Keep Your Priorities Right

People often naively assume that setting the right priorities is trivial. After all you are preparing for a tough examination. Shouldn’t your priority list have just the following one item written in large and bold fonts?


Well, the answer is “Not really.” And here’s why.

The common belief is that preparing for IIT entrance means devoting two years of life completely to subjects like Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. Most of the students, even the brilliant ones, hold this view. Then, why is the cut-off of such examinations so low—as low as around 40%? Talk to enough people who have experienced it and you will know.

Very often, students are not able to handle the pressure during the exam. They make a lot of silly mistakes. They get nervous at key moments. They go into the examination hall with a belief that not performing well will be devastating for their lives and thus even a small deviation from their expectations completely derails their performance. And that happens with an amazingly high frequency.

Thus you need to do something so that this doesn’t happen to you. Moreover, “study hard” in itself is an ambiguous thing to say. How hard is hard enough? Given options for subjects to study at a given time, which one should you pick? What does studying mean anyway? Does solving all problems from the book, “10,000 problems in Physics that a nine-year old can solve” count as studying? How about sitting with your Organic Chemistry textbook open in front of the TV while your favorite movie is on?

Below, we discuss three different crucial areas where you need to set your priorities right so that you take the right decisions during different stages of your preparation.

Studying vs. going out for a walk

Just studying all the time, as much as you can, is not right. Your preparation should be a sustainable one.

People starting a weight-loss program are often advised to start things slowly. The body is not able to adapt to a sudden and drastic change in the living style, which leads to injuries and unnecessary illness and thus taking extreme steps at the beginning of your program will only make you give up within a matter of a few weeks.

Similarly, if you set out with a plan to study ten hours per day, every single day, you will soon burn yourself out and won’t want to spend even one hour a day on work later.

Moreover, for maximum productivity, the number of hours is not the only thing that matters. What also matters is:

  • A high energy level.
  • A high happiness level.
  • A general state of calmness and satisfaction in life.
  • Passion.
  • A healthy competitive nature.
  • Lack of nervousness and anxiety.
  • Confidence.

You definitely do not want to exert yourself so much during the two years of preparation that by the time you reach the examination hall, you are filled to the brim with hatred for Physics, Chemistry and Math and are completely drained out of energy because of which your productivity level is at an all time low.

Thus you need to participate in different activities in a proper combination to ensure that you perform close to your potential during the exam. So what are these different activities?

Sports is an excellent contender for the top spot in this list. The effects of sports on mental health have been well tested and documented. It is known that playing sports helps reduce anxiety, improve self-esteem, improve mood and improve cognitive functioning in general. Moreover, playing sports pushes you to do things that are very similar to what you need to do to perform well in an exam. For example, making smart strategies for winning and implementing them, performing to the best of your potential in critical situations, maintaining calm in a high-pressure environment when all eyes are on you, taking responsibilities in a mature way, and so on.

Meditation is another activity that has been found to have profound benefits to the mental health of an individual. Studies have found that practitioners of meditation undergo a gradual and positive change in the structure of their brains. This increases mental alertness and focus. Moreover, meditation also relaxes your mind and body, thus making you more productive.

In general, do not be afraid of participating in activities that you enjoy and that refresh your mind and increase your energy level. Thus next time when the weather is really pleasant after four months of torturous summer and your parents ask you if you want to go out for a walk, say yes.

However, there are certain activities that are deceptive in nature. They make you feel like you are enjoying them but they only drain you out of energy and make your brain irritated and slow. Examples of such activities are: watching a slow TV series, random channel surfing, spending too much time on Facebook etc. You should stay away from these activities as much as possible. Next time you feel tempted to see who all updated their status on Facebook, don’t. Instead, meditate, go out and play, play your favorite music and dance or talk to a real person and make jokes.

You should also stay away from activities that are highly addictive and/or throw you mentally off-balance. Video games are a prime example of activities that fall under this category. The video game industry is based on the psychology of making people addicted. Companies that make the most amount of money are the ones that are the best at swallowing up a few weeks or months or even years from your life without you even noticing. Video games are good if you have accomplished all you wanted to in life and now you are only looking for ways to entertain yourself. Or in some special cases, if you have got excellent self-control and perfect mental on-off switches that help you switch between any set of tasks at any desired time with absolutely zero overhead, then go ahead and indulge in video games. But most probably, you don’t. So be extra-careful.

Coaching institutes vs. your own preparation

Most of the students preparing for IIT join coaching institutes, attend classes in the school and often join some form of tuition for 12th boards as well. Managing all three at once gets very taxing and they start missing deadlines and performing terribly in either one or all of them.

While some coaching institutes and private tutors do provide excellent quality study materials and lectures, you should not let them take crucial decisions on your behalf. You should be the one sitting at the driver seat of your own career. You should treat the world as a collection of resources and you should be the one deciding which resources to use and when. Letting someone else take this decision is very dangerous unless that person has huge investments in you and is superior at the skills required to prepare for IIT entrance. A coaching institute does not care so much if you, in particular, qualify for IIT or not. As long as the percentage of students enrolled with them that qualify in IIT is more than their competitors, they will be satisfied. This isn’t the amount of investment you are looking for.

Thus, if your coaching institute decides to hold three hour long classes on Inorganic Chemistry twice a week, but Inorganic Chemistry is not your strong area and you don’t plan to spend so much time on it, then feel free to ignore these classes. But if they organize a month-long series on a topic that you really like, by the best teacher in your city, then don’t miss the opportunity.

IIT vs. 12th boards

This is another critical issue that students have to deal with. They need to handle two things that look very different from each other simultaneously. Moreover, in light of the recent possible changes proposed in the examination starting 2013, this issue has gained even more importance. Some of the students decide to concentrate on the 12th boards almost entirely and “prepare for IIT” after the final exams. Others plan to ignore 12th boards completely and devote their full attention on IIT.

Both of these strategies are fallacious. Even though the patterns of these two exams are different and so are the kinds of questions asked, the syllabus is almost the same. Learning and understanding the contents of the syllabus is the first step for both the exams. Thus the question of which one to prepare for first is not a very meaningful question.

It is, however, true that usually, getting a good score in the 12th boards does not require as deep an understanding of the syllabus as qualifying for IIT. Thus at some point, the optimal strategies for the two exams do diverge. There are two basic differences between the two exams that need to be considered:

  1. IIT entrance is a low-scoring exam, but 12th boards is a high-scoring one. Thus it is possible to get a rank in the top 500 in IIT even after completely ignoring the 10-20% of the syllabus that you most dislike. However, ignoring such a substantial portion of the syllabus will bring your performance to a very average level in 12th boards.
  2. Most questions asked in the IIT entrance are conceptual in nature and require a very high level of understanding of the syllabus. There are a few similar questions asked in 12th boards as well, but most other questions require you to reproduce certain points that you memorised from your text book.

Thus the following general guidelines work well in order to handle both exams properly. If you like a certain topic, understand it really well. Read it from different good quality books and solve several challenging problems from that topic. The aim should be to reach a level where you can answer almost all IIT-level questions that can be asked from that area. If you dislike a certain topic, do not spend too much energy on mastering it. Just “get acquainted” with it in the first round and leave it aside until the month or so before your school exams. In this one month, you will be fairly comfortable with the topics you have already mastered. All you will need to do is to identify the kinds of questions where you need to memorize points and memorize them before the exam. For the topics you didn’t like in the first round of preparation, do only what’s required for getting a good score in your school exam. This way, in the end, you will have mastered a significant portion of the syllabus, which is good enough for securing a good rank for IIT and you will have enough understanding for all the topics required to get a good score in your board exams.

The strategy above works only if there’s a significant portion of the syllabus that you genuinely like. If you hate most of the syllabus, then that’s a much bigger problem and needs to be addressed before anything else. This either means that you were never exposed to the exciting aspects of Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics in your school or anywhere else, or it might just mean that engineering is not for you — you wouldn’t want to be stuck doing something you hate your entire life, would you?

Moreover, the above only provides general guidelines regarding the kinds of issues that arise during two of the most important years of a person’s life and the strategies used to handle those. There are of course, several intricacies and low level details involved that are way outside the scope of this article. Each student is different and there’s no generic solution that applies to all of them.

Fortunately, we do offer a service called Personal Preparation Plan that provides a personalised guide and a preparation plan that takes care of all these issues for you or for your son/daughter. Sign up for our service and take control of your own career.

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

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