Parent reflects on IIT experience

September 21, 2015 — by Fiona Sequeira

This year, Stanford accepted just 5.1 percent of its 42,497 applicants into its freshman class, the lowest acceptance rate ever seen at a top American university. Yet in 2014, only 9,748 of 1,360,000 applicants, a mere 0.7 percent, earned admission into the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), the most prestigious college system in India and one of the most selective in the world.  IIT’s graduates include numerous leaders of Silicon Valley, such as the Designated CEO of Google, and various professors at MIT, Stanford and UC Berkeley.

This year, Stanford accepted just 5.1 percent of its 42,497 applicants into its freshman class, the lowest acceptance rate ever seen at a top American university. Yet in 2014, only 9,748 of 1,360,000 applicants, a mere 0.7 percent, earned admission into the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), the most prestigious college system in India and one of the most selective in the world.  IIT’s graduates include numerous leaders of Silicon Valley, such as the Designated CEO of Google, and various professors at MIT, Stanford and UC Berkeley.

Rewind almost four decades to 1978. Halfway through his 11th grade in New Delhi, India, Vic Nalwa, father of senior Gitika Nalwa and alumnus Sanjit Nalwa, took the annual IIT-JEE (Joint Entrance Exam), a highly competitive test that in many ways would determine his life’s course. Nalwa was then a junior at St. Columba’s School, a well-known Indian high school whose alumni include the current dean of Harvard Business School, the New-Age guru Deepak Chopra and Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan.

Nalwa earned admission into IIT, placing 98th in India. Most of his peers at IIT had taken its entrance test in their 12th grade and had spent years training for this test through specialized “coaching classes.” Nalwa prepared for just six months. He started the classes, dropped them because he didn’t think they would be helpful, and then started them again so as not to lose a competitive edge.

“You don’t want to leave anything to chance when you’re battling for one of these coveted spots,” Nalwa said. “For many people, not getting in is a crushing experience.”

The JEE, designed by IIT professors, is conducted over two days and includes six grueling hours of difficult mathematics, physics and chemistry questions.

Unlike the admissions process in the U.S., where many colleges adopt a holistic approach, the JEE is the sole admissions criterion for IIT, and high school grades are not considered.

At the end of high school, students in India who are seeking admission to colleges other than IIT take their “12th standard” national exams in subjects like history, geography, English, Hindi, French, math, chemistry, physics and biology. Their scores in these exams alone determine which colleges will make them an offer. For students who do not get into IIT or have other plans, scoring well on these tests is imperative.

There are currently 16 IITs throughout India, and each is linked to the others through a common IIT Council. But during Nalwa’s time, only five IITs existed: those at Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur, Kharagpur and Madras — meaning that even fewer positions across the country were available to aspiring students.

Increasing the difficulty of admission even further, many of the IIT’s desired slots are reserved for students under affirmative action. Indian affirmative action laws are designed to benefit members of lower castes and tribal populations who are traditionally relegated to the margins of Indian society. The laws require institutions to admit 15 percent of their students from lower castes and 7.5 percent from tribal populations.

In Nalwa’s year, there were approximately 100,000 applicants and about 1,000 admitted students. Securing a high rank on the IIT test is crucial, as the discipline a student may choose within an IIT depends on his or her “all-India” national rank on the entrance exam. The top 100 ranks choose their discipline first, then the next 100, and so on, and if a discipline is filled at one institute, a student must pursue it at a different one or choose a different discipline.

Nalwa chose to attend IIT Kanpur because of its reputation in electrical engineering.

“The first choice of the best students was typically electrical engineering,” Nalwa said. “Next was mechanical engineering, then either chemical or civil, and then metallurgical engineering. Most people would choose engineering because it’s a practical discipline that will get them a job, and people want a comfortable living more than anything else.” At Nalwa’s time, computer science was a nascent discipline, but now it is the most sought after.

According to Nalwa, his teachers at IIT were all competent, and there was no grade inflation. All lectures at IIT took place in English. Tests were often open-book, and students could often take as long as they wanted to finish them, as the emphasis was on understanding concepts rather than on rote memorization or speed.

Still, the tests were difficult — teachers often held that if a student took over an hour longer than others to finish a test, he or she clearly did not grasp the concepts.

Instead of a GPA, IIT students receive a Cumulative Performance Index, or CPI, on a scale of 0-10, 10 being the highest. Nalwa earned a 10 upon graduation.

“There were five students from my batch who got 10 [the first semester]. If you were above 9 (the equivalent of a 4.5 GPA), you were still a pretty happy student,” Nalwa said. “If you ended up with less than an 8, which was a B average, you knew you weren’t a stellar student and were pretty shattered.”

According to Nalwa, a common pre-exam query amongst students at IIT Kanpur was “Fundae clear hein?,” a mixture of Hindi and English. “Fundae” is slang for “fundamentals,” and the phrase means, “Are your fundamentals clear?”

(Post-exam, most students would sigh, “Fundae gol thae, yaar,” which roughly translates to “I didn’t have a clue, friend.”)

“Everyone respected each other based on how well you understood your concepts. This was the true reflection of caliber,” Nalwa said.

One of Nalwa’s highlights during his time at IIT was actually in one of his least favorite classes: power electronics, a class required for his degree in electrical engineering. Nalwa had a new instructor from the University of Toronto who sought to make his tests notoriously difficult. On one test, this instructor tried to confuse everyone by giving a question, the test’s only question, with redundant and conflicting information. Everybody gave an answer except for a frustrated Nalwa, who for the first and only time during his stay at IIT said that the question had no solution.

It turned out that the answer was that there really was no answer.

“My peers’ esteem of me shot up! I already had a 10 CPI, but people didn’t care about that,” Nalwa said. “People cared about small instances like this where they thought you could distinguish yourself from the rest of the batch.”

At IIT, Nalwa found a saturated community of intelligent individuals who challenged each other. Nalwa feels that in this sense, IIT and SHS share a comparable atmosphere, where students have no “delusions about themselves” because on any given day in any given subject, there is always a student who can do better than you.

According to Nalwa, there were some students — especially among the weakest of those who gained admission through affirmative action and among the few who gained admission through cheating — who struggled at IIT. These stragglers quickly fell by the wayside, taking eight or nine years to graduate, if at all.

“You’re supposed to be ready and independent when you come; there’s no retinue of tutors ready to help you,” Nalwa said. “It’s not like Saratoga High, where people [with tutors] have better grades than they deserve.”

Following IIT, many students looked to the U.S. for graduate school or job opportunities. Nalwa applied to the electrical engineering programs at UC Berkeley, MIT, Princeton, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Stanford. He was accepted everywhere but MIT, where he was waitlisted. He attended graduate school at Stanford on a fellowship from it. He felt Stanford had a much more “casual” atmosphere than IIT. Currently, Nalwa is President of FullView, a company that designs and manufactures panoramic video cameras used by the U.S. Navy. He was previously at Bell Labs Research in New Jersey and taught at Princeton University.

Nalwa insists that the Indian educational system is far more meritocratic than that of the U.S., where many students, especially at schools like Saratoga, are willing to cut corners to get into what he calls “vanity schools.” He feels that for American universities, money and connections often trump achievement measured objectively. No student can gain admission to IIT except through its entrance exam, whereas in the U.S. a President’s child can walk into any school, according to Nalwa.

“It is not a level playing field, and everybody knows it: The colleges know it, and yet they keep it that way,” Nalwa said.

Nalwa believes that for students from Silicon Valley, college is much easier than high school, a structure that is reversed from that in India.

“What children are subjected to at Saratoga High is the stress I went through at IIT, but I was older and in a competitive college, so you expect[ed] that stress,” Nalwa said. “Here, people take all these advanced courses that they’re not appreciating. I’d rather [they proceed] slowly and get their fundamentals absolutely clear.”

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