Access to the Highest levels in Formal Education

There are institutes of further studies in India where, because of such enormous desire for seats, admit only 0.01% of all applicants. However, interestingly, some years ago I saw an interview with a prominent business head in the country during which he was asked whether he would rather recruit the ‘intake list’ of those institutes or the graduates coming out of those institutes. His answer was – the former, not the latter. In the case of those Institutions the entry requirements are handled by some very clear cut, very rigorous and taxing examinations. The ability to absorb the vast volumes of information required to do well in those exams becomes the key criteria of entry. From that business Head’s perspective, if he recruited those who could get in to these Institutes he’d know he was getting people with high intelligence, a strong work ethic and ability/ willingness to compete at extreme levels, putting themselves through whatever it takes to get through. Amazing stories abound of the arduous experiences people have gone through to jump the hurdles.

The best and most respected centres of learning in other parts of the world have different methods for selecting the students they wish to attract through their doors. This was a particularly interesting article about Oxford University’s interview and questioning process;

The Guardian – Solving the Riddle of Getting in to Oxford

The Oxford University approach is very clear about the kinds of students they seek to attract through their admissions process. The interviews are designed to identify students who think critically (individually and in discussion with others), who challenge and question and don’t just accept the knowledge they’re ‘given’ at face value. If you want even more insight in to the kinds of questions that were being posed to potential students and the sorts of answers that professors were looking for, you can read this page;

University of Oxford – Sample Interview Questions

The mismatch between what some education systems produce and what places like Oxford University are looking for was brought home to me very starkly when I worked for two years in Bangladesh. There, every year, there would be celebrations of a handful of students who had achieved 5 A* A levels in a single sitting. Like anyone in the world really needs five A Levels? And yet, up to that time, no individual student from Bangladesh had ever been admitted to either Oxford or Cambridge Universities for undergraduate studies. Some had obviously made it there at the post-grad level. These students were seen to be too one dimensional – able to mug up vast amounts of learning to score highly in exams, but lacking the critical depth of view.

Returning to the Indian scenario of the IITs and IIM’s, there is no question that they do fulfil a role of a very strenuous filter – in an environment where the age profile and population size means a massive educable youth at any one time. However, it’s a system that cannot contribute to having every person achieve their potential. It just pulls a few with innate intelligence and ability to pass exams and places them at the top of the pile with masses of self-belief thrown in. Even in this respect, they experience certain challenges. Across India, over the last 20 years a number of academies have arisen that take youngsters from very modest surroundings and ‘hothouse’ them through the IIT entrance exams. However, I was told a few years ago by a number of IIT faculty that these youngsters struggle once they’re in. The goal of getting in figures so massively in their lives that once achieved some struggle to re-calibrate to new longer term goals.

There are also doubts and issues raised about whether these institutes are adequately and effectively preparing young people for the world environment in the Twenty First Century. A lack of emphasis on the development of social-emotional skills is something I know has been a point of focus in the last few years, especially for the IIMs.

By their very nature, seats to study in the very highest of educational institutes will always only be for a very small minority. Only a few have the motivation to test themselves in such an inferno atmosphere and even fewer have the character, competences and skills to achieve entry or to pursue a course of study in these places.

For those who do, enormous and varied opportunities are opened up in the world for how the person will contribute. For those students who have such aspirations and the potential, preparation needs to start early. That preparation needs to be focused very much on what the person’s goals are, their vision and values and how those align with the Institute they’re looking at. Then, the focus needs to be very much on what that institute requires, how their system works and how to be as prepared as well as possible.

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