(Advice for IIT JEE preparation and other things relevant to high school students in India)
I have been approached by several thousands of IIT JEE aspirants for advice on how to prepare for the JEE. So I thought it would be useful to organize my thoughts on JEE and put it up here as a message to all the students who wish to take it in the future. A brief word of caution to begin with though – whatever I say about JEE below has been derived from my own experiences with the exam while I was preparing for it and necessarily reflects the kind of eccentric person I am myself. What has worked for me should probably, but not necessarily, work for others and will definitely not work for everyone. Besides, it has been almost two years since I wrote JEE, and my thoughts on JEE now may not necessarily coincide with my thoughts on JEE at that time. Keeping these limitations in mind, if you still ask me for advice, this is what I have to offer.
Setting your priorities straight
The JEE is a fiercely competitive examination with about half a million students contesting for a few 7k coveted seats in the most prestigious technological institutes in the country- the IITs. And fairly so, as IITs are a great place to be at – fun and exciting – for learning science and engineering and the JEE not only selects the students who are fit for the IITs, the training that the students undergo for it also prepares them for their experience at the IITs. With such a stiff competition, and with a relatively vast syllabus, preparing for the JEE may appear a pretty daunting task! Hence, it is very important to set your priorities straight (right from the very beginning so to say). First things first, if a lifetime of technology, equations, engineering or research isn’t exactly your idea of fun, you may need to re-evaluate your decision to prepare for the JEE because you will probably not like your preparations, or (if you somehow make it to them) your time at the IITs or (if you are still alive) your life after it. Now that you are really sure that JEE is what you want, it is time to make some important decisions. What are all the options that are open to you? Have you considered the option of going abroad for your undergraduate education? What exams besides JEE are you going to prepare for? What activities besides the JEE will require your time and energy? How much important are your Boards exams marks for you? What rank are you targeting at in the JEE? Are you going to join a coaching institute? (Do you need one? Can you afford one? Which one is the best for you?) Are you going to stay with your parents or not? What textbooks are you going to follow? Will you take a correspondence course or a test series?
Creating a master plan
Your answers to the above questions would have helped you have a vision of what your preparation phase will roughly be like. It is advisable, at this stage, to create a master-plan for your preparations to make concrete the ideas that you have in mind. Write down your aim. Arrange for the syllabus. Meet your mentors and discuss how the syllabus is to be covered. Create a time-line for the whole two-year period and make sure that you have allotted time for everything (including about 3 months for revision) and have created a reasonable and systematic plan for yourself. It is important to realize here that this of course is the mere beginning of your preparations and the plans that you will make now will require several changes (possibly major) as time goes on. But it is still important to go through this because it will help organize your thoughts and make you feel that the task at hand is more feasible and hence, less daunting. If you are going to appear for other exams, say the International Physics/Mathematics Olympiad, or the AIEEE, you may also create similar plans for them, making sure that your different plans support and complement each other.
Advice on textbooks, coaching etc.
There is no shortage of books in the market catering to the “latest JEE trends”. However, it is my firm belief that the only trend that JEE shows is its focus on understanding as opposed to rote learning and its emphasis on the ability to apply one’s knowledge in new and unforeseen problems. Hence, it is best to stay with the classics as far as the textbooks are concerned since they are known to have taught the concepts well to many generations of students. A somewhat idiosyncratic list can be found here.
Most serious aspirants usually join some classroom coaching institute or the other. The most popular (and successful) ones being FIITJEE, Bansal Classes, Vidyamandir, and Resonance. I attended Bansal Classes and found my experience there to be a stimulating and enriching one. The institute has split up since then and Vibrant Classes has emerged as a serious competitor to the established coaching institutes. The advantages of joining a (good enough) classroom programme are – good faculty guidance, interaction with other motivated and talented students, planned preparation, and continuous evaluation of your performance. There are, however, examples of students who have done exceedingly well in the exam without taking any specialized coaching. So, the choice of whether or not to join a coaching institute lies completely with the student. Nevertheless, if the student decides against joining a regular classroom programme, he/she should take up some correspondence course or test series.
Focus on concepts and generic problem solving techniques
I am sure you have heard this a thousand times, but I will still emphasize this again – while preparing for the JEE, you really need to focus on the concepts. This can be quite a shock after 10 years of excelling at school by rote learning. You need to keep a scientific, inquisitive attitude and question everything that you learn. You must strive for a clear understanding of the concepts involved.
A lot of students waste time solving far too many problems of the same kind, just because the problems are there in the book/course they are following. You should definitely solve several problems in each topic, but if you have become really confident in a topic, and on reading a question, you know how to approach it and you are confident that you know that if you had to you would solve the problem in reasonable time, you can skip that question and read the next one. One really good strategy is to approach a problem from various points of view, and trying to use more than one method to solve the problem. This will enhance your understanding of the concepts much more than blindly solving a thousand problems of the exact same kind.
Learning with your friends
One of the best things that you can do to really boost your preparations, and make your learning fun and exciting is to discuss problems and ideas with your friends. This was, in fact, the most enriching part in my experience. We had a great circle of highly motivated friends, and we used to discuss things and keep each other motivated. All of us ended up getting really good JEE ranks, and three of us went on to get medals at the International Physics Olympiad too.
Revision and taking the exam
Ideally, one should complete the syllabus by December or January so that one has some three to four months for revision. This is the time to quickly go through all that one has learned in one’s preparation phase and hone one’s problem solving abilities. Go through the problems that you had earlier had difficulty with or found interesting. This will help you recall the ideas quickly and ensure that you do not repeat your old mistakes. Also do some new problems from a reliable source of challenging problems. Taking a test series will also help you in evaluating your preparations and identify which topics need polishing.
It is important, at this stage, to be positive and focused but relaxed. Have faith in yourself and your preparations. Get sufficient exam practice and prepare yourself mentally for the D-day. In the final week before the exam, do not try learn anything new, but keep revising and practicing and solving new problems. Sleep well and synchronize your body clock so that you are your best during the exam hours. On the day of the exam, wake up early. Talk to your parents. Just relax and make sure that you are in the proper mindset to apply all that you have learnt. Maintain your composure while taking the exam. If you are unable to solve a problem, try to look at it from a different perspective, and then, just mark it and focus on the next problem. This way, you will at least solve all the easy ones, and also stand a better chance at solving the difficult ones at the end.
Looking at things in perspective – WHAT NEXT?
After the JEE, there is an about two month gap before the counseling and another one month gap before the session starts. This time should be utilized in collecting information about your life at IITs. The JEE system necessitates the need to ask the students for their choice of IIT and stream at the time of counseling itself. These will be really important decisions that will shape your life in the most significant way. Hence, you should give some serious thought before coming to a conclusion. Find out all that you can about all the IITs and about the different streams. See what branch interests and appeals you most. Which IIT has the best department for that branch? If you haven’t done so already, it is now time to decide what you really want out of your life. Whether you are would like to become a researcher, an engineer, or an entrepreneur? How will your time at the IIT going to help you shape your career, and help you in becoming what you want to be? It is good to discuss these things with your parents, but the final decision has to be yours. Be courageous (but sensible) in taking your decision.
If you haven’t been successful at the exam (maybe you didn’t get selected or you didn’t get the rank you wanted), you shouldn’t get too disappointed or depressed. There are other excellent institutions in India for learning engineering and science. Perhaps, you aren’t really made for it and need to change your career goals. Maybe some other vocation will do better justice to your particular skills and abilities. Be courageous and open to ideas.
Once the results are out, and you are declared successful, you should celebrate your success, but do not get too carried away for this is just the start of your career. Make sure that you maintain the attitude of learning and sincerity towards your work. Learn about the life and culture at the IITs from your seniors. Find out about the different clubs here and see which ones interest you the most. Usually, students at the IITs try to do well in at least one activity (robotics, electronics, programming, music, dance, sports – whatever) besides their regular coursework. You may want to explore these a bit from beforehand. Also, if you wish to pursue a career in research, this may be a good time to find out about the different current areas of research and see what excites you most. Most importantly, you should also have a feel for what to expect in your first year of college. With a bit of wisdom and planning, your time at the IIT will be the amongst the most rewarding, and unforgettable times in your life and you will graduate from the institute not just with a great technical education and a promising career, but also with great friendships, hobbies and memories that will last for a lifetime.
Hopefully, this article will walk you through your preparations for your JEE and make your journey a little more focused and enjoyable. I have tried my best to cover all points I thought were relevant. If you have some suggestions on the improvement of the article, or have a question that you feel has not been addressed, feel free to leave a comment.
* JEE is the annual Joint Entrance Examination conducted by the Indian Institutes of Technology.