Since my verbal aptitude scores were the main reason Mitsubishi Electric decided to hire me, I think it requires some detailed description. I considered quantitative skills to be my forte and my verbal skills to be a distant second but during high school I had excellent command over Hindi language (reading and grammar) too. My command over English was poor and I was content to be just good enough to pass the board and entrance exams like the JEE. At IITB, I didn’t consider the need to improve my English language proficiency until one day – I think it was during my third year when I was about 18 years -, I got hold of a sample GRE practice set from a classmate who was preparing to apply for US universities, and decided to test myself in the privacy of my hostel room. The experience was sobering – I scored in the first percentile in verbal section – obviously not the top but the bottom! I knew I was bad but such pathetic scores were beyond my imagination. Humbled, I decided to improve upon my English language skills. I worked on my vocabulary by practicing from those ubiquitous vocabulary builder books, and improved my reading comprehension by reading English novels and more importantly by reading books on improving reading comprehension. Those books were not easy to find and were expensive. The British Council library in Chennai was a great help in this regard. (And they kept their temperatures cool!) Within 7-8 years, I had scored 99% on the verbal section of GMAT exam. About that time, I managed to score a 98% on GRE verbal. I have heard of and met a few at the IIT who studied in prestigious English-medium private schools and thought in English rather than in their native languages, were expected to join IIM-A or Stanford later, and no one would have been surprised if they announced that they obtained 99% on GMAT verbal section. It was expected but me? Ha ha ha. Let me use this moment to state my thoughts on that 99% achievement.
Achieving 99% is a noteworthy milestone but it really is a low bar. Really! About 2000 GMAT test takers each year had a score in that range during that period. Over a period of say 25 years, we are dealing with 50,000. Ignoring standard error issues that will magnify this number, 50,000 is a pretty large number. Assume if somebody informed Virat Kohli that he is in the top 50,000 cricket players, do you think he will be pleased?
Certain segments of IIT made it into a hyper competitive place. Many of them repeated the test, not minding to pay over Rs 10,000 in current prices for the test fee. Given the uncertainties concerning the test taking process, small differences in test scores are considered equivalent by most schools, and it is pointless to repeat the test if someone already has high enough scores. But it was difficult to explain that to IITians.
But coming back to my verbal scores; I believe broken down by component scores, I would have probably scored A+ in reading comprehension, A- in vocabulary, B in grammar, and C+ in my writing skills. All of them merged to give me a 98 or 99% score. So you can see that I am not a fan of these scores. However, 99% has a halo effect. And I used it and put it down on my resume.
Over time, I have realized that beginning from childhood, a foreign language can be mastered by quite a few, starting from young adulthood at age 18, to scoring a 99% in it 7-8 years later is a feat not many can claim because foreign language learning becomes more and more difficult as one grows older. I don’t believe that many people can achieve what I was able to accomplish. Unfortunately, this caught the eye of Mitsubishi Electric.
During my second year at IIT, I took a course titled ‘Introduction to Ethics’ and it was taught by a professor from Oxford University, who was on a sabbatical at IITB. When the results of the first mid-term were declared, many were devastated to learn that he had assigned zeros to their effort. To add salt on their wounds, they came to know that I had scored a perfect 10. Many came to me, asking for a look at my paper, and left looking confused. I too was unable to understand why I managed a perfect score. I attributed that to idiosyncratic nature of geniuses like the Oxford professor.
In 2013, about 20 of my batch mates from Hostel 7 had a reunion. I chanced upon a batch mate K., who had studied at a private English-medium school and had impeccable English skills (and yes he studied at IIMA).
He remarked, ‘Kamal, you were judged on your content in that paper and obviously not the language.’
Oh, thanks! That happened about 40 years ago and he remembered that incident that I had nearly forgotten. I wanted to tell him about my 99% score but refrained.