preparing for iit jee - My way

For many, IIT JEE preparation is a dream, for many it is a nightmare, and for many it is something that they rather never talk about. Given the mysterious aura surrounding the big J, I want to clear some of the doubts and misconceptions in public interest. However, before I delve into this topic, some words of caution and a disclaimer is due.

It is true that I have been a faculty member in IIT Delhi (jointly in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering) for the last 7 years. However, please note that I have nothing to do with the JEE process; I am not privy to the pattern of the question papers, neither do I have any interests whatsoever in coaching institutes and publishers, or any other commercial entity connected to JEE. I am also not claiming that by following the instructions in this blog the probability of qualifying in IIT JEE will increase. I am an academic with a Ph.D from the University of Illinois, USA, a background in industrial research labs (IBM Research and Synopsys), and a B.Tech in Computer Science from IIT Kharagpur. The reason I write this blog is because the recent events with regards to student suicides in Kota has deeply touched me, and my feeling is that if people are better aware of the nuances of preparing for a technical career, it might be beneficial. My employer, IIT Delhi, does not necessarily endorse these views, and I am writing in my personal capacity. Finally, the views in this blog are based on how the author prepared for IIT JEE, they should not be interpreted as a gold standard of JEE preparation. Different people prepare differently.

Let me start out by saying that IIT JEE is not the end goal. It is only a means to an end. The end should be a satisfying career in science and engineering. Since IITs are one of the best institutes in our country, IIT JEE has special significance in this regard. As of 2018, around 1.2 million aspirants write the JEE Mains exam, roughly 220,000 are selected for the JEE Advanced exam, and finally roughly 11,000 candidates are selected. The success rate for a candidate in the JEE Advanced exam is roughly 5%. However, note that it is not necessarily the toughest exam in the world. The Chinese Gao Kao has less than 1% acceptance rates, and so does the Korean CSAT. Of course comparison is tricky because we need to define what exactly a  prestigious university means in these countries. Nevertheless, we can conclude that IIT JEE (also known as JEE Advanced as of today) is a difficult exam by all means.

In an examination driven system like India, parents and students often go to all extents to ensure success. This can include staying far away from home in small apartments and studying for 18 hours a day. This brings with it psychological problems, lack of social interaction, and even a lack of holistic academic development. We are creating a new class of IIT JEE specialists who might not otherwise be very academically inclined. This is like making an athlete win a race using steroids. Once the race is over, the athlete is back to square one, and left with the dangerous after-effects of steroids. Unfortunately, in this case more than 95% of the athletes do not win the race, and this is even more dangerous.

There is thus a need to opt for a more reasonable approach here. Before I share the details of how I prepared for JEE one more disclaimer is due. Please note that if one is interested in a technical career, then getting a sound academic background should be the aim. IITs are no doubt very good institutions; however, they are not the only good institutions in the country. Second, not all IIT students are super-smart, and not all students in other colleges are academically slow. Hence, if a student does not get a chance to study in IIT it is no big deal, the world does not end there. If someone is genuinely talented and hard working, life will raise them to wherever they would have been, had they gotten an IIT degree. Basically, focus on studies, be genuinely interested,  and don't get depressed if you miss out on IITs.

Let us now start. Unfortunately till a child is 12-13 years of age, the parents make the decisions. Gradually in the teen years, children take over. Let us look at classes 1 to 7 first.

In classes 1 to 7, parents have to take the lead role if they want their kid to be an IITian in the future. The most important thing is to find out whether he/she genuinely has the aptitude or not. Here, are some of the traits that children who are going to be future IITians possess at an early age:

1. They are keen observers. They take a keen interest in things and are curious.
2. They often have good grades in their class, and are close to the top.
3. They are particularly good in Maths and Science.

If a child is meeting all these three requirements, then there is definitely a possiblity. This needs to be nurtured. Parents can start exposing the child to a wide variety of scholastic environments. Here, are some of the things that parents can do:

1. Encourage the child to question anything and everything. They will develop a scientific temper. No topic should be taboo.

2. Encourage a regular reading habit. The child should develop very good English comprehension skills. This will help the child significantly later on.

3. Encourage participation in different kinds of small tournaments: spelling bees, chess    tournaments, and kids olympiads.

4. Put the children in contact with an adult who can ask them difficult logical and mathematical questions. Adults typically ask questions of the type: with one eye I see one cow, how many cows do I see with two eyes? In a field, we have crows and bulls. There are 6 heads and 20 legs. How many crows are there, and how many bulls are there?

5. The general idea is to create an academic environment at home where everything from foreign affairs, to sports, to politics is discussed. Children need to take a keen interest, and they should be encouraged to speak up, and let their views known. Shyness in this case is definitely not a virtue.

These activities will give kids a very light introduction to the world of competitive academics without introducing a lot of pressure. Even teaching how to handle stress is also a part of the training. The idea is to introduce stressful situations such as exams very gently and gradually. Parents need to trust their instincts or take professional help when there is a need.

Class 7 is an important year. It is like an inflection point between regular schooling, and preparation for a higher career. At this stage, we need to understand some basic facts about our education system. School teachers are not JEE pass outs, and thus expecting them to train kids for JEE or something similar is not wise. Irrespective of the school, keeping such expectations is outright impractical. A school is meant for the masses, and thus it is incumbent on the parents to give their kids a little bit extra if they want more. 

In class 7, most students in our time used to solve problems from other books that are slightly harder (mostly mathematics). Nowadays, people can try books from other boards particularly the Singapore board, ICSE, or IB. This will give a slightly different exposure.

Let us now come to the three crucial years, where the main foundation is made. These are classes 8, 9, and 10. Let us look at what future cricket players, and Olympic athletes are doing at this age. They begin serious training. We are not talking of that rigorous training; however, the intensity has to gradually increase. At this age creating a strong and solid mathematical foundation is the key. For this, the school has to give the child enough time. Moreover, we also need time for physical exercise, rest, and social life. Parents thus need to choose the school wisely. Having a school that gives a lot of homework and assignments is very good, but at least in your author's view, is not the most ideal for this purpose. This is because a typical class has an overwhelming majority of students who are not training or aspiring to make a technical career in top institutes. Thus the level of assignments will be low. Given that our time is limited, it is necessary to use it more productively. Note that good sleep, good nutrition, and ample physical exercise are vital requirements throughout the school years.

In classes 8-10, we can start out with one hour a day of problem solving. I would recommend the following books (note that I have followed these books myself, and I have no conflict of interests):

1. Algebra by Hall and Knight
2. OR Algebra by K. P. Basu
3. Geometry by Hall and Stevens
4. Physics for Entertainment, Perelman
5. Trigonometry by S. L. Loney

It is necessary that the child meticulously solves all the problems (cover to cover) over a 3-year period. In terms of mental stress, this is nothing. This is being done over and above the school curriculum. If a child is able to solve the problems in these books, then the school exams are a piece of cake -- it is like Virat Kohli playing blind-folded. Note that if the child is facing some difficulty a study group will definitely help. However, if there is a lot of difficulty, then there is no point in forcing the child. In the teen years, children should have a significant say in what they want to do.

Let us move ahead assuming that the child is able to coast along easily. Starting from class 9, it is time to look at the Regional Mathematics Olympiad (RMO). There are many Olympiads today. However, the original RMO, and INMO (Indian National Maths Olympiad) are the ones that are of importance. Each RMO problem takes hours to solve. It is very important that early on, children develop the habit of just sitting, looking at the sky, and thinking. This is a vital skill that is required to do Science and Engineering. At this age, we want children to think as much as possible. Maths olympiads precisely give them this opportunity. Subsequently, if the child is able to do well in the olympiads it is great. Even otherwise, the experience is worth it.

By the end of class 10, children who have been following these methods should have developed sophisticated thinking abilities. They should be far ahead of their peers, and also have advanced reading and comprehension skills. If this has not happened, and the class 10 board marks are low, then clearly we are not going in the right direction. It might be wise to change tracks.

Let us now move to the crux years -- class 11 and 12 -- assuming that all is going well. Here again, we don't have to spend long 18 hour days far away from home. Till now the approach has been to proceed slowly yet steadfastly.

In classes 11 and 12, the author strongly discourages gruelling coaching sessions far away from home. Again these are personal views, and are very strongly influenced by reports in the popular press regarding the prevailing situation. Stressful situations that can have a long term psychological impact are to be avoided at all costs.

The aim is to develop a love for academics, and not treat JEE as simply a competition where one needs to win by hook or crook. The author himself has not taken a lot of coaching other than 4 hours a week with a great Maths teacher, Prof. Kiran Das (from Kharagpur).  Students can attend coaching sessions. Most of these are also beneficial, as long as they don't test human limits. Parents need to ensure that kids are not getting unduly pressurised, and are not at a risk of developing mental or physical problems. Again whenever there is a doubt professional help should be taken.

Here is my take on these years. In class 11, students have to solve very difficult problems.This will create the necessary background. They need to exercise their mental muscles as much as possible. This investment will continue to bear fruits even after 50 years.  I would suggest the following books. Ideally, all the problems need to be solved -- not mentally, but by writing out the solution on a piece of paper. The author read from these books (again no conflict of interest).

1. Problems in General Physics, I. E. Irodov (VERY IMPORTANT)
2. Concepts of Physics, H. C. Verma
3. Physics by Resnick, Walker, and Haliday
4. All the math books by S. L. Loney, and Piskunov
5. Organic Chemistry (Morrison and Boyd)

The author has unfortunately forgotten about the books that he used for inorganic and physical chemistry. The general rule of thumb for choosing a book is that it should be an international best seller -- a widely respected classical text.  In specific, the author is a great fan of Russian books. Sadly, many great classics from Mir publishers are not available today.

In addition, students can subscribe to test prep. services like what FITJEE, Apex, and Brilliant used to be in yester years.  Most of these services have regular tests. This is a good idea because the students get an idea of their relative standing. These tests set the expectation and make things very predictable.

Class 12 is the year when students need to gradually transition from fundamental building to exam preparation. Once the students have covered the syllabus, and have finished solving most of the problems from the aforementioned books, they can start writing mock exams with old question papers. Such simulated exams, will help reduce the stress that students shall feel in an actual exam hall.

Finally, the big day arrives. The students hopefully will be well prepared academically and psychologically to take the exam. All the best !!!

Note that in this entire blog, I have tried to outline a method that is slow, gradual, and compassionate. Instead of a gruelling 2-year training package, an effort has been made to  create layers of knowledge much before the student appears for the JEE exam. The entire focus is to build mental muscles slowly and gradually, avoid using academic steroids, and simultaneously preserve the love for academics.