My first (real) national level exam was SOF-Olympiads from 3rd grade. My mother prepared me for those and took them with good spirits and enthusiasm. I can say that these were the ones which helped me realize the whole realm of competitive exams. I scored some decent rank in NCO in 4th grade (iirc) and got Rs. 5000 cheque. Getting this award was a major incentive that, yes, academics are awarded too. (seriously, academics has been downplayed by the media and government so much. I am kind of uncomfortable with the fact that people who get gold medals in sports earn eternal fame while gold medals in Olympiads doesn’t have any consequence for the public at all. We have a similar team representing India, we also encounter several challenges on our journey through the multiple stages, colloquially,’filtration’ stages so that the best of minds represent our country on a platform as big as the Olympics. But, still the disparity in recognition is huge). Then, in 5th grade, I secured international rank 2 in NSO and was felicitated with an iPad. This widened my horizon and provided me the push to register for every exam possible. helped me a lot in finding different exams which I could register in. (I am not sure if it has maintained the good/quality information it gave me in the early days).

I recollect there was a state scholarship exam on the 5th or 6th and I got a decent score on it. Then, I registered for ANTHE in 7th and earned a complete scholarship for 8th grade with a rank of 14 iirc, but I took the DLP program because Aakash was far away and my mother didn’t like the idea of sending me on a 1.5 hour bus journey to and fro Aakash. I took RMO too but didn’t qualify with a score of less than 10. In 8th grade too, I took ANTHE with a rank 12 iirc, and got 100% scholarship again for 9th and 10th grade.

I joined the Aakash classroom weekends program in 9th, and it was indeed a life-changing phase for me. However, it is never a simple and sudden good/bad change. In the initial months, I went to classes on weekends like ‘normal,’ and I liked the style of teaching, especially the level of concepts taught, a lot because the only style of teaching I knew was from my school which might not be ‘fun/advanced enough’ for some. One day, I was informed about NSEJS from one of my teachers. It is the first stage of the International Junior Science Olympiads, the only internationally reputed science olympiad designed for junior secondary students. It has syllabus comprising of 11th and 12th grade topics and I was a little boy having no idea beyond the syllabus of 9th. It was a long shot as only 300 students were selected for the next stage, INJSO, and some of the most brilliant minds from all over India will be participating in it. I had an ardent desire to just qualify the first stage, and, henceforth the toiling started. I became familiar with my foundation teachers and started going regularly to Aakash for taking extra classes. I used to go on weekends for the normal foundational classes and on weekdays for extra classes of 11th and 12th topics relevant to NSEJS. My schedule was jam-packed with returning to school by 2:30, running and taking the bus till 3, reaching Aakash by 4-4:30 (depending on my luck with connecting buses), then asking the required teacher to teach the planned topic, then self-studying or solving some questions marked by them and returning back home by 8pm to sometimes 9 pm. About 2-3 months before the exam, I read (and completed) Aakash modules of biology of 11th and 12th during the lengthy travel and waiting time on connecting bus stops. Aakash faculty, of foundations at my branch, were really helpful (Kudos to Vijay sir and Kuldeep sir) and devoted extra time, not from their weekdays lectures, but the additional ‘free’ time to teach me concepts way beyond the level of 9th. I was given targets/modules of 11th and 12th from the Aakash library to read on my own. This can be regarded as the days when I had put so much ‘stress’ on me as I didn’t have much experience with studying higher concepts, long travels in bus alone, and staying away from home more than 12 hours everyday. However, I was not alone in this challenge and one of the best things was some of my classmates and my 10th class friends also joined for most classes of NSEJS and we had similar bus routes which kept me motivated to strive hard after my goals. I also used to play mobile games (like Bombsquad, mini militia, etc.) with them in some leisure days. For other exams, my ranks improved by 1-2 orders of magnitude with SOF-Olympiads as a standard. Finally, I qualified NSEJS with an All India Rank of 17 (didn’t expect it to be so good at all :)). Another exam which took significant time from my preparation was Technothlon which is a logic-based exam and I participated in it with team mates, while coming to Aakash to practice together. It might have helped a lot in developing my problem-solving skills but who knows. Another cool exam is the Homi Bhabha Balvaidnyanik Competition, which is Maharashtra-specific. However, it has a practical part, which is quite unique. Also, I took but didn’t qualify for RMO with a score of less than 20. My ANTHE rank in 9th grade was 27, an unexpected depreciation. Soon, INJSO arrived and I got 42.5 (cutoff was 42) and qualified for OCSC. There was also IAOSP (INO equivalent for IAO camp) on the same day, and I qualified to attend the camp by a significant margin. However, I chose to attend JSO OCSC as it was a one time opportunity for me to represent India in IJSO, while IOAA was still an option in 10th, 11th, and 12th. So, I went ahead with preparing for JSO OCSC. This was the place where I couldn’t receive much support from Aakash and, even though the teachers at the local level tried their best, I needed someone who has taught or who experienced OCSC. I went for (fully-funded) ‘camps’ in other institutes in Kota and studied, for about a fortnight, in the same batch with other students qualified for JSO OCSC. (In Tom Scott’s voice) I am not saying that it didn’t help at all, but, somehow, I didn’t like the style of teaching, neither the cut-throat competition. It is my personal opinion of my personal experience, but it is what it is. The OCSC was one of the best experiences in those years and I made so many friends who I regularly saw in the next years and am still connected with many of them as ‘best’ friends. On the other hand, I am still maudlin about it because I didn’t make it to the team by 0.79%. However, in retrospect, I am here now, because I wasn’t there then.

In 10th grade, the regularity with which I went to Aakash advanced classes declined, mostly due to the disappointment of OCSC. After some months, I put myself together for the next phases of life while attending the weekends classes. Also, my father told me to focus much on boards as they are ‘important.’ I went on weekdays, not regularly, to Aakash for preparation of NTSE-stage 1 and to attempt mock tests related to it. I also prepared for NSEP, NSEC and NSEA on my own and didn’t qualify any of them. RMO also didn’t go so well for me. I qualified NTSE stage I by less than 0.3 marks iirc. The good things that happened with me were, I qualified the scholarship exams (like ANTHE) of the 4 major institutes with some awesome ranks (2, 10, 11 all over India and 1st in Pune) and good prizes. I finally chose to stick with Aakash in the end, because the experience (and the results) with other institutes weren’t what I expected. This was, probably, not a ‘rational’ decision and a more ‘emotional’ one. It was quite common, over the next 2 years, for my co-passenger in flight to say to me in a condescending tone, “You joined Aakash; for engineering!?” The best answer I could give now is have a look at the results. So, this was my way of working towards my goals, with a burning desire to go beyond what I am right now. Remember, success isn’t a destination, but a journey, the roads to which are put together piece by piece,with determination and work. And, as I write, I live through those days of my life :)