The Tragic Toll of Competitive Exams

The extreme pressure on students to compete sometimes results in students taking extreme steps such as taking their lives.
Students Protesting Outside the Ministry of Education
Students Protesting Outside the Ministry of EducationSFI

New Delhi- The suicide of an 18-year-old student the day after results were declared for India's hyper-competitive National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET) has shone a spotlight on the mental toll this annual test takes on those who sit for it.

The woman's death was the 11th suicide linked to preparation for entrance examinations this year. In 2023, 26 aspirants at India's ‘cram schools' died by suicide.

There is an unfolding crisis among students who join these coaching centres to prepare for the NEET and IIT-JEE, crucial exams for students to gain entry into the country's top medical and engineering institutions.

This year, nearly 24 lakh (2.4 million) students competed for just 110,000 available seats in the NEET exam and more than 14 lakh (1.4 million) students in both the sessions of JEE Mains, underscoring the intense pressure and fierce competition faced by candidates.

Kota, in Rajasthan, where the deaths took place, is the ‘cram school capital'. The dynamics of the Kota coaching industry have even been made into a popular Netflix series, Kota Factory.

Every year, approximately 200,000 students flock to Kota to prepare for IIT-JEE, a national-level two-part Joint Entrance Examination for engineering, and NEET, a pre-medical entrance examination. 

Extreme Pressure

The pressure to prepare for these engineering institutes and medical colleges has intensified with an increasing number of hopefuls. The wide gap in the number of aspirants and the seats available leads to examination anxiety and high levels of competition among students.

The exam format is also tough, and different from mainstream school exams. School examinations are subjective whereas JEE and NEET exams are objective (multiple choice questions), and include negative marking. 

The preparation and mindset needed to appear in competitive exams, where the rate of failure is very high, are very different from that of school examinations.

In most cases, students simultaneously prepare for competitive exams while still enrolled at school. This adds to the pressure on the students, who are already preparing for their Board examinations to complete their higher secondary education.

Private coaching is a form of supplementary education that is taken alongside mainstream education commonly known as shadow education.

 This phenomenon is not only peculiar to India. The number of cases of student depression and even suicides in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan related to schooling problems provides a stark reminder of the impact of extreme pressure on young minds.

Some students take coaching classes willingly and others under family and social pressure. Aspirants use private coaching to increase the chances of success.

Huge Gap in Standards

There also exists a massive gap in the quality of education imparted across the elite and high-quality and non-elite mediocre or low-quality institutions. 

Elite institutions confer on the students an identifiable social advantage, which translates into social prestige, better job opportunities and high pay packages in the future. However, entry to these top-quality institutions is highly competitive.

The chances of success for most students are slim.

It is contingent on the ability of the students, as reflected in the marks obtained in the school board examination. Based on this, many parents decide to invest in coaching — approximately Rs 3-4 lakh (approx USD$4000) in tuition fees and living expenses — despite knowing the chances of success are low.

The expectations of both students and their parents are crucial to this process. 

Parental Pressure

This author's (unpublished) research found that these expectations are informed by various factors such as the ability of the students, household budget, psychological factors such as family pressure, and socio-economic-cultural attributes such as parents' occupation and education, decision-making to take coaching by family members and scholarships offered by the coaching institutes.

The private coaching industry has economic, social and educational implications. 

First, the costly nature of coaching both in terms of money and time spent: a minimum of two years, often while in high school and sometimes after completion of higher secondary education. 

The social implications include increasing mental pressure on students due to the hyper-competitive nature of the exams and family pressure to succeed. 

The educational implications are that students skip school to start preparing early for the exams or take dummy admission in schools while being registered in the coaching institutes.

The extreme pressure on students to compete sometimes results in students taking extreme steps such as taking their lives. 

To address this, guidelines have been issued by the central government and the state government. The Ministry of Education provided guidelines for the regulation of coaching centers in January 2024. The Rajasthan government also issued guidelines for reducing stress and improving the mental health of students enrolled in coaching Institutes in September 2023.

India's National Education Policy 2020 has identified that "coaching culture" is causing harm, especially at the secondary level, and suggested the elimination of the need for coaching for "cracking the examination".

How to ease the burden on students

There are several measures that could reduce the burden on students who enrol in Kota's coaching centres.

Counselling for students and parents so they understand the exam format of the exam would help. False expectations on part of the parents often cause stress among the students.

Students could also be awarded grades rather than ranks during the internal test in the coaching. Relative ranking in the internal tests which are conducted fortnightly causes a lot of stress among the students.

Finally, extensive ethnographic studies would provide a more detailed analysis of the coaching ecosystem. It is crucial to understand that the well-being and holistic development of our youth must take precedence over any examination.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you're concerned about someone you know, visit

-Dr. Nooria Rehman is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the School of Behavioral and Social Sciences, Manav Rachna International Institute of Research and Studies, Faridabad.

(Article sourced from 360info)

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