T+2 Years And Counting: My IIT-JEE preparation story

As the title indicates, it's been a while since I've written anything here. I don't know if anyone still reads this blog, but I sure appreciate if you do!

So, I guess some explanation is due here - it's been a combination of my lack of cohesive thought and lack of motivation to publish anything. Part of the reason is also that I've given a shot at the IIT-JEE which is something that I've wanted to write about for a while.

For the uninitiated, the IIT-JEE is an entrance exam for the IITs which are regarded by some as the best engineering colleges in India. The exam is held at the end of 12th grade annually. Hundreds of thousands attempt the exam. Tens of thousands slog away countless hours of their last few years in high school preparing for it. Only a few hundred actually succeed.

Like many with some strong aspirations of becoming an engineer, I stumbled upon this path a couple of years ago. I loved making/breaking things and had (what I felt) a keen interest in science, so it was a natural option for me to take some engineering related field over other options. I loved airplanes too and I would spend many happy hours on Wikipedia reading up about the Concorde (gorgeous plane), the XB-70, their engines, their airframe designs, and the engineers behind it all. I was fiercely determined to enter the aviation industry as an aerospace engineer to create a revolutionary aircraft on the lines of the Concorde.

It's an unspoken reality that one's chances at IIT-JEE significantly decrease without the assistance of extra classes outside school, also known as coaching classes. I joined one at the start of the summer vacation prior to 11th called FIITJEE after getting a decent fee waiver via their admission test. I was no stranger to horror stories of 11th and 12th grade for school students, but I felt things would change for the better after the brain-numbing syllabus of 10th grade.

And it did. To an extent. Things passed very quickly through the first few months of FIITJEE where I was tirelessly trying to understand every fragment of information that would probably help in making it through with a good rank in IIT Advance. My math wasn't strongest to begin with and I trudged along with chem with ambivalence to the subject material. Studying physics, both in class and at home was amazing. Thanks to our FIITJEE physics teacher, one of the best teachers I've ever had, physics by acompared long shot became my favorite subject for the next two years. It always just clicked and moreover studying physics and learning something new to solve an interesting problem was just fun. I remember physics and chemistry (primarily physics) passing along with relative smoothness but it felt like I was banging my head on a brick wall with math. This led to the vicious cycle of frustration, studying to remedy my weaknesses followed by more frustration when things didn't seem to be getting better. Despite all the apathy towards math I still managed to get through reasonably well with a consistent 2nd place in the phase tests and three digit ranks in the FIITJEE AIiTS. Unfortunately my reckless, unplanned approach towards studying in the first few months cost me greatly in other spheres of life and I was not a happy person to be around.

It was around this point in time when I felt things slipping - yes, decent ranks in the phase tests were welcome but did it actually mean anything in such a sample set? There was also a storm brewing on the horizon - in the form of organic chemistry. Hard as I tried, I could never commit the material to memory. My woes with organic chem were exemplified with a jaw-dropping 11/25 in a school UT...which meant I had spent about 2 hours studying for every mark earned in that test :P

Fortunately things slowly shaped up to look better right after 11th grade. Thanks to some quality teaching at FIITJEE and a lot time with chem textbooks organic chem started to become clearer for me. Shortly thereafter I managed to top Bangalore in FIITJEE's classroom program in the organic chem phase test. Of all the times I've had to bounce back from a tight situation in those 2 years, this was probably my highest point. Suddenly, exactly a year before IIT Advance 2015, the metaphorical glass was half full and no longer half empty. There was a calm feeling of conviction of a good possibility of me making it all the way for a 3 digit rank in IIT. Yes, my math was still well behind physics and chem but I had a year to work on it, right?

Well not exactly. It just so happened that 12th grade started in full flow at this point and the constant neglect I had given to the school syllabus in 11th grade was no longer feasible. I couldn't continue just scraping by the school exams with minimal preparation as I had done in 11th. It dawned on me that I would have to manage both school and FIITJEE a lot more efficiently if I had to have a chance with making it to a good college. While physics was chugging along well, math severely needed a shot in the arm and chem got a whole lot uglier with 4 (or was it 5?) full organic chapters hastily finished off in FIITJEE just days before phase test 4. The neglect with the other two subjects was all too visible with me scoring 20 marks more in physics than chem and math combined (no I'm not a savant in physics, just an idiot with math :P). In the middle of all this, a few competitive programming experiences realigned my goals with respect to computer science and I started liking it almost as much as I used to obsess with aerospace engineering in the past.

For me, this turned into the beginning of a massive decline. For whatever reason, I succeeded in trashing both the KVPY and the NSEP - my biggest targets for 12th grade. School marks were about okay, but still less than ideal. Not in a great shape right now, huh? It proceeded to get worse when on one day in December 2014 I heard the news that because of my US citizenship, I was essentially out of the race for NITs, IIITs (note I was still in the running for IITs though) and a bunch of local colleges in Karnataka as well.

Godammit.

My passion for physics notwithstanding I might as well not have studied at all for IIT till then. It was a pretty big blow. Fortunately, what the government taketh, they giveth. I could make it to NITs through their international program (DASA) solely through subject SAT scores which shouldn't be to big of a deal given all the study towards JEE. If you've been reading this closely, you would have probably guessed that even that wasn't exactly straightforward since the only available day to attempt the subject SAT before the deadline was December 6, exactly a week after I heard about this scheme. The subject SATs themselves were uneventful - 2400. Incidentally, at this time math finally seemed to be shaping up for the first time since I chanced upon this business with FIITJEE. I could reasonably solve problems when in the mood which was a big change from how I used to dawdle with the subject earlier.

Little did I know that is was the beginning of the biggest low I experienced - school pre-boards in January 2015 was an unmitigated disaster. 55% in math and about the same in chem with similarly bad marks across the board in CSc, physics, and English made for some very unpleasant conversations with my parents. Forget about JEE, at that point, even making the 80% in boards for qualifying cutoff was looking distant. Intertwined in this was the new BITS Hyderabad international admissions program which also made use of the good subject SAT score! But the twist was that they needed SAT reasoning scores too - which left me (yet again) with no option to attempt it within a week's time after the pre-boards to make the deadline. Gave it my all - 2220 overall or 1580/1600 CR+Math. With some assurance of BITS Hyderabad, college entrance exams totally took a backseat from the beginning of this year, the primary focus from then on being the board exams.

It took a lot of effort to get started - those pre-board marks were not going to fix themselves and I had to make up almost the full year's syllabus in a bit more than a month to stand a chance. Eventually, the rote-learning mode grew on me and the board exams came and went in March without too much drama. Just the day before my last board exam, BITS Hyderabad sent an offer letter for taking up CSc at an 80% scholarship! For a few sweet minutes the pressure of the last two years was off.

If you haven't slept off yet reading through all that, here's where it started to get interesting. Board exams done and dusted left me free to attempt the set of entrance exams at will - the main ones being JEE Mains/Advance and the BITSAT. With BITS Hyderabad CSc, I was of the opinion things could only get better as I could attempt all the exams with a free mind. This went on to be reasonably true - starting off with JEE Mains on the second Friday of April 2015 - I picked up 206/360 in JEE Mains with a solid 88/120 in physics, 83/120 in chem, and 35/120 (:P) in math. Though I would've hoped for it bit more, it turned out to be a better score than I thought it would be as the cutoffs had dropped by 10 marks from the previous year and that very few in my batch had scored higher. Much later on, it transpired that this JEE Mains score with my 95+% in CBSE would give me a decent shot at getting CSc at NIT, Surathkal campus, Aerospace Engineering at IISt, and hell, even decent choices (more so with the NTSE) at IIIT-H had it not been for my US citizenship.

With this Mains result in hand, it led me to a crucial decision - study for the BITSAT and go for it all to get CSc at Pilani campus? Study for JEE Advance instead to salvage a decent rank especially since BITS unifies their curriculum across campuses? I decided to go for the BITSAT - after all my math was in no condition for the brunt of JEE Advance but I had a good shot of making up to a respectable level for the BITSAT, which is an objectively much easier exam.

This quickly turned into an obsession - with a BITSAT textbook by my side I started optimising and gaming the whole test to the minute with well divided time sections for all the subjects and strategies for almost all the possible outcomes at each stage. Math felt like it was finally on par with the other two subjects. With strong 350-370 scores after attempting all the questions in all the mock tests without the bonus 12 questions, it looked like that the dream of two years was finally within my grasp.

But, for some inexplicable reason, I felt tremendous pressure just hours before the exam when I should have been getting a sound sleep. It was awful and I only managed to catch a few hours of sleep after finally going to sleep at 2am on the day of the exam scheduled at 830am.

The sleep deprivation didn't augur well but that only partially sealed my fate. The invigilator gave me more rough paper than I was supposed to be given before the exam (the two rough booklets were somehow glued back to back), only to realize his mistake when I started the math section.

This can't be happening, I thought. This isn't how it's supposed to all end.

My extra rough sheets were confiscated by the proctor and then it hit me that this really was the final nail in the coffin. At that very moment the blood drained from my face realising that my chances were slipping by the second. With 90 minutes left to go but with no rough paper I was very much on the verge of giving up knowing that it really couldn't be worse. Math was never my strongest subject but attempting it without any rough paper was completely out of the question. Despite all this, I realized that I couldn't just let a dream of 2 years fall apart for such a pathetic issue and still went on with the test - guessing everything I could on the math section.

I went for the extra 12 questions which were fine but I knew that the damage done from fluking most of math was irreparable. With the most anxiety I've ever experienced, I clicked the "Submit Test" button to see how I had done.

Your score: 307*

*It was later revised to 311; 118/43

WTF.

Surely it was just my sleep deprived brain that was seeing things, right? I rubbed my eyes, half expecting the last two digits of the score to reverse.

I opened my eyes again. No change. Then I glanced towards the bottom of the screen and then I knew I had truly screwed the pooch.

Correct: 117

Incorrect: 44

(Correctly marked answers are worth 3 marks and incorrectly marked answers lose 1 mark from the total)

I stumbled out of the exam room/computer lab feeling absolutely numb. Speech was difficult without a torrent of tears.

BITS Pilani CSc, heck, CSc at any BITS campus through BITSAT was an impossibility. It felt crushing and terrible to work so hard and to get so close only to ruin everything on the day of the exam for some issue that I had no control over. That day was not the first time I cried myself to sleep in those two years, but at least in those times there was a silver lining in getting another chance to do well in some other exam. There was no other exam left to do well in this time.

Strangely the only solace at the time was that I had to give JEE Advance (is it spelled Advanced? My bad if it's wrong) with absolutely no preparation due to preparing for the BITSAT instead. So, I ended up with only three days to prepare for JEE Advance and did nothing more than three previous year's papers to make sure I wasn't wasting time on any particular section and to ensure I hadn't lost too much touch.

24 May 2015 was the day. I knew I was going to be in serious trouble before even opening the question paper - the cover page of the question paper itself indicated that the next three hours were going to be pure torture with a ridiculous +4/-2 marking scheme on multiple correct option questions (this means more than one of the given MCQ options could be correct and failing to mark all the correct options would make one lose 2 marks), +4/0 integer type (think: a free response question with values from 0-9), and +2/-1 match the following (which is a whole lot more sinister than it sounds when you realise that MORE than one option in a column can be mapped to the other and all the correct options are required to be marked). It was a blur - all I remember was being completely deflated and slightly relieved that my ordeal only had another three hours with Paper 2 which followed a very similarly brutal marking scheme. I felt like I was in with a chance after doing the 2014 and 2012 question papers but there was no way I could squeeze out a good score with this. It was a bittersweet feeling after the those long 6 hours - sweet to think that the sweat and toil of the last two years was finally over and bitter to see how everything concerning my given entrance exams had fallen apart in the last week. The first thing I did on getting home from the exam was to sit down in the garden, on the grass and slowly piece together what exactly had happened. There were no tears as there had been for making a mess of the BITSAT - just a quiet resignation and mild shock that dreams had been shattered for good.

Currently, I'm stuck at the difficult decision with taking BITS Hyderabad CSc BE or trying for a dual degree program at BITS Goa, taking physics and eventually CSc.

Wow, that's easily been the longest single piece of writing I've ever done. I typed most of it on my phone on the plane, so apologies if it doesn't make too much sense. If you've made it all the way here, thanks for reading!

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