Vantage point

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Indian Entrance Tests

The blogger Abi, who is also a faculty member at IISc has written a post about the entrance exam methodology. I was planning a post on the topic myself a couple of weeks back, but the college-admission-related-blogging-fatigue got to me and I chucked it midway. This was followed by a short discussion with some friends about how the time for standardized tests has come in India.

This concept of one-shot entrance exams really is too arbitrary and dependent on luck. Even though I was a beneficiary of them during my engineering and management education, I know how large a part luck plays in them. It is inconceivable to imagine that just one entrance exam can completely test students for their suitability for a course and institute.

Admission procedures should be more broad-based, and an exam should be but one of the factors considered.

In fact if you make entrance processes dependent on just an examination, even if it is as fair as can be, it leads into a very unidimensional development of students during their school life. Let us take the JEE. It is a very tough exam, with some quality questions, and there can be no doubt that people who ace it will possess a great aptitude in problem solving.

But as those of you who have worked in the real world will know, while problem-solving skills play a very important role in success in technical jobs, they are by no means sufficient. Good communication skills are required. An ability to apply paper-based-problems and ideas to the real world is required. No matter how tough and challenging the JEE is, it can not and should not be the sole criterion.

Look at what the entrance exams are doing to students. Kids now start preparing for GRE from Class 9 onwards. 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th, i.e a student from 14-18, is just driven towards completely paper-based entrance procedures. Many children take coaching, cram all day, and often forego other interests for those crunch years. This would definitely hinder their all-round development. Many extracurricular activities are sacrificed in this rat race because every extra hour spent studying does actually help to improve your JEE rank.

Here let me put an outlier alert, let people mail me citing examples of several friends of theirs who are in the IIT, and yet good at sports, singing, debating, quizzing, etc. Yes, these are the outliers. But in general, communication skills, participation in sports, and other extra-curricular activities, not to mention dating :), are very poor in the average Indian student who is aspiring for some paper-based exam like JEE, or MHCET or PMT.

CAT is a bit better. Firstly, the test itself is more of an aptitude test, and does not really require cramming as such. Since it is based on just elementary maths, english and logic, the written test does measure your aptitude well. Then there is the GD/PI as well. If you don't do well in GD/PIs, then you can be denied admission. So you have to be at least a competent speaker, need to have some sort of extra currics that can set you apart.

In that sense, CAT does at least encourage students who are appearing for it to be prepared for the things that actually go into making a good manager - decent number crunching, gift of gab, confidence, presence of mind, etc. However it still is just a one-shot exam. It all depends on that 1 day of the year. So if you have a bad day, you are toast.

More entrance procedures even at undergrad level in India should try to be like CAT. This year I trained some students for their IIM GD/PI interview sessions. Many of them were really outstanding. But there were so many more who had a great percentile on CAT, but stuttered, were diffident, and hadn't done anything extracurricular of note. And that is not because they were dumb. But because nowadays a bulk of your formative years are spent cramming for these written tests.

People who run colleges in India need to think of a serious overhaul of the whole entrance exam procedure. And standardized tests, which at least take away the huge luck factor of it all depending on just one day, will be the first step.