich and talented, the poor and talented, and the rich but not-s0-talented. What happens to the not-so-smart and not-so-wealthy?

I agree, they are the worst sufferers. This happens because the population is too much and the planning too poor. The government needs to plan and create jobs according to need, demand and availability. Anyone is allowed to open an engineering college in India. There has to be some regulation. Recently there were some vacancies for a sweeper’s role in the Railways, and a bunch of PhD graduates lined up.

The law does not require the political leaders to have a basic degree. Isn’t it ironic that you need an MBA to manage a corporation, and nothing to run a country?

You have been teaching Physics to the 11th and 12th grade for years now, and the syllabus hasn’t changed much. How do you keep yourself engaged in the subject?

I keep learning and re-inventing. Whenever a student tries to ask something intriguing, I mull over it. And then try to frame the answer in the best way possible, for the whole class to understand. Then, I also update my notes to add to the coursework, so that the question does not arise again in future batches.

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With wife Neha Srivastava and daughters Varada and Shraavasti

We spoke a lot about parental pressure and the freedom to pursue your interests. Tomorrow if one of your daughters expresses a professional interest in say, dancing, how would you react?

I would encourage her. I honestly believe that if you don’t follow your heart, you become frustrated in life. And then it frustrates the environment, the people around you.
I do expect her to be decently good at Maths though. I’ll get her through the JEE training and then let her decide for herself (smiles).

You always seem so happy and jovial. What is your motto/mantra to live a happy life?

There’s a quote by Zig Ziglar, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”  It’s never too late to begin again. Even if you think you’ve wasted your life until now, you can start over again. Now.

That is definitely reassuring. Thank You for your time and valuable insights, sir. How could our readers contact you?

I’m active on Facebook Messenger. So you could just add me there.
For information on FIITJEE and its various programmes, you could call the FIITJEE All India Toll free number 1800 11 4242 or for FIITJEE Faridabad Center, Mr. Pawan Kumar Rai. Contact: (+91)9717444015

For my non-Indian reader friends, the short documentary below will give you a better idea of the impact of IITs on the world, particularly the US.

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Author: Swarnima Korde

Engineer. Story-teller. Listener. Writer.

2 thoughts on “Torquing About IIT-JEE”

  1. Loved reading the article…I have seen you going to fiitjee ,and how comfortable and confident you were for your exams…fiitjee played a big role I think..and after reading the article I must say a hard working person like Mr Ambrish only can help in building such strong and genuine institute like fiitjee…good luck to fiitjee and of co urse good luck to espresso conversation…and yup I must say the video is worth watching..will definitely show it to my 10 yr old son also…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yes Please do – I think if a child chooses to sign up for something like this, he/she must be fully informed before getting into such a big commitment. As Sir said in the interview, the most successful students are those who study by choice 🙂

      Like

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