The Rat Race

Lakshmi reflects on the highly competitive process of college applications into engineering and medical colleges in India. Her article provides a personalised account of the immense pressures associated with these college applications.

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

Imagine millions and millions of people all running one race. The race is both a sprint and a marathon. It’s more like running for your life every day. At least, that’s how it’s made to seem. It’s a race to an elusive dream. To win this, one must let go of almost everything else. Some run far from home, some run without sleep.

This is real, and it’s called ‘The Rat Race’. For those who are from India, they know this issue all too well. The rat race is caused by the extremely small number of seats in decent engineering and medical colleges and is fuelled by the craze for students to pursue those professions. The problem is on an insane scale. Each year, more than a million students enrol to take the ‘Joint Entrance Exam’ [1]. Then, the top 10,000 students get to write the next level of the examination for the prestigious ‘Indian Institutes of Technology’. The top 50,000 will get admitted to the ‘National Institutes of Technology’. The rest will either attend private or state level institutions, or not attend college at all.

Illustration by Mieke Verster

The pressure to get into one of these colleges is intense and begins early. My friends started preparations by the seventh grade, while some even started during the fifth grade. That’s seven years of preparation! It’s not at all unusual to see advertisements targeting parents, for example, “My child started preparing last year, when is your son going to start?” These kinds of tactics are used by so-called “coaching institutes”, where students are taught how to “crack” this exam. Some students attend school during the day and coaching classes or private tuitions in the evening, early morning, or even night. This has led to a problem of dependency on extra tutoring. [2]

I too have gone through the torture of being told every day that I will not be able to get into a college without this amount of studying. I was told by my school principal that sleeping for seven hours a day is too much. I was told to study ten hours a day outside of school (which is seven hours long). These kinds of messages are not uncommon at all and it is one of the reasons why students adhere to this insanity. Moreover, the pressure on parents has revealed that they believe this is ‘unavoidable’ [2].  According to the National Crime Records Bureau, around 9000 students commit suicide each year [3]. The analogy of a pressure cooker is extremely apt.

As students, we knew what was expected of us. The pressure stemmed from society and parents.   Currently, most students start preparing for this early by joining extra tuition classes or coaching institutes. The coaching institutes specifically prepare candidates for these examinations and not to help with the school syllabus. As we entered high school, the pressure was on, and coaching classes took place every day, including weekends. The coaching industry was valued at $40 billion in 2015 itself [5]. The average fees to attend a coaching institute would be over Rs.50,000 (around 700USD) a year, and that is if it is non-residential [4]. Often students are sent off to coaching institutes in other cities or towns so that their focus is solely on their studies.

Illustration by Maria Esteves

Picture this – every day you are told that how much you study decides whether you crack the exam, and whether you will have a good life. You are told that there are students in other parts of the country that study eighteen hours a day and you are supposed to compete with them for a future. You must constantly resign yourself to the fact that you have to study, not for school, but for a single examination at the end of it all.

In this state of affairs, most forget why they learn science, or even how to learn science. We only remember the tricks to answer questions in an exam. The ultimate aim is to reach college, not to learn. They barely prepare us for what comes after getting into college.

The system forces us to be narrow minded. Those who try to learn for the sake of learning lose out. After losing out one more time, they too join the race. There is no escape.

Lakshmi Ramesh

Master of Science degree in Mathematics

Suggested and Reviewed by

Neeraja Sahasrabudhe

Department of Mathematics

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