a building with palm trees

The admissions test for the Indian Institutes of Technology, known as the Joint Entrance Examination or JEE, may be the most competitive test in the world. In 2012, half a million Indian high school students sat for the JEE. Over six grueling hours of chemistry, physics, and math questions, the students competed for one of ten thousand spots at India’s most prestigious engineering universities. 

When the students finish the exam, it is the end of a two plus year process. Nearly every student has spent four hours a day studying advanced science topics not taught at school, often waking up earlier than four in the morning to attend coaching classes before school starts. 

The prize is a spot at a university that students describe without hyperbole as a “ticket to another life.” The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are a system of technical universities in India comparable in prestige and rigor to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology. Alumni include Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla, co-founder of software giant Infosys Narayana Murthy, and former Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin. Popular paths after graduation include pursuing MBAs or graduate degrees at India’s and the West’s best universities or entertaining offers from McKinsey’s and Morgan Stanley’s on-campus recruiters.

Government subsidies make it possible for any admitted student to attend IIT. The Joint Entrance Exam is also the sole admissions criteria – extracurriculars, personal essays, your family name, and, until recently, even high school grades are all irrelevant. The top scorers receive admission, while the rest do not. 

This means that the test can vault students from the lowest socioeconomic background into the global elite in a single afternoon. Entire families wait outside the test center, as involved in the studying and test process as the children they pin their hopes on. In extreme cases, parents have sold their land to pay tutors to coach their children for the JEE.  

Only two percent of students will be rewarded for their hard work. In 2012, Harvard accepted 5.9% of applicants. Top engineering schools MIT and Stanford had acceptance rates of 8.9% and 6.63%. The acceptance rate at the IITs, as represented by the pass rate in the JEE, was 2%. Every year, when the results are announced and the media swarms the accepted students, 490,000 students receive disappointing news. 

The United States has tiger moms, SAT prep classes, and highly selective Manhattan preschools. But the Joint Entrance Exam takes the race for education to another level. It has spawned a $3.4 billion, venture capital backed coaching industry, inspired millions of Indian teenagers to forgo partying, socializing, and sleep in pursuit of their studies, and caused an annual media craze that consumes the country. 

This is the story of the Joint Entrance Examination, the yearly attempt to pick out the ten thousand most intelligent students in a country of 1.2 billion people.

Institutes of National Importance

The first IIT was established in Kharagpur in 1950, three years after India achieved independence from Britain. It had previously served as a detention center. The committee behind IIT Kharagpur imagined four IITs, one for the East, West, North, and South of India. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, supported the plan. He wanted to educate an elite class of engineers to fuel India’s growth. From 1958 to 1961, four more IITs were founded: IIT Bombay, IIT Madras, IIT Kanpur, and IIT Delhi. 

Under the Institutes of Technology Act, the Indian government granted the IITs almost full independence from the state, status as “Institutes of National Importance,” and dramatically more funding than other academic institutions. The founding of IIT Guwahati in 1994 and the conversion of the University of Roorkee in 2001 brought the tally of IITs to seven. 

a large building with a tower

The founders of IIT dreamt big, imagining universities on par with elite foreign institutions. And to a large extent, they succeeded. Although India’s massive anti-corruption movement in 2011 speaks to the long held perception of endemic graft, the JEE meritocratically selects students year after year. The lone major scandal, the leaking of exam questions in 1997, resulted in the JEE being readministered. Generous tuition subsidies make it possible for everyone who passes the entrance exam to attend. 

The IIT grads we spoke to described the quality of the IITs’ research and infrastructure as below that of elite American universities, but the universities generally enjoy support and resources far above the norm in India. Although located amidst the chaos of Mumbai’s 20 million plus population, IIT Bombay is an oasis of calm. One alum compared it to students in New York City living and studying in Central Park.

Most importantly, the IITs consistently attract India’s brightest minds. Although devoted to technical fields, the IITs were and still are India’s best universities, period. Young Indians apply regardless of whether they intend to be engineers. Today India boasts a modern economy and an improved higher education system, but the allure of the IITs, the ironclad promise of success, remains.

A Marathon and a Sprint

“When I was studying, my mother would not even let me prepare my own cup of tea.”

~IIT student on 60 Minutes

Preparation for the Joint Entrance Exam typically begins two years before students take the test during their senior year. Others get a head start in 8th or 9th grade – or earlier in rare cases. The questions on the JEE go beyond what is covered by high school curriculums, so students need to learn novel material rather than simply review their school coursework. That has long meant purchasing advanced chemistry, physics, and mathematics textbooks to study. Today it also almost universally means signing up for a correspondence class or courses at the ubiquitous “coaching academies” that exist to prepare students for the JEE.

In normal circumstances, preparing well in advance allows you to keep a reasonable schedule and smirk when you hear about last minute crammers. That is not the case for the JEE, where the competition is half a million strong. Vipul Singh, who ranked fifth in the JEE in 2010, gives aspiring IITians (aspiring IIT students) the following advice:

“According to me, it is time-management along with some self-belief. Every single moment that you are wasting in some not-so-important activity, thousands of other competitors are striving hard to get ahead of you. So, you simply cannot afford to waste time. A bit of relaxation here and there after some continuous study is a must, but you should be able to contain that ‘I have had enough’ feeling.”

IIT alumni describe four to six hours of daily studying as the norm. Most coaching academies hold sessions from 4:30 to 8:00 in the morning, which allows students to get the bulk of their JEE studying in before the regular school day starts. Of course, since less than 2% of those studying for the JEE will pass, they also need to study for other universities’ entrance exams.

diagram, schematic

The pressure to succeed can be intense. “The entire family sits the test,” explained one student. For every student of means who can apply to foreign universities or other attractive options, many more see the exam as a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a son or daughter become a great success. One IIT student, the son of a roadside vendor in a poor town, went on to become a scientist at a Belgian university, a result that is not a complete outlier. It’s not uncommon for entire families to wait outside the testing center while their children sit the exam. Other IIT alumni that we spoke to said that their families did not pressure them or hover. But every serious IIT applicant, successful or not, sacrifices time teenagers normally spend at the movies or on Facebook, skips vacations and studies over school breaks. 

Despite the exclusivity of the IITs, it is not just lone geniuses studying for the exam. Archana Sekhar, who passed the JEE in 1999, told us that almost every one of her friends at school studied for the JEE “with varying levels of seriousness.” Tanmay Saksena, who also took the test in the late nineties, concurred: “Practically everyone who I knew took it.” 

In India, studying engineering is less the choice of a favorite discipline and more the safest choice or a sign of prestige. “Liberalization only came to India in the 90s,” Saksena told us. “Families are risk averse. They want [their children] to study medicine, engineering, law. The IITs hold a lot of promise. Parents see the successful alumni and encourage their children to take the path of the IITs.”  Students who would study art, commerce, or literature force themselves or are forced down the engineering path, making it common for seemingly every student from an upper or middle class background to take the JEE.

The choice of major or specialty at IIT follows the same logic. Those who pass the JEE are ranked based on their score, with the top ranks getting first pick of which IIT campus to attend and which field to study. Like clockwork, students choose a discipline based on its prestige: the top ranks choose computer science, then electrical engineering, followed by chemical and mechanical, instrumentation, metallurgical, manufacturing, textile and civil. This heightens the stakes of the entrance exam. The last students who make the cut every year must accept the least popular destinations and fields of study. Only the top several hundred can pursue computer science at IIT Bombay, the most respected placement and one that usually leads to the highest salaries after graduation.


$3.4 Billion of Tutoring

V.K. Bansal was an engineer at a synthetics plant in Kota, India, when he began tutoring students in math in 1981. A talented teacher, he helped his students pass the Joint Entrance Exam. In 1986, one of his students placed first. By the mid 90’s, a number of former engineers had started academies in the city that even sought out IIT grads as teachers. 

Kota’s schools represent the extreme end of coaching academies – a number of students move to the city to attend them and promise their parents to return as engineers. But coaching academies are the norm across India. Ninety-five percent of students who pass the JEE avail themselves of the $3.37 billion industry. (Compare that to the SAT prep industry, estimated to be worth $500 million in the US and $1 billion globally.) The students we spoke to whose families could afford annual tuitions of up to $1,700 almost all attended coaching academies along with their peers. 

a person standing in front of a classroom of students

The academies demand serious discipline from their students. The pre-dawn classes include tests several times a week, with increasing frequency as the JEE approaches. Students can be competitive, although IITians assured us that people are still friendly to each other and that it can even be a “fun environment.” Jokes co-exist with the relentless pace of the academics. 

Offering India’s students (and their wealthy parents) a leg up in the JEE makes for lucrative business. Although each student pays a princely sum roughly equal to India’s GDP per capita, academies often pack up to 200 students in a class. “It’s a sweatshop for educational throughput,” IITian Tanmay Saksena told us. “Their main aim is to maximize throughput and perpetuate their presence by asking students who pass the JEE to endorse them.” In Kota, teachers earn salaries of $50,000 to $100,000, a figure whose growth is boosted by academies poaching faculty from each other.

From their humble roots, coaching programs have become major corporations, listed on the Indian stock market and inviting ten million dollar investments from private equity. Some poor Indian families sell their land to pay a tuition that fails to launch their son into India’s elite. Many more well-off parents waste tuition money. But star students can benefit. 

During the annual press frenzy that greets the announcement of results, every student who passes the JEE can expect to be covered in a local paper. The craze is encouraged by the academies. While students check their results online using a unique identifier, the academies quickly publish the names of each of their successful students along with their rank. The top scorers are briefly national celebrities, signing autographs and giving press conferences. 

For the coaching academies, these students also are their advertisements. In exchange for monetary awards, they appear on billboards along with the name of their coaching academy, or dutifully note their affiliation in press conferences and articles. Big coaching academies give out thousands of dollars every year in a pyramid distribution – a few top ranks get the lion’s share of the rewards. A score in the top thousand usually guarantees a student an award of a few thousand dollars. A top ten rank can bring in over $10,000. 

It can also be a cutthroat industry. Anand Kumar runs a program called Super 30. A math prodigy who could not attend Cambridge University because he could not afford tuition, he selects and teaches 30 of India’s brightest students from poor backgrounds every year to prepare them for the JEE. Super 30 has been a great success, with a near 100% pass rate. Much of India, and the world, has reacted by celebrating Kumar as a hero. Commercial coaching academies, according to Kumar, are so threatened by his success that they have made death threats. He currently has an armed bodyguard at all times. 

In 2009, rival coaching academies successfully bribed three Super 30 students to say that they studied with those schools, rather than with Super 30. It’s rumored to be common. “I have heard of coaching classes offering some students huge sums so that they can falsely claim them to be their own students,” Vipul Singh, who achieved a rank of 5, told us. “It did not happen with me though.”

The Best 4 Years of Your Life

Although the level of preparation and dedication required to pass the JEE could inspire stereotypes of IIT students as well-programmed study bots, that is not the case. Life at the IITs is marked by dynamics familiar to students at any boarding university.

As an attendee of IIT Bombay explains on Quora while describing his hostel (the word IITians use for dorms), Yale is not the only university to draw comparisons to Hogwarts:

“I was part of wing 4-2 in Hostel 5. Every wing thought it was the best/coolest, of course, based on self-perceived qualities. Each hostel also had its own overall personality, like the Hogwart’s houses. Hostel 5 sort of prided itself on academic mediocrity and rowdiness. Within it, my wing prided itself on being the noisy, loud, combative wing, with an ongoing rivalry with wing 6-2, the other rowdy wing, right across from us. We’d shoot bottle rockets at each other on Diwali.”

The idea of academic mediocrity in such a select group may seem absurd, but it’s as real as Harvard students coasting through their classes. “There is the newfound freedom of not being home and not having the pressure of one exam,” Archana Sekhar, IIT Madras ‘04, reflected. “You have people who stop showing up to classes by second year.”

Critics of the IITs have described the education as more of a honeymoon than the prestige of the universities would suggest. Young Indians, they charge, aware that they are made men and women by virtue of passing the JEE, slack off. While IITians readily admit that many students slack off academically, they mostly insist that it’s part of a healthy dynamic. 

“People study less hard, they don’t stop completely,” Vipul Singh of IIT Bombay explained. “They start looking towards exploring other things like cultural and sports activities and focus less on academics once they are into IIT. This isn’t a bad thing at all. It contributes to good personality development.”

If besting the gauntlet of the IIT admissions process gives its students the freedom to stop obsessing about academics and prestige, it’s one that the students very much appreciate. “Among IITians, there are still many who are focused on academics, who wish to apply their minds towards research, who become entrepreneurs, etc,” Singh continued. “So, on the whole, it’s a good mix – intelligent people, academic-lovers, singers, dancers, athletes, and drunkards.”

Tanmay Saksena found this freedom particularly crucial given that not everyone fits the mold of a high flying engineering student:

“IIT was usually a pretty supportive environment. I was thankful for a peer group who knew that academics are not the only metric of how good you are. People went to IIT because it was seen as the only way to be successful, so you had people who at heart were artists and they found ways to be successful that did not translate to high grades in the classroom.”

For an institution explicitly imagined to churn out engineers, IIT students also described a culture impressively conducive to liberal arts ideals. The influence of foreign universities in IIT’s creation means that curriculums include required courses in the humanities and social sciences. “It was a very well rounded experience,” Saksena told us, “that trained you to be a general leader. Some of my favorite courses were Modern American and British Literature.” 

What was the most interesting aspect of your IIT experience? we asked. “The freedom to express yourself creatively in avenues where you interact with your entire peer group. You discover things about yourself you never knew. Even after graduating, IITians go to each other to get honest feedback and keep each other real.” 

Not everyone holds the same perspective. Another IIT grad described how students pursue good marks (or slack) depending on whether grades will be used as a criteria by their future employer or admissions officers. “It’s a kind of sad thing,” he mused. “That people are very clear on what they want out of the program.”

Another debate with many sides is whether the IITs provide an education commensurate with their prestige and the expectations set by the JEE. Just as debate rages over the quality of an Ivy League education, IITians and the many commentators eager to join the debate in India can disagree. 

“There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that the IITs fare poorly when judged as research institutions,” a recent Economic Times of India article noted. It’s an uncontroversial statement. The IITs do not have the same monopoly of supply over graduate students and professors as they do undergraduates. So while many IITians speak well of their teaching assistants and professors, better funded universities abroad have an easier time recruiting star faculty with better salaries, funding, and research infrastructure. As the article goes on to say, “This is what the current set of directors is trying to correct.” The IITs are spending more money on research and PhDs, but still have a ways to go.

Additionally, several IITians singled out practical application of engineering as a weakness at IIT. As for general quality, some IITians maintain that their graduate programs at American universities were a breeze after the difficulty of IIT, while others describe IITs as a honeymoon for students who have already punched their ticket to the global elite. 

Slackers or not, IITians agree that the greatest asset of the IITs is the caliber of their fellow students. The IITs face the same critiques as Ivy League schools about the intelligence of students being overhyped, especially given the important role that coaching academies and socioeconomic advantages can play in admissions. 

Nevertheless, IITians are a very select group – a fact very appreciated by students and alumni. “The environment is so great because of your peers,” one IITian told us. “You had a lot of motivation from them. You feel that everyone is smart, so you push yourself. It’s self-fueling and self-perpetuating. I think that was the biggest advantage of the system.”

The Limits of Meritocracy

India ranks 94th out of 174 countries on Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index. (Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand hold the number one spot as the world’s least corrupt countries.) As recently as 2010 India ranked #4, alongside Afghanistan, Cameroon, and Iraq, with over 50% of the population having reported paying a bribe in the previous year.

In a country that has long been considered a place where any position or privilege can be had for the right price, the imperviousness of the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Joint Entrance Exam to corruption sets it apart. “There was never any question that you could have paid to get into IIT,” one IITian told us. “That definitely adds to its prestige in a country where there is a workaround everywhere.” Despite India’s success in keeping the JEE a fair process, however, no one is under any illusion that the results are perfectly meritocratic. 

The most obvious failure is that only 10%-12% of IIT students are women. This gender gap has persisted despite women outperforming men in most academic results and filling more than 60% of seats in some universities.

“Yes, women are underrepresented much like in the US in math and science programs,” Archana Sekhar, herself an IIT graduate, told us. “There is a perception that you need to be really, really good in math and science that discourages women. You also need to stay in hostels (dorms) away from home and that is hard for girls and their parents. Questions of safety and security make parents reluctant to send girls alone to coaching classes in a different part of the city or have them live in hostels.”

Members of India’s lower castes, which have been historically discriminated against and still correlate with who is poor or disadvantaged today, are also underrepresented at the IITs. Twenty two and a half percent of the undergraduate spots at IIT are reserved for the lowest castes, just under their estimated share of India’s population. However, the students still need to achieve a minimum score on the JEE, historically 50% of the grade of the last admitted student from the general pool. In practice, this means that only half of the quota is actually filled every year. 

IITians also worry that students admitted under affirmative action will struggle at IIT. A 2003 article estimated that 25% drop out, while a common complaint is that the real beneficiaries of the reservation system are members of the lower castes who are not poor. 

Nevertheless, many see the system as doing quite well at being fair to disadvantaged students. “There were quite a few talented people from small cities and disadvantaged backgrounds,” IITian Prashant Tandon told us. “My experience was that for the first time, I was with a group from all backgrounds and socioeconomic strata. One of the good things of the system is that at the end of the day, if you are smart, you will make it.” A graduate of the class of 1997, however, he also added, “I don’t know if this has changed with coaching becoming more important.”

As Institutes of National Importance, Indian law allows the IITs to set policies that result in lower representation of lower castes than mandated nationally so that affirmative action is not a burden. But if some inequality of outcomes due to socioeconomic status is accepted as an unfortunate fact of life, no one wants to see access to coaching academies be a barrier to entry.

The questions on the JEE call for much more than rote learning and memorization. Students need to apply concepts and solve complex problems. But that does not mean that strategies and test taking tips have no place in the exam. In fact, the difficulty of the problems can make strategies more important. 

According to the director of IIT Madras, “Somebody who is very good but didn’t get coaching and didn’t know the strategy and didn’t know time management may lose out to somebody who does not have that spark.” Since the JEE needs to identify and rank several thousand students out of half a million, they include a number of extremely difficult questions. A coached student may know to identify and skip those questions if they don’t immediately recognize a potential solution, while an uncoached student would waste time fruitlessly tackling the test’s hardest question.

Beyond strategies like this, coaching academies also give students a leg up because the exam tests material that students never learn at school. Even for students who can learn on their own, learning all the material may be out of reach financially. The right textbooks cost hundreds of dollars and can be difficult to find. 

Even the most gifted IIT students credit coaching academies with helping them learn how to break down problems based on the format or “pattern” the test uses and to give them structured practice. When we asked Vipul Singh, who placed fifth on the JEE, whether coaching academies made it more difficult for Indians from poorer backgrounds to pass the JEE, he replied, “Absolutely.”

“I personally didn’t need coaching classes to teach me the concepts, I was good enough to grab them myself,” Vipul explained. “But I needed practice, simulation tests, someone to tell me what I was doing wrong when I would lose marks… That’s where coaching classes helped a lot.” As one scathing IITian points out, the cost of the academies is about $4 per day, and 94% of Indians live on less than $4 per day. The academies are an advantage that only a select few can afford.

Dramatic changes to the Joint Entrance Exam took effect in 2013, which included efforts to reduce the reliance on coaching academies. This includes inviting only the top scoring 150,000 students to the second part of the JEE (known as the JEE Advanced) and requiring high minimum grades in school to discourage students from neglecting schoolwork in favor of coaching. It’s an open question whether it will succeed. But after the announcement, coaching academies announced record enrollments and increased fees.

India’s North Star

a building with trees in front of it

While the Indian Institute of Technology still ignites an educational race like no other, its singular status as the destination for India’s most intelligent strivers is waning. As India has become richer, the available alternatives to IITs have increased, from foreign universities to other higher institutions in India. In 2008, the government ceded to pressure for more IIT access and mandated the creation of 8 new IIT campuses. These pressures, along with the influence of coaching academies, have led a number of graduates to state that the quality of IIT graduates is slipping.

The exam itself has also changed. This includes looking at school grades as a criteria for the first time (although only as a minimum requirement) and using the JEE as the admissions test for many technical colleges, rather than just for the IITs. 

Looking back, the IIT clearly surpassed the expectations set for it in 1951, as its success has garnered many accolades and admirers. But others question whether it achieved Nehru’s goal of educating the engineers needed by India, instead accusing the IITs of being a vehicle for brain drain.

When they graduate, the majority of IIT students pursue graduate degrees or take jobs in the United States. Some two thirds of them, according to a 60 Minutes piece. Critics do not see studying at America’s generally superior graduate schools as a problem, but they charge that very few come back.

This particularly matters because India spends so much on the IIT system under the logic that they are institutes of national importance. Students pay subsidized tuition at a fraction of the real cost of their education. The Indian government subsidizes over 80% of the costs of the IIT, with alumni donations only accounting for under 3% of the system’s budget. “While the total government funding to most other engineering colleges is around $2-4 million per year,” a critical article writes, “the amount varies between $18-26 million per year for each IIT.”

If the IITs have hard numbers on how many of its alumni live abroad, they are not sharing. A study conducted in the mid seventies estimated the number at 30.8%. In a speech in 2008, Prime Minister Singh stated that an estimated one third or more of IITians settle abroad to be “leaders in their fields of endeavor.” A 2002 study estimated that 80% of Indian students studying abroad did not intend to return. It is also likely that the most intelligent and successful alumni are the ones who leave India. Eighty percent of computer science majors, the most prestigious field at IIT, migrate, mostly to the United States.

India’s loss has been a boon to the world’s most prestigious firms, particularly Silicon Valley companies. Over 25,000 IITians live in the United States. One such graduate is Indian-American Vinod Khosla, who co-founded Sun Microsystems in 1982. Asked about the impact of IIT graduates on America’s technology sector, the Silicon Valley luminary responded, “It’s far greater than most people realize. Microsoft, Intel, PCs, Sun Microsystems, you name it. I can’t imagine a major area where IIT engineers haven’t played a leading role.” IIT is well known at Facebook and Google, which recruit alumni heavily, and the name is respected across high performing companies. 

The IIT grads we spoke to took a sanguine view of the exodus of IIT engineers to foreign shores. “I certainly see my peers returning to India after having the chance to attend graduate school in the US,” Archana Sekhar told us. “Many go back to start their own companies. Or once people have spent ten years in the US and have kids, they want to go back.” She also noted India’s growth as increasing the “compatibility” of IITians education and the opportunities available. An older alum agreed: “In the seventies, if you could go abroad, you did. But there’s been a huge reversal from 2000-2010 with people staying or planning to come back from the US.”

Many other grads responded that India reaped the benefit of its abroad alums through investment. Pursuing opportunities abroad, at least in the past, was better than facing an “uphill battle” in India, Tanmay Saksena told us. “You can blossom and give back to India in ways you couldn’t otherwise – fund companies, chairs, and universities… It’s more effective.” 

This is a standard argument made by opponents of the brain drain theory, one refuted by critics who say that the level of investment does not make up for lost educational subsidies, tax revenues, and human capital. But the defense of IIT we found most interesting against the brain drain accusation was how it vaulted India onto the global stage.

Narayana Murthy, co-founder of the software company Infosys, told 60 Minutes reporters that brain drain did not concern him: 

“Sure, [former Prime Minister] Nehru wanted all these young men and women to contribute to the success of India and they are contributing to the success of India in some way because today the respect for the Indian professional is much higher than it was in the fifties.”

Many of the IITians we spoke to mirrored this view, speaking of how IIT graduates spread the “India brand” around the world, garnering invaluable respect for their home country and convincing companies to set up operations in India.

On an individual level, IIT also pushed bright Indian students to excel. “Even if you’re from the upper or middle class, the access to opportunities around the globe, the alumni role models who are leaders at multinationals or started successful companies on global stage – once you have that level of exposure, you think very differently,” Tanmay Saksena told us. “It’s not just about a cushy job in India anymore. It’s investment banking in New York City or startups in Silicon Valley. It is a ticket to world stage.”

Vipul Singh concurred that the eliteness of IIT motivated him:

“I have had exposure to some very good professors, and the competition that I face from my peers has kept me sharp. I feel motivated to keep performing well and to excel at what I do because I feel that as a JEE rank 5, a lot of people look up to me.”

When the IIT system was created in the fifties and early sixties, India was a new nation and a struggling one. It faced the violence and uncertainty of its rupture with Pakistan and extreme poverty that led foreigners to view it as a basket case dependent on foreign aid. The distance between the IITs and the rest of India has left it open to valid charges of elitism. But that was also always the intention. As India sought to become a strong country, the IIT shined as a North Star. A world class institution in a country lacking in them, it showed Indians and the world what the country could be. It pushed and inspired its graduates to excel at a level they would not have considered otherwise.

Singh readily acknowledges some downsides of IIT, but he does not regret the sacrifices he made in pursuit of the achievement. And his remarks about IIT are often glowing.

Asked about the most interesting aspect of the Joint Entrance Exam and the Indian Institutes of Technology, Vipul Singh said that, for him, it was how his high rank opened up opportunities to meet people. “I have already been on four trips abroad, all either paid for by the government or as part of internships where I was given stipends,” he told us. “All this, because I have been a good student and have done well. I have been to many seminars where I have addressed JEE-aspirants, listened to their troubles, and shared my own knowledge and experience with them.”

“I do feel loved by a nation.”

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. He wishes to thank the many IITians who generously donated their time to talk eloquently about their IIT and JEE experiences. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.