What's it like giving one of the toughest competitive exams in a pandemic? JEE, NEET aspirants speak up

Updated: 06 September, 2020 08:11 IST | Jane Borges, Pallavi Smart | Mumbai

JEE Main and NEET aspirants, who've waited nearly five months to give the exam, are glad their academic career is getting a head-start. But the stress of appearing for a paper in the pandemic is a challenge of another kind

A JEE aspirant wearing a face-shield arrives at a centre in Noida to appear for the JEE Main this week. Strict Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) have been implemented at all centres, including providing candidates with masks and gloves, compulsory sanitising of hands and wearing of gloves by invigilators, and maintaining a gap between two seats. Pics/ Getty Images
A JEE aspirant wearing a face-shield arrives at a centre in Noida to appear for the JEE Main this week. Strict Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) have been implemented at all centres, including providing candidates with masks and gloves, compulsory sanitising of hands and wearing of gloves by invigilators, and maintaining a gap between two seats. Pics/ Getty Images

"I just wanted to get it over with," says Devika A, who appeared for the Join Entrance Examination (JEE) Main architecture exam in Thiruvananthapuram this week. Having taken a gap year in 2019, the 19-year-old spent a significant part of this year and the last, preparing for the national entrance test in the hope of securing admission to one of the IITs. She was gearing up for her second attempt at the JEE Main, when the pandemic gained strength. Originally scheduled for April 2019, the exam was postponed to June and later shifted to July, before the September dates were announced.

The day that Devika appeared for the exam, India had already recorded the world's highest single-day spike in COVID-19 cases. "This was probably not the best time to write the JEE. Hundreds of students from across Kerala would be thronging at the centre to appear for the paper. I knew it was a huge risk," she admits. "But I was worried that I'd lose another year, and honestly, I was drained after all those months of studying."

Devika's sentiments were echoed by several others who participated in a recent nationwide survey conducted by Local Circles, a community social media platform. Of the 10,600 respondents from across 244 districts, 63 per cent felt that the exams should be held in September as planned. Only 31 per cent wanted them to be postponed to December or later. Not everyone, though, is happy with the Centre's decision to go ahead with JEE Main and the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), exams conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA), for students planning to pursue engineering, architecture and medicine.

A student walks past a notice board inside the examination centre at Vivek Vihar in Delhi on September 2
A student walks past a notice board inside the examination centre at Vivek Vihar in Delhi on September 2

On Friday, a Supreme Court bench rejected another plea by six opposition-ruled states, including Maharashtra, seeking a review of its August 17 order allowing the holding of NEET, scheduled on September 13, physically. While the review petition also included JEE, the exam is already underway and will continue till Sunday. The ministers of these states had argued that the top court order failed to secure students' "right to life" and ignored "teething logistical difficulties" to be faced in conducting the exams during the pandemic. Meanwhile, SC advocate Alakh Alok Srivastava filed a fresh petition on Friday, seeking postponement of NEET. The petition is likely to be listed for hearing on Monday. "If the states that are supposed to be taking responsibility [for smooth functioning of the exams] have declared that they cannot conduct the examination, it shows that they are not prepared and this cannot be ignored. Moreover, it is important to note that as opposed to JEE, which has multiple days testing window, NEET is a single day examination, which means there could be over-crowding," he said.

Approximately 27 lakh students are set to appear for both the examinations this year. However, the turnout for JEE Main saw a slight dip across the country, especially on day 1 of the exam. The NTA attributed the dip in attendance to delay in tests, and completion of other state entrance examinations, following which seats were allotted to several students. However, the overriding concern for many parents and students has been the high risk of contracting the virus.

While strict Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) were implemented at the JEE Main centres, which included providing masks, gloves, hand sanitisers, disinfectant sprays, frisking of all students with a handheld metal detector (without touching the body), compulsory wearing of gloves by invigilators and maintaining a gap between two seats, students feel it might not be enough.

Nineteen-year-old Zainab Saifuddin Saylawala from Virar, who is preparing for NEET, has had a restless one week. Her friends who sat for the JEE Main came back with stories about flouting of SOPs. "I even saw videos of overcrowding at the centres," says Saylawala. Her concerns are no different from advocate Srivastava's. "While JEE Main is being conducted in a phased manner over a period of one week, we have been allotted a single day for NEET. Even if 350 students come for the exam, each of them will bring at least one parent along, that means 700 people inside or near the centre. I think it's very unfair on us students."

Saylawala is also worried about travelling on the day of the paper. She has been allotted a centre in Kurla, which is 90 km from home. While she is still considering whether to take the local train or hire a private vehicle, what has added to her stress is the early reporting time. "NEET will begin at 2 pm, but students are expected to report at 11 am. That means I will have to leave home by 7.30 am."

A protester from the Youth Congress is detained by the Kolkata police during a demonstration in Kolkata against the government’s decision to organise competitive exams
A protester from the Youth Congress is detained by the Kolkata police during a demonstration in Kolkata against the government’s decision to organise competitive exams

Aman Singh, a NEET candidate from Begusarai, who took to social media to raise concern over scheduling of the competitive examination during the pandemic, says his exam centre is in Patna, 140 km from home. "Since my reporting time is 11 am, I have to go to Patna a day before and stay in a hotel or lodge. How safe and hygienic would it be? After all this, I have to go back home, where my mother is recovering from a chronic disease."

Devi Binoy, 18, who appeared for the Kerala Engineering Architecture Medical (KEAM) exam on July 16, suspects she gave her mother the infection. Her mother, a non-COVID-19 doctor, tested positive exactly 10 days later. "She had not been in contact with any COVID-19 case as she is a heart patient. So, it's likely that she contracted it at home, or maybe even from me. What if I was asymptomatic? The KEAM centre was packed and we all were asked to keep our bags in a small hall. Though we wore masks and thermal scanning was done, all social distancing protocols were thrown out of the window as soon as we got out of the examination hall," says Binoy, who appeared for JEE Main this week.

Most students are, however, relieved that the exams are taking place. Rushil Motwani, a JEE Main candidate, said that the examination is already "tough and competitive". "COVID-19 was only adding to my stress. It's good that is over. The wait was too long."

Tanvi Aklekar, who is attempting the NEET exam for the second time, has been practising at home with her mask on
Tanvi Aklekar, who is attempting the NEET exam for the second time, has been practising at home with her mask on

Tanvi Aklekar, who is attempting NEET for the second time around, said that she would prefer if the examination is not delayed again. "There is no clarity as to how many times we will have to go out or whether the admissions process will be online or offline. I feel stuck, while my batchmates [from last year] are in degree college already, and are attending lectures online."

Several coaching institutes have come up with novel initiatives to help students cope with the pressure.

IITians PACE, for instance, held an online session on spirituality with spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. "We hold many programmes to help children handle stress. However, this year the wait was long and there was a lot uncertainty around the exams, too," shared Praveen Tyagi, managing director of the coaching institute that prepares students for JEE. "The focus of the session was to keep the students' spirits up. They learnt how meditation can help with this."

Harsha Gupta, NEET aspirant, says she has been doing yoga to keep herself mentally fit
Harsha Gupta, NEET aspirant, says she has been doing yoga to keep herself mentally fit

Harsha Gupta, 17, who is a resident of Kanjurmarg, and is appearing for NEET this year, says that yoga and meditation have helped her in more ways than one. Gupta, who is an international kickboxing player, and has represented her college for karate at the national level, says, "Physical and mental fitness is most important right now. No matter what precautions I take, I can catch the virus. The only thing that can save me is my immunity."

Mohit Sardana, director, FIITJEE
Mohit Sardana, director, FIITJEE

At FIITJEE, another sought after coaching institute for engineering admissions, teachers doubled up as counsellors. WhatsApp groups were formed with a maximum of six candidates mentored by one teacher. "Stress builds up when you have questions unanswered. Creating smaller groups was our attempt at giving personal attention to each student," said Mohit Sardana, director of the institute.

Akasah Chaudhary, director and CEO, Akash Educational Services Limited
Akash Chaudhary, director and CEO, Akash Educational Services Limited

Aakash Chaudhry, director and CEO, Aakash Educational Services Limited, which prepares students for NEET and JEE, conducted regular online classes like other institutes. "It has been a harrowing time not only for students, but also for parents, who were seeing their kids work hard 24/7. It was challenging for us, too, The [pandemic] was a surprise. We had to redesign and recreate something that the students had not experienced before, in order to keep their momentum going. We conducted mock tests for them online. For NEET, which is an offline exam, we had to figure a way to get material delivered to them, and also have their answer-sheets couriered back for correction. But fatigue would set in now and then. Some of them would tell us, that they've had enough. That's when we'd get on a call with them, or rope in their parents. We gave them a few days of break too, where we didn't test them at all. This kept their anxiety levels in check," said Chaudhry.

Aryan Vora, a JEE candidate from FIITJEE, said that he was advised to wear a mask at home, while appearing for mock tests, so that it would not be a spot of bother, while appearing for the final exam. "That was part of the practice. I am not stressed about getting the infection. I was just exhausted by the delay. Before the lockdown, I was preparing with full force, but I slowed down my pace eventually, to ensure that I didn't experience a burnout."

NSUI Mumbai members protesting at University of Mumbai, Kalina
NSUI Mumbai members protesting at University of Mumbai, Kalina

The National Students' Union of India (NSUI), the student arm of the Indian National Congress, which is among the many student-led organisations protesting the holding of the examinations, said they will continue to extend support to the students. The organisation led a hunger-strike in August, demanding postponement of JEE and NEET. Even Rahul Gandhi extended his support. He recently took a jibe at Prime Minister Narendra Modi who had spoken about making India a 'toy hub' during the programme Mann Ki Baat. He said that JEE-NEET aspirants wanted the PM to do "pariksha pe charcha" and not "khilone pe charcha".

Prince Jain, district vice-president and social media coordinator of NSUI Mumbai
Prince Jain, district vice-president and social media coordinator of NSUI Mumbai

Prince Jain, district vice-president and social media coordinator of NSUI Mumbai, said that they've launched helpline services across India, since JEE began. "This is not so much about politics, as much as it's about the welfare and safety of our students. When the exams were postponed, we had about a few thousand cases daily. Today, we have an average of 80,000 a day, and the government has decided to hold the exams. Is there logic to this?" asks Jain. "Students have been reaching out for all kinds of help [on our helpline]. Some of them in remote parts of Maharashtra don't have transport, and we've been making arrangements where possible. We have also been distributing gloves and sanitisers to parents and students at the exam centres. Apart from this, we've held live counselling sessions on Instagram, after requests came in from them. The exams are important. But life comes first."

Tools to cope with exam stress

Naina Shahri, counselling psychologist and team lead, Mumbai, The Alternative Story
Naina Shahri, counselling psychologist and team lead, Mumbai, The Alternative Story

Don’t feel guilty: Many students are feeling overwhelmed and guilty for not being able to focus well enough on subjects. It is only natural to feel frustrated, angry or sad because they have been preparing for this exam for two or more years and now, the circumstances might keep them from performing the way they had liked to. Anxiety is a natural response of our brain and body when one feels that they are in danger. There is a risk of contracting the virus and transmitting it to family members/flatmates. Hence, feeling anxious is normal. Remember that it’s not a reflection of your abilities.

Take care of your needs: Sleep and appetite can be the first to be affected in such a situation. Many students might not get sleep or feel like eating. If one is not able to sleep for long hours continuously or eat a full meal, it is important to try to eat in small portions or take frequent breaks/naps.

Reach out for support: Talk to a supportive friend or someone who you trust about what you’re going through; it helps feel that you’re not alone in this struggle. Support can also be asking someone to help you out with doing something that can help reduce the work that you have to do. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or vulnerable, reach out to a helpline or therapist so that the person supporting is equipped with techniques that might be helpful.

Take time out for yourself: Taking frequent and timed breaks can help in regulating anxiety. These could be five minutes every two hours. In these breaks you can engage in small things that are soothing. It could be sitting aside and not doing anything, listening to your favourite songs, doodling or doing a relaxing meditation/exercise.

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First Published: 06 September, 2020 08:10 IST

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