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To those who didn’t make it

Every year, amid an assault of hieroglyphic acronyms, a new set of airbrushed headshots beams from panaflex standees at its future dominion.

With each cohort to pass the CSS-examination emerge many who abandoned the most fertile pastures, choosing instead to follow the faint wisps of warmth back to the rolling tumbleweeds of the homeland.

We are, surely, much the richer for their sacrifice.

It is slightly jarring, then, when in the same breath, the conversation shifts from such lofty ideals to the mundane minutiae of how many ‘topics’ to ‘cover’; how many hours a day to study; and of course ‘tips’ on how to ‘pass’ the notoriously nebulous English essay.

As a former student of a ‘feeder’ university of sorts, I have, over the years, seen many familiar faces on these banners. If this confessed bias is no disqualifier, I am happy to vouch for each of them.

But at the same time, there is no anecdotal paucity of ferociously hardworking, intelligent, thoughtful, articulate people (often with the ivy-league-oxbridge-variety paper-validation to back it) who fail to make it.

Oddly, the most common diagnosis is the language they were instructed in, from Pre-K to their PhDs: English. Candidates who once worried about being more fluent in their colonizer’s language than their own – faced with marks that barely break double digits – learn that they understand neither. There’s an added sting of indignation to being told this by the administrators of an examination that is, itself, riddled with grammatical errors.

The English essay, of course, comes with an entire set of commandments. Thou shalt make immaculate outlines. Thou shalt highlight your headings. Thou shalt only use quotations by the most uncontroversial figures to have uttered anything worth reproducing. (That there are, now, divergent schools of thought on matters of such tedium speaks volumes.)

But it isn’t just English. Part of the calculus that ‘aspirants’ must engage in involves evaluating whether theirs are ‘easy-scoring’ subjects, or not. Physicists and political scientists, alike, find themselves converging on similar choices – in the common understanding that the link between expertise and success is pretty tenuous. There is also the additional (statistically evident) game of Russian roulette that comes with trying not to pick the subject that, in any given year, will see its average score plummet.

But, alright – success in other assessments does not guarantee success in others – even if the lists of those to have failed to clear the exam includes a Rhodes Scholar (on account of the English essay, no less).

Fortunately, we need not stop here.

The nature of the exam allows successful candidates to serve as their own control group, should they agree. Since even successful candidates have no idea whether they’re going to get the ‘group’ they want, many end up taking the exam a second time – just to be sure. Aberrations abound, most conspicuous of which are multiple cases of top candidates completely bombing the next attempt.

These are just not things that happen in ordinary examinations – no matter how selective.

If all of this seems too anecdotal, consider the system. Tens of thousands of papers are given to single examiners to ensure consistency in checking. Run some back-of-the-napkin math on what it would take for an examiner with another full-time job to check tens of thousands of exam papers in a few months.

The result, frequently, is an entire chain of delegation, where unqualified examiners are handed fat stacks of papers to mark little to no guidance or motivation. (To graze, once more, the anecdotal, I have been privy to part of this process.) And with no uniformity in grading, one can hardly expect uniformity in the result.

This is not to say that those who pass are simply lucky. It is to say that that far too many who didn’t were, likely, not.

Being part of neither camp, I hope the audience might look beyond the finger, itself, to where it points. (Though, for what it’s worth, if I were to take the exam, I would seek comfort in the knowledge that even failure would land me in distinguished company.)

There are, of course, other things that one might point at. For instance, what, exactly are we attempting to learn about a candidate when we ask them to first tell us how many pins are in the serial port of a printer and to then, “Describe the dignity and superiority of Islam with proof as compared to other religions”?

These are old problems, accepted as part of an imperfect means to a more noble end. But there is hope, still, in new faces.

So, if you made it, this year, that noble end has now begun. And if you didn’t, may others, now use their voices to speak up for you.

Salaar Khan, "To those who didn’t make it," The News. 2020-06-20.
Keywords: Education , Political scientists , Uncontroversial figures , Hieroglyphic acronyms , Grammatical errors , English essays , CSS examination