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I belong to a family of IITians

My parents met at IIT Kanpur. I went to IIT Bombay. My kid brother just graduated from IIT Madras. 

So we sit together and discuss how bad IIT Delhi and Kharagpur must be. 

Jokes aside, I think it’s a great privilege to have attended these institutions. Even a greater privilege is to have never seen them as the end-all in the world. 

For me, they simply were places where some wonderfully talented students got together. 

Getting through was never a joke. For a 15-year-old to sacrifice 2 years of his young life to have a better shot at a college seemed like too much to give up. Many batchmates who joined college with me had spent 4, maybe even 6 years to get in. 

The competition simply is too much. 

The older IITs, which are the 5 I mentioned, close at a rank of 5 or 6K. For an exam that has 1.6M kids appearing, that is a selection rate of 0.3%.

A rejection rate of 99.7%.

Everyone is aware of these odds when they sign up for the exam. But the rejection is still soul-crushing. It may seem crazy, but the RoI actually works out. 

95% of Indian households have a wealth of less than 10 lakhs. The average salary of an IITian in one year is equal to the entire household’s wealth. The exam gives families a shot to transform economics for a generation. 

It is an incredible machine that is a ticket to upward social mobility. 

Many people find this obsession crazy and even toxic. Crazy obsessions tend to always become toxic. But I think these institutions will only become more vaunted as we grow.

The IITs are luxury goods in the field of education. 

The most powerful characteristic of a luxury good is the signal. By quietly displaying your ownership or possession of that good, you send a strong signal. That you’re wealthy, hard-working, smart and/or talented. 

That signal helps you open doors that may have been closed for someone so young.

This is true for other top tier colleges in India as well. I will focus just on the IITs because of the extreme behaviour surrounding them. Just like the IITs are signals, the aspirations of people who make it to IITs are also signals. 

Signals of what the ambitious Indian middle class aspires to possess. 

Just look at the interviews of JEE toppers through the years to get a very good barometer of middle-class inspirations. Civil services evolved into MBAs which evolved into big tech jobs and is evolving again.

This year’s JEE AIR 1 Mridul “wants to pursue Computer Science Engineering from IIT Bombay and start his own start-up once he graduates”

A path in life that was once taboo, or something you did if you “didn’t get a job” when I was graduating, is now the golden ticket. It fills me with the hope that future graduates will start companies, creating jobs instead of joining one. 

Entrepreneurial engines make countries. 

But this isn’t about entrepreneurship, it’s an observation on this weird, misunderstood beast called the IIT. My journey as a writer in public started with writing about my experiences at IIT Bombay.

My issue was that the 0.3% rarely spoke, ceding space to the 99.7% to create a narrative.

IITians are labelled aliens, nerds, special, successful, smart, bookworms, privileged. With every stereotype, there is some truth. But the most accurate representation is a reasonably smart, disciplined kid with extremely supportive and ambitious parents.

That combination is rare. 

Some of these parent-child teams make it to the finish line but are simply exhausted by the time they reach there. The child ends up at an IIT but loses the energy to do more. I saw a lot of my batchmates simply unmotivated to do anything. 

That taught me that IIT was a platform for success, but not a guarantee for success. 

The anecdote of a failed IITian adds further to the mystery of the beast. How could an IITian fail? Aren’t they successful by default? Maybe the effort isn’t worth it. 

Maybe IITians are overrated. 

Anecdotes, like interviews of IIT toppers, are great to peek into emerging trends. Anecdotes, like failed IITians, are terrible to understand averages. 70% of Indian CEOs are IITians. 60% of unicorn founders are IITians. 

There are 20 million white-collar professionals in India, of which there may be 100,000 IITians. 0.5% of the white-collar population accounts for 70% of CEOs and 60% of unicorn founders. 

Statistically, that is significant overperformance.

This will of course change over time as the number of good colleges go up. But it more than explains why people obsess over this beast. It substantially increases the probability of success, according to societal constructs.

IITs are not the end-all. They clearly are not guarantors of success. But what they do is significantly increase the probability of success. My favourite description is that they are terrific safety nets that raise your bottom.

It’s upto you from there to get as close to the top.