Planning your career after a bad JEE rank

JEE results are out today. 1% of all those who tried got a rank. 0.2% will probably get into a good IIT.

This is for the others, who did not. Remember these things:

  • A bad rank does not reflect on your capabilities or intellect. The system is screwed up. There is too much luck. Do not adjust your self-worth downwards just because you did not get into a top IIT
  • IIT isn’t the only path to success. The reason IITs have such a strong brand is because in the 70s/80s/90s, there were very limited options for smart-but-not-rich people in India. Today, the situation is different – we have other colleges that are also good; we have better jobs/roles/salaries in Indian industry; and it is now much easier to go abroad (for higher studies, or work) without an IIT-tag. Dheeraj Sanghi, who is arguably one of the most articulate experts on the state of IITs and engineering education in India, points out this list of alternatives to IITs.
  • Engineering isn’t the only way. Increasingly for students in India, non-engineering options are looking more and more interesting. Dheeraj Sanghi (same guy from the previous bullet point), has said that if he were to choose today, and had the choice of any college in India, including all the top IITs, he would choose to do liberal arts in Ashoka University. (Pune also has a couple of good liberal arts schools – FLAME and Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts.) See also this article of mine about “quitting engineering”.

Most importantly: Do not give up.

  • You worked hard for the last few years, and that hasn’t yielded the desired result. But don’t give up. Not succeeding in an entrance exam is just one play in a much, much larger game. Over the long-term (10+ years) continuous learning, continuous self-improvement, and hard work will beat ranking, college brand, and raw intellect┬╣ every time. Over the 25+ years in my career (in India and US; large companies and small; tech and non-tech) I have seen a number of IIT-ians go into mediocrity due to over-confidence and laziness, and a number of people from tier2/tier3 educational backgrounds succeed phenomenally (sometimes, this is in spite of not having the same raw intellect┬╣).

I also encourage 12th standard students to take a gap year, and consider going to the US for undergraduate studies (if you’re rich).


┬╣ Note when I say “raw intellect” here, I mean the specific kind of intellect that the JEE selects for – ability to quickly solve difficult math problems & puzzles, or speed of grasping complex math/engineering issues. There are of course many other types of intelligence, and even more types of capabilities that the JEE does not filter for; so I am definitely not implying that only people who clear the JEE are intelligent.

Should you encourage your child to take a gap year before college?

Should you (would you?) encourage your child to take a “gap year” before starting college (i.e. after 12th)? If no, why not? If yes, how would you suggest the child plan the year? What activities/experiences would you hope for the child to take up? Does your answer change depending upon whether the child is going to do college in India vs the US?

My friend Suvikas Bhandari’s daughter just finished a very successful gap year. And she has written about her experience. In addition, I wanted the opinions of others who have gone through this in the past, or are thinking about it.

So I posted this question on my Facebook page and got a bunch of great responses, some of which I’m reproducing below.

Note: I am NOT talking about taking an year off to “study for the JEE.” The gap year is not about studying and academics. Studying in an Indian college becomes all about just the subjects, and that too, often theory. A gap year is about taking an year off so the child can travel alone, take up one or more jobs/internships, learn some out-of-the-way skills, and generally get life experience. A gap year helps with giving a sense of perspective, a sense of responsibility, and most importantly, an idea of what matters in the real world (which can help a lot in college to make you focus on the right things).

Gap is Good – But should it be well planned or not?

In general, most people felt that a gap year is good – but many qualified the statement by saying something like “gap with proper guidance for a limited time frame would be really productive” or “gap year but should have full plan on hand before u decide on it”.

On the other hand, Rujuta disagrees:

However, I am against having a detailed plan – I would say have a plan but be prepared to throw it out of the window when you think it isn’t working or your experience along the way takes you in a different direction. Plan to be out of your comfort zone…plan to do things you have never done before….don’t preplan what you want to learn….don’t get demotivated if all of the year wasn’t ‘productive’. I wish I had the opportunity to do this.

First Hand Experiences

The best comments I felt were first-hand accounts from my friends who themselves took a gap year (intentionally, or forced due to circumstances) and wrote about that.

For example, Idea Smith shared her own experience:

I don’t know if this is relevant but I’ll share something. I had a gap year of sorts just before I graduated (long story involving science-vs-arts battle with family, low attendance and ATKTs). In that time, I worked out, lived in another city for 3 months, interned with an ad agency, did a life program called the Landmark Forum and found my first boyfriend. Having that year really changed the course of my life because it gave me a chance to think and explore outside the rigid social construct I was in. After I graduated, I actually worked for a year alongside preparing for CAT. I didn’t need a gap year that someone like me normally would have, because I had had it the year earlier.

It also helped me discover that I would always need periodic breaks of that sort to collect my thoughts and refocus my attention. That’s what kept me from getting desperate in 2003, after the recession and when jobs were scarce. It’s also what allowed me to take a sabbatical in 2005 at a time when people were holding on to their jobs. And finally, all these helped me quit my corporate job in 2009 to do other things – knowing that it was okay to stop running, think and even do something else, without always having a 10-step plan and bulletpointed details down.

That was 15 years ago and I know a lot of things have changed. It might be good if the family/parents did not impose a lot of activities on their child. Instead, if possible it might make a lot of sense to encourage the child to think about what interests him/her and then help him/her find activities that let him/her explore it.

And Ankit Saxena had a similar story:

I have my own interesting experience on this one. I was forced to take a gap year in between my engineering because of attendance shortage, which meant I had to lose an year and also a complete 9 months free time without college.I was an electronic engg. student but always wanted to learn computer science (as I was good at it since childhood days) , but you dont necessarily get to choose the college and branch at your will.

So in my “gap” months , I had the best time of my life. I joined a tech startup based out of my college E-cell and learned how to write bigger softwares and not just palindrome programs. We implemented ERP for a Bangalore based company and made a POS solution for the hospitality sector – with Windows Mobile App for stewards in restaurant to take orders and implemented the system in a couple of big restaurants in Mumbai.

I learned about softwares, startups, business, execution and everything about sustaining chaos. Six months later I was leading software development for the company with a team of 6 engineers. All before I turned 20.

PS: I went back to studies after 9 months and topped my branch that semester and did my own startup from the same E-cell a year later.

So in hindsight, according to me, its always good to take a break from the social norm stream and explore what you like.

In Depth Reading on this topic

Manish Kumar suggests a couple of books that you could read, about Indian kids who took a gap year and wrote about it:

I have taken such break myself and I recently wrote about my experience here in a note. I also know many people who have taken “gap year” for various reasons…

If you’re curious, I would highly recommend 2 books by Indian kids who have taken “gap year” long ago.

(1) Free From School by Rahul Alvares.
(2) Learning the Heart Way by Samyukta

The printed copies are not available for these books, but I guess Gutenberg project has soft copies. Both are highly recommended for older children – maybe 8th standard & up!

(Manish also points out that Marathi hardcopies of these books are available from

Avinash Punekar pointed out one possible downside of a gap year:

BTW, most Indian companies tend to reject candidates with education/career gap automatically.

Note, however, that some companies do it, not all or even many. Also, if a company has a stupid policy like this, I am not entirely sure of whether you should be joining this company.

There are many other interesting comments which I’m not reproducing in the interest of keeping this short, but please check out the original discussion.

Quitting Engineering

I recently heard of a friend’s son who quit engineering (COEP) after 1 year, to pursue design (DSK). This comes on the heels of someone else I know who quit engineering (PICT) to go for Liberal Arts (SSLA) and is much happier there.

So, note to 12th std students and parents: please do not box yourself into a corner and assume that there is no alternative to engineering. You might regret it an year or two from now.

Thankfully, the situation (in terms of educational options) for this generation is far better than for our generation. If you’re unsure of what to do, then a Liberal Arts program (which gives you flexibility of deciding on what degree you want after 1 or 2 years of study) might be worth considering. See FLAME or Ashoka or even SSLA.

I posted this on my Facebook page and got a bunch of insightful comments, some of which I’ve reproduced here:

Joel Xavier gave some more examples:

More examples from my personal experience. In a BBA class at Symbi where I taught marketing, I had someone who had dropped out after two years of studying dentistry, someone who had chucked engineering studies after 3 years of grappling with it and someone with a diploma in computer engineering who didnt want to continue down that path.

I’m glad its happening.

Ravindra Jaju pointed out that:

Regretting in a year or two much better than regretting much later in life.

Which is true. Just because you’ve sunk an year and some fees in engineering, doesn’t mean that you have to stick to it for another 3 years.

To this, Makarand Sahasrabudhe (talking from personal experience) responded that you can “quit engineering” even after completing it:

Just because you have sunk 4 years , does not also mean that you have to stick to it for life

Another important point. Just looking at my batchmates, I know metallurgical engineers who are in advertising agencies, mechanical engineers who are into banking and finance, chemical engineers working on Bollywood movies, and computer scientists in the insurance industry doing non-computer stuff. Your degree in is forgotten within 5 years of graduating.

Makarand also pointed out that engineering is only ONE of the things you learn in university (if you have the right temperament, that is). I’d say that actual classroom education counts for less than 20% of our real education in college. Most of your education is happening in group projects, and the extracurricular groups you join, and other activities you participate in. Relevant quote:

“Everything I needed to know about politics, I learnt as a Mess Co-ordinator of my hostel in IIT-Bombay”

  • Manohar Parrikar, CM of Goa.

Does this mean that it is OK for students to quit after an year or two of engineering? Most parents will rebel at the idea of allowing this. And with good reason. As Sanjay Sarkar said:

Having a passion and following that is most welcome but fear of a tough road ahead and taking thr first escape route is losing the battle before starting. We as parents have 2 help our children try overcome that fear.

And this is a tricky problem to solve. On the one hand, I feel that many kids of this generation have the problem of giving up too easily; of taking up interests and ditching at the first signs of difficulties. On the other hand, I’ve also seen parents pushing too hard and spoiling a significant chunk of the kid’s life. So as parents, we need to play a difficult balancing act of pushing, but not too much.

There are many more comments, so read the full discussion if this is an area of interest for you.

In short, I don’t know what is the correct answer, but at least I hope that if you find yourself in a situation like this, some of this discussion will help you think it through carefully, rather than having a knee-jerk reaction.