Indian Exams, Our Lives and Our Society

This last week was a very eventful week for the high school students all around India. The results of 10th and 12 standard from different systems were announced. Some were happy, some got what they expected but some were sad. Some were sad because they got bad marks – some of them could have known that because they really couldn’t study well, due to myriad of reasons and some thought they did well but didn’t get the results they expected.

The hype that is built traditionally about the board exams in India is unique in the world. Really speaking the whole country, in households where there are any kids in high schools stop functioning normally. TV is shut down. Vacations are post poned. Relatives are asked to stay away while the kids are studying and getting ready for the exams.

For the 12th standard kids, specially from Science stream, the ordeal has not yet ended. There are even more results now. Medical entrance and Engineering entrance would keep them busy for the coming months. Some will get to the college they want. Others wont.

For many who do not make it to the college or the course of their choice, it is almost like the end of life. Unfortunately, for some it does become the end of life as they take extreme steps because of bad results out of embarassment or depression at having come to a point in life, where they think their life will be worthless.

There are many families, where the first kid may have excelled in studies and maybe topped in the IITs or some prestigious college. The pressure on his/her younger siblings is unimaginable. And, if they don’t do as well as their elder sibling, they are almost considered useless. For these families, life begins and ends at academic brilliance. That becomes the ONLY way to measure the worth of any human being.

And its not just any type of academic brilliance, but one that carried tags. The bigger the pedigree of your tag, the more worth you have as a human being even in the eyes of your parents. It is not unusual to come across examples, where parents basically condemn the kids to insanity if they get a seat in a college just a notch below what is considered “acceptable”.

Even though two kids may be siblings, it is not necessary that they have similar character, likes/dislikes, and even talent. Naseeruddin Shah, for example, is arguably one of India’s greatest actor. His brother Gen Zameeruddin Shah, on the other hand, was India’s Deputy Army Chief. One, a rebellious soul in his own right even in a field which is so creative to begin with. And the other, who succeeded in a field where discipline is the key and any deviation from norms and standards is not accepted.

Imagine what would have happened if Sachin Tendulkar was forced to go into singing by a family besotted with singing, or what would have happened to Lata Mangeshkar, if she had to become a doctor and nothing else?!

The fact is that every kid is different and every kid comes with a talent trove that needs to be respected, nurtured and encouraged. The damage that “Tag Hungry Academic Brilliance oriented” families may have done to the overall society’s ability to renovate itself by creating souls like Vivekananda’s or Tagores, or Premchands or Bhagat Singhs is incalculable. Part of that blame has to fall on the society’s lack of sense of well being. How we have defined our well being has been atrocious. Downright selfish and individualistic. We have found it is important to get a well paying job for our kid while the society as a whole falls into ruin. If my locality gets unliveable, I move to Gurgaon. If Gurgaon is unliveable, I move to New York. Basically, we are in a race to something better while we destroy what we have. What we have is not important, what we want is more important, until we can get that what we want by abandoning what we have! The day US, UK, Australia, and the West stops all immigration, and no migration within the country is allowed, every city and colony in the country would become impeccable!

Exams and their importance: Two Case Studies

I wanted to narrate two case studies where things did not go as planned in these exams, but the protagonists went onto do what they had really wanted and succeeded in every wihch way they judged their success to be.

The Topper who Missed Every Entrance

A younger brother of my sister’s friend had given his 12th board exams and many entrance exams. He was one of the toppers of his school batch and was expected to do extremely well – which translates into being a topper in IIT, and getting through some of the other top engineering colleges. Strangely by some incalculable coincidence, he did neither. He did not even top the school or get a grade that would give him a place in any engineering school.

He came to me with head bowed down and lost eyes which saw no future. He narrated his tale of misfortune with a lot of remorse and self pity. I smiled and asked him, if he really wanted to be world’s best engineer? He wasn’t sure. Then I asked him, if he wanted to have a good career with a good paying job? To which he lighted up. So, then what’s your issue? “I dunno” he said softly. So, how do you define success? “High paying job with a successful career”

Well, you can still do it. If I were you, I said, given how useless the B. Sc. courses are in the Universities – specially Delhi University – I would switch my career, move into Commerce. Do well, take exams for Cost Accountancy by the end of it and also sit for the MBA exams and get into the top one at that time. But i can assure you that you will never be hungry.

Right now, I told him, there was no point in looking at what you couldn’t get. Look at what you can get. Now, Commerce is such a lowly area for people steeped into Science brilliance that it is almost calling them names.

But this kid, saw the logic. He did as we had discussed. He topped his class in Commerce. Went onto do his MBA from the Indian Institute of Management (Calcutta) and topped his batch there and then went onto work at one of the most prestigious Consulting firms – McKinsey – and has had a fantastic career since.

However he defined his success, this person achieved every bit of it and more.

Academic lack of success but an Unusual Passion

Then there is the story of another kid. He is in my family – my cousin.

By all academic standards he was considered a “failure”. He was just not able to do well in the studies, while his elder brother was very good. We all knew of his interest in dramatics and stage (direction). But in a family which did not know anything in this area, he was a dark horse.

His parents and other relatives would often complain that he was basically wasting his life. Then his passion brought him to Delhi’s Dramatics and Stage scene and by some quirk of luck he managed to get into the Film Institute in Pune. When I learnt of that, I was positive that this kid knew what he wanted. He was not clueless after all. He may not say what his goal was, or what made him tick, but he knew it in his mind very well.

I argued his case with his parents at every opportunity I could get and pleaded with them to be patient. If his passion has made him reach Pune’s institute (a prestigious place) against all odds, i told his mother, then that passion will take him where he belongs. So, let him go. Wait for a few years and then see. Now, his parents are one of the most understanding set of parents I have met in my life. My role model of how a father (and an male elderly) should be (since I lost my Dad very young) has been my cousin’s Dad. Despite that one cannot say it was a cake-walk for him.

After a rather slow start, he went onto to work as Assistant Director (#4, then #3, then #2, then #1 – there are various levels of ADs in a movie) for one marquee film after another – including Jodha Akbar and Luck by Chance.

“Bhaiya, this is EXACTLY what I dreamed of doing in my life” was his statement when I called him to congratulate on his career once. The excitement and the passion in his voice was unmistakable. That made me wonder – how many IITians or even MBAs from Harvard do I know who can make that statement with the same conviction that this once considered “useless kid” made on the phone that day? Not even one that I know of!! Not ONE!

All you need to know about how unimportant the 12th boards and other entrance exams are for your future, is the story of these two kids.


First and foremost, the main takeaway of the above two case studies is that no matter what the result may be in ANY exam, that is not the end of your life. In fact, that may be the beginning of the most fulfilling life ahead!

Basically, there are three kinds of people:

  1. Those who know what they want to do and quickly align their goals in normal paths
  2. Those who don’t know what they want to do, but would rather be successful as per society’s standards
  3. Those who don’t know what they want.. yet, but they don’t care about the society’s standards

Those who know what they want very early in life, rarely rebel with the society. It is conflict and confusion of the initial years of life, where you don’t know what you want, but know what the society has to offer is not what you wanted surely, that one tries to look at a radically different version of the world!

Those who know what they want will find that either the exams are absolutely critical or completely useless. A person who always wanted to become the greatest Engineer in the world, then these exams are very important. Or for someone whose only passion in life was to become a great doctor.

A person who wanted neither and was very clear of that, will find that these exams are a nuisance.

For those, who don’t know what they want in life but would rather do well by society’standards often end up fighting every bit to do well in these exams. For such people, the exam is definitely critical!

For the last category, these exams are absolutely NOT important.

These people who are either parasites and beggars of the society or those who create their own paths.

If one looks closely, one would find that society’s greatest revolutions are brought about by the people of this last category, those of them who found the purpose when all was lost. The people of the other two categories always follow the revolutions brought about by these rebels.

Transformations do not come from conformity. Any conformity with the society can only enforce what has prevailed. People who follow such paths, can only create “tweaks’ in the society. Tweaks do not bring about any change. They may become popular because in a society which is as banal as it is, one does not even need to engineer total transformation, even small tweaks can bring popularity and money. Money and riches can earned from working in the small wedges left unfilled in the society. Just patch ups and band aids become money spinners!

That is the sad reality of this world. But the situation is even more serious in India. No transformational figure has been born in the society for last 150 years. No one has created a revolution. We have become slaves without anyone ruling over us. A society that has stopped thinking and living. India is a society that sleeps in deep slumber and works in drunken state. We have stopped created anything new. Someone tells us sitting is good. We follow. Someone then stands up instead. Great! We stand up.

A society that has given spiritual revolutionaries who were uncompromising and yet no one ever stoned them or crucify them, but sent wisdom to every corner of the world, has lost any semblance of wisdom and common sense!

“India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.” – Hu Shih (Former Ambassador of China to USA)

A country which sent lasting and transformational wisdom to the world, now has youth which can’t getting tired debating the primacy of Capitalism and Communism – two failed/failing thought systems. Such is the mental and intellectual slavery of a people that gave birth to countless Rishis, Buddha, Nanak, Osho, and J. Krishnamurti apart from many who are un-named or not as well known.

Economic misery can be measured. Intellectual and civilizational misery is very hard to measure or articulate. India’s intellectual misery today is FAR worse than its economic misery. That, we don’t even realize such a state is itself the most telling statement of where our future (and of the world – given wisdom from this society has affected the world) is going.

Practical Side and Responses

However, one would do complete disservice if one would not acknowledge the importance of Indian education and exam system in making the middle class what it is today. Middle class really had no outlet or way to go up for many decades. Education was the only way out and for every parent, their child’s success was the way out of misery that they had to live every day. Success – academic success – became critical. Materially, it was important to get into positions of more money and power.

That is the greatest importance of these two types of exams.

Xth Standard Exams

The 10th standard Board exams are important because they help you choose the subject you want to. As Prem says it –

“Determined ability to make choices in the next 2 grades – so they were important.”

.. the 10th standard exams help the kids select the subject they would like to go ahead with – Commerce, Medicine, Engineering, Arts etc. In that sense, it has a critical and almost a damning influence on the future of a person’s life.

However, this does vary from school to school. Like Shalini Verma says:

Personally, they were not important at all. We were allowed to choose our subjects for the next two years based on our internal examinations and past performance rather than the 10th standard board results.

XIIth Standard Exams

Over the years, the importance of these exams has gone down. There was a time when doing well in these meant the world. But then almost every institution for Engineering and Medicine had their own entrance exam. For those not interested in these two areas, it still holds critical importance. Garrimaa sums it up pretty well:

12th std results were important as they always decide what course you can take in a country like India, however now that there are separate entrance exams even for the bachelors courses, I guess thats pretty neat.

For Somanjana, it helped her get into the college and course she wanted:

They were very important to me as they served as the ticket to the most coveted academic institutions but you know what I’ve come across many people in later life who didn’t go to such prestigious schools but are doing equally well in life, if not better.

On the other hand, Prem did not think they were important for life. To him, this result served more as an ego booster.

Gave some confidence to self about personal ability and fallback options. Otherwise they were not life-changing.

Shalini’s response suggests a combination of both, an ego boost and importance in helping her get admission to the subject of her choice.

They were important. They got me admission in the college and subjects of my choice. It was thrilling to see my name right on top in the first list. It was also very dis-heartening to see a friend of mine trying to get admission in a good college. She had been a good student all through, but a difficult situation at home during the boards had affected her results.

Looking back

What do people who have passed from this path, look back? What advise would they give, if they had to look back?

Here are some interesting repsonses.

Shalini: When I look back I feel I got results proportionate to the hard work I put in. However these results have little or no impact on the career that I am finally pursuing in my life. I feel we could have achieved the same or better results if the environment created in school and otherwise about ‘Board Exams’ was a tad bit relaxed. They were just like any other exams just that we took them in an external environment. In other words, the invisible yet very omnipresent pressure of board exams needs to be addressed.

Prem: School leaving exams can be important but setbacks in them can be overcome. The entrance exams to colleges are much more important, career wise. Life gives more chances to recover from imperfect 12 std results than we think. The 10th grade exams can actually be more important for some as they can close the door to some options such as biology (which can end options for a medical career later) in subsequent study.

Garrimaa: Same as 2+3. In addition, I guess we have to build a mechanism of preventing the students from getting stressed out and confused. Every school should have a counseling mandatory and free at 10th and 12th. There must be free stress busters at the time of exams. The physical education in school should not be restricted to exercises, gym or sports only, it should be extended to yoga, breathing and meditation–right from day1. Here, the autonomous bodies, NGOs or communities that offer such courses, must be able to integrate with schools and colleges to work together on that. Parents, even when they bring up their kids with full dedication must believe right from the day kids are born that kids are not their property,possession, savior, reconciliation, redemption or slaves. They are individual soul who have a relationship of a kid with you- no more no less, letting them blossom on their own and allowing them mental freedom, verbal freedom and being more friendly than preachy with them would help- especially the teenagers.

Somanjana: “The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”–Tom Bodett

Useful Resources

If you want to follow the results in various Universities or Exam systems in India, you can use India Results.

CBSE Official site for Exam results

Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has also recently shared best practices on dealing with the Exam blues. Please see the documents on the links below.

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  1. vindhya says

    From now on we should shift our focus from this sort of mindset as we are lacking on the sports front.

    1. Desh Kapoor says

      Hi Vindhya – totally agree! After the drought of medals and only the women actually getting something worthwhile… it is time that we as a nation do something useful for sports!

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