Also written by Nini Benny
“A second chance at putting my career (to represent India as an IFS officer) on track…” is how 20-year-old Shayema, a resident of Batla House, New Delhi, sees her 100th percentile score in the recently conducted Common University Entrance Test (CUET) for undergraduate programmes.
She scored 83.8% in her Class 12 board exam. It’s a score that, going by traditional cut-offs, would have kept her out of what she wants to study — History in a top Delhi University college. Now, as she says, she has a second chance and an almost sure shot.
Shayema’s case is a textbook example for what CUET was designed for: to flatten the university application playing field across boards and regions and Class XII marks. At the very top of the pyramid, however, there are only a few like Shayema.
On September 16, the National Testing Agency (NTA) announced names of 114 CUET toppers who scored 100th percentile scores in at least four or more papers. The Indian Express interviewed 103 of the 114 toppers and identified two telling patterns:
🔴 Most of the toppers are mainly CBSE students and most of them had scored above 95% in their Class 12 exams.
In fact, 100 of the 103 toppers are students of CBSE-affiliated schools. Two had taken the Indian School Certificate (ISC) exam in Class 12 and only one wasn’t a student of a national board. None was a student of a state board. Incidentally, over three quarters of the total 14.9 lakh CUET examinees are from CBSE schools, followed by Uttar Pradesh Board, Bihar Board and CISCE.
🔴 Of the 103 toppers The Indian Express spoke to, only 16 had scored less than 95% marks in their Board exam and only one (Shayema) had less than 90%, which would have made their admission to a top Central university like DU a challenge in the cut-off system.
🔴 A majority of the toppers, 62 of 103, are from New Delhi and the National Capital Region. The share of toppers from the southern states is negligible. While Kerala had three candidates among the top 100th percentile achievers and one from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, states like Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Karnataka or even Maharashtra and Goa had none.
Significantly, Tamil Nadu had opposed CUET on the ground that it would put state board students at a disadvantage. The state’s argument was that the entrance test is based on NCERT syllabus which would give CBSE students an edge. As the CUET was announced, the Tamil Nadu assembly had even adopted a resolution urging the Central Government to drop the proposal of CUET, stating that it would not give an equal opportunity to students who have studied in various state boards syllabi across the country.
Among the toppers, Shayema is an exception – the only one amongst the 103 hundredth percentile scorers who belongs to a local board and has yet managed to make the CUET work in her favour.
“I can understand the objections of the state board students because the entrance test is based on the NCERT syllabus so there is a natural advantage to the CBSE students. Luckily for me, though I belong to the Jamia Millia Islamia’s school board, the pattern they follow is CBSE and we studied NCERT books,” said Shayema.
Shayema was born in Darbhanga, Bihar, from where she went to Kuwait as a toddler when her father found a job. After three years, her family moved to Dubai where she studied in an ICSE school for six years before returning to India in 2017, when she was in Class 8. The constant changes of schooling and her health took a toll and she dropped out of school for a year before enrolling in a school in Darbhanga the next year.
Shayema, who lives in Batla House, New Delhi, with her younger sibling, is an UPSC aspirant. “My father works in a private company in the administrative department and my mother is a housewife. They have dreamt of a bright future for us, that’s why they are allowing us to stay away from home and study. I want to be an IFS officer and represent my country to the world. I want to show girls from my community can do well too,” she said.
“But at the same time, I will say this, had it not been for CUET, I would not have stood a chance to study at the top institutions in Delhi University because my Class 12 scores was only 83.80 percent. CUET gave me a second chance to correct my mistakes,” she said.
Most students with relatively low Class XII scores but at the top in CUET echoed her views.
“Because of my low marks in Hindi, I had a low overall percentage and my dream college is Hindu. If there was no CUET, then I would have never been able to make it to Hindu College. Because of CUET I got a second chance to improve and help myself. Now, I have a high chance of making it there. I wish to pursue History at either St. Stephen’s College or Hindu College,” said Adarsh Kumar Dubey (18), a student of National High School, Kolkata. He scored 92.4% in his CBSE Board exam.
Pooja Jain, 19, a student of Loreto House in Kolkata, who scored 97.6% in Class 12 is one of the two ISC students among the 103 CUET toppers who scored 100th percentile in four subjects.
“Was CUET helpful? Yes, because my Class XII percentage was not enough to get admission into SRCC, Delhi University. But I also know some friends who scored 99% in boards but did not do so well in CUET, so they missed their place in top colleges,” she said.