More than 2 lakh people sit for the CAT entrance exam annually, of which a mere 400 make it through the doors of IIM Ahmedabad (IIM A)- just 0.2%. These 400 students possess skills in all sorts of arts, sports and corporate work-experiences; one plays the flute, the second is a golfer while the third has already worked in two companies before joining this program. However, what is common in all of them is their excellent record in academics. Throughout their educational life, they have been in the top percentiles of their respective institutions; the talk among the neighbourhood kids, the ideal candidates for representing their schools in olympiads and quizzes, and definitely a constant bragging point for their parents.
After 15 years of growing up in this environment, these students are in all likelihood to see themselves as academically superior to others. This feeling develops and eventually forms an integral part of their self-identity. It gives them pride and satisfaction. Anything likely to challenge this seems threatening to them. So, what happens to these meritorious students when they are made to compete with their very kind? What is it like to no longer be the smartest student in the room? How are sentences that justify their relatively lower marks in class constructed in their heads? How do they adjust to this newfound mediocrity?
As a new academic experience begins, all students in the batch are apprehensive of saying something that may sound unintelligent; they always have their guards up but are still finding ways to outshine their peers and impress teachers. Each student wants to be seen as the smartest one, as a potential topper in both the class and the recruiters. But unlike school where anyone who scores above 80 gets a distinction, at IIM-A, with a relative grading system, the grades of an individual are solely decided based on how the others in the class have performed. So in an exam, if all students have scored more than 80, then the student with 81 will be graded C- and the topper, with say, 90 will be graded an A+. In absolute terms, it is easy to convince both others and ourselves that the absolute margin isn’t much, but comparing the grades is simply a mood killer. We can talk about the pros and cons of relative grading but that is not the point of this piece. We need to understand that in such a system one needs to constantly outperform others and not just cross a threshold to stay at the top. This creates a direct comparison between students segregating the mediocre from the toppers.
I would say that all IIM-A students at some point have felt mediocre among their peers. With prowess in different sub-disciplines, most students have struggled with one or the other discipline. Even with prodigies excelling in all disciplines- there is this realisation of the ‘Lottery of Birth’ (a lot of what one achieves is solely due to the family one was born in). So, when they compare themselves with students who have had vernacular school education or students who have come from places so small that even electricity and good roads are privileges, or students who may have faced discrimination based on their religious and ethnic backgrounds, or even their gender and sexual orientation; these toppers realise that they too are mediocre in a lot of ways. So how does this ubiquitous self-realisation of mediocrity make them feel? In my sense, most students use a combination of these thoughts-
- I still score well in X and Y disciplines and I happen to plan my career in them as well. So, I am good.
- I am involved in so many more clubs, sports and other activities than most people who score more than me, and so I am good
- With subjectivity in grading certain disciplines; I think I am just unlucky. Also, I am here only for the learning and placements, which I feel are going fine. So, I am good
- These x-z people are definitely smarter than me but I know that I am definitely smarter than those a-p others. Since I think I am still in the upper half of the class; I am good.
Lastly, one more thought that runs common among most students is- “Despite my average performance in class, I am still better than all those who have settled for other B-Schools.” However true or false this ending may be, the point is sooner or later, everyone accepts their mediocrity in their own way. I am sure this realisation persists long after their MBAs and makes them more accommodating and humbler towards others.