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Our Engineering Entrance Exams Are Doing A Serious Disservice To Students

This piece was published here by Huffington Post India on May 6, 2016.


In April, 17-year-old Kriti Tiwari killed herself despite cracking the IIT-JEE. Reason: she did not want to study engineering. The hype around engineering refuses to disappear, and the weight of it is crushing many students.

It is a common joke that engineering graduates find out what they want to do in life after they finish their degree. Engineering graduates are often found getting into non-technical jobs which are not related to their field of study. They are found virtually in every sector, unlike those who specialized in other fields such as law, medicine and finance.

The unnecessary hype around engineering is one contributing factor, but so is the entrance examination system in our engineering colleges. High school for most engineering aspirants is spent believing that science is equal to engineering. The best students are usually expected to opt for science in grades 11 and 12, after which sitting for engineering entrance examinations is considered a logical progression.

But it does not, and should not, work this way. The hype around engineering gives us aspirants who might have done wonders in other fields, but the exam system in its current format gives us aspirants who can become great engineers, except that they end up in the wrong stream.

If we want students to actually become good engineers, we must have separate application and evaluation processes for various branches of engineering, even if it becomes complicated. It does not make sense for a student to submit one application for the whole umbrella of engineering courses, when software engineering is as different from chemical engineering, as political science is from English literature.

Imagine applying for two humanities courses, political science and English literature, and taking the same test for both. You specify political science as your first choice and English literature as your second choice. Based on your ranking, you get English literature. You are happy because for two years, your focus was to get into a “humanities” course, not specifically a “political science” course.

Now, in the above situation, replace humanities with engineering, and political science and English literature with two vastly different engineering streams. Isn’t this exactly what we are doing?

If we want to revolutionize the engineering entrance examination system, we must allow students to have interest areas more specific than just “engineering”. Ranks must not determine admission to a particular stream. The popularity of a course must not determine the preference order of streams during counselling.

A proposed solution

It’s true that the selection process cannot be segregated too much into different streams immediately after 12th grade. But, streams may be categorized according to related skills and aptitudes. Here is a suggested framework.

Family 1 of streams: civil/mechanical/automobile
Family 2 of streams: mathematics/physics/chemistry/biotechnology
Family 3 of streams: software/computer/IT
Family 4 of streams: electrical/electronic

Applications may be invited for different families of streams, and a student who wants to apply to multiple families having to pay the application fees multiple times. So, if a student wants to apply for both mechanical engineering and software engineering, then he should be charged for both as these two branches are very different from each other. If a student still applies for both, chances are high he has been told to become an engineer (and just an “engineer”) by somebody and he hardly knows which branch to apply for. However, if someone wants to apply for both software and IT, then charge the application fees for one course, because these belong in the same family of courses.

We may have a common test, with separate weights assigned to performances in different topics, based on the “family” being applied for. So, a question aligned more to, say, inorganic chemistry, will have a higher weight for a student who applied for chemical engineering, but negligible weight for an applicant of software engineering. More examples:

For a student who has applied for the civil/mechanical/automobile family of courses:

1. Give more credits for a correct answer to a question dealing with frictional forces, and deduct more credits for a wrong answer in such a question
2. Give more credits for a correct answer to a question in metals and non-metals
3. Give less credits for a correct answer to a question in electricity and magnetism.

For a student who has applied for the computer/software/IT family of courses:
1. Give more credits for computer science (yes, have a paper on computer science in addition to PCM)
2. Give more credits for mathematics
3. Give less credits for questions based on a chapter such as p-group metals.

Having such a dynamic marking system based on questions as well as the “family” of engineering courses a student has applied to will help prevent treating “engineering” as one umbrella term.

Such an engineering entrance exam will have students who are more likely to enrol in a branch of engineering they will actually love or be good at. Students may be given an extra layer of choice after the first semester of common subjects. But, we must make sure we are not putting engineering students in a wrong stream based on their rank or on how “popular” a stream is.

Right now, we’re perpetuating mismatches between aptitude and choice through our existing engineering entrance exam system.

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