Tips from IITians: How to prepare for IIT-JEE?

In this section, we present top answers from many IITians and their advice to the future students.

Amit Datta on Quora:

Now that I think of it, I feel that I should have made a note of all the things that I did or did not do during those two years. Too bad Evernote didn't exist back then.

Just to make things clear, I was at a residential school from standard 5 to 12, Ramakrishna Mission Vidyalaya, Narendrapur, which is one of the best in Kolkata. I spent the two very important years of my life at a residential school.  Staying and preparing from a hostel had its pros and cons. I was away from all the distractions at home and that definitely helped with the preparation. However, I could not take any private tuition classes because I wasn't allowed to leave the premises of my hostel for those. I took the FIITJEE correspondence material for my preparation.

The following are some of the things that helped with my preparation:

  1. Study with someone: This was probably the most important factor for me. And I'm not talking about gossip friends. I studied with people who had the same degree of motivation for clearing the exams. Studying with a companion instills healthy competition. The two people I studied with, both cleared JEE.
  2. Study Times: I read it somewhere that our brains work best at specific times during the day and that it depends on how you train your mind. I had two years to get my brain to work best from 9am-12noon and 1pm-4pm, which were the times during the day when the JEE would take place. How did I do this? Well, I exercised my brain the most during those times of the day. Solving problem sets all night wouldn't help me achieve that. So, I used to solve the hardest problems during the day, and read up materials, do other school-related work, etc. during the night. All the practice tests that I took were during the time the final exam would be held, which brings us to the next point.
  3. Mock tests: I enrolled for FIITJEE's AITS, and a bunch of us got special permission from the hostel authorities to be allowed to leave the premises to take the test. The warden was in fact so  supportive that he arranged for our travel to and from the test centers. I have heard a lot of people saying that "these mock tests are of no use" and that "they are far more difficult that the actual thing", etc. But, for me they were the most important tool in getting my brain used to handling the kind of pressure that the JEE examination exerts. Sitting in an examination hall for 6 hours, frustrated from not being able to solve problems is not an easy thing. And you dont want the JEE to be the first time you experience such a thing. Giving a multitude of such mock tests got me used to those experiences.
  4. Playing: Engaging in some sort of physical activity is essential. By playing, I in no way mean video-games. They are a strict no-no. But, its good to take part in some sport, or simply running. This gives your body the much needed 'F5'[Refresh]. It is evident that you would get extremely bored from only working, and playing a sport would give you a deserved break.
  5. No Distractions: A lot of students say they work better with music. Bullshit! Unless its manual labour, music does not help with your work. Its just an excuse most kids nowadays come up with because they are too bored studying. Your brain needs to completely assimilate every thing that your studying, and music just serves as noise to that data. Its like trying to thread a needle while watching a movie. You need your eye to be completely focussed on the needle.
  6. Focus: Never for a single moment think that IITs are not the place for you, that its too effing difficult. NEVER! The moment that idea crosses your mind, you're doomed. You are better off not giving the test at all. For the entire length of two years, you have believe that you WILL clear the JEE. That has to be your sole purpose for these two years. People around you will say all sorts of things like 'Live your life', 'There's more to life than clearing the JEE', but you need to turn a deaf ear to all that talk. You have to work your ass off. You can 'live your life' later. And believe me, life will be much better later.
Harsh Snehanshu, JEE 2007 on Quora

Background: In my school-days, I was a sincere student and didn't miss any of my classes. Besides school and tuitions, I didn't study for more than 2 hours a day. The rest of the time was spent in playing gully cricket (one-tip-one-hand), or completing each stage of NFS 2,3 and 5, FIFA, Recoil and Spiderman – all without cheat-codes. I also learnt little bit of guitar, flute and keyboards from those inept how-to books, and made sure I didn't miss any episode of Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin until Jassi had a complete makeover and lost her earlier ugly avatar that was similar to mine. At night, my bed would be littered with at least twenty books, none of them part of the course. Among them were countless biographies – of scientists, innovators, spiritualists and statesmen; Vivekanda's Complete Works; Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi (read its side-effect here); and illustrated editions of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and Universe in a Nutshell. Thankfully, I stumbled upon Five Point Someone only after giving JEE, otherwise I might not have qualified (read more here). I could afford such an easy-going lifestyle because I didn't go to any JEE factory (or coaching centres), and instead took private tuitions of Physics, Chemistry and Math from some of the renowned teachers in my hometown, Dhanbad.

No coaching centers,
no formulaic wisdom,
no rigorous routine,
no grand parental
investment –
to put pressure
on me to

no specially enforced
no family-member in
and neither of
the parents
with a science

All these things
are mere bullshit.
There was
no disadvantage
that I could find.
What is disadvantage?
Nothing, but
a state of mind.

Advantages: Being in Dhanbad – home to Indian School of Mines (ISM) that accepts students only through the JEE – I was exposed to what JEE was, what it meant quite early (grade 8th). My father was the branch manager of SBI at ISM and almost every year, during admissions, he'd call me to his office to meet the entrants with top ranks (~AIR 1500-3000) there. Those seventeen-year old moustached nerds shared their hackneyed secret mantra: hard-work is the key, 10 hours a day is bare minimum, and some with 65% in boards advised: focus on JEE, boards don't matter. These interactions built a larger-than-life hype around JEE, about how difficult it is to get into the IITs. Thankfully, my school DPS Dhanbad provided better role models to emulate. DPS had churned out AIR 23, 25, 57, 64 and so on in the past, and their names imbued the folklore. Some of them were quite a rockstar. Teachers recited their stories, school newsletters advertised their achievements. Our teachers would start encouraging students who were even moderately good in mathematics to target JEE. When I got 90/100 in class 8th, Prabhakar sir proclaimed: Harsh, you should prepare for the IITs. Sure, I thought. In class 9th (2003), I inherited all the preparatory-books from a senior, a family friend, who had cleared JEE with an AIR 3331 and gotten petroleum engineering at ISM. During the summer vacation, I started fiddling with them a little and to my surprise, found myself unravel with ease the dirty secrets of chemical bonding, progressions and series, mathematical induction, logarithms, higher level trigonometry, stoichiometry, electrostatics and ray-optics. It also geared me well for Olympiads, which I aced without special preparation. It sparked the requisite hunger and a sound base that would make science seem a cakewalk when I'd enter the grade 11th. Once Xth boards were over, the daily grind of tuitions and weekly fodder of stories of our star-seniors (on whom we even bet money when they took the JEE) fostered a burning ambition to reach the celestial place.

I think I was lucky to belong to an era that was pre-broadband. I can bet a thousand euros that if there were broadband at my home, I'd not have studied even for even those two hours (which is what happened at IIT), and would have flunked. Although there were cyber-cafes and I kept hearing strange words such as Hi5 and Orkut from my friends, I saw them with contempt. They were wasting 20 rupees an hour on flirting with some girl from Delhi with the profile picture of Kareena Kapoor. Internet, so I believed, should be used for constructive purposes such as thanking our beloved president Dr. Kalam for his book Wings of Fire, which had inspired me so much that in the winter, I took my parents and Dadi to Rameshwaram to see his house, the photograph of which adorned the centrefold of his book. Dr. Kalam did reply to my mail, wishing me the best in life. Those were the days! Inspiration was aplenty.

Anyway, let's not digress further but you get the drift from this meandering background of mine, don't you? In four words: I stayed inspired throughout. Let's now dig into some unconventionalthe  strategies that helped me reach IIT.

If I were to distil the strategies that I, knowingly or unknowingly, employed that significantly brought me closer to my JEE dream, the list will comprise of the following five things:

1. Daily Revision: I know revision reeks of boredom, especially when done alone. So, here is what I did:

Whatever I learnt in tuitions, or whichever problem I'd get stuck in, I'd go to school the next day and ask my bright friends – especially medical aspirants – since they didn't attend the same tuition. If they couldn't solve the question that I had asked, I would explain the solution to them in detail – hence, permanently etching the solution in my memory. If they did manage to solve, it'd trigger a competitive inferiority complex in me – they knew(or could solve) something that I didn't – and once again, I couldn't forget the question and its solution. This process went on for two years, day in and day out. A month before the JEE, when I cursorily looked at those tough questions, I was pleased to find that I remembered the solutions to them all. I, hence, saved a lot of time while brushing up my concepts and was unrealistically calm before and during the exam.

2. Laziness: Yes! Being the perpetually lazy person that I was (and still am), I devised ways to save myself from roasting my ass. Most of my friends raced with each other to have a tick-mark against each and every question of their R.D.Sharma or K.C.Sinha mathematics book, or H.C.Verma's Concepts of Physics. The questions in these books increase in difficulty as one goes forward and out of a hundred odd questions, there would be ten really challenging ones in the end. So after reading through the chapter, I'd just go on the last page and try to solve the ten or twelve questions from the end. If I could solve those, it meant my concept was clear and I could easily solve the earlier ones (that both those books and I knew I was never going to do).

This laziness would make me feel guilty then, but now, I am proud to have discovered what pop-culture calls smart-work (over hard-work).

WARNING: Beware of this laziness, since it also pulled my AIR down as I didn't indulge in anything that didn't interest me for long. For JEE, I knew my strong points were Calculus, Mechanics, some bits of Algebra, Organic and Inorganic, and Electromagnetics where I knew I could solve any goddamn question in this world. I left things that I didn't like, topics that required too much of thinking for me, such as probability, permutation and combination, parts of coordinate geometry, wave optics, electrochemistry. It was not that I abandoned them altogether, but I didn't care to clear my concepts completely. I could manage to solve only around 40% of JEE questions in these topics with my half-baked knowledge.

3.  Enrolling in the tuition that my crush attended:

For this, you have to read this story: Crush: A High School Story by Harsh Snehanshu. I'm pasting it here.

I had been a very demanding student during my school days when I was preparing for the JEE. When it came to coaching, I was very particular about the teacher having all his concepts clear so that he’d never get stuck in any numerical whatsoever. It used to be a big turn off if the teacher wasn't able to solve my doubts, and I would leave them right away, without even giving them a warning.

There wasn't a culture of the assembly lines of coaching centers in my hometown during those days. There were individual teachers for individual subjects - Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics. I'd found  really good teachers for Maths and Physics but there was a dearth of a good teacher that I could find for Chemistry. I took chemistry classes from three teachers, but to no benefit, as none of them had the requisite fluency I was looking for. During those days, a new teacher Chauhan Sir had started Chemistry classes and a lot of students were joining him. Disappointed by all the other Chemistry tutors, I went to attend Chauhan sir's class one day. Before the class, upon getting to know my name, he said, 'Acha, you are Harsh. Ishita takes your name a lot.'

Ishita was a new student in our school, having joined in the 11th grade. We had never interacted before, though our roll numbers were adjacent and we were partners in Chemistry lab. I had a feeble crush on another classmate in school at that time, but when Chauhan sir mentioned Ishita’s name, my previous crush was whitewashed in an ever growing infatuation for this new girl Ishita, who apparently took my name a lot. I attended each and every class of Chauhan sir thereon, even though he was much worse than every other teacher that I had encountered before, just to catch that one glimpse of the ponytail of Ishita, who sat on the front row designated for girls. Being the wimp that I was, we never talked in class. I nevertheless kept a close watch on her. Whenever I saw her talking to Chauhan sir, I imagined that it was about me. I became Chauhan sir's most regular student and made sure I outperformed everyone else in his class, topping each of his tests, just to maintain my good impression on Ishita. Though my disappointment with Chauhan sir's limited capability made sure that I scouted for other teachers around, finally finding a tutor who was scholarly, but it didn't make me leave Chauhan Chemistry Center ever.

Two years later, when I was in IIT, Ishita, my great crush, added me on Facebook. Having lost my wimpy self, I chatted for a while and quizzed her about what she used to talk about me to Chauhan sir, anticipating that she would shy away now that she was caught. She rebuked me saying that I was cooking tales up, like my hobby, and she had never been interested in me. I persisted but later on, perceiving her outright disinterest, gave up even though my crush on her didn't. Few months later, I met a few of my school friends during my India travel. While we were sharing tales from our school, one of them related to me that he used to attend Chauhan sir's classes just because of Ishita, his crush. His crush? On further interrogation, he said that Chauhan sir had told him the first day he joined his tuitions that Ishita would take his name a lot.

I don't know who should I ask my money spent on tuition back from – Chauhan sir or my crushed crush Ishita?

4. I read NCERT books (even Maths!) like a novel, cover to cover:

After plodding through over 400 textbooks that landed at my doorstep from some gracious seniors who had either qualified or given up on the JEE preparation, I took respite in the NCERT books for the theory. They were concise, well-written and had snippets of historical trivias tucked in between the text that kept me excited. For example, it was in the NCERT Math textbook that I learnt about the genius of Carl Friedrich Gauss (here) as a child. It was in one of those blue boxes (that nobody read) of NCERT Physics where I found out that De Broglie had initially intended a career in humanities, and received his first degree in history. Afterwards, though, he turned his attention toward mathematics and physics and received a degree in physics – and less than a decade later, theorised his Nobel-winning wavelength. NCERT filled me with awe with such valuable nuggets. I didn't stop at Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics. I liked the touch and feel of NCERT books so much that on the very first day of each year, I'd glide through each and every story in the NCERT English textbook. It introduced me to the best of both worlds – Heisenberg, Schodinger and Newton on one side; Oscar Wilde, Satyajit Ray and O. Henry on the other. It's this penchant for reading stories, trapped in the unfrequented pages that one's eyes often miss, that would eventually turn me into a storyteller.

P.S. Being well-acquainted with NCERT books also ensured my securing a good percentage (92.4%) in the XIIth board. And thanks to my crush, I had missed none of the days in school. Just saying.

5. Not Having a Mobile Phone: In the year 2006, Reliance had launched RIM (Reliance India Mobile) for Rs. 500 and suddenly, almost everybody had a mobile phone. Remember RWorld? From the prettiest one in all-girls Mt. Carmel – famous for delicate diction and short skirts, to my cute crush in class, each one had one. Their phone numbers floated in the school air like fragrant farts. I was tempted, but I knew I was a wimp, and even with a phone, I would not go beyond giving a few stalkerly blank calls (for entertainment, read this true story: Caller ID: A Middle School Story by Harsh Snehanshu).

Call me old-fashioned or a hardcore geek, when my parents decided to buy a RIM for me – as I was mostly outside, in tuitions half the time, I asked them for the 500 rupees and bought Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Norman Lewis' Word Power Made Easy, and ate ten yum anda-pakoras near Police Lines.