Thousands sit ‘world’s toughest’ entrance exam, for IITs

Tens of thousands of engineering degree aspirants in India will sit the entrance examination for the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) on 28 August – an exam touted to be one of the toughest exams, not only in India but the world.

Known as the Joint Entrance Examination or JEE, only candidates who cleared the broader JEE Mains for entry to engineering colleges are eligible to appear in the JEE Advanced exam, held annually in India at 600 centres across 226 cities and organised by one of the seven zonal Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) on a rotating basis under the guidance of the JEE Apex Board (JAB).

This year it is being conducted by IIT Bombay for admission to IIT undergraduate engineering programmes, with just over 16,200 places available across all 23 IITs.

Last year, about 900,000 students appeared for the JEE Mains and, out of these, just 141,699 qualified to sit the JEE Advanced. Of these, 41,862 students, or nearly 29%, finally qualified for one of the 23 IITs but only 16,296, or nearly 12%, were ultimately offered a place.

Amit Agrawal, dean (international relations) and chair professor in the department of mechanical engineering at IIT Bombay, said: “It has always been difficult to get into IITs because if you look at the percentage of those getting selected, it is almost less than 2%.”

“It is one of the toughest or largest rejection [rate] for any programme anywhere in the world. If you look at it statistically, I don’t think it has changed too much over the years,” he told University World News.

“The level of the examination is not trivial and the types of questions they ask require far more preparation and studying the subject thoroughly before one can answer these things,” said Agrawal.

Pradip Soni, a student from New Delhi who was among the 30% of candidates who cleared the JEE Mains and will appear in JEE Advanced, said a very large number of students compete for limited seats and this makes the JEE a very competitive exam.

“The questions asked in JEE Advanced meticulously test a candidate’s analytical and reasoning skills. But the level of difficulty doesn’t matter. Even if the exam is easier, the number of successful candidates will remain the same unless they increase the number of seats,” Soni said. “It’s a very competitive exam and most of the students work hard to crack it.”

Lower numbers registering for JEE Advanced

Interestingly, a large number of students who clear the JEE Mains do not register for the JEE Advanced.

This year, with results announced in early August, about 260,000 students – out of more than 870,000 who sat the JEE Mains – passed, but only about 160,000 or about 61% registered for the JEE Advanced.

During pre-COVID years, more than 70% who passed JEE Mains registered for the JEE Advanced and it was as high as 83% in 2014.

Some have suggested the disruption of the JEE tutoring industry during the pandemic may have led to lower confidence by candidates in cracking the JEE Advanced.

According to academics, students have several options available to them after clearing the JEE Mains so they don’t want to make the extra effort for the JEE Advanced.

Naresh Shroti, from Lucknow in northern Uttar Pradesh state, will sit the JEE Advanced this year. He said that there were a lot of opportunities for students who have scored a good percentile in JEE Mains. “They can get admission into the National Institutes of Technology [NITs] and other top engineering institutes in the country. NITs provide the same educational standards as the IITs.”

There are also apprehensions that students who are not able to afford expensive coaching are at a disadvantage.

JEE aspirant Yogesh Ahirwar from Bhopal in central Madhya Pradesh state said: “Specialised coaching is important for advanced entrance exams as it provides complete guidance and support to students until they achieve their goal. Coaching for entrance exams also helps students to understand concepts properly.”

“Coaching is not essential but those who can’t afford it are often at a disadvantage,” he added.

Experts point to a big gap between those who ace the JEE Advanced and those who do not, with a long tail of those who attempt it, but do extremely badly.

According to the data released by the Joint Implementation Committee of JEE Advanced 2021, the body that oversees the entrance examination, 90% of IIT aspirants got half of the 114 questions wrong in 2021 and there were six questions which fewer than 2% of the candidates could answer correctly.

The data shows that 15 questions, 10 of them in mathematics, were left unattempted by more than 60% of candidates. For one mathematics question, attempted by just under three quarters of the exam candidates, fewer than 7% got the right answer.

Fewer than 10% of candidates correctly answered 22 questions in mathematics, 20 questions in chemistry and 12 questions in physics.

The top scorer in the JEE Advanced 2021 scored a total of 348 out of 360 marks. He scored 120 marks in physics, 112 in chemistry and 116 in mathematics out of a maximum of 120 marks for each subject.

Cut off percentiles

The cut off percentiles for registration in the JEE Advanced have been declared by the National Testing Agency (NTA). A percentile is a comparison score between a particular score and the scores of the rest of a group.

For the general category, the cut off to qualify for an IIT place this year was the 88.4 percentile, which is higher than in 2021, at 87.9. It was 89.7 and 90.3 in 2019 and 2020 respectively.

Significantly, this year the cut off for reserved places for ‘socially backward classes and caste candidates’, including Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), is the lowest in the last four years at the 43.08 percentile, compared to 46.8 in 2021, 50.1 in 2020, and 54.01 in 2019.

A total of 34,525 female candidates registered for the JEE Advanced 2021 and 6,452 of them qualified in the examination. The top female candidate scored a total of 286 (103 in physics, 94 in chemistry and 89 in mathematics) marks and had an ‘All India Rank’ of 98.

Of a total of 3,213 female students selected for regular courses at IITs (courses other than preparatory), only five female candidates got places through the gender-neutral pool of seats.

The total seat capacity in IITs in 2021 was 16,232 including an additional 1,534 seats available only for female candidates over and above the general category open to both sexes.

Common exam

India’s higher education regulator the University Grants Commission (UGC) has proposed to merge the national engineering and medical entrance exams into the existing Common University Entrance Test (CUET).

UGC Chairperson M Jagadesh Kumar said recently that a large number of students appearing for these exams are common to both and so a single entrance exam would reduce the burden on students.

The UGC is likely to form an expert committee to look at the existing entrance exam processes and look into the possibility of a single entrance exam.

“Some of these exams have a different purpose. When you want to look at the JEE, you want to select the best out of it. But other exams are different, where, with a certain amount of preparation, you are ready for university education,” said a professor at IIT Kanpur requesting anonymity. He noted that the objectives of the exams are different.

The results of JEE Mains was declared on 8 August, but a section of candidates have sought to extend the application process for the JEE Advanced 2022 because of discrepancies in the results of JEE Mains 2022.

A candidate can appear twice in a year in the months of January and April for JEE Mains, but groups of aspirants have also been demanding a third attempt, claiming that the exam performance of several students was affected by technical issues.