As she stood on the front lawns of Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) in Delhi waiting for the first cut-off list to be announced, Mehak Lalla, a 16-year-old CBSE student from Allahabad, couldn’t help but feel excited. She could still remember the day the Class XII board results had been announced a month ago. She had scored 98.25 per cent in her best- of-four-subjects and her family couldn’t have been happier. They showered her with boxes of kaju barfi, bought her a new smartphone and took her out to the nearby El Chico café for roast chicken and chips. When she finally saw the cut-off for Commerce, she laughed, thinking the office secretary had goofed up on the figure. “I saw ‘100.75 per cent’ printed on the board for students who had not studied Economics in school, inclusive of a penalty. I was convinced it was a clerical error. A lot of other kids around me thought so as well,” she says, “When I realised it was the correct number, all I wanted to do was cry. I had spent a whole year of my life doing nothing but studying, and for what—to ultimately realise that I can never go to the college of my choice. I would have been better off partying every weekend like my friends.”
Dejected, Lalla decided to take a walk around Delhi University’s (DU) north campus. But as soon as she exited SRCC, she found herself ambushed by a group of people handing out pamphlets for career counselling. A few steps later, she was met by two girls who offered her a hostel room for seven nights, all meals included, a rickshaw service and special mentoring from an ex-DU student for Rs 20,000. All so she could ‘stay in comfort till the second cut-off list was announced’. “Everywhere I looked, there were people offering some kind of admission service, hostel package or therapy session,” she says, “There was even a group of students who were recruiting people to participate in a protest against the high cut-offs. It was so confusing and overwhelming. A part of me wanted to trust them; the other, just wanted to run.”
But the final straw was yet to come. Logging onto her Twitter account, Lalla posted her grievances using a hashtag that was trending: #DelhiUniversity. Within ten minutes, she received six private messages. “People started messaging me asking me if I wanted help in procuring a seat at a private university,” she says, “I received some spam on backdoor admissions at DU. But the most insulting one of all was a message hinting that the user could help me get a fake degree. I felt so angry, to have worked so hard and then be the target of online scams.” Lalla now says that she will opt for either Economics or English at St Stephen’s. “Do you think I care? My only goal is to get rich now. I am not concerned about what or where I study. I want to make money so that my children can go abroad for their undergraduate studies. I don’t want them to go through this unreasonable process in India.”
Rated as the country’s top university, DU gets an annual avalanche of applications: a record 350,000 this year for undergraduate studies. “The profile of DU attracts students from across the country, probably more than any other university in India,” says Vice-Chancellor Dinesh Singh. “We receive applications from Manipur to Kerala to Kashmir to Tamil Nadu. As we add new courses, activities and milestones to our repertoire, the application numbers just continue to increase.”
Getting admission to any of the University’s 79 affiliated colleges is a dream shared by millions. With three colleges announcing ‘100 per cent’ cut- offs for Computer Science and almost all requiring at least 95 per cent for the coveted streams of English, Economics and Science, that dream is fast fading for most, regardless of how well they perform in their board exams. This year has also seen the second cut-off list hold little hope for prospective students with only a 1 per cent decrease in marks for most courses. The decrease has been in the 3-4 per cent range in previous years. To an outsider, there seems no semblance of logic to the madness of these figures. “Deciding cut-offs is not an overnight process and it is never done with the intention of publicity for the college. We are aware of our impact on the lives of young teens; that we are deciding their future,” says PC Jain, former principal of SRCC, explaining the process. “The number is decided based on the board results for that particular year. If the results are extremely good, then cut-offs have to be high because we do not have unlimited seats to offer. For example, if 5,000 students score above 90 per cent, we have to decide a cut-off that will allow admission to only the 50 or 60 students we can admit to a single course. The cut-off math is done taking into account the number of applicants, board results and available seats. It is not some arbitrary number.”
Having worked for 42 years at SRCC, Jain says he has seen his share of cut-off drama. At the height of admission season, he adds, things can get “really heartbreaking, really fast”.
It is the nature and scale of DU’s admission season heartbreak that has spurred the growth of various services designed to help students recover. “February to July is the busiest season of the year for me. Frantic parents will call or barge into my office, begging for help because their child is in depression. I have seen students who have stopped eating, tried to commit suicide ten or eleven times, attempted to run away from home, locked themselves up in a room for days, or just stopped talking,” says Shikha Madan, a counsellor at The Career Centre in Kolkata. “Sometimes, the pressure is not external but internal. Students themselves have goals or an idea of what they want their life to be. Now imagine someone telling you that you will never be able to study or do what it is that you love. It’s pretty devastating, to say the least,” adds Madan.
So how do you help someone recover from admission heartbreak? Some do it by employing technology. “We launched an app this year to help make DU cut- offs more accessible to students, especially with regard to multiple colleges and courses. You can also check cut-offs based on the student category. This will help reduce the panic and stress caused by running around checking the figures at different colleges across Delhi,” says Satya Narayanan, founder of Career Launcher. The app is currently available only on Android devices.
Others offer personalised therapy and career mapping sessions to ‘recharge and rejuvenate tired minds’. Estimates suggest that there are over 500 different counselling services in Delhi. Ironically, these too come with their own set of cut- offs—with many asking for a best-of-four average of at least 70 per cent marks. One such package is offered by iMantra in Gurgaon, which clubs together two sessions of ‘aura cleansing’, one intense day of career planning and two self-help manuals for Rs 9,000. Career Services Maxx (CSMx) in Pune also offers such counselling services but with the added benefit of ‘entrepreneurial networking’ for Rs 18,500. “What we focus on is to give intelligent students a viable alternative. So you don’t get through Economics at DU, why not start your own company instead? It is an exciting dream to have,” says Mohit Konda, founder and director, CSMx. “As part of our package, we will introduce you to different start-up incubators, help you plan your pitch for investors, and work with you on your business plan. For an additional Rs 5,000, we can also help sort out your funding and financial affairs. Our experts all hold MBAs and have worked in various industries for five to ten years,” he adds. Asked about the success rate of the service, Konda replies, “We don’t believe in numbers, but we have never had a single complaint from any student, parent or teacher. We serve more as guides, mentors and friends who push ‘confused and depressed’ teenagers to sort out their life and not give up. It is this inspiration and motivation that helps them find new goals and dreams. Ultimately, everyone’s success is in their own hands.”
Of course, there are always those who come up with unique, often unheard of solutions. Didima has been running a makeshift masala Maggi and banta refreshment stall near the Vishwavidyala Metro Station in Delhi for the past three years. But she only sets up shop in the summer months—to cater to the hordes of admission seekers. “This year, the number of students was lower than the last. I see people unhappy and I offer them something to make them happy again,” she says. This ‘something’ is a special drink made of jamun, cinnamon, lemon and a “secret spice mix”. Priced at Rs 15 for a glass, this concoction will “make anyone happy again”, she swears. Not everyone agrees, and she only manages to sell 20-30 glasses of her ‘happy drink’ every week. “The Maggi and banta is for money. The drink is for my conscience. I don’t like to see people sad,” she says.
But whether you decide to opt for a Rs 15 drink or Rs 18,500 entrepreneurial networking service, experts say that it is best to just get on with your life. “Cut-offs have been soaring over the last few years. DU and individual colleges have their own counselling and help desks available for students who don’t make it to the college or course of their choice. I would advise students rely on official sources. There are always those who wish to exploit and feed off a bad situation,” says Valson Thampu, principal, St Stephen’s College.
For Meenakshi Gopinath, former principal of Lady Shri Ram College and founder of Women in Security Conflict Management and Peace, hope is always round the corner, no matter what the cut-off. “Life will never stop throwing challenges at you,” she says, “Admission season is an exhausting and demanding time for students. But one should not get easily depressed by media reports or confused by third party services. And remember that when one door closes, another door opens.”