Deresiewicz, Pinker and the IIT JEE

A few months back, William Deresiewicz, formerly of Yale, wrote a long piece advising people why they should not send their kids to Ivy League schools. He talked about students in Ivy League schools becoming single dimensioned, hyper-competitive, and less appreciative of the finer things in life. He spoke of the Ivy League system being broken, and not close to what it used to be once upon a time.

Now, Steven Pinker (he of the Stuff of Thought and Language Instinct fame) of Harvard has responded, and he has the opposite problem with Ivy League students. Halfway though the semester, the class is half-empty, he cribs, with students more involved in extra curricular activities rather than attending class. This implies that all the effort the university puts in building world-class libraries and laboratories and other facilities go waste. Pinker’s diagnosis is different – he blames the “well roundedness” criteria that universities use for admissions (supposedly initially put in place to restrict the number of jewish students, and then kept in place to restrict the number of asians).

I’m about halfway through Pinker’s article, and I remember reading Deresiewicz’s article in full, and my reaction to both is the same – “IIT JEE rocks”. By having a standardised exam to admit students, the IITs actually take pressure off high school students rather than imposing more pressure – since the criteria for admission are clear – that one examination, a student of class 11 or 12 has her objectives clear in front of her in case she wants to go to IIT – single-minded mugging of Maths, Physics and Chemistry.

With a more “well-rounded” criterion – say one that includes social service and extra curricular activities and sport and all such, the objective function is not that clear, and the student needs to slog towards an uncertain objective function, which is significantly inferior to slogging towards a known objective function.

Some of the cribs that Pinker puts in his post is true of IITs as well – I’ve had several professors lecture to me about the lack of seriousness on the part of IIT students, and how they would prefer students who might be less brilliant but more serious about their learning (an oft touted solution to this was to jack up the fees and make students dependent on education loans they had to repay. Not sure if the IITs have implemented this, but the IIMs have, for sure).

But then IIT Madras, where I studied for four years, and where everyone had come in after passing a rigorous standardised test, had no shortage of characters. While everyone who was in had necessarily shown single-minded devotion to mugging maths physics and chemistry in the preceding year or two, a large number of students there had interests that went much beyond those three scientific subjects. In that sense, if the Ivy League schools want to see a system where standardised admissions process actually lead to a fairly diverse class, they need not look beyond the IITs (a system they are no doubt familiar with since the IITs contribute generously to the grad student population of the Ivy League schools).

One of the frequent criticisms of the IIT JEE is that it can easily be gamed – rather than selecting the “brightest” students or those that have the best understanding of maths, physics and chemistry, the IITs end up selecting students who are best prepared for the standardised exam. An oft-touted solution to this is to make the entry process more “holistic” (in India that means including board exam marks (??!!) ), to make it less game-able. However, evidence from the Deresiewicz and Pinker pieces suggests that even the “holistic” admissions process that the Ivy League schools follow are easily gamed, and that the gaming of those systems is in fact biased towards kids with rich parents.

A while back I was looking at the admissions process of some Ivy League schools – both undergrad and MBA programs. Now, all these schools tout diversity as one of their drawing criteria. But if you look a little deeper, you will notice that this purported diversity is only skin-deep (literally!). While these schools might do a fantastic job of getting students from different nationalities, skin colour, undergraduate backgrounds and work experience, the way their essays are structured implies that the students they get are largely similar in thought – students should have done some social work, they should have exhibited a particular kind of leadership, they should be politically correct, and so forth.

The reason I mention this is that “holistic” admissions criteria need not actually produce a student body that is necessarily more diverse than that produced by a standardised test – it all depends upon the axis that you look along!

PS: I happened to have a good day on 7th May 2000, when I wrote the IIT JEE and did rather well, so this post might be biased by that. I don’t know if I would have taken such a charitable view towards standardised tests if I hadn’t done so well in them.

Studying on coursera

In the last one year or more I’ve signed up for and dropped out from at least a dozen coursera courses. The problem has been that the video lectures have not kept me engaged. I seem to multitask while watching these videos, and the sheer volume of videos in some of these lectures has been such that I’ve quickly fallen behind, and then lost interest. I must, however, admit that many of these courses haven’t been particularly challenging. In courses such as “model thinking” or “social network analysis” I’ve already known a lot of the stuff, and thus lost interest. Modern World History (by Philip Zelikow ) was more like an information-only course which I could have consumed better in the form of a book.

Given that I’ve had bursts of signing up for courses and then not following up on them, for the last six months I’ve avoided signing up for any new courses. Until two weeks back when, on a reasonably jobless evening during a visit to my client’s Mumbai office, I decided to sign up for this course on Asset Pricing. And what a course it has been so far!

I went to bed close to midnight last night. I watched neither the Champions League final nor Arsenal’s draw at West Brom. I was doing my assignments. I spent three hours on a Sunday evening doing my assignments of the coursera Asset Pricing course, offered by Prof John Cochrane of the University of Chicago.

I’ve only completed the assignments of “Week 0” of the eight-week long course, and have watched the lectures of “Week 1” and I’m hooked already. I must admit that nobody has taught me finance like this so far. In IIM Bangalore, where I got my MBA seven years ago, we had a course on microeconomics, a course on corporate finance and a course on financial derivatives (elective). The problem, however, was that nobody made the links between any of these.

We studied the concept of marginal utility in Economics, but none of the finance professors touched it. In corporate finance, we touched upon CAPM and Modigliani-Miller but none of the later finance courses referred to them. There was a derivation of the Black-Scholes pricing model in the course on derivatives, but that didn’t touch upon any other finance we had learnt. In short, we had just been provided with the components, and nobody had helped us connect it.

The beauty of the Chicago course is that it is holistic, and so well connected. The same professor, in the same course, teaches us diffusions while in another lecture uses the marginal utility theory from economics to explain the concept of interest rates. In an assignment he has got us to do regressions and in some others we do stochastic calculus. Having seen each of these concepts separately, I’m absolutely enjoying all the connections, and that is perhaps helping me keep my interest in the course.

And it is a challenging course. It is a PhD level course at Chicago (current students at the university are taking the course in parallel with us online students) and my complacency was shattered when I got 3.5 out of 11 in my first quiz. It assumes a certain proficiency in both finance and math, and then builds on it, in a way no finance course I’ve ever taken did.

Also what sets the course apart is the quality of the assignments. Each assignment makes you think, and make you do. For example, in one assignment I did last night I had to do a set of regressions and then report t values and R^2s. In another, I had to plot a graph (which I did using excel) and then report certain points from the graph. Some other assignments make sure you have internalized what was taught in the lectures. It has been extremely exciting so far.

Based on my experience with the course so far, I hope my enthusiasm will last. I don’t know if this course will help me directly professionally. However, there is no doubt that it keeps me intellectually honest and keeps me sharp. I might not have had the option to take too many such courses during my formal education. I hope i can set this right on Coursera.

Cartels, good and bad

This post is about two professional cartels in India, and why one is better than the other. The “better” cartel is the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI). The “worse” is the Medical Council of India (MCI). As the names suggest, they regulate the profession of chartered accountants and doctors respectively. And the way the former works is better than the latter.

First of all, let me convince you that these two are cartels. The basic concept is that in order to practice as a Chartered Accountant in India, you need certification from the ICAI. And who does the ICAI consist of? Other CAs. So it is nothing but a trade guild, which tries to control who gets to join the guild. It is a similar case with the MCI and doctors. Doctors trying to control who else can be doctors. As the more perceptive of you might have figured out, it is in the interest of both these guilds to not admit too many new members, since that would lead to supply of their profession to a level that significantly affects profit margins for the incumbents.

Now that we have established why these two are cartels, and that they both have an interest in restricting membership, let us see how they go about the process.

The ICAI follows what can be described as “exit level testing”. There are no restrictions on anyone wanting to be a CA – all you need is a high school (12th standard) degree with mathematics as one of your subjects. They have three levels of examination – “basic”, “intermediate” and “final”, and one needs to clear all of these in order to become a member of the guild. And how does the guild control membership? By making these examinations super-tough, so that only a select few pass these exams every year. There are several “CA institutes” who train students for these examinations. And there is no restriction (AFAIK) on anyone opening one such institute.

The MCI does it differently. Anyone with a recognized degree in medicine is automatically a member of the MCI. They regulate the numbers instead by controlling the number of medical colleges, so that only a select few can even aspire to get into the MCI. More importantly, the entry to medical colleges is not strictly on “merit” – colleges are free to allocate a certain portion of the seats on discretion, and they do so based on recommendations, donations, etc. I’m not really saying any of this is wrong. Just describing the situation as it is. However, when you combine this with the fact that an entry into a medical college guarantees membership of the MCI (provided you pass your college exams, which shouldn’t be too hard), it effectively means that you can buy your way into the MCI.

Actually, thinking about it, this option of creating additional membership of the MCI “upon payment” is a masterstroke by that guild. The concept is that when people pay large sums of money to gain entry, they are not going to be in a hurry to look to slash profit margins (key here is the fact that the amount of work a doctor can do is constrained by his/her time, so doctors cannot play  the “volume game”). So the pricing of these seats ensure additional revenue for the MCI and their constituent colleges, while not compromising on the members’ margins.

Note, however, that it is not possible to buy your way into the ICAI. Yes, aspiring members who seeks to buy their way in might buy “training” and “apprenticeship” under the best CAs who are members of the cartel, but still, to get a membership they need to pass the examination, which is not easy at all. Contrast this with the MCI where either money or the right connections get you straight in.

I’m not saying that the ICAI is a wonderful guild. Cases such as the Price Waterhouse – Satyam case or the Deloitte-FTIL case have shown that the profession is deeply flawed, and doesn’t regulate itself adequately. All I’m saying that the entry criteria it uses, as opposed to the one used by the MCI, ensures a higher quality in terms of the ability of its members.

As for me, I’m happy that I’m involved in a profession (or professions) that don’t need any certification or guild membership.

Numbers and management

I learnt Opeations Research thrice. The first was when I had just finished school and was about to go to IIT. My father had just started on a part-time MBA, and his method of making sure he had learnt something properly was to try and teach it to me. And so, using some old textbook he had bought some twenty years earlier, he taught me how to solve the transportation problem. I had already learnt to solve 2-variable linear programming problems in school (so yes, I learnt OR 4 times then). And my father taught my how to solve 3-variable problems using the Simplex table.

I got quite good at it, but by not using it for the subsequent two years I forgot. And then I happened to take Operations Research as a minor at IIT. And so in my fifth semester I learnt the basics again. I was taught by the highly rated Prof. G Srinivasan. He lived up to his rating. Again, he taught us simplex, transportation and assignment problems, among other things. He showed us how to build and operate the simplex table. It was fun, and surprisingly (in hindsight) never once did I consider it to be laborious.

This time I didn’t forget. OR being my minor meant that I had OR-related courses in the following three semesters, and I liked it enough to even considering applying for a PhD in OR. Then I got cold feet and decided to do an MBA instead, and ended up at IIMB. And there I learnt OR for the fourth time.

The professor who taught us wasn’t particularly reputed, and she lived up to her not-so-particular-reputation. But there was a difference here. When we got to the LP part of the course (it was part of “Quantitative Methods 2”, which included regression and OR), I thought I would easily ace it, given my knowledge of simplex. Initially I was stunned to know that we wouldn’t be taught the simplex. “What do they teach in an OR course if they don’t teach Simplex”, I thought. Soon I would know why. Computer!

We were all asked to install this software called Lindo on our PCs, which would solve any linear programming problem you would throw at it, in multiple dimensions. We also discovered that Excel had the Solver plugin. With programs like these, what use of knowing the Simplex? Simplex was probably useful back in the day when readymade algorithms were not available. Also, IIT being a technical school might have seen value in teaching us the algorithm (though we always solved procedurally. I never remember writing down pseudocode for simplex). The business school would have none of it.

It didn’t matter how the problem was actually solved, as long as we knew how to use the solver. What was more important was the art of transforming a real-life problem into one that could be solved using Solver/Lindo. In terms of formulation, the problems we got in our assignments and exams were  tough – back in IIT when we solved manually such problems were out of bounds since Simplex would take too long on those.

I remember taking a few more quant electives at IIM. They were all the same – some theory would be taught where we knew something about the workings of some of the algorithms, but the focus was on applications. How do you formulate a business problem in a way in which you can use the particular technique? How do you decide what technique you use for what problem? These were some of the questions I learnt to answer through the course of my studies at IIM.

I once interviewed with a (now large) marketing analytics firm in Bangalore. They expected me to know how to measure “feelings” and other BS so I politely declined after one round. From what I understood, they had two kinds of people. First they had experienced marketers who would do the “business end” of the problem. Then they had stats/math grads who actually solved the problem. I think that is problematic. But as I have observed in a few other places, that is the norm.

You have tech guys doing absolutely tech stuff and reporting to business guys who know very little of the tech. Because of the business guy’s disinterest in tech, he is unlikely to get his hands dirty with the data. And is likely to take what the tech guy gives him at face value. As for the tech guy doing the data work, he is unlikely to really understand the business problem that he is solving, and so he invariably ends up solving a “tech problem”, which may or may not have business implications.

There are times when people ask me if I “know big data”. When I reply in the negative, they wonder (sometimes aloud) how I can call myself a data scientist. Then there are times when people ask me about a particular statistical technique. Again, it is extremely likely I answer in the negative, and extremely likely they wonder how I call myself a data scientist.

My answer is that if I deem a problem to be solvable by a particular technique, I can then simply read up on the technique! As long as you have the basics right, you don’t need to mug up all available techniques.

Currently I’m working (for a client) on a problem that requires me to cluster data (yes, I know that much stats to know that now the next step is to cluster). So this morning I decided to read up on some clustering algorithms. I’m amazed at the techniques that are out there. I hadn’t even heard of most of them. Then I read up on each of them and considered how well they would fit my data. After reading up, and taking another look at the data, I made what I think is an informed choice. And selected a technique which I think was appropriate. And I had no clue of the existence of the technique two hours before.

Given that I solve business problems using data, I make sure I use techniques that are appropriate to solve the business problem. I know of people who don’t even look at the data at hand and start implementing complex statistical techniques on them. In my last job (at a large investment bank), I know of one guy who suggested five methods  (supposedly popular statistical techniques – I had never heard of them; he had a PhD in statistics) to attack a particular problem, without having even seen the data! As far as he was concerned he was solving a technical problem.

Now that this post is turning out to be an advertisement for my consulting services, let me go all the way. Yes, I call myself a “management consultant and data scientist”. I’m both a business guy and a data guy. I don’t know complicated statistical techniques, but don’t see the need to know either – since I usually have the internet at hand while working. I solve business problems using data. The data is only an intermediary step. The problem definition is business-like. As is the solution. Data is only a means.

And for this, I have to thank the not-so-highly-reputed professor who taught me Operations Research for the fourth time – who taught me that it is not necessary to know Simplex (Excel can do it), as long as you can formulate the problem properly.

Push and Pull Teaching

I’m writing this in the context of the Right to Education Act coming into force this year. The reason I use a musical example upfront is that music is the only thing I’ve tried to learn formally in recent times. While I use the example to illustrate the problem with the traditional Indian learning system, I refer to more basic and general education in this post. 

So about a month back I decided I need to add to my education in Carnatic and Western Classical Music and decided to learn Hindustani Classical. I decided it was time to learn a new instrument (so far I’d been trained only in playing the violin) and after some facebook queries, found a teacher who lived close by. After a lecture in how he teaches to take forward a “parampara” and not for money, and that he expects extreme devotion from students, and that he likes to begin classes for a new student only on a Monday, classes began in right earnest.

Classes soon hit a roadblock, though. As the more perceptive of you here might be aware, I have (I don’t want to use the word “suffer”) ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder), thanks to which my attention span is grossly lower than that of the normal human being. Weeks together of simply going up and down the (Bilawal) scale soon got to me and I lost interest in practicing. Soon I realized I had started to look for excuses to bunk classes. I decided to cut my losses and decided to discontinue class.

Before I discontinued class, however, I  thought long and hard about telling my teacher about my ADHD, and that his methods of teaching weren’t working out for me. I wanted to tell him about the Suzuki method which my Western Classical teacher had adopted a year ago, which kept me interested in the music without relaxation of rigour. The Suzuki Method had worked fantastically well for me. Each class I would learn a new (simple) song – for example, I started my Western Classical learning by learning to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

There are times when I think that I should have given my sitar teacher a fairer chance and explained to him about the Suzuki method and adopt something like it for the Sitar. However, from my knowledge of him based on my intereaction with him for a month or so, it didn’t seem like it would work, and I ended up (regretfully) quitting without giving him a chance to push the education on me.

The thing with traditional Indian learning is that it is fundamentally “pull”. The onus is on the student to convince the teacher to take him on as a student, and then to extract knowledge and wisdom from the teacher. In the traditional Indian context, it is absolutely okay for the guru to be aloof and disinterested, for it is not his duty to teach – it is the student’s duty to extract knowledge from the teacher. In fact my friend and colleague Nitin Pai informs me that according to the Upanishads, it is the duty of the teacher to reject a student the first three times he “applies”, and accept a student only after he has sucked up considerably.

While there might have been good reasons for such teaching practices back in the Vedic and Puranic ages (for example, the caste system forbid considerable sections of the population from learning the scriptures), these practices are wholly unsuited for the modern age where the focus is on increasing the reach of education and and ensuring that more people have access to education.

With the onus being on universal education and on getting every child to learn, we need to get rid of the “Acharya Devo Bhava” (teacher is god) paradigm and instead shift to a framework  of professional teachers where it is the teacher’s duty to reach out to the student. We need to get to a paradigm where the students can demand that the teacher reach out to them and teach them, and where students don’t need to suck up to the teacher.

The “acharya devo bhava” concept might have served us well in the pre-writing age and ensured that our most important scriptures were transmitted down to an era where they could be written down. This paradigm, however, is not scalable, and definitely not suited to a situation where the objective is to provide education to everybody.

Flawed though it may be, the Right to Education Act is a good step by the Union Government to ensure greater learning among kids and to maximize our chances of making good of the demographic dividend. The measure, however, will be dead on arrival unless the mindset of teaching and learning is changed.

Hundred Percentile

Ok so what is this 100 percentile business? How can IIMs with an entire department dedicated to Quantitative Methods declare a score that sounds so absurd?

My thoughts were just that when I had first heard from a friend that another had got “100 percentile”. It sounded plain absurd. It continued to sound absurd even after I found out (a few hours later) that I had also got “100 percentile”.

After some thought, though, I figured out what it is. Basically CAT gives out “percentile” up to two places of decimal (I know that sounds so wrong. Percentile is the wrong word there. It should be whatever 1/10000th is called).

So what they do is this. In good scientific fashion, to declare your percentile up to two digits of decimal, it is calculated up to three digits of decimal and then the last digit is rounded off. Great scientific practice. Except that if you’ve got a score in CAT that is more than what 99.995% of all CAT-takers have got, your “percentile” gets rounded off to 100.00 !

So if 10 people get “100 percentile” in CAT, it means that 10 people got more than what the rest of the 99.995% of the people who took the exam got. It could as well be a CAT question to calculate the number of people who took the exam given the number of people who got “100 percentile”!

On Schooling

Usually I’m quick to defend the school where I studied between 1986 and 1998. I made lots of good friends there and generally had a good time. Of late, however, in discussions on schooling, I find myself mention teachers from that school who I considered particularly horrible, mostly for their method of teaching.

Yesterday I was chatting with a classmate from this school who now works in the education sector, and she happened to mention that she considered her schooling to be mostly “a waste” and that she didn’t learn too much there. And I quickly concurred with her, saying all that I had learnt was at home, and school didn’t teach me much. So what explains my love for the school even though they might not have done a great teaching job?

From 1998 to 2000, I went to another school, where again they didn’t teach much, and instead assumed all of us went to JEE factories which would teach us anyway. What made things bad there, though, was that they didn’t treat us well. That school had a strict disciplinary code which was enforced more in letter than in spirit. Teachers there had a habit of loading us with homework, calling us for Saturday classes and having surprise tests. The problem with School 2 was that not only did they not teach well, but they also made life miserable in several other ways. The only redeeming factor for that school was the truckload of interesting people I got to meet during my two years there.

So what explains my love for School 1 despite the fact that they didn’t do a great job of teaching? The fact that they treated us well, and left us alone. The uniform wasn’t very strictly enforced, as long as you wore blue and grey. The school had an explicit “no homework” policy. Exams happened only according to schedule and there were few assignments. Even in class 10, we had three “periods” a week dedicated to “games” where we played volleyball or basketball rather than wasting our time in “PT”. Teachers were mostly very friendly and the atmosphere on the whole was collaborative and not so competitive.

My friend might think she “wasted” her 10 years in the school because she didn’t learn much there, but I argue that it was better than her going to another school where she wouldn’t be treated as well and where her life wouldn’t have been as peaceful.

Brand dilution at IIT/IIM

At the Aditya Birla Scholarship party on Saturday, one topic which a lot of people spoke about was about reservations at IITs and IIMs, and the consequent increase in batch size. The general consensus was about reservation being a bad thing and about the strain that is being put on the faculty at IIMs because of the sudden increase in batch size.

As the discussion continued, one popular thread that emerged was about “brand dilution”. About how with people with significantly inferior credentials getting degrees from IITs and IIMs, the brand of these institutes was getting diluted. At that point I disagreed, and I thought I should blog what I said.

The brand of a college that you go to, I said, is useful only for those people who lack a personal brand, and instead try to lean on to brands of institutes they are associated with as a crutch. If you want to really make a name for yourself, I said, you should let go of your institutional crutches and build your own brand. And if you have the self-confidence to do that, the brand of the college you went to shouldn’t matter.

That pretty much ended that discussion right there. What do you think about it? Should we be unduly worried about the “brand value” of the institutions we went to? Or of the companies we work at? Where does leaning on to our “portfolio of brands” stop and creation of our own brand begin?

Coming to think of it now, you can define the brand value of an institution as some sort of a weighted sum of the brand values of people associated with that institution. Right now I’m not bothered about the distribution of those weights. However, irrespective of how the weights are distributed, unless each and every person associated with the institute has equal brand value, there exists at least one person whose brand value is higher than that of the brand value of the institution, and at least one person whose brand value is lower than that of the institution (I’m not bothered about a formal proof of this now, but I guess it is intuitive. Section formulae and all that).

Without loss of generality, we can say that in the universe of people associated with an institution, there is a non-zero set of people whose personal brand values are superior to that of the institution and a non-zero set of people whose personal brand values are inferior to that of the institution. Now, which of these two groups, do you think, would be more likely to want to use the institute’s brand value as a crutch? And which of these two groups would be more concerned about “preserving the institute’s brand value”? I guess that explains why the discussion ended when I said what I said at the party on Saturday.

PS: my apologies if that last bit sounded arrogant.

 

High Performance Schooling

At the outset I want to mention that I mean no disrespect for my schoolmates or teachers from Sri Aurobindo Memorial School, where I spent twelve mostly wonderful years. It is just a thought as to whether it would have helped me later on in life had I been shifted out of there when I was in say primary school into what I would call as a “high performance school”.  Also, apologies at the outset if I were to sound boastful in this post. Unfortunately, there is no other way to get the point across.

Right from primary school, like say when I was in first standard, I was what can be described as a “high performer”. Yes, I was always first or second in class in terms of marks, but that is not so much of the issue here – there were a lot of people who did nearly as well and my marks were not so much of a differentiator. I’m talking more about being almost always significantly ahead of class.

For example, in first standard, they taught us addition in school. I remember being taught to do something like “two in the mind, four in the hand” and then count out the two in order to add two and four. By that time, however, I had already learnt addition at home and was pretty good at it. When called to the front of the class to solve one such problem for everyone, I just shouted the answer and ran back to my seat. I remember the teacher saying in a subsequent class that she would give me a “big sum” (which was 3-digit addition), and I solved that too in a jiffy.

Again in first standard, there was a spelling test. In all earlier such tests, I had done exceedingly well, getting only one or two words wrong at the max. I think by then I had already begun to read bits and pieces of the Deccan Herald which my grandfather subscribed to (my parents subscribed to Kannada Prabha, and I could read that quite well, as well). I was bored of getting everything right in every test. So I started writing wrong spellings on purpose. It was the only way to entertain myself.

This kind of stuff continued throughout schooling. I remember reading my neighbour’s 9th standard math textbooks when I was in 7th standards. History lessons never interested me because my grandfather had told me all those stories and I remembered. On several occasions in middle and high school, I would know that what the teacher was teaching was wrong, but would be too bored to point that out to her because it would lead to a pointless argument (to my credit, I did try a few times, and it was very hard for the teachers to back down. After a while I simply stopped trying).

One offshoot of this being ahead of class was that I would be constantly bored in class, and I would identify this as a potential cause of some behavioural issues I faced as a child. Being the teacher’s pet and a general geek (I was the first guy in class to wear spectacles) meant that I was a popular target for bullying and practical jokes. I would take advantage of my size (I was comfortably the biggest kid in class) and would respond by beating up people. My parents spent most of my middle school listening to complaints from teachers about my being a bully and violent type!

As I grew older and learnt the merits of non-violence, I managed to overcome this, but the more damaging effect of always being ahead of class was that I was never challenged, and hence I never developed the habit of working hard, and when I tried to (when I went to IIT), it was too late. While I didn’t particularly top or “max” every test and exam in school, I sailed through fairly comfortably and never really had to do anything like work hard till I finished my 10th standard.

Then, I went to National Public School, which had a reasonably rigorous criterion for admission into 11th standard, so in some sense it was a “high performance centre”. But the problem there was what I call as the “11th standard free-rider teacher problem”, the cause of which is the IIT-JEE. Let me explain. In 11th standard, in a school such as NPS, most kids go for JEE coaching. Consequently, some teachers assume that all kids go to JEE coaching, and thus slacken their level of involvement and quality of teaching in the classroom. Those that are going for “tuition” don’t mind/notice this drop in quality. The rest do, but are too small a minority to affect things in class.

So yes, I did feel challenged in 11th standard. But then I took a (probably wise, in hindsight) decision to not care at all about the class tests and exams, and instead look long-term – towards success in the board exam and IIT-JEE. Working at my own pace, without really pushing myself too hard, I did rather well in both of them (after having been mostly in the bottom half of my class at NPS, of course, but I didn’t care about that). And then I went to IIT, which is where the troubles began.

IIT, thanks to its (then) selection criteria, is truly a “high performance centre”, in if not anything but in the quality of the students it takes in. There is also a sharp jump in the level of tuition compared to school. You are truly challenged and considerable work is called for in order to stay abreast in class. Being in Computer Science also means you are flooded with rather intensive programming assignments. It is difficult to do well unless you are really willing to work hard, and that is where I failed to cope. I had never put in anything close to that level of involvement. Suddenly thrown into the deep end of the pool (in terms of working hard), I struggled, and the continuous nature of evaluation meant that there was no point in “focusing on big exams” here, like I had in high school. Every little exam and assignment contributed to your final CGPA. I graduated as the median of the class, and I’ve never recovered.

IIM wasn’t that hard compared to IIT, but again I didn’t work too hard in courses I didn’t get too interested in, and barely graduated in the top quartile, an under-achievement given my comfort levels in most subjects.  And my lack of ability to work hard doggedly has cost me much in my corporate career also. Some tasks that most people consider “routine” have turned out to be insanely hard for me, and in some places I haven’t been able to cope with the workload. I have a problem working long hours with concentration. I’m good at problem solving but lack that “sheer fight” which is sometimes necessary to push things through.

And now, looking back, I think it has to do with my primary education. As Malcolm Gladwell says in his “10000 hours” essay in The Outliers, working hard is also a talent. And my comfort levels in school meant that I never had to develop on that front. It was all too easy, and I never had to work hard then. And then when I actually had to, I have been inadequate.

It makes me wonder if it might have made some sense for me to have been shifted to some sort of “high performance” school when I was found to be much ahead of class in primary school. Again, there would have been a problem in identification since being ahead of class is not necessarily correlated with performance in exams, but assuming I had been thus “identified”, what if I had been sent to say a special school where I had been challenged even as a kid? Where I never felt “oh this teacher doesn’t know anything, so no use listening to her” or “I know this is the wrong answer but I know this is what the examiner demands so I’ll write this”? Where I had been pushed to work hard in a meaningful fashion? I don’t know if I would’ve still been good at entrance exams and gone to the colleges I went to, but I have a sneaking feeling I would have been able to cope with life much better in that case. What do you think?

US MBA Admissions

B-schools based in the US use a unique self-selecting mechanism to filter out applicants who might be a bad fit for a management job. This they achieve by making the application process more complicated, but in a way that the kind of people they hope to attract find it simple.

Let me explain. Like most other graduate programs in the US, B-schools also require applicants to get a set of letters of recommendation. Unlike other programs, though, these are not simple letters of recommendation. Rather than the recommender simply writing out one essay where he/she extols the virtue of the candidate he/she is recommending and requests the university to grant admission, here he/sh has to answer a bunch of questions that the university is asking for. These questions might range from the mundane sounding (I’m told there’s a catch, though) “How do you know the applicant?” to some high-sounding stuff like “What is your opinion of the leadership qualities of the applicant? How can that be improved?”. World limit for all questions put together comes to 1500 words.

So now, if someone comes to you asking for a recommendation, unless you are really invested in their careers you will not want to put the enthu of putting so much effort. If you like the candidate, you might be willing to put in some time into it, but you are likely to wholeheartedly produce four good essays for each school the applicant is applying (note that no two schools ask the same question) only if you feel really invested in the applicant’s career, the probability of which is really low.

By having such a complicated system of soliciting recommendations, the schools ensure that all candidates fall into one of two categories. Either they should have done so well in one of their jobs that their boss or client feels invested enough to spend a few hours of their time writing recommendations, or they should have the necessary people management skills to go to bosses and clients and professors to get them to write the recommendations. Of course, irrespective of how good your people management skills are , it is unlikely to get someone to spend so many hours on your recommendation letters. Still, the minimum you require is to convince them that you will write the recommendation yourself and they should rubber stamp it. No big deal, that.

This way, all applicants to US B-schools are people who have a knack of getting things done. The age at which application happens (mid to late twenties) also minimizes parental participation in the effort. Apart from the self-selection and filtration, the amount of time and effort required for application also helps weed out frivolous candidates (remember those that “wrote CAT just as a backup”?).