As a teacher, I meet with & speak to gazillion students every year, and am often amazed at how confident they are now compared to how we guys were a couple decades ago. Having said that, going hand in hand with this confidence is a feeling of entitlement that is as puzzling as it is unwarranted. Students these days believe things have to be laid out for them on a platter and that they have to be “inspired” and “guided” to do even the bare minimum.
During this time, we have also seen reams and reams in print on how the education system should change to help students. In all this while, I think we have not clearly articulated what the students are expected to do. Ergo, this post.
Do the drill
This “replace hard work with smart work” management-speak has taken students to a point where they do not appreciate the old-fashioned drill. Doing 150 questions on quadratic equations creates links in your brain that are worth their weight in gold when you are practicing for a competitive exam. It is not just the speed that you gain, it is the role played by the automaticity that is priceless. You save energy on the regular stuff and this blesses you with more bandwidth for the trickier bits.
Flashback to my Prep in ’00
I hate to be this old man narrating his experiences, but I think my experience might be relevant here. A group of my friends and I were preparing for CAT in 2000. We had all cleared JEE barely three years before that (back when JEE was a tough exam) and dealt with Fourier and Laplace transformations as part of our course curriculum. A bunch of the guys had done well in assorted Olympiads and as a group, we were ultra comfortable with math.
Largely because our seniors had given us some material for CAT preparation, we started with some speed-test book. We started with percentages and within 5-6 questions realized that the material was largely BS packaged as genius content (a tactic still followed by the industry) . We still powered through and did all 50 questions in that topic and knocked off topic by topic over the next 2 weeks, practically just for the heck of it. The material did not really push us, but we gave it a go chiefly for the sake of “completion”. Now, 20 years later, if you ask me to find 42% of 707, I would think of it as slightly less than 3/7th of the number and guess in the ball park of 300. All because I did gazillion questions rather unscientifically 20 years ago.
Powering through is very instructive. Do not underestimate this. I hate it when students say they get “tired” after doing 4 sets of Data Interpretation. That is just nonsense. The idea of finishing something off, solving ALL possible questions, etc have become old-fashioned notions. Getting questions under the belt can change the dynamic in unforeseen ways.
Retain humility (for some students this should read as “acquire humility”)
A simple requirement for learning anything new is to have some humility towards what you are learning. These days I see some students get so cocky by the time they reach level of difficulty of 7 that the brain shuts down for levels of difficulty 8, 9 and 10. Respecting the content also might enable to get some “Joie de vivre” during the preparation process. This again is vital for competitive exams; else the pressure will drag you down.
My colleague, K.S. Baskar, who runs Wizako GMAT Prep, has been training students for over 2 decades and took his CAT nearly 30 years ago. If you handed an interesting question to him today that left him stumped, it would immediately put a smile on his face. Purely out of the joy of having learnt something new. Its a shame that many students do not even get to see this feeling of joy.
Note that I asked for students to respect the content, and not necessarily the teacher. Contrary to popular perception, teachers do not yearn for gratitude or thirst for approval from students. If you learn well and have a great learning attitude most teachers wont care whether you are grateful to them. Or whether you hold them in high esteem.
Don’t fret about the imponderables
I am going to start this bit with a personal warning. The next student who asks me “I have scored 75% in 10th, 62% in 12th standard and 65% in undergraduation, what are my chances of getting into IIM-A?” risks serious physical injury.
To get into IIMA is incredibly difficult. Someone who has been mediocre throughout has even less chance than someone who has been exceptional so far. So, if you have a middling record, your chances are low. It is understandable that you think you are way more capable than what your past record suggests. It is also unlikely that IIMA will share this blinkered view. The simplest and most fool-proof way to bring them around is to get a good CAT score. So, work on that.
So, if your track record is sad, you should have a simple rule – Start waffling after getting a decent CAT score.
What goes around comes around
I had a rather unremarkable CGPA in my undergraduation. Unremarkable enough for me to fret about admissions into the IIMs. I felt so apologetic about this that I avoided mentioning this. I was so afraid of defending my poor record that I dreaded going to the interviews because of this. These days, students talk about a poor record as if they had nothing to do with it.
The poor marks in 10th standard and 12th standard are because you goofed off. Not because of anything else. Dont expect someone to say “You are good in spite of this”. You might be. If you want the world to believe it, prove it.
Don’t sit around waiting for a great preparation plan, or worse, for inspiration.
Before you think about having a grand preparation plan that is a ten-step ride through to IIM-dom, actually consider some preparation. Print the following statement and stick it on your bedroom
“An hour of preparation is worth 12 hours of preparation planning”.
Too many students waffle about having a grand plan and start dreaming too early about going places. If half the time spent on early-stage planning were replaced with actual preparation, it would be brilliant. You should not require someone to say “There is a genius waiting inside you” to solve 25 questions in algebra.
And lastly, own your preparation.
Have a simple preparation plan, and execute this well. Do not outsource your preparation entirely. See where you stand periodically, and set ambitious targets for the amount of effort you put in. The result will follow (it always does).
I realize that I risk coming off as a cantankerous old man hankering after good-ol’ times. If it were not already clear, we teachers do not really care that much about what students think of us. I think I speak for all teachers when I say “We are here to put hajaar fight for you. But as the old saying goes, one can only take the horse to the pond.”
This brings us to the end of this blog. It’s almost June and we’re a mere 6 months away from CAT this year. So in case there’s any doubt, I’ll clarify that starting today, if you prepared sincerely, you can give yourself a good shot at getting a high percentile in CAT 2020.
If you’re starting out your preparation and don’t know what to do, read this webpage, bookmark it, and revisit it regularly. There’s enough Gyan to last for two years of CAT Prep.
Rajesh Balasubramanian takes the CAT every year and is a 4-time CAT 100 percentiler. He likes few things more than teaching Math and insists to this day that he is a better teacher than exam-taker.