With students leaving school with higher scores, colleges are forced to raise their cut-offs.

Cut-offs is an ominous-sounding word that seems to imply rejection. In practice, however, it is a numbers game that determines the college and branch of the UG course you will be taking up.

Collegesintamilnadu.com has a system to follow the vagaries of cut-off scores in different engineering disciplines. On its home page, I keyed in a random aggregate mark/rank, chose Aeronautical Engineering, clicked on a category and punched “search”. Bingo, a list of 64 colleges in Tamil Nadu appeared, with the top 199 going down to 78.75. The topmost one led me to a colourful world of cut-off statistics and charts, the analysis spanning six years from 2007 to 2012. “Your cut-off mark – not your “whole marks” in Class XII – is considered for counselling,” says Kin India, presenting a cut-off mark calculator. “You key in marks in maths/physics/chemistry (MPC) and your cut-off score is displayed.” Also on offer are cut-offs for Medical Counselling and for most reputed colleges.

Cut-off is the system of matching seats with the pattern of marks obtained,” says Jayanthy Srivathsan, Educational Consultant. For admission to engineering colleges, a single-window system — a single criterion — is used to decide how students are admitted to a particular college.

Once Class XII-Board marks are out, colleges look at the pattern of scoring and fix a threshold that would help them accommodate the highest scores into the available number of seats. Colleges also look at the previous year's results and do a back-of-the-envelope calculation to find what scores were accommodated in the previous year and how that percentile/range would work out for the current year's scoring pattern. Core subjects like MPC are given greater weightage for engineering admissions. “Colleges find this a fair application process and a method to maintain academic standard by recruiting high scorers,” she says. Cut-offs help students to set realistic seat options, but possibly in a programme of their choice, she adds.

Tie-breaking

“We basically consider MPC marks of XII Board exams for admission to engineering courses,” said V. Rhymend Uthariaraj of Anna University, explaining how it works. If a Tamil Nadu State board student gets 200/200 in Maths, 190/200 in Physics, 190/200 in Chemistry, his cut-off is the sum of half of Maths marks, one-fourth of Physics, one-fourth of Chemistry.

Is it not possible that 200–300 students have the same cut-off marks? In that case, “we consider the maths marks. The one who got the highest in maths goes to the top.”

If that does not break the tie, physics marks are considered; then comes the fourth optional subject. Tie again?

The tie-breaker would be the date of birth. The eldest will move to the top. In the odd event of the date of birth being the same, random numbers are chosen. Last year, out of 1.80 lakh students 16 random numbers were used.

Changes

The previous year's cut-off marks will help students roughly estimate the branch and college they are likely to get, based on that year’s student branch/college preferences, he said.

But that is a rough estimate because the branch/college preferences of students tend to change year-to-year.

“During counselling we put up the vacancy position in colleges,” he said. “You will find it on the website. It changes eight times, after every session. You can check this from home. Do not go by what strangers tell you on admission procedures,” is his advice.

Anna University professors are at hand to take you through procedures every step of the way. There is good news, he added. Every one who has applied will get a seat according to merit. “You will get the best course, best college according to your marks. Learn about the colleges you wish to join, find out details. Bring a chart for ready reference. Counselling will go off smoothly and will be fruitful.”

Another cut-off scoresheet awaited anxiously should come from JEE. Newspapers report that IIT aspirants who have entered the final round of the JEE-exam with over 78.2% in class XII CBSE board examination this year stand a chance of being selected to the prestigious institutes.

Grade inflation

In June 2011, Shri Ram College of Commerce stunned the nation by declaring the cut-offs as 100% to be eligible to apply for a spot in its B.Com (Honours) course. Educators point out that cut-offs for students (in the general category) for the best colleges have been creeping upwards steadily, it's inevitable that the 100 per cent number would eventually appear on a list at one of the most sought-after schools. (By contrast, you only needed a score of 65 per cent to apply for a degree in Home Science at one of the university’s all-women colleges.) Colleges skim off top students, and come out with revised cut-off lists with lower score requirements if they have places left.

This “extra-ordinary” situation was brought on by “grade inflation” in school exams, said University administrators. Also more kids are leaving school with higher test scores, causing colleges to raise their cut-offs. In the worsening supply–demand situation, students rush to the few “first-grade” institutions. The “youth boom” (121 million in the age-group of 15–19) has increased competition. More students, schools and scores are getting closer to “perfect”. Valson Thampu, Principal, St. Stephen’s College, suggested that a Delhi University administration order which required its colleges to admit everyone above the cut-off score could have triggered it. “What if you have a cut-off of 97 per cent and 500 turn up?” he asked.

The NEET case

What happens with NEET, an exam held for admission to MBBS and BDS? 2013 is supposed to be a good year for students who want to don the stethoscope. The Medical Council of India has approved an additional 285 seats in three TN-state-run medical colleges which is bound to bring down the cut-offs by 0.5-1.25 marks.

Cut-offs may ensure a smooth admission process, but “there are students who are not quite there, and end up feeling disappointed,” pointed out Jayanthy. Students come from a variety of boards, each with their own unique scoring system. In some, high scores are common, in others, application and building capabilities are given higher importance. The dynamics of these boards are typically not factored into the admissions process. A common entrance exam must be designed to test the general aptitude and language skills of students from both rural and urban areas for a fair system of admissions.

“Most students choose colleges and courses based on what they hear or apply along with their friends to similar programmes/colleges,” said Jayanthy. “Instead, they should leverage help available on the Internet and from experts and make informed choices based on their strengths and weaknesses.”