This page describes my experience in high school. I was in a single school, Delhi Public School Noida, my whole life, starting from Nursery (a pre-kindergarten level). Since my school was in India, I’ll follow terminology corresponding to the Indian school system. Hopefully this will not jar non-Indian readers much.
While high school is defined as classes 9-12, this page currently only goes into detail about my experience in classes 11 and 12, the last two years of my high school experience (for American readers, substitute “grade” for “class” when it’s followed by a number).
Some background on my interest in mathematics
Since childhood, I had been interested in studying mathematics. In India at the time, the most common routes for people identified in childhood as academically strong were engineering and medicine, with the top destination for engineering being the Indian Institutes of Technology. Many people ended up doing other things, but few planned for that. However, I personally was interested in mathematics. I was passionate about it as a child. In middle school my interest took a bit of a back seat, but as I was finishing class 10, I was reasonably clear that I wanted to study and then do research in mathematics.
Both my parents had been to the Indian Institutes of Technology (my mother had studied Electrical Engineering in Delhi and my father had studied Chemical Engineering in Madras), and then to the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, where they met, and then worked in the software industry before transitioning to consulting-type roles for the industry. So they were both aware of how institutes like the IITs worked from the inside, and the job opportunities they opened up. They were supportive of my desire to study mathematics rather than pursue engineering. There were two places I was considering for pursuing undergraduate studies in mathematics: Chennai Mathematical Institute and the Indian Statistical Institute, Bangalore (to get more details on how I learned of the two places and how I eventually decided between them, see my undergraduate institution selection page). Apart from these, the Indian Institutes of Technology were a fallback place to study mathematics. To get into those I needed to take the IIT Joint Entrance Examination, but the rank I needed in order to be able to study mathematics was much lower than what I’d need to get into a competitive engineering major such as computer science engineering.
The proximal next step was thus clear to me: get through the Regional Mathematical Olympiad and then the Indian National Mathematical Olympiad, and hopefully represent India at the International Mathematical Olympiad.
What I was juggling
See also my site page on Olympiads
After I finished up the end-of-year examinations for class 10 (conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education, with which my school was affiliated), I started juggling multiple tasks:
- Acquiring sufficient mastery of Olympiad-related mathematics to be able to do well on the Olympiads.
- Picking up a few ideas from higher mathematics.
- Studying high school subjects (physics, chemistry, mathematics).
- Attending a coaching institute for IIT JEE (this was mostly as a backup measure because I wasn’t sure of the undergraduate institutions I was interested in getting into, and the IITs seemed a good fallback option for studying mathematics). The coaching institute I attended was Vidyamandir Classes.
(1) and (2) were intertwined. For instance, I’d study number theory for Olympiads while also learning some ideas from higher mathematics related to number theory. (3) and (4) were intertwined, because the syllabus for IIT-JEE was the same (in principle) as the syllabus for high school. The main difference was just in the emphasis.
In class 10, I had been very focused on schoolwork. In classes 11 and 12, focus on schoolwork at the day-to-day level simply wasn’t feasible. I couldn’t realistically aim for mastering a topic as it was covered in school. What I could and did aim for was covering all topics covered in school eventually, before the end-of-year examination. This meant that my performance in intermediate tests could fall quite low. This wasn’t a problem in most subjects, but for some subjects that had niche topics covered at random points in the middle of the school year, it was a problem. I remember a physics midterm at some point in class 12 where I scored 53/70, a pretty low score considering the material wasn’t hard, simply because I hadn’t studied the material till that point.
The general de-emphasis on schoolwork was common among many of my peers, particularly those focused on IIT-JEE preparation. In their case, they were relying on the direction spelled out by their coaching institutes. I was doing something similar, but was also juggling Olympiad stuff.
Despite juggling more stuff, I believe I felt more relaxed than I had in class 10. The Olympiad stuff was genuinely fun, and the school and coaching institute stuff wasn’t too bad given that I wasn’t too serious about it. The good thing about Olympiad preparation was that it was a high-upside but minimal-downside job. If I could get in to the Olympiads that would be great. But if not, the preparation would still help me with entrance tests to the math institutes that I was interested in. And if I didn’t get through them, I could get through the IIT Joint Entrance Examination. The rank I needed on the examination in order to pursue mathematics at the IITs was much lower than the rank I’d need to study computer science engineering, so the pressure to get a high rank was less.
Getting through the Olympiads
In December 2002, I took the Regional Mathematical Olympiad. I got through that and then took the Indian National Mathematical Olympiad in February 2003. I got through that and then went to the International Mathematical Olympiad Training Camp (IMOTC) at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE) in May 2003. I got through to India’s team for the IMO. I just scraped through. Regardless, even if I hadn’t gotten through, I had gotten a lot of value from the camp. My mathematical and other horizons had expanded. And my CMI admission was as good as guaranteed.
After I went to the IMO and then came back, I wasn’t completely sure if I wanted to continue attending the coaching institute for IIT-JEE, but I ultimately decided to continue attending till January. After January they had a Final Phase that had an additional payment needed, and I opted not to attend that, so that I could focus on studying mathematics, my school studies, and other personal pursuits.
It’s interesting how having a clear idea of what I wanted to do, and knowing there were many routes to achieving it (largely because only a small fraction of the talented pool of people were competing with me for it) allowed me to pursue it in a less stressful and more rational manner.
As an addendum, I took the IIT-JEE screening test in April 2004, and got an All India Rank of 10. I took the main examination in May 2004, and got an All India Rank of 158. The screening test was easier because it was closer to a test of basic understanding, which I had, than a test of practice at speed and consistency in applying that understanding, which I didn’t put in enough of. The latter rank would not have been enough to get me the most coveted engineering major possible, but good enough for a decent engineering major at a decent place. As things stood, I ended up going to CMI (see my undergraduate institution selection page for more).
Lessons for others?
I occasionally get emails from other people asking how they can juggle Olympiad preparation with studying for the IIT-JEE. I don’t think there is any one-size-fits-all answer. A lot depends on how far you already are and how important each goal is to you.
One thing I regret is not starting on an Olympiad focus earlier. If I had started studying Olympiad mathematics more heavily in class 9 or 10, and been a little less focused on schoolwork, I probably would have seen significant gains in my Olympiad performance, perhaps even getting to the IMO Training Camp a year earlier. A number of people I met at IMOTC had started earlier, and just generally spent more time on it. I would have been less stressed at school too.
The other major thing I regret not doing enough of is getting into computer programming. While my regrets about Olympiads are probably not that relevant to where I am today, my regrets about computer programming are germane to my situation today. The earlier I had started with programming in earnest, the better a programmer I would have become, and the easier my day job today, plus my numerous side projects, would have been.
In both cases (mathematics and programming) I had been precocious, showing signs of interest at the ages of 7-10. But then in middle school and early high school, I kind-of dropped the ball. I didn’t pursue these interests sufficiently aggressively. While I still stayed comfortably ahead of the majority of my classmates, I didn’t really work close to my potential. Nor was I pursuing other important intellectual interests or directly contributing to the world — that would have to wait till graduate school.
So my main advice for younger people is: start early, and try to improve along the dimensions of both mathematics and programming. If you want to pick only one and you don’t have a strong prior preference, pick programming, simply because it’s more likely to be job-relevant. But be relentless about pursuing that interest, even when there are no particular incentives to do so. In today’s world, with numerous resources (discussed, e.g., here), it’s easier than ever before to try to make progress.
Not everybody will make it to the IMO. I believe I was somewhat lucky to be able to make it to the IMO despite my late start. But you don’t have to make it there in order for your pursuit of mathematics or programming to be a success.
Finally, although I talk here about mathematics and programming, some of these lessons also apply to people pursuing other domains that don’t fit the traditional mold. If you can identify a clear set of routes to success, and work on them, then make sure school work stays reasonably within control in that framework, you can probably lead a life that’s both more successful and less stressful than otherwise.