Monday, June 02, 2008

IIT uber alles?

I recently came across this interesting web site maintained by Kamal Sinha, an IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Bombay alum who has worked at Mitsubishi in Japan and in Silicon Valley.

It has been widely claimed (e.g., CBS Sixty Minutes) that IITs are the most selective universities in the world -- each year about 300k applicants compete for about 4000 spots. To enter the most competitive (e.g., EECS) departments, applicants must score amongst the top few hundred! I know several theoretical physicists in the US who were "toppers" on the IIT-JEE (Joint Entrance Exam), including one who placed first in all of India his year ("first ranker")! Perhaps ironically, the first ranker didn't attend IIT -- he chose Caltech instead.

Despite the hype (see below) Sinha seems to think IIT is roughly comparable to other elite national universities like University of Tokyo, Seoul National University or Taiwan National University. Note he estimates the effective population base (the number of people who have access to first world educational resources in K-12) of India as only comparable to that of Japan (about 125 million; see here for a similar estimate by a well-known physicist). The estimates that lead to the conclusion that IIT is the most competitive in the world usually normalize to the entire Indian population of nearly 1 billion. I would say that China's effective population (in this sense) is around 200-300 million people (and growing rapidly), so perhaps Beida (Beijing University) and Tsinghua are the most competitive universities in the world.

I'd be interested in the opinions of other IIT graduates! Here is some detailed discussion of the JEE exam by an IIT-Kanpur professor (link provided by a commenter). The professor suggests that the test is too hard: beyond the first few hundred or thousand rankers, noise dominates signal (i.e., even many admitted students have very low absolute scores, in which luck may have played a role).


"This is IIT Bombay. Put Harvard, MIT and Princeton together, and you begin to get an idea of the status of this school in India." (Lesley Stahl, co-anchor on CBS 60 Minutes)

"And it's hard to think of anything like IIT anywhere in the world. It is a very unique institution." (Bill Gates, Microsoft)

"Per capita, IIT has produced more millionaires than any other undergraduate institution." (Salon Magazine)

Sinha on IIT acceptance rate:

Admission to IITs is extremely difficult. Only the top 2 percent of the applicants are admitted and to get into a decent department, about half a percent is a reasonable corresponding figure. Here I will explore whether IITs are the hardest school to get into and later I will check if high selectivity results in higher quality. "Hard" facts will be supplied when they become available.

Extremely low Acceptance Rate?

Having results of a single entrance examination determine whether one would be accepted or not is a common feature among the educational institutions in East Asian countries. I worked in Japan for six years and therefore being somewhat familiar with them will compare Japanese figures with that of IITs. All figures ae based on certain assumptions.

Selective Admissions in Japan

While it might not make the CBS news, Tokyo University, or Todai, an abbreviated form of Tokyo Daigaku is the place Japanese moms start thinking of to send their children for undergraduate studies before they are even born. There are 8 national universities like the Tokyo university, Todai being the most coveted one, and a few prestigious private schools like the Keio and Waseda, and these are the schools where almost every graduating school senior hopes to get into. Among technical schools Tokyo Institute of Technology (part of those 8 national universities) leads the pack. Each year news of a few students committing suicide on failing to secure admission into one of these schools is not uncommon.

Tokyo University admits fewer than 1500. My guess is that all the top private universities and the eight national universities combined admit fewer than 15000 applicants. How many students applied for these seats? About one and a half million which is about the total number of graduating seniors. Means about one percent!

Applicant Pool Size

'Wait a minute' I can hear you saying. Unlike in Japan where almost everyone takes the test to get into an an university, in India not everybody applies to IITs. Most of the applicants who take the JEE are quite good, there being a self-selection process. In response I will point out that if we compare the potential applicant pools, the following factors stand out:

IIT JEE is taken mostly by middle class applicants from urban areas with total population about 125 million. Japan has about same population with lower percentage of test-takers compared to that of India because of lower birth rates. There almost all eligible seniors take the test to get into these prestigious universities, meaning the potential applicant pools are almost equal.

Engineering schools like Tokyo Institute of Technlogy and various engineering departments in other universities are more selective than the average department. Assume those to be twice as selective.

IITs accept about 3500 of applicants. Given the above assumptions it is about (15000/2)/3500 = two times more selective than the average engineering department in these Japanese universities.

Take Tokyo University for comparision. An overwhelming majority of the grduating seniors choose Todai as their first choice. This means that Tokyo University is about twice (3500/1500) as selective as the IITs and more likely at least four times as selective than the IITs when engineering departments are compared.

Quality of Potential Applicant Pools

Japanese seniors in schools perform near the top in international tests in sciences and mathematics. (Seniors from Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore perform equally well.) Indians are not included in most comparison studies but there seems to be some evidence that the average Indian students would have performed near the average, probably somewhat below it. Moreover, after graduation many Japanese students take time off to study for the entrance exam and their dedication has to be seen to be believed. It leads me to believe that their potential applicant pool of of higher quality.

Other Asian Countries like Korea, Singapore, Hongkong, China?

It may be assumed that the student quality and the selection rates are similar to that in Japan, if not better. Means it appears that IITs, however difficult they are to get into, could be overshadowed by institutions in neighboring countries with more difficult admission standards.

There is a difference though. While graduates of universities like Tokyo are quietly working hard to bring their countries up to top and compete with the West, India with its population of a billion or so, through its IIT and other engineering college graduates, seems destined to become a country where the developed world can chooose its low-cost subcontractors to do the jobs they don't want to do or have a shortage of workers.

Admissions in the USA

While it seems true that admission rate at IITs is less than even the most selective US school like the CalTech, it does not mean IIT recruits students of higher caliber. In a country like the USA, educational resources were well developed and the enrollment capacity for engineering majors is kept about the same as the number of seniors intending to enter those programs, if not more. It means less desparation. Moreover, there are lot of top-notch schools schools of about equal caliber which decreases their selectivity figures. My guess is that the top 50 engineering schools in the USA exceed IITs in almost all respect and another 100 or so other schools are not far behind.


prasun said...

Also, in the US there is a significant application fee which ensures that only serious applicants apply to a university. The JEE application fee is much less comparatively and only one application is required for all IITs, as opposed to filling separate applications for UCLA, UCSD etc

Anonymous said...

I mostly think that educational centers are there to enable the smart and willing to achieve, not to decide a priori who is smart among the willing.

Anonymous said...

Some comments
1. It is extremely difficult to gain admission to the IITs and even more so to find admission to the EE & CS departments. The difficulty arises both from the large number of applicants and the internal difficulty of the exam. The exam is of a standard which would flummox American sophomores including most students at Caltech.

2. The selectivity is roughly the same as elite institutions in East Asian universities such as University of Tokyo and others.

3. Given a chance to attend Caltech, most would prefer to attend Caltech. Why , cos its a better place to study and do research. This is due to many reasons, a simple example would be the absence of a combined department like EECS where students learn principles of both disciplines. Most students from an IIT cs dep would know nothing about EE and vice versa. IITs did not have the concept of stuff like SURF until recently. One can add others.

Steve Hsu said...

Thanks for the interesting comments!

I can believe the JEE is a hard test.

But I am confused about something. Sinha mentions elsewhere on his site that many of his classmates hadn't seen vectors before IIT -- if so, how did they manage to do well on the JEE?

I've heard from Japanese, Korean and Chinese students that their national university admission exam is overly focused on memorization. It seems the JEE is not this way, as it is focused on solving hard problems in physics, math, etc. (Although I suppose one can also cram for those problems as well.)

Ero-Sennye said...

@ prasun

Knowledge has No Owner!
The very fact that education can be bought by the rich in the US, is not an advantage to the serious student, but at best, a disadvantage to the deserving but not so affluent. Also, richness does not imply brilliance.

@ Steve

I personally believe, that such a debate is useless, and we must all come together for purpose of scientific growth. Elitist attitudes attached to past achievements is a common trait of the mediocre while debating about the past achievements of others, is a property of the even less than mediocre.

As for Mr. Sinha, I seriously believe he would have done better had he taken to life insurance marketing or even gambling, for his usage of numbers on the fly is immaculate (pun intended). I can counter-argue each and every statement of Mr. Sinha, because his arguments are very outdated, and his style completely unscientific. However, I have no intention of doing so.

Ero-Sennye said...

like I said, Mr. Sinha's comments are very outdated. He speaks of a JEE qualifier not knowing vectors while we can except now, many JEE qualifiers to have gone through linear algebra now! Talk about infinite dimensional vectors and Hilbert's spaces to some of them :)

Anonymous said...

JEE has changed a lot over the years.The complexity of the exam has increased dramatically over the years. He took JEE in 1974 after 11 years of schooling. Now JEE is taken after 12 years of schooling.

JEE does not reward pure memorization but is very amenable to preparation. People prepare for anything between 2-3 years for that single exam. It involves a lot of 'pattern recognition' by studying different variety of problems exhaustively.

If you would like to know about JEE in detail, read this article by a professor from IIT Kanpur.

Anonymous said...

The exam is of a standard which would flummox American sophomores including most students at Caltech.

This would lead me to wonder how much Indian students are really able to synthesize from their education.

Ero-Sennye said...

What Indian students are able to synthesize from their education is largely limited by socio-economic issues. India is not like the American society, where one can earn a decent living doing just about anything they desire, or have freedom of choice. For example, often people are not able to take physics as their major since these are not viewed by their parents and peers as vocationally suitable fields, like my case.

Anonymous said...

For example, often people are not able to take physics as their major since these are not viewed by their parents and peers as vocationally suitable fields, like my case.

In my first shot at college, I was a member of the honors college at a small, state school. The president of the university hosted a meet-and-greet in the summer prior to our first term. At dinner, I wandered around looking for a seat, and finally found one at a table in a corner. This happened to be the table at which the president sat down.

In the course of dinner, he asked each of us at the table what we planned to study. I said, "Physics and Philosophy." He chuckled, and asked me incredulously, "What are you going to do with that degree?" I was dumbfounded.

It's not unusual for people in the US to view college as a means to a professional end. [Moreover, an undergraduate degree hardly qualifies you to do anything in the US]

Ero-Sennye said...

@ David

Yes, thank you for your example. But, also, consider living as a physicist, theoretician or an experminentalist, on 15,000 Rs. a month in India. For a comparison, a low-end laptop would cost you 45,000 Rs. and a higher end upto 75K. Further, compare yourself with IT idiots living around you earning 1,50,000 a month. But, if you still do not understand this point, I do not have anything more to say.

Steve Hsu said...


Of course, the Indian physics student can always gamble on finding a job in the US (perhaps after attending a US grad school):

Overall, though, I agree the incentives are pushing Indians into IT (and Americans into finance).

Seth said...


"... educational centers are there to enable the smart and willing to achieve, not to decide a priori who is smart among the willing."

Well said.

Steve Hsu said...

STS and David,

Well said, but scarce resources and opportunities have to be allocated somehow (esp. in places like China and India). It is an inevitable filtering problem (psychometrics) that receives far too little attention, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I won't deny the effects of economy on education. It ends up being a question of what value does education provide to a society. Tests like the entrance exams look like elaborate ruses that hide what is, in effect, a lottery. Draw straws to be done with it, so the high achievers can go about focusing on things that are more important than a test of nothing [or very little, as an information guy, you gotta wonder what info entropy of the results of the exam are, no?].

There are a lot of social effects that would be fun to kibitz about, but I don't want to clog up your blog with this.

Seth said...


Allocation of scarce resources, indeed! Education starts as providing access to the common heritage of humanity and devolves into choosing winners in a very unequal society.

You are admirably frank about the filtering issue, but I'm not sure I share your confidence that the world is so neatly divided into the smart and the not-smart.

Intelligence has to be measured in relation to a problem space. This relates to your AI post as well. The problem space of simply "being human" is really incomparably larger than that of "passing the JEE" (or any other standardized test). That may account for my perception that such tests are unrepresentative of what I consider valuable human traits.

The higher the stakes, the more the tests turn into assessments of test-taking ability. The very possession of the rewards then hardens into an "earned" and therefore "inalienable" privilege.

Commercial measures of accomplishment are perhaps more useful because the assessment is done by a diverse clientele over time, rather than by certain anointed experts at one point in time.

But money isn't everything either :(

David, I'm doing some of the clogging for you.

Anonymous said...

All three of the US universities noted do not simply tower over IIT but soar. They all have legacies that dwarf IIT. IIT will earn boasting rights when it produces the output of these great institutions. Having a high quality input only raises the question as to what really is the quality of the insititution.

I have worked with many IIT graduates as both a scientist and an executive and will be the first to say they are top quality. I will also have to say that they do not demonstrate the consistency of excellence that I have seen from MIT, CMU or Stanford.

Finally, discussions of competitive entry miss that it is competitive output that is what matters.

Xameer said...

rank projection success
Thanks for letting us know that marks checked is a success.New version of JEE Carnot is launched []

Anonymous said...

The Indian state board exams are heavily memorization oriented and non-g, this was done deliberately in Tamil Nadu, to reduce the difference between Brahmin and non-brahmin castes

( almost anyone can memorize given enough effort )

whereas the IIT-JEE are heavily g oriented and need to think a lot

Thousands of people who do very well in the state boards due to memorisation, miserably fail the JEE due to lack of g

Anand Kumar said...

Very good discussion guys, Just jumped upon this article through the Sinha's blog somehow :-).

Even though Sinha, might have some truth to say, mostly about Rajat Gupta and Narayana Murthy, his knowledge about IITs is general definitely seems to be outdated. So I would neither ignore him nor take him too seriously.

L Radhakrishna Rao said...

I don't understand that why you brought brahman caste in this discussion. Besides, if you want to know, then, brahmans have stopped writing IIT-JEE, as IITs are useless, and solve no purpose. We are going to edinburgh, RWTH Aachen, not to IIT. India will remain a backward nation forever.

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