Undergraduate institution selection (aka, why I joined CMI)

A historical version of this document is available as a LaTeX and PDF.

I selected the Chennai Mathematical Institute (CMI) in Chennai, India, to pursue my undergraduate studies in mathematics and computer science. This was not the only option available to me: I got through the written test for the Indian Statistical Institute, Bangalore (and was invited for the interview), and I cleared the Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Examination with an All India Rank of 158. This page describes my reasons for joining CMI, and the steps that led up to that decision. I appreciate the feedback and efforts of all the people who led me to my current decision. There are separate pages on my undergraduate experience.

This page is an adaptation, with some edits, of the PDF linked at the top. The PDF was intended as a standalone document and hence provided more details regarding my background and schooling experience. For the web version, I’ve moved those details to other pages, so that this one can focus more narrowly on the aspects most directly pertinent to undergraduate institution selection.

I finished high school in March 2004 and started my undergraduate studies at CMI in August 2004. The decision process is concentrated from 2002 to 2004.

Warning: Since the time I joined CMI, there have been considerable changes to the landscape of undergraduate education in India. Hence, many of the considerations I listed at the time do not necessarily apply now, or may point in a different direction than they did when I was deciding. I strongly urge you to read the questions and answers at the Quora topic on Chennai Mathematical Institute to get a more comprehensive picture.

Initial shortlists of places (early 2002, as I was rising from 10th standard to 11th standard)

Keen to pursue study and research in mathematics, I sought inputs on good places for pursuing the subject from as many sources as possible. Most sources pointed to two names — the B.Sc. (Hons) program at Chennai Mathematical Institute (CMI) and the B.Mat. program at Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Bangalore.

  1. Professor Shiva Shankar, who had been a batchmate of my mother in the B.Tech. programme at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, shifted from his job at the Indian Institute of Technology, Powai, to CMI. Through him, my mother learned about CMI and also that it had recently started an undergraduate program.
  2. Professor Rajeeva L. Karandikar, then at ISI, Bangalore (and now the director of CMI), identified CMI and the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Bangalore, as the two top places for undergraduate mathematics in India.
  3. As topper of a privately organized competition called the National Science Olympiad, I was invited to a dinner with the Minister for Science and Technology. There, one of the Secretaries, Dr. Ramamurthy, also said that the two best places for pursuing mathematics in India are CMI and ISI Bangalore.

While I don’t have a record at the time regarding what these people said about the Indian Institutes of Technology as a place to pursue mathematics, my vague recollection is that most of them considered it inferior to CMI and ISI Bangalore. In my mind, the decision was largely between CMI and ISI Bangalore. I did prepare for the IIT Joint Entrance Examination, largely for two reasons:

  • I wasn’t well calibrated at the time regarding how easy or difficult it would be to get into CMI and ISI Bangalore, and the IITs seemed like a decent option with a much larger student intake and a clearer, more standardized admission process.
  • The IITs were also a more stable option. I was still investigating CMI and ISI Bangalore and didn’t know if they would seem so good a couple of years down the line.

IMO Training Camp (May-June 2003)

As part of my tryst with Olympiads, I attended the International Mathematical Olympiad Training Camp (IMOTC) in May-June 2003 at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE). There, I interacted with many students interested in pursuing mathematics, as well as Olympiad coordinators who had seen many students from past years go on to study mathematics. The coordinators, Dr. C. R. Pranesachar and Dr. B. J. Venkatachala, strongly recommended Chennai Mathematical Institute and Indian Statistical Institute, Bangalore. They cited past students with Olympiad background who had joined both the places.

In the 2003 International Mathematical Olympiad, one of my teammates from India was Swarnendu Datta. This was Swarnendu’s fourth time at the IMO, and he was well-known for his deep passion and interest in mathematics. Swarnendu had initially planned to join Indian Statistical Institute, Bangalore. However, at the International
Olympiad in Informatics Training Camp (IOITC), faculty members from CMI such as Madhavan Mukund and K. Narayan Kumar (who are the main organizers of the IOITC) convinced Swarnendu to join CMI. Swarnendu promised to write to me after some time with input on how CMI is as a place.

In September, I got email from Swarnendu telling me that CMI was a good place to join because of the great academic freedom enjoyed by students and the helpfulness of the faculty. Till that time, I did not have any inside sources about ISI, Bangalore.

Early 2004

By the end of 2003, I was still undecided on whether to join CMI or ISI, Bangalore. The main factor in ISI Bangalore’s favour was that ISI was a better established place at the time with a full campus and hostel, whereas CMI was still operating from ten rooms in an office complex in T. Nagar with rented accommodation arranged for students. Further, CMI was not a deemed university and its degrees were granted by Madhya Pradesh (Bhoj) Open University. (Both these issues were fixed before I graduated: CMI got a decently sized campus in the outskirts of Chennai, and became a UGC-accredited institution).

One of the main attractions of CMI at the time was that it seemed to be actively seeking students, unlike ISI Bangalore. This included policies of direct admission to students attending the International Mathematical Olympiad Training Camp as well as their attempts to get students into CMI during the IOITC. Another attraction was the greater
academic freedom that CMI offered its students.

As of February 2004, I was still undecided, so I applied both to CMI and ISI. Application to CMI was largely a formality, because my attending the IMOTC gave me direct admission. Application to ISI Bangalore was through a written test followed by an interview. I sat for the written test in mid-May, still unsure of where I would eventually land up.

2004 IMO Training Camp (and preceding months)

In April-May 2004, after having successfully completed my CBSE examinations, I started reading higher mathematics textbooks, particularly in algebra. I was getting fascinated with group theory and with the many variations to the concept of group.

My fascination with Euclidean geometry, which began with Olympiad preparation, had also grown stronger, and I had started getting glimpses of the ways in which this related to algebraic geometry and commutative algebra. I was curious to learn more about these areas.

During the 2004 IMO Training Camp, I talked to some visiting mathematics teachers, including a person from ISI Delhi and the late Professor C Musili (University of Hyderabad). They both recommended CMI as being more tuned to my areas of interest. They also said that with my proven mathematical background and an education from CMI, I had a very high chance of getting admitted for mathematics research to a top place in India such as Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

Final decision

Apart from the inputs I received regarding mathematics at CMI, another major factor that influenced me to join CMI was its strong computer science program. I had been interested in algorithms and coding, though I had not devoted too much time to these areas at high school. The strong mix of computer science courses at CMI convinced me that an education in CMI will give me a good foundation in both mathematics and computer science.

I had put all these factors together by the middle of June, 2004 and decided to join CMI. Accordingly, I sent CMI a confirmation of my admission. Although I qualified for the interview to ISI Bangalore, I decided not to attend the interview as I had already made up my mind on CMI.

Basic information