July 18, 2019

My Prep Story to JEE Advanced AIR 731

The JEE is insanely competitive with over 12 lakh people attempting the exam. I achieved an all India Rank of 731 in JEE Advanced, 805 in JEE Main , 199 in KVPY and got through NTSE Stage 1. I will be joining IIT Kanpur this session. This post contains my reflections on the last two years of preparation for the JEE. As a prologue, I must state that things which I was uncomfortable sharing on the Internet, have been concealed from the reader. 

The Rise

Flashback to the beginning of Class tenth, most of my friends joined coaching classes to clear the highly competitive NTSE, but my father put his foot down against joining a coaching class in Class X. His assurance, that I could clear NTSE by preparing on my own with the help of my tuition teachers, rung hollow in my ears.
Me with Hrishikesh Sir, my Physics teacher and mentor.
He made Physics exciting for me and helped me with the
ups and downs during my preparation

Fast forward to one month prior to the NTSE, I lost all hope but not the craving. I knew the larger objective but someone had to break it into doable tasks for me and that’s what Mr. Mishra (a staff at the Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore and a NTSE prep expert) did for me. He advised me to scan the MP Board Social Science Textbooks and mug up all the facts, figures and dates in the book. I condensed the entire book into 32 pages of handwritten notes in the form of fill in the blanks. I quizzed myself while reading the notes 25-30 times in the last few days.

Ultimately, I cleared the first stage of NTSE. There was an influx of greetings and wishes, more so because no one ever expected that I would get through the cut-off. What people didn’t understand was that I was just 1.5 marks over the cut-off marks! I learnt that in a competitive exam, you don’t need to score good, but just score better. Whatever be the case, I was enjoying the kind of recognition and acknowledgment I was getting. I had suddenly risen to be the exemplary!

The Transition


The appreciation that I received profoundly encouraged me to work harder for the second stage. I joined a coaching class and prepared for the NTSE Stage 2 with their yearlong students. I understood little in the class because what was transacted by the teachers often referred to what had already been taught earlier in the year to them. It took me a few days to gather the confidence to ask questions though I never became entirely comfortable, as the giggles and mockery by the bullies in the class intimidated me. I would complain to my dad that I couldn’t understand what was going on, sometimes threw tantrums. But then he would ask me to be patient, face the challenge, ask more questions. 
This is the phone that I used during
the preparation period. Sacrificing a
smartphone helped me improve my
productivity significantly!
Disinterestedness was bound to come as little that was taught was understood. But I was too motivated to get distracted. I struggled through the prep and I worked harder than I ever have in my life, yet, I failed NTSE Stage 2.

So what went wrong? The effort, the resources and the methodology were all in place. It was the most fundamental understanding that I lacked, because I didn’t clear out my doubts.

Two days after NTSE Stage 2, I started my JEE preparation classes with a strengthened resolve to not shy away from asking questions in the class. I started asking a lot of questions in the class, some very silly ones too. The giggles and sneer smiles told me that my teachers and my classmates believed that I am an idiot. Despite that my teachers were patient enough to answer all my questions. The subjects started fascinating me because now, I could visualize and imagine what was being taught.

About a month into the JEE preparation, the first mock test was conducted and I got a fourth rank in Indore. Everything changed after that, the giggles and smiles disappeared. I had transited from my shy self, who had always studied in the protected and comfortable environment of a school into a competitive and confident individual who could survive the harsh environment of a coaching class.

The Stimulation

Two months into the JEE prep, I started losing interest and vigour in what I was doing. Primarily, because my hectic schedule, which was followed with unending discipline, led to monotony in my life and left me with little space to be random (even my recreation hours were so fixed). Secondarily, because I felt disconnected to my ultimate goal (the JEE), as it was too far away. It was like an abstraction for which I was working so hard. Is the work I am doing right now going to help me two years hence? How will I remember what I learned today, after two years? These were questions that shook my motivation. NTSE was a sprint but JEE turned out to be a marathon.

At this point in time, the KVPY programme (the selection process for research colleges in India) came to me like a blessing in disguise. The KVPY exam conducted in the mid-session of 11th standard tests on the syllabus of both 11th and 12th standard in all four subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Biology). With no inclination towards research and no association with Biology, there was little reason for me to study the entire syllabus of Classes 11th and 12th. But the unmissable resemblance between KVPY fellows and JEE toppers motivated me to use the KVPY as a propellant for my larger JEE prep. And hence, in a month long prep, I worked extra hours to skim through the entire syllabus of 11th and 12th standard in all the four subjects and got through KVPY, not due to my depth, but width.


KVPY gave me a realizable short term goal which motivated me to study. Achieving 199 rank in KVPY made me believe that I could put up a similar performance in the JEE (quite falsely though as KVPY has an interview, where I was an outlier; JEE doesn’t have interview) and stimulated me to work harder for my larger goal. Now, my dream seemed achievable!

The Fall


Thanks to my unexpected attainment in KVPY, the teachers and administration in my coaching started looking at me as one of their better students and upgraded my batch. My new batch was a smaller batch of 15 people, 12 of whom lived in the hostel where our classes were conducted, while I lived in my home and transited to the hostel for classes.  My batch change was a big shock which I could hardly handle, for three reasons.

Me with Kapil sir,
my chemistry teacher and a lot more
I entirely owe my success to my
teachers
One, class organization was extremely random as a teacher on his convenience would call up/ cancel a class without a prior notice (since most of the students lived in the hostel). Also, in my earlier batch, a daily homework was given and it was discussed in the class the next day. But here, no formal homework was given (as the students were given the flexibility to decide what material they want to do) and no discussions were conducted in the class. Hence, discipline and regularity in my studies ceased and productivity touched new lows.

Two, my new teachers, though technically supreme, didn’t try to make the subject interesting. I could hardly understand Physics now, as my new teacher wouldn’t make me visualize the problems. Unlike the earlier ones, Chemistry teachers weren’t humorous or witty and hence, Chemistry classes became unbearably boring.

Three, organic and inorganic chemistry became my nightmares. I was unable to retain the bulk of information that these subjects contain. I was touching zeroes in these two subjects.
I was no longer involved and interested in my studies. I would sit in my room for long hours playing with my pen, thinking of random things. Thanks to this shock, my rank in one of the local test dropped to a new low of 63! Getting a local rank of 63 means you are nowhere near getting into any IIT!

Often, preparedness for JEE is checked by one’s performance in three national exams that happen just before the JEE- the KVPY (happens again in class 12th), the Physics Olympiad and the Chemistry Olympiad. I flunked all the three.

It was the most stressful period of the entire two years. I couldn’t sleep, which decreased my productivity the next day. I started throwing tantrums at home. My dad, showing little maturity, started fighting with me but my Mom would console me and give me hope.

I had fallen to my low just two months before JEE Main! I was scared and I panicked.

The Comeback


The stress during the JEE prep is often condemned but seldom acknowledged as the force that pushes you to your limits.

Due to my discouraging performance, I was so stressed out that I took some time off my studies to reflect and introspect. I realised that in my earlier batch, I was almost entirely driven by the system of my coaching class and my interests in the subject (thanks to my previous teachers who made classes interesting). And so, when the system failed and interest withered, I couldn’t stand on my own legs. But then wasn’t JEE a test of my abilities and not that of my circumstances?

I had started finding problems and expecting change in my coaching class, my teachers and my parents. But was it helping my objective?

I probably didn’t have the ideal resources and circumstances but then they were good enough. Was I doing the best that I could, given the problems in my environment?

These three questions brought a realisation- (in Viktor E.Frankl’s words), “When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”
This is how my room looks: I made it a habit to stick up formula/concepts that I forgot. Serving as a quick reference and tool for revision, the sticky notes and papers stuck on the desk helped me retain the information. When I realised that I am spending too much time playing with my pen while sitting at my desk, I put up the green paper on the bottom left which says "stop time waste." It consciously reminded me to not waste time. Also, I hung the medal (up centre) I received from my coaching class to motivate myself to work harder!

And so, I made a plan. I started giving one mock test, followed by its analysis, everyday. Since my doubts weren’t being solved by any formal system, I derived my own mechanism. Instead of studying at home, I started studying in a vacant room at my coaching class. So, I sat there for 5 hours every morning and whichever teacher would come to the premise for taking classes (of other batches), I would ask them my doubts after/before their class.

Chemistry remained to be a thorn in my side. I couldn’t retain the information and so, I used the technique of learning by writing. I started rewriting the notes that I had made in the class. I discovered that writing by hand is an amazing way of remembering and structuring information. Organic and Inorganic Chemistry made up around 600-700 pages of classroom notes and reproducing them was a herculean task. It required great patience and effort. But then the yield was dramatic. I started doing well in Chemistry and that gave an unbelievable jump to my rank. This recovery wasn’t sudden but gradual.

Should I skip the mock test today as I have had enough? Why am I wasting so much time in copying notes while others are solving more questions? What is the point in writing all these notes all over again?

 These are all genuine questions, with no honest answers, that arose when no observable improvement was happening initially. They disturbed my conviction. At such instances of self-doubt, I had to be strong enough to tell myself to keep faith on what I was doing and not expect results immediately. The people who top JEE aren’t those with the best approach to studying, but are those who follow an approach for a long term, with a sustained effort.

Finally January 2019 arrived and I got a 99.93 percentile in JEE Main! I had made a comeback like never before!

The Last Lap

After JEE Main, mock tests and classes come to a halt for a two month long break for the Class XII board examination. While I was focussed on my boards, it was important that I don’t lose touch with the JEE prep. In order to manage the boards, practical exams and the JEE efficiently, I made a day by day plan of what all I am going to do on the particular days- spelling out my JEE hours and board hours distinctively. I scored a 92.4 percent in Board with a best of four of 96.25 percent!

I made short notes for each chapter in each subject.
In two-three pages per chapter, I summed up all
major concepts and formula of that chapter
Post boards, I got a little more than a month for a fully focussed JEE advanced prep (the second stage of JEE/entrance for the IITs). I knew the subjects in general now, but I used this time to identify the gaps and fill them. I gave two mock tests a day, to identify gaps and analysed them, to fill the gaps.
 I wrote 15-20 pages long analyses on every test, where for every question I did wrong, I would write the solution I had thought of during test, encircle the mistake I had committed and then write the correct solution. Before every mock test at my coaching and the real JEE test, I revised all my mistakes by reviewing the analysis of all the tests. I started remembering mistakes that I had made and so consciously stopped committing the same mistakes again.

But more than any sort of academic furtherance, the last month was about building an examination aptitude to not be emotionally affected in a tough or easy test; about building stamina and patience to give a 6 hour long test in scorching summers; about building the mental strength to perform well in all possible environmental and emotional conditions.

I filed all my short notes. This became a wonderful tool
for exhaustive and quick revision of the vast syllabus.
And finally, the day of JEE advanced arrived. The exam centre’s condition was pitiable with no arrangements of cooling or water and thousands of computers throwing out hot air.

But then I recalled that JEE is a test of my ability, not my circumstance; that I had to do my best, with all the problems in my environment and that in a competitive exam, I don’t need to score good but just need to score better. My last two years came back to me!

My only accomplishment is that I performed, in line with my expectations on the exam day! It isn’t important to state that I got an All India Rank of 731.


Looking back at the two years, it is hard to describe the immense happiness that you get when you work really hard for something and get very involved. Honestly, I am no poster boy for my coaching class, and my rank is below what I had dreamt for when I got into this prep. And yet, I am really happy because I know I was honest to myself throughout my preparation and that is the most fulfilling feeling!

Abhimanyu 
www.abhimanyusethia.com