Why can’t I top the class?

We are humans. We have interests. We have desires. At the prime of our health, we do not like to get caged in a room and study the cryptic text for long hours. Yet, we did our best. We attended the lectures. We put our best to understand the text. But, the exams returned a very average score. Our confidence is touching the nadir. Why is that we are unable to top the class? Let me pen down my perspectives as a student for you.

First of all, the number of hours you put into your studies is a poor metric to success. Instead, measure the amount of passion and discipline. Passion is the fuel which brings curiosity. Curiosity leads to the energy you need to be disciplined. Discipline provides you the first necessary quality to top the class. It stops you from getting distracted. It helps you develop and improve your focus. Few wise men claim discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments!

Discipline is like Kohli training every day for batting, or Bolt training regularly for a sprint. To be a topper, you need the second essential ingredient. You need “the technique”. This is where a coach becomes important. There is a way to study. Learning to program in C is not about taking a book and reading it for couple of hours. It requires a good collection of problems, a well-organized mind-map of concepts, planned and timed practice along with aptitude to find the logic. This is where the tactical elements such as note-taking, incremental problem solving and regular revision play an important role. These elements build a strong technique which helps you study faster, and deeper. Few people are naturally talented. They don’t need a technique to top. But, when your talent fails you, technique helps you. As they say in cricket, form is temporary, class is permanent. Build a solid technique. It never harms to be good in your approach to studies. Know how to study effectively. Develop good study habits.

If you mastered the technique, and also demonstrate incredible discipline, there is only one more aspect you should keep in mind. To me, this is the most important part. You must “enjoy” your work. As a world champion puts it, “Without an element of enjoyment, you cannot excel at anything”. Do not let the minor failures or set backs disappoint you. You win few minor battles and lose many. At the end, it is the war that you do not wish to lose. Exams are the smaller battles. They are not important. Being knowledgeable and skillful is what you should aim at.

To summarize, be disciplined, do it right and enjoy doing it. Success will follow. Someday, there must be something that only one person in this whole world would be able to do. And that person should be you. Go for it!

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Why do we fail?

An important bit of advice for success as a student.

When we read something new, it sits in some remote corner of our brain. We are very likely to forget it soon, perhaps even as soon as the very next day. If we encounter the same thing again, it could perhaps be recalled with ease. It stays there a little longer. Revisiting often enables our brain to recall much faster. Moreover, there is one more function of our brain that is important to understand. When we store multiple concepts, it makes connections among them. Over time, these connections become deep provided you revisit these ideas or concepts frequently. These connections develop the most desired quality in us which we call, *aptitude*. Most exams test our aptitude and not knowledge.

A common mistake we do is to over-estimate our command over our knowledge just because a concept sounded simple when we heard it first. Many concepts look simple at the first glance. Also, since it looks simple, and since time is always limited, we prioritize reading more new things than to stick to our revision strategy. We go the exam and only experience a total blackout!! This is why many of us fail.

So, my advice to you is to buy a nice notebook and start taking good quality notes. Keep multi-color pens with you. Be creative in taking your notes. Mark one hour every day only to read your notes. Make it a point to read all your notes everyday. Over a period of time, the notes will grow. But, so will your brain’s ability to retain and recall. After a while, when you do not need such large notes, make shorter version of the same notes. Read the shorter version every day. After few weeks, you will see your brain doing magic. It can now solve problems which the best students in your class struggle with.

Keep one important point in mind. You as an individual student have the same potential and qualities as any of your classmates. Know that it is not just Kohli’s muscle power, it is his technique that also counts. Learn the right techniques to study. You already have the necessary muscle power to do well in studies.

Excellence in studies is not a rare quality. It is just a conscious choice. Good luck!

Some Exam Tips

Exams are around the corner. Many of you must be burning the mid-night oil. The nights of group study that I did with my friends, are moments that turned into pleasant memories which remain treasured for life. As you approach your exams, here are some tips.

There are three qualities that go into meticulous preparation.

Firstly, it is your ability to organize the material in your head. Start with making a mind map of the syllabus. Gradually expand the mind map with details in a hierarchical fashion. Usually, what looks very simple at one level suddenly becomes vague at the next level of detail. This is what I call as “illusion of knowledge”. Kill the illusion of knowledge by continuously seeking examples. Look at several problems to apply your knowledge. Verify if your answer is correct.

Secondly, it is your tenacity to do that tiny bit more than your peers. Last minute preparation limits you. Yet, your age and energy gives you the necessary stamina to put long hours with strong focus. Someone told me, if there is one skill to teach, teach your kid the ability to focus. There is Afghanistan threatening India not on battlefield but on the cricket ground. Perhaps we won’t worry as much if it was battlefield. Anushka Sharma keeps coming in the news just to spoil our focus on exams. The distractions are too many. Learn to focus.

Finally, know that there is one part of your brain which takes care of abstract thinking. All of us can understand when concrete examples are thrown at us. Generalizing from concrete examples is an art by itself. Consider a complicated C program thrown at you. For a small input, you can trace and figure out the output. But, you need to now generalize your finding to a larger input by way of abstract thinking. You need to connect few theoretical dots to get there. This requires special training which only aptitude problems (see RS Agarwal’s book) and continuous practice can give you. At the end of the day, all you need to know is how to handle 6 pieces (Rook, Knight, Bishop, King, Queen and Pawn) to beat Viswanathan Anand in Chess. You know, knowledge is not enough. Same is true with any exam. Do not settle for surface knowledge. It is that one inch deeper that you choose to dive which will find you the beautiful pearl of knowledge on the exam floor.

All said and done, cracking exams is a fairly easy art. It takes very few attempts at exams to know the tricks. Hence, we all know that exams are not fool-proof and grades are to be taken with caution. So, do not give too much importance to the result. Just enjoy the learning experience. Execute with as much perfection as you can. Have fun. Good luck with your exams.

I’m planning to prepare for GATE. I’m doing full time job Mon to Friday 8am to 8pm. Any tip and advise you would like to give me. I’ve attended gate forum coaching earlier during my engineering but didn’t prepare and do well in my first attempt. I have all resources for studying. This time I’m planning to do just self study.

This is a common question many people ask.

Exam preparation is different from studying for knowledge. So, first of all, you should get the clarity on what is it that you want. Are you looking to enhance your knowledge and acquire new skills? Or, do you want to invest your time in getting a good GATE score? From the context of your question, I believe your objective is to do the latter.

Exam preparation requires you to acquire aptitude. Aptitude comes by investing time in thinking and practice. So, my first advice would be to value depth instead of breadth. Take few topics which are easy to score and do your best to solve as many problems as you can. You should be confident that if a question comes from this topic, you will certainly score it. Do not run behind covering syllabus.

My second advice would be to be conscious about the illusion of knowledge. Often, it seems that we understood a concept. Understanding a concept and solving a problem related to that concept are at different levels of aptitude. So, do not stop if you think you understood. Spend time in quality thinking and problem solving. One way to evaluate whether you have the aptitude is to solve past year problems on your own. So, mark few problems for testing and few problems for training.

My third and most important bit of advice is to hone your ability to recall. This sounds trivial. But, many people will agree that they knew it but had a black out during the exam. Their brain just could not recall anything. One way to do this is to practice recall. To be specific, everyday, spend 30 minutes recalling what you did before. Some call it revision. Do not look at the notes. Try to recall page by page what you wrote before. Recall the ideas. Recall some interesting problems.

CS is a vast subject. Too many topics and too many ideas to master. You may not get enough time to rock. Do not feel pressurized. Give importance to your job. If there is further time left, hopefully these tips will help you. Remember, if you are not having fun, you are not doing it the right way. This applies to learning and preparing for GATE too. Cheers and good luck!

CS or IT – Is there a difference?

This is a question that almost every CS or IT engineer gets at some time. He shrugs off quickly saying, why bother.

India has seen a boom in IT (not CS) jobs in the past 20 years. I still remember my BE 3rd year days (1999) when I was in the CSE stream and was very confident and happy because I was sure my stream would attract the best employment. In those days, IT was a rare. CS grads were hired for applied jobs like programming, systems, networking and so on. Hardly, any of my friends moved on to work on theoretical computer science. We never used automata to model anything. We never did model checking in our life. We never used formal languages. Designing new programming languages or improving the algorithms behind a data base system were things that we considered beyond our reach or imagination. Even though we called ourselves CS engineers, we were only applying our CS knowledge to practical use by building software. We were not extending the “science” behind computer science. Over a period of time, people saw that it is inappropriate to call what we do as CS. So, they started this branch “IT”. With so much jobs, they even found a need to establish new “Indian Institutes” for “Information Technology”. That led to the present day IIITs. The idea was to provide the same quality of education as IITs in every state focused on IT jobs.

So, in essence, if you are not so much interested in the science behind CS, IT is the best stream for you. Entry level jobs in the IT and ITES industries (software development) would not distinguish between CS and IT. Taking IT will infact be more appropriate for these jobs because it will cut down few theoretical subjects from your list which they argue that you will never need to know.

If you choose to turn to research, you will now find yourself at a slight disadvantage especially if you become allergic to theoretical computer science. So, if you have MS or PhD aspirations, think again. It does not preclose your opportunities. You just need to work much harder to enter few streams. That said, research in Information Security, Information Retrieval, and such fields are open for IT engineers.

At the end of the day, I have learned that, the way to survive in this complicated world is to be very neatly organized. You need to simplify every step in your life. BE (CS), MS (CS), PhD (CS) sounds much simpler compared to BE (IT) MS (CS) PhD (Mathematics). Believe, such people, exist too! So, choose a specialization based on your ability to marry it for life. Do not keep a plan B to change it. My profile looks like BE (CSE), MS (IT) and PhD (CSE). My PhD is in Information Retrieval. But, it is just that there are not many institutions giving PhD in IT. Also, my work is becoming more and more theoretical. So, I do not mind.

Sorry for a long answer again. But, in essence, it matters only if you are a Math lover (and also allergic to programming) and you are interested in theoretical side of computer science. If that is the case, go for CS. If not, IT is fine.

Am just not able to focus. What to do?

How many times have we experienced the “aaj mann ni lag raha h” (oh no, am not into it, today) feeling!? Well, I know I have to do it. But, somehow, the mind is not into it. We end up either wasting time forcing ourselves to do it where our productivity falls due to lack of concentration. Or, we just do something else. When I know I must do it, and I think that I am interested, why can’t I still concentrate on what I need to do?

The answer to this interesting question lies in the essence of execution. Your goal is clear. You have a plan. But, you are unable to execute. How to execute well? What do natural executors do?

I maintained an excel sheet where I used to put the topic and number of hours completed. I used to tell myself that my progress depends on the number of hours I see in that xls. If 100 hours is the goal, whenever I touch 25, I used to be very happy. I celebrated by sharing on social media and with my friends. I get to 50, I again share. This does two things: 1) It pushes me to achieve it because I like the feeling when I share it. 2) It brings a fear of shame that if I do not finish, what will my friends think of me. This worked like a charm. I consistently finished the planned hours. I never cheated. But, this may not work for everyone. It depends on your nature.

Another technique that usually works is to convert the goal of “studying DLD” to the task of “writing notes for DLD” task. This task shows progress. At least, you can see the number of filled pages increasing. When there is a sense of progress, our brain is more motivated to do the task. Just reading pages after pages, or solving problem after problem, we get bored. This is because, there is no way to visibly feel the progress, especially when you do not have the big picture.

If these principles based on pride, fear of shame, and sense of progress fail, you may try transcendental approach. This approach makes a commitment to almighty or your mother that, if you do not complete this, let that girl whom I love be married to someone else. Now, at any cost, I want to finish this because, I don’t want to leave that girl to chance. What if, just in case, God really exists and what if the loss of that girl was due to my breach of promise.

At the end, this post will be incomplete if I don’t tell you one important thing. Do not force yourself too much. Sometimes, your mind know what is right for you. If nothing works, just relax, take your time to find something that works for you. As they say it, “Successful people maintain a positive focus in life no matter what is going on around them”. Good luck.

How to write a good resume/CV?

I am back yet again with something which I believe is key to our success. Resume is different from CV. Yet, for this write-up, I am going to use the terms, resume and CV, in an interchangeable manner. If you are a fresher with not much industry experience, prefer to call it a CV.  If you are severely confused, name your document the way your recruiter wants it. I will not discuss the differences here. They are irrelevant and unimportant for CSE students.

In this busy world, the time to make decisions is shrinking. Recruitment decisions are time bound as well. In this context, your resume becomes a very important tool in making your first impression. Your resume is also circulated to your interviewer. Hence, it is important that you put some effort in designing your resume/CV.

Most of us use MS Word to write our resume. MS Word is a great tool. But, an even better tool is LaTeX. Create an account on sharelatex.com or overleaf.com. Go to templates. Look at some resume templates. Pick the one you like and modify it with your details. This is the simplest and most effective way of writing your resume. Some recruiters may accept only .doc format in which case, you must use MS Word. Nowadays, I do not maintain a .doc file at all. You can check my CV at vvtesh.co.in for a sample created through these sites. For more jazzy templates you may google.

When you use a template such as that in overleaf, you cannot go wrong with formatting. If you are using word, take care of alignment, uniformity of font, placement and length of lines. Some people have the bad habit of writing everything in small-case, and not leaving a space after period. Do not make grammatical errors. Get your resume reviewed by someone.

I do not include personal details such as Date of Birth, Religion, Marital Status, Language Spoken etc. These have become irrelevant to present day jobs. Write your resume keeping your employer in mind. Put only those details that he needs to know. This is not a testimony for your hard work. You don’t have to show off to anyone how many languages you know (for a typical IT job or a PhD admission).

A common confusion among freshers is that they run out of content. The ask, “How do I even fill two pages?”. A fresher is assessed based on his objective, education, certifications, skills, projects, performance in competitive exams, achievements, and any such relevant details. Ensure all these are there in your resume.  If it is still hard to fill, do not bother. One-page resume is just fine. Adding your small-size photo is welcome too. Resume is a live document. You should update it at least once every six months. It is a good way to check if you are doing something meaningful. Anything that goes to your resume is considered meaningful 😊.

When in doubt, just blindly follow a common template. Google for a student with similar background as you from places like MIT, Stanford or Berkeley. Usually, they have their resume reviewed by professional agencies. Just follow their template.

If these pointers helped, please leave a comment. Your long comments make my day. Thanks!