Summers are a major decision time for students completing class XII – what degree program to enroll in.  In making this decision, I feel that students and parents give almost exclusive importance to opportunities after graduation, without giving sufficient weight to aptitude and interest. In this note, I will focus on including the aptitude and interest in decision making. (Of course, in India, availability also has to be kept in mind, but that is something for which decision is often made through other means) Note: These are personal views in a personal blog – use any ideas in this at your own responsibility.

First about the career possibilities after graduation. While a decade or more ago indeed jobs were only in a few areas and so people chose Engineering or Medicine. But as Indian economy has expanded and has become more diversified, it is clear that opportunities are arising in a host of other areas. And this trend will continue leading to decent job opportunities for people who are good in their chosen area of study. While the number of jobs in some disciplines like CS/IT may be huge, but so is the number of students graduating with these degrees (approximately two-thirds of the engineers graduating in the country are from CS/IT/ECE streams).  In other words, in other areas if the jobs are fewer, the competition may also be lesser. So the main challenge is to do well in the chosen program of study – if one does well possibility of getting decent opportunities are likely to be good.

There are two key factors that decide how well a student does in a program/discipline of study – aptitude or ability, and interest. With these two dimensions, we get four categories in which students may belong with respect to a program/discipline:

  1. High aptitude, high interest
  2. Low aptitude, low interest
  3. Low aptitude, high interest
  4. High aptitude, low interest

Clearly the ideal situation is category 1 – a student should choose a program for which she has the ability/aptitude and in which she has interest. Then doing well (at least as best as the student is capable of) is much easier as the ability is there and the student is enjoying the subjects. Amir Khan in “3 Idiots” falls in this category – he has the ability and has the passion for engineering, and so he tops in the class. There are, of course, many other benefits here besides doing well – higher degree of satisfaction, more happiness, less stress, etc.

Equally clearly is the counterpart of this case (i.e. category 2) – students should avoid programs in which they neither have the ability/aptitude nor an interest. Outcome of enrolling in such a program can be disastrous at worst, average at best. Unfortunately, many students continue to fall in this category – e.g. students who do not have an interest in computers and do not have the ability for CS/IT, still chose it, perhaps because that is what people advise them or perhaps because this is the “hot” area.

The other two cases, however, are more complex and probably more common.  A student is in category 3 with respect to a program, when she likes the program/discipline and wants to pursue a career in that area, but is low in ability for it. E.g. a student wanting to pursue a career in writing/engineering/medicine/science, but  not having good abilities for them.  Pursuing such a program is likely to lead to moderate achievements only. But as the student is interested, she is likely to enjoy her profession and job in this area – something which many people, unfortunately, cannot say about their chosen job/profession. A student can safely chose a such a discipline, if she has some aptitude for it (extremely low aptitude can be very frustrating.)

Category 4 is also possible and interesting – the student has the ability for the program/discipline but is not interested in it. E.g., someone may have ability in Maths, but does not like doing Engineering or Maths. Here it is better to distinguish between interest and dislike. If a student dislikes the area, then even if there is ability, there is no point pursuing it. But if a student does not dislike it, and does not have a strong liking for something else, then a program in that discipline can be worth pursuing, as with time one can develop interest and reach closer to the ideal of category 1.

But how does one know whether one has the interest or aptitude. Assuming that the entrance exam/criteria that have been established for the program is well designed (a big assumption!), aptitude can be checked simply by taking the entrance test – if you do well in the entrance test, assume that aptitude is there.  Knowing whether one is interested in a discipline is often hard.  If a student proclaims interest in an area, first it is to be determined if the student genuinely interested in the subject or likes the idea of that subject. E.g. is a student genuinely interested in writing/computer science or just likes the idea of being a writer/working-in-software-industry. If it is only the latter, then the student needs to clearly identify his interests.

Often people fall in the category of “not having any strong interests” – i.e. there is no subject/area/ profession that excites them a lot. Perhaps our upbringing is to be blamed for this, perhaps this is the natural state of affairs – most of us just simply do not know what we really like. In this case, one way to proceed is to identify what one does not like – often we are clearer about what we don’t like, e.g. some people just don’t like Maths or Chemistry or History. If this is clear, then the student can avoid the corresponding programs or  disciplines. And of the remaining choices, perhaps chose the one where the aptitude is the maximum – good aptitude will help in performing well which can give more confidence and often can even generate interest with time, taking student closer to category 1.

As the note indicates, the underlying theme is that one should chose a program/discipline that will put him/her in category 1. If one cannot start in that category then get into the discipline that can take one towards this category with time.