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Ability and Academic Merit – what’s the difference?

August 5, 2008

In our academic dog-eat-dog jungle it’s academic merit that everyone considers the barometer of a person’s ability. But in the real world it’s performance on the job which counts doesn’t it, not one’s past academic record. Academic toppers may have a fine mind and may turn out to be great achievers…or they may not. But they still do get into the best professional institutes and as a consequence into the best companies.

But what role does academic merit play in a person’s ability to do his job well? This burning question seems relevant at a time when there is so much fuss being made over the fact that the IIM’s have had to “lower” the cut-offs for admission into their hallowed precincts because of the requirement for “quotas” for the backward classes.

While the relaxation of cut-offs was insignificant in some cases, some other B-campuses had to compromise on merit to allow these students in…

This made me wonder what “merit” actually meant. How do a few extra percentage points make a difference to a person’s ability to do his job…or wait a minute, do academic institutions really care about ability on the job? Or do they only care about examinations? Why should they assume that a 90 percenter will necessarily apply the knowledge he has (even if it is more knowledge than say a seventy-five percenter) in a better fashion? Aren’t academic institutions concerned (I am not only talking about IIM’s here, although that is what set my mind thinking) about how their students will fare after they leave college?

Before I continue let me say that I dislike the concept of caste based reservations (although I have a flexible attitude towards reservations based on economic status).

Well, you can judge for yourself whether some extra percentage points make a difference in a person’s ability to perform at his/her job. I have listed some qualities that make a person excel at his job. In this list, “Knowledge” of the job is taken for granted, although “expertise” isn’t. Expertise is what finally counts and it’s knowledge plus lots of other things. The information is picked up from the web. Although in most of the cases I used the exact words of the author I have not put the words in quotation marks as often the points have been chopped up and presented in point form. (You can assume that none of points are in my own words, although some are). All of these qualities are simply pointers and by no means the only qualities required.

Successful entrepreneurs need to be high in self-belief, be self-motivated, have the capacity to bounce back after failure, be driven by a manic need to succeed, be decisive, take risks, use their intuition. They also are keenly aware of the skills they lack and thus surround themselves with people who have those skills. They make personal sacrifices in order to succeed, are quick to recognize niche markets and business opportunities. They are multi-taskers, are action-oriented, set high targets, are never satisfied with their success, are persistent, and are able to endure rejection and set backs.

Successful teachers need to have confidence, patience, understanding, compassion for students, creativity (to be able to make teaching interesting), dedication, be able to morally support and encourage students and have a passion for life

Successful software engineers need to have a flexibility with tools, be willing to learn new tools and throw away old ones. They need to give up the idea of being tools experts and learn to identify the real and immediate problems and find solutions. “The difference between a good software engineer and a bad software engineer is not a matter of programming technique or hard core geekery. A good software engineer determines the right problem to solve, and solves it using the right tools”.

Successful doctors need to be confident, empathetic, humane, personal, forthright, respectful and thorough. (This is based on transcripts of patients of a reputed medical facility detailing their best and worst experiences with a physician). “Patients who described a “worst physician” experience focused on traits reflecting opposites of desired doctor behaviors, particularly perceived insensitive or disrespectful behavior.” Also, the best doctors are those who use evidence as a tool, not as a determinant of practice.

Successful managers possess good problem solving ability, excellent communication skills, flexibility in their leadership style, an attitude that promotes teamwork, ability to accept change, an optimistic attitude and leadership qualities.

Successful journalists need to be resourceful, have a very fast working speed without compromising on accuracy, be committed (work involves long hours), a thick skin (people will react to what you write), ability to sniff out a good story idea, multitasking ability, interpersonal skills, confidence.

Whether it is a business school or a medical school, I sincerely wish that some other, more innovative, methods are employed to get the right students. Marks in examinations should not be the only criteria. One has to see what kind of professional course it is, chart out a personality profile, and try and test students based on these abilities. It would be interesting to see the results. Most likely people at the lower end of the academic spectrum still may not make the grade, but I am sure that a lot of “average” students might.

Later: I happened to read Amrutha’s post on Elitist Education and want to quote a few lines here. She writes:

I simply believe that excellence can exist anywhere, even in the slums. We are, as a society, too caught up in the rut of exams, degrees and marks to see that intelligence is unrelated to most or even all of these factors.

Excellence can indeed exist everywhere! The best training institutes in our country need to pick up the best and a few marks here and there does not matter!

(Photograph credits: From the Jaihind college website)

Related Reading: Busting the IQ test myth
Academic Intelligence is related to Emotional Intelligence
Science vs Humanities
The problems with our education system
Are Indian Muslims backward educationally?
Research on the connection between academic success and success at one’s job
Has caste-based affirmation worked in India?

35 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2008 8:39 am

    Academics should be to build up one’s foundation for future by learning the fundamentals very well. Unfortunately examinations are not conducted in a way of focussing on just learning but rather towards % marks. Academics do not indicate one’s success in life or at work in future. But most people when they were students had to blend in with the system and see to that they get good marks in order to secure the seat in a good institution. Your description of qualities for various professions were very good.

  2. August 5, 2008 9:20 am

    Not every person learns or yearns to be a doctor, teacher, software engineer, manager or journalist. There are many people who practice farming, plumbing, installing electrical systems or other important trades which form the foundational support mechanisms of a complex society.
    It has bothered me for numerous years that contemporary society denigrates learning in the trades and elevates only certain segment of the ‘trained’ population. All education is a form of training – of acquiring information, skills and practice of applying those to specific situations. No one are of human learning is free from this principle.
    An emphasis on test scores can be short sighted.Let’s take by way of example a student who goes to Law School, mostly because his parents and his observations have told him that Lawyers make a handsome living. Say, this student is academically most capable, has good study habits, but could care less about the specifics of knowledge of what encompasses law. However, he goes to Law School, hates it because it involves extensive reading and information analysis and knowledge of precedents of principles. Now he can stuff his disinterest, and even garner good marks during his law school years, mainly because he is a good and unimaginative drudge and a compliant son. I ask you, would you want such an individual for your lawyer? Sure, he might put in the necessary time and effort to get by in his profession, but if his main purpose is being in the profession for the good living it provides him, he will make a lousy lawyer. Also by the same token, a lousy doctor, teacher, entrepreneur, software engineer, plumber, electrician or farmer.
    If a Tribal young one has the keen interest and capacity to do well in shcools of higher learning, then they should be supported through their training, for it is a person passionate about the content of their own learning who becomes an excellent practitioner and whose gifts best add to the social good. That kind of merit is evaluated, not merely by high marks, but by other markers which should be used by training institutions to reserve seats in their halls for those who truly deserve them. G

  3. August 5, 2008 10:43 am

    yesterday only our organisation rejected a couple of doctor candidates stating that they were not upto the mark! no, acaademically they were absolutely up to the mark.. but their ‘personality’ didnot!!

    i was soooo ****! do you want a doctor’s brain or his/her looks!

    i know this is different then ability but i just wanted to vent out!!

    thanks for listening!

  4. August 5, 2008 11:54 am

    People who do what they want to do are most likely to succeed than people who are just doing their “job”. Successful human resource management should effectively involve psychometric analysis, experience, application of competency based assessment. The next step is to develop the ability or refine it with the help of performance management systems. It is an ever going process and there is not one reason for me to believe that ability/academic prowess are linked. However academics are just measurements for certain kind of mental ability but we must understand that they are severely limited. As an example one of your commentators has said that trade is seldom appreciated as a subject, that is especially true in India. If a system can not properly assess ability than using it to hire people is foolhardy. It is best to use an individualized hiring procedure in consultation with a sound HR team, preferably with independent HR assessment from an external source to monitor the hiring.

    So as far as I can say, Academic merit is the measure of certain abilities. Ability can be gained or lost. The key is assessment, training, development and then again assessment.As far as technical or business schools are concerned I think they are just brand names. I would definitely consider an individual before I consider where he spent 4 years of his or her life before hiring them.

  5. August 5, 2008 1:36 pm

    IIMs too fought against the Reservation based on Caste…. and its a major reason causing Brain Drain in India.

    The main culprit being the education system here. No matter, you lack the knowledge of outside world, you should have a high score in the board exams. Those who go abroad for higher studies never want to step back to their motherland. We don’t even have a product which has “made in India” whereas every gadget has “Made in China.”

    Now-a-days, schools get the little kids admitted based on the take home payscale of the parents and how well educated parents are!

  6. August 5, 2008 1:56 pm

    Dineshbabu, thanks. as you said students have to beat the system and so even creative and intelligent minds do the mugging up to pass. If they do it well enough, there is always a danger that their creativity might rust.

    suburbanlife, Ofcourse the trades are important, and as you pointed out it’s interest and passion in the work that matters, not just knowledge.
    And in some professions, like you said Law, if we have more of the ruthless types, we will have criminals having the run of our society! I too wish that people were admitted into educational institutions on the basis of their real ability, not marks, but I guess we are a long way from that. Here you have to have either marks or money.

    Sakhi, someone rejecting candidates because of their looks is sad!

    odzer, thank you for giving that from the point of view of an employer. If more employers were aware, then they would start to demand things from the educational institutes. However in India there is another problem, not many institutes give proper training and therefore when multinationals pick up people from the top institutes they are kind of being “safe.” Because these institutes do have a rigorous curriculum. With a student from another institute they might have to train the people themselves, but I think companies should do that and not be lazy about it. They expect people to start performing right away and I hear it’s different abroad. Abroad trainees often work for free or a pittance and learn on the job. In India trainees expect to be paid fairly hefty amounts. And ofcourse if the top institutes went more for talent (no, I have no idea how they will assess that!) and less on marks, I think it will be better for society.

    Manasa, true, the admission system has reached abysmal level where money can buy you admission!

  7. August 5, 2008 2:53 pm

    You write “The best training institutes in our country need to pick up the best and a few marks here and there does not matter!”

    Best?? Whats the basis for judging someonehere?

    If not Academics,marks, percentage does Indian education system provide any other evaluation techniques?

    Are not entrance exam a way apart from the academic marksheets they hold?

    GD PI are conducted before admitting pupils in many well known institutes which take priority over the marks earned in the qualifying exams.

    You see a lot many software Companies recruiting students from reputed engg colleges in bulk, criteria for letting students appear in Campus Selection “Percentage”.

    Lots are people are even not sure about the abilities they have, how will others evaluate the abilities?

    Thousands of people are living their parents dreams.They are someone whom once their Parents wanted to be.

    Most of the times, circumstances take over ability,
    For instance, X is great cricketer, he has the ability to be on top in cricket. But owing to his family’s financial health, and lack of their support he gave the time he could practise cricket to studies, now he is working as a clerk in some firm, watching cricket on TV.

    “I Was Born Intelligent But Education Ruined Me” an apt quote?

    One more thought… ability and liking sometimes are also conflicting.

    Mr Y is very able in managing people, he can prove to be a nice HR manger, but his likings is painting and he always wanted to be a painter, though he is no good at it? what about situations like this?

    ahhhhh… I guess I have written a lot of confusing things, and might have even contradicted myself at times, but when I saw the post, I could not stop writing whatever came to my mind.Hope it makes some sense. 🙂

  8. August 5, 2008 3:11 pm

    Sharad, thanks for your thoughts. However by best I mean well-known and in fact in several of my posts I have questioned what is the best…I guess I did not repeat that here. However there are certainly some institutes which are better than the others and I do believe that IIM are one of the best management institutes in the country. I don’t doubt it.
    About entrance exams, they are also based on academics. So they cannot be a different method. What I meant was different, not the same academic evaluation. If you check the qualities I mentioned you will see what I mean. If there is a way to test these, it will be wonderful. In many companies today they use techniques to measure a person’s attitude, leadership qualities etc, so I know such measures definitely exist.
    I don’t think that marks are the only way to evaluate a person’s ability.
    Also, I don’t understand what you mean when you say “Lots are people are even not sure about the abilities they have, how will others evaluate the abilities?”
    I rather think experts do the job.
    But you have brought out a very important point about people not necessarily being good at something they like to do! Extremely important point! I think all of us need to recognize this immediately because it can lead us up the wrong path. That is why aptitute tests are necessary.
    Thanks Sharad for giving your views.

  9. August 5, 2008 4:28 pm

    hmm…i don’t believe in our education system,the only reason why i am in it is because i need to understand the full flaws of it,so that one day i can change it..

  10. August 5, 2008 5:04 pm

    If not academic merit, how do you compare two “smart” students passing out of an engineering college? Like, they are similar in most respects, and then, academic merit comes into picture. How else would a recruiter compare?
    May be a bit of extracurrics also comes into the selection criterion.

    Later in life, other parameters(hardwork and likes) come into force and become stronger and stronger. The difference between a 65% and another 75% guy from the same institute would be “large” in the initial years and after some years for all you know the 65% guy would be doing better and would be worth more in the job market.

    (I have not taken the effort of going through the other comments and glancing through the same tells me its something similar that has been posted already, nevertheless)


  11. August 5, 2008 5:21 pm

    Nkhil, no your comment is not a repetition of the others. They have brought out different points, except for Sharad, although he has put it in a different way.
    However, let me say that I am saying there should be a way to compare, by way of other tests. I am saying that there are tests available today which enable authorities (I am talking of admission into colleges more than admission into companies) to find out whether a person has say leadership qualities, a genuine interest in the field and well, if you check the qualities mentioned above you will find that there are tests and tests and tests! I admit however I am not in that field so I cannot say which tests but such tests exist. Also, I am not saying academic merit should nto count, but other tests should be given to all. And a combination of it should count.
    Btw, this is not such a new idea. I read an article (which I could not find on the web) that prominent medical schools in the US are now thinking of ways they can get more Humanities students into their fold as they find they make good doctors too. Unfortunately the way the system is structured, hard core science students stand a better chance. Same way in the IIM it is engineers who have a better chance of getting in. I can’t understand why an engineer should make for a better manager!
    I firmly believe that a wide range of tests to test personality, attitude, aptitude (for that particular field) should be given to all students during admission time and admisison should be based on an all round assessment, not just marks.

  12. August 5, 2008 5:53 pm

    Nita, I agree but I believe creativity will not rust. It would just need to be reinvented and brought back up. Also, It is possible that a lot of creative people may not want to beat the system due to their principles and the world might lose a great mind.

    I have to agree to the fact as to why Engineers should make better managers. I believe Engineers are technical and meant to be so. If they want to become managers they probably need not have done Engineering.

  13. August 5, 2008 10:02 pm

    I agree there should be some sort of aptitude testing and psychological tests apart from regular tests according to the professional course. Some people just do not have the aptitude for the field they r pushed into or enter willingly. The reservation system is not helping all the needy ones and deserving ones who r intelligent but cant afford education.
    All the qualities listed for a successful teacher are v apt and true. And unlike written in the article I have posted in my post education boom or education doom, a good teacher need not necessarily be a topper of his time. I have myself seen two examples of IIT pass outs being the worst teachers!!

  14. August 5, 2008 11:22 pm

    @ Gabrielle:

    Most of the professions you mention require considerable training. If I am to allow an electrician to touch the wiring in my house, I want to be sure that he knows what he is doing. Likewise with plumbing. The certification processes in these professions/ trades are not simple and require a certain degree of academic ability as well as aptitude.

    Farmers are different but many are hereditary farmers, who learn the trade as apprentices to their families and relatives. Once again, a certain degree of ability to learn and grasp complex and nuanced points is needed.

    I know your experience is considerable in this area 🙂 but in my view, academic merit (within reason) is a sign that a person can be taught, trained and improved in his/ her abilities.

    Aptitude can rarely be taught. If I am queasy at the sight of blood, I am an unlikely candidate to be a phlebotomist! (This is also why I think teaching MBAs ethics is a waste of time..)

    @ Nita:

    The entrance requirements for IIMs do not rely on academic merit. They do rely on a generalised entrance examination that tests common abilities with numbers and language, and speed as well as accuracy is important, as it is required in day to day management jobs. The arithmetic and mathematical ability tested is of Class X level up to which level, all read the same things before dividing into science or humanities.

    The aptitude – or soft skills – for learning, reasoning, communication and presentation is further tested through a group discussion and an interview. These are fairly competitive situations where one must demonstrate the ability to get along with a group of strangers, and also face a panel that does not let on how they are feeling about your chances as a candidate. Uncertainty and high pressure situations are common in many jobs these IIMA graduates then go on to doing.

    Some people do get in each year who are not academic stars. But for most part, IIMs do have a pick of the crop. So one finds oneself surrounded by a group of smart people with Dean’s List, gold medals and University topper labels stuck on their foreheads. Once in, it is all normalised and we all start afresh.

    Then some emerge in the top-20 and there is no correlation between how they ‘perform’ in their careers. It has nothing to do with their abilities but it is mainly because no two career trajectories are strictly comparable (no two jobs are either, which is why equal pay is such a tough one to argue successfully).

    There is also the additional element of individuals’ growth trajectories. Years after leaving IIMA, only a handful of my classmates are stunted in their intellectual growth. That growth also informs people’s choices making it even harder to compare ‘achievements’. Does a McKinsey partner have a greater achievement or a person, who went to his family business, leveraged and turned it around and became the 1st multimillionaire of the batch (and ICICI Bank board director to boot)? Who is to say?

    But in sum, there is a fairly high correlation between academic merit and professional progress and achievement at least as far as IIMs are concerned. It may be that the best of the crop can not do very badly in most situations. There are also exceptions but they deserve a mention because they are exceptions.

    PS: Engineers do well mostly because they are trained to think in a particular way. It is not taught in business schools definitely. And if the skills are combined, they make a very good combination. Some engineers do not want to be managers; a few of them will do an MBA but regress to being technologists, but most of them know what they are good at and pursue paths accordingly. There is a third bunch and their lack of success or happiness can not be blamed of any systemic factors except their own inability to know themselves better and then to take appropriate chances (individuals’ risk propensities are not tested in any entrance examinations in India).

    Thanks. Sorry for the long comment.

  15. August 5, 2008 11:24 pm

    wonderful post …
    i too feel that academics are being taken into account too seriously …
    here is south its worse..they give admission to engineering colleges based upon entirely school marks ..
    no entrance nothing..
    i think the education system in India itself is worse.. i hate it.. 😦

    nice write up..

  16. August 6, 2008 12:04 am

    Every examination held in the country fails to test the character of a candidate. Our education system has failed to educate people instead it is preparing them for the jobs, not for life.

    You have rightly pointed out that expertise and host of other things count when we want to choose a person for a particular profession.

    The qualities you have mentioned above would have changed the planet if they were really there in the respective professionals. We need a system which should strive to inculcate these qualities first at home, then at schools and the in the society.
    I really like the way you put these things here. They are helping in healthy debate I think.
    Take Care,

  17. August 6, 2008 12:33 am

    great theory, Nits. it’s true that intelligence cannot be measured by marks and can be found in slums too …. and also big instititutes should pick up on this intelligence rather than just marks in some pre-set exams …. but what other way is there to judge intelligence other than exams? just a thought.

    enjoyed reading. i think i can be a journalist hehehe.

  18. August 6, 2008 1:37 am

    sorry to play the devil’s advocate here.

    This train of thought leads you intothe situation where each institution thinks that they know what skills they value most and therefore there is a JEE , and an MNR and etc etc i.e. multiple tests that check applicants based on what that institution values most.

    Result – our Class 12 students are preparing for multiple tests is very stressfull.

    Let the companies figure out what they like or dislike in candidates ( Infosys etc have their own aptitude tests along with interviews), if they only go by test scores too bad- it will surely reflect on the performance of that company long term. Based on my experience test-scores is only a component of the overall decision when companies look for employment.

    However getting the opportunity to study ( in engineering / medicine / law / anything else) should be based on ONE standardized test – Just one across the board. Now you can make this test a good one – but this should be the gold standard for measuring how an individual is able to do in a given profession. If need be there can be 2 or 3 iterations of this test and screening to include desired psychographic profiles ( say humane-ness for a doctor) but I am not sure if things like that can be objectively measured in a way that is not expoited by the candidates.

  19. August 6, 2008 5:31 am

    i read only about s/w engineers..
    can u elaborate what u mean by “tools”. i m engineering student and don’t think any company use “tools” as keyword for communicating something

  20. Vikram permalink
    August 6, 2008 6:45 am


    In the opinion of many scholarly works I have read on modern India, reservation policies have been one of the relative success stories in India today. Let me quote one,
    ” The success of reservation, though suboptimal, reflects state’s power to bring about change, rising political power of Dalits and increased interest in education.” Rahul Deepankar, Regeneration vs Reservation, Pg 53-75, in Ambedkar on Law, Constitution and Social Justice.

    Along the same lines, please read this, it is a beautifully written piece,

    What makes you think exams only test knowledge ? They can also test skill. I think a grade system with individual teachers having the freedom to assess students independently works well and tests both knowledge and skill. It can work even better if the teacher him/herself is an expert practitioner of the field. Being immersed in such an environment for a period of 4 years will definitely prepare a student for the diverse challenges he/she will face in the ‘real’ world.

  21. August 6, 2008 8:31 am

    Vishesh, that is a noble thought!

    thanks. I too feel that the reservations system is not helping the right students. I feel the creamy layer bags the benefits, while the goal of our country should be to help the bright and the hardworking amongst the poor, whatever their caste.

    Shefaly, thanks for that comment. Considering you are an ex IIM, that was needed! 🙂 I agree with you about the basic skills that are tested, but I feel that if one is slightly worse at these than someone else it doesn’t matter that much. Mind you I am not saying you don’t need these skills to succeed, you do! But as you have pointed out in your answer to G, ethics is something that cannot be taught and I feel that like this, there are other things like psychological make-up which matter. For example a person who is brilliant academically might enter IIM only because he cracks the examination, not because he is suited for that line of work.
    I want to share with you an interesting experience my daughter had while doing her entrance into NID. The NID entrance is excellent as it tests visual ability and creativity but again certain skills you mentioned are also tested. But during the interview if you make the mistake of saying that you have given CAT and CET and other examinations, that goes against you. The trick question was, “what would you do if you don’t get in?” Those who said things like medicine, engineering etc didn’t get in! They said they have very few seats and they want to reserve them for the ones who are truly interested. But I guess this is more important for Design rather than anything else, but each profession will have something that can be tested, besides the skills you mentioned.
    Also, I agree with you about the fact that defining success is difficult and it’s subjective.
    Another point, perhaps IIM grads would have been successful anyway, whether they got into IIM or not…the point is are they suited or not to that particular profession. Perhaps that is why about 10 percent do not do well, maybe they are better suited somewhere else.

    Arvind, thanks.

    Vinay, as you said the qualities are taught at home, not at school or college and by the time you reach college nothing can be done.

    Roop, journalist huh? Join the club! 🙂

    Basskeyz, some good companies are looking for other qualities too and as you said if they do that it is they who will benefit. About the psychological tests, they are difficult to manipulate but I guess only because the candidate is not familiar with them. Knowing our coaching class industry, if they become the norm, then we will have the coaching classes telling you the right answers! Chilling thought.

    Kaushal, let me give an example. for a cook the tools will be the recipe book or the stove. same way a software engineer uses some pre-set formulas for his work, like a mathematecian does.

    Vikram, I am not against reservation, only creamy layer reservation. I don’t think well to do people need reservation, they have the opportunities. In any case if the criteria for selection is changed, I am sure that people with less marks will automatically get in.
    Yes, the exams test skill, but not other stuff, which I mentioned to Shefaly in my answer to her.
    Thanks for the link.

  22. August 6, 2008 8:50 am

    I think examination pattern should be changed. Marks should be allocated on a day to day assignment basis. Choosing an extra-curriclar actvity, as a part of curriculum, should be made mandatory. Special focus is needed on the children who do not grasp as quickly as the rest. I think change should eveolve from the bottom..I mean from the elementary education.

    Caste based reservation is the worst thing that can happen to a growing economy like ours. There is a dire need to change the current education system from the scratch. The rudimentary concept of examinations, that supposedly mark the merit of a student is the biggest flaw. I understand it is going to be a horrendous task for the government to do al this, but then, if you want to grow as an economy, you have no other go. Health, Education and Irrigation, necessarily in that order, are yelling for attention.

  23. August 6, 2008 9:47 am

    For most of the junta academic excellent and ability can be directly related. There are few exceptions like Einstein, Newton and even Gates who were college drop outs but brilliant!! But, these are only exceptions!!

  24. karthik shandilya permalink
    August 6, 2008 10:37 am

    well i agree to your point that academics cannot give a clear indication about a persons ability at job which he or she will later take up.but academics is one the measures which can be used to select students.academic success clearly demonstrates an individuals personality to some extent like sincerity ,attitude to learn,ability to comprehend the problems and apply the right methods to solve the problem.(only to some extent)

    as you rightly pointed in your first paragraph that
    “In our academic dog-eat-dog jungle it’s academic merit that everyone considers the barometer of a person’s ability.”

    here the question does not arise who is selected and from where,the question which arises is who is not selected I.e., who is they only reject people and those not rejected will be selected.since academics to some extent gives a clear indication of most of the qualities which you have mentioned they take a gamble and take the candidates on the basis of academics.and also to test the individuals confidence and other qualities they conduct interviews and then only the select(or take the candidates who are not eliminated in the process) .so these extra % becomes very significant in the process.

    “I simply believe that excellence can exist anywhere, even in the slums. We are, as a society, too caught up in the rut of exams, degrees and marks to see that intelligence is unrelated to most or even all of these factors”

    intelligence is unrelated to these factors i agree.but how is intelligence related to one’s ability to perform extremely well in organizations?we have seen people who are extremely intelligent but very unsuccessful and average kids who are very its not what the intelligence they see,if someone thinks that intelligence is the basis of selection they are wrong.this selection has got nothing to with the has got to do more with the abilities what you have mentioned and academics plus interviews to some extent give a fair idea about the ability of the individual and thus they take a gamble and select students on the basis of academics.when there are so many people who are capable they need to draw and reject many students that’s when this extra % becomes significant.
    i think this a fair process of selecting students

  25. August 6, 2008 10:56 am

    @ Nita:

    “For example a person who is brilliant academically might enter IIM only because he cracks the examination, not because he is suited for that line of work.”

    It definitely happens. In fact a vast majority of engineers at least (can’t speak for other kinds of undergraduates) write GATE, GMAT, CAT and IAS! I think it says more about their own lack of introspection and preparedness for life – as well as for low risk propensity – than anything else.

    For me, writing and clearing CAT to get into IIM-Ahmedabad was a fluke. I was more keen to – and had obtained a full scholarship to – study robotics at a graduate level in the US. I wrote CAT because I happened to be there in SBI to collect my US$ draft for GRE when the forms started being distributed. In the whole city, I was the first one to obtain a form when I had no intention to write CAT, but I was curious to see what the fuss was all about! I may have had the ‘aptitude’ – seeing as I haven’t made a half-bad life so far – but I definitely did not have the ‘interest’.

    Funny you mention NID. I went right through to the last round of their admissions procedure right after Class XII. I failed in the last round where we had to work to produce an abstract design from the given materials and I could not. I suppose I had no aptitude for design. 😦 Just as well that I did what I did. Someone has got to have money to afford to buy fancy-schmancy designer thingamajigs that the NID graduates produce 🙂

  26. August 6, 2008 11:00 am

    @ Nita:

    Sorry on that ‘interest’ bit, I have to say we have to allow for personal growth. I am still keen on all things tech – in fact, sometimes I understand complex, multidimensional things better than many non-engineers I know – but I am also keen on the commercial, societal, regulatory and moral aspects of things. Who knows, if I had not allowed for my growth, I would still be researching AI in a lab somewhere with limited social intelligence and perspective?

    As I mentioned to Gabrielle, academic ability is a proxy for measuring that a person can be taught, trained and ‘improved’. I certainly can say none of my degrees – each in a different field – has been a waste. 🙂

  27. August 6, 2008 11:41 am

    Manoj, I agree, but now after reading all these comments I tend to wonder what kind of solution there can be! But at least some attempt should be made by educators in India, I feel not enough is being done, and I guess that is because our country has other priorities.

    Nova, I think there are many such exceptions, but only they don’t achieve that much greatness. I find it sad when a deserving person does not get admission into a course, and I guess that is because we have too much competition here in India.

    Karthik, you hit upon the right word…who is rejected is what we need to think about…about intelligence ofcourse I agree. Ability and Intelligence can be different. But then so can Academic Intelligence and Ability.

    Shefaly, I agree a person should be allowed to grow. From reading your comment I realised that you are a very versatile person, with various talents in many fields, but others may not have these various abilities. You are genuinely interested in your work, have a desire to excel at everything you do (I love that trait), do not have a materialistic attitude, and therefore even in a psychological test you would have done well 🙂 and also probably in some other professions as well. Don’t ask me how I know, I just know! 🙂
    Thanks for your comments!

  28. August 6, 2008 4:31 pm

    I totally loved the post.

    If you want examples of Ability vs Academics, search me 🙂
    I am very bad at academics but when a company conducted *good* (not regular which some toppers practice their a** off for) aptitude test, and I was the only one amongst all so called rankers(not all) who cleared it and got the job.

    Also I completely agree with the fact you said about Successful S/W engineer. We need logic of doing *right* things at *right* times.


  29. August 7, 2008 10:50 pm

    Our schools and colleges churn out literates by the million. You would have varying degrees of learning amongst these graduates / post graduates.

    In the absence of any credible alternative, academic achievement becomes the proxy for other capabilities or for that matter even soft skills.

    Focus of entrance exams is to eliminate rather than choose the right candidates. Deserving candidates could be plain unlucky on that day.

    There is a severe mismatch between number of students aspiring to get higher education and the number of institutions offering such education.

    Academic excellence or education at a premier institution only serves as an ideal springboard at the initial stage. As a recruiter I would presume that this hallowed background means superior quality candidates with a high class education and a host of real and imagined abilities.

    The test begins hereafter. Processes and work flow details are absorbed quickly but application of mind and test of character when faced with blocks separate grain from chaff.

    Your institution is not there to help you then.

    I have seen many such “elite” colleagues come a cropper because they would find details boring or they would be so haughty that they plot their own downfall.

    The right attitude and other inner qualities that you have or develop, eventually see you through. Skill or knowledge does not remain a monopoly for long and education or grades lose their relevance in a few years.

  30. August 8, 2008 9:49 pm

    Suda, Thanks. It’s good to hear that software companies are testing people on these lines!

    Mavin, thanks for a an apt and brief analysis. I agree, haughtiness can be the downfall of many a great academic. I firmly believe that learning never stops but haughtiness can stop you from learning. The right attitude as you said is what is needed for success. thanks again!

  31. August 9, 2008 9:28 pm

    While there are so many jobs and careers to choose from, the rush for engineering and medicine blindly is creating wasteful resources in our nation who study for quite a long time about so many ways and methods of doing things, but never use them in thier work or life. Isnt this because of lack of direction or maturity on the part of the students and lack of directon and greedy nature of the parents?

    Destination Infinity.

  32. August 10, 2008 12:54 am

    Grades do matter but only at the initial stage.
    After a while its your passion & attitude which takes you forward.

    I know some guys have done their Higher studies from Ignou & are doing great in their respective professions.

  33. August 10, 2008 1:23 pm

    Okay i got lost halfway through the comments so i might be repeating myself.

    – i’ve been a good student all my life so i *do* think its an indicator of a certain amt of aptitude. that said – when i see higher marks – i also think – okay – here is someone who has worked hard to get here. the desire to excel is something that any recruiter values. wouldnt you say? though of course – one cant really tell whether that desire wil sustain them through their career.

    caste based reservations – here i am prepared to get stoned so will hide under the table. i come from UP. And I’ve seen bank officers and corporates – everyone – hire people based on their caste. the Mishras and Yadavs will pick only their own. They will refuse to mix with lower caste people or share the same lunch table in the cafeteria as them.

    the husband often argues with me – but while i am against reservation in general – i realise that while caste exists in the mind of people – we’re on an uphill task.

    reservation in primary education too might be a good idea. something needs to be done for them. my cook is a brahmin and refuses to mix with the other house help becaues they are ‘neechi jaat’ lower caste!

  34. August 10, 2008 3:24 pm

    @ Nita:

    Thanks for your kind words.

    You say: “…genuinely interested in your work, have a desire to excel at everything you do (I love that trait), do not have a materialistic attitude, and therefore even in a psychological test you would have done well..”.

    These qualities – in addition to technical ability or at least the potential to be taught where it is an absolute essential such as in NID or in medicine – make for “aptitude”, in my eyes. Very early on in my career, I was hiring people. I always chose an enthusiastic person, who showed an enthusiasm for learning, a desire to work hard and an open mind about feedback over other options. Admittedly I was hiring for customer facing positions then.

    Hiring for more technical (not in technology terms but in terms of knowing their specific craft) positions, I was hiring more people with similar educational tags as myself and the less-insufferable got hired 😉

    In that respect, I agree with Mad Momma. In a competitive environment like India’s, grades say something as do the institutions that people can get admissions to. I missed IIT narrowly but instead of moping about it, I went to on be an all-round student – mind you, not the class topper, who like many others, who did academically much worse, is writing code for a software firm in California – notching up experience in various things, sharpening my people skills and as you know, being the first person from my College ever to get into IIMA.

    Aptitude and Attitude in my view differ by just a letter 🙂


  35. August 11, 2008 8:10 am

    Destination Infinity, Rahul, thanks for responding!

    Mad Momma, ofcourse someone who does well in examinations has some very good qualities. I too was a very good student but at the same time I observed around me two things, 1) Those who did well as me were not as smart as me. 2) Those who did worse than me were often smarter than me.
    About caste, I have had the opposite experiences but then I am only speaking of jobs and admissions. I have seen the discrimination working at the societal level, say in marriages and social groups. But all communities do this, not just some castes and I have personally not seen terrible nastiness. But this is my own experiences only. And yes I have heard sad stories about what happens in villages too, but today with caste based reservations where govt. jobs are reserved and so are places in educational institutions there is no question of discrimination. In fact there is reverse discrimination. Desperately poor people who are not in the reserved category suffer because of this. Anyway, the main thing is that when it comes to reservation based on caste in higher institutions, I think its atrocious and I am completely against it. In fact I am also against evaluating people solely on the basis of marks. I feel very strongly about this. If we stop evaluating people on the basis of marks only, thee will be no need for any reservation at all. Again I am talking of only higher institutions. As for primary level, again I am strongly against reservations on the basis of caste. It has to be on the basis of economic status, not religion or caste. That is what I believe.

    Shefaly, I agree with what you say. I do agree that technical expertise and academics counts, but I think attitude and some other qualities (Including a kind of stree smartness) counts too. It should be measured alongwith academic qualities. There should be a balance of both.

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