Admission to IITs is extremely difficult. Only the top 2 percent of the applicants are admitted and to get into a decent department, about half a percent is a reasonable corresponding figure. Here I will explore whether IITs are the hardest school to get into and later I will check if high selectivity results in higher quality. "Hard" facts will be supplied when they become available.
Having results of a single entrance examination determine whether one would be accepted or not is a common feature among the educational institutions in East Asian countries. I worked in Japan for six years and therefore being somewhat familiar with them will compare Japanese figures with that of IITs. All figures ae based on certain assumptions.
While it might not make the CBS news, Tokyo University, or Todai, an abbreviated form of Tokyo Daigaku is the place Japanese moms start thinking of to send their children for undergraduate studies before they are even born. There are 8 national universities like the Tokyo university, Todai being the most coveted one, and a few prestigious private schools like the Keio and Waseda, and these are the schools where almost every graduating school senior hopes to get into. Among technical schools Tokyo Institute of Technology (part of those 8 national universities) leads the pack. Each year news of a few students committing suicide on failing to secure admission into one of these schools is not uncommon.
Tokyo University admits fewer than 1500. My guess is that all the top private universities and the eight national universities combined admit fewer than 15000 applicants. How many students applied for these seats? About one and a half million which is about the total number of graduating seniors. Means about one percent!
'Wait a minute' I can hear you saying. Unlike in Japan where almost everyone takes the test to get into an an university, in India not everybody applies to IITs. Most of the applicants who take the JEE are quite good, there being a self-selection process. In response I will point out that if we compare the potential applicant pools, the following factors stand out:
Japanese seniors in schools perform near the top in international tests in sciences and mathematics. (Seniors from Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore perform equally well.) Indians are not included in most comparison studies but there seems to be some evidence that the average Indian students would have performed near the average, probably somewhat below it. Moreover, after graduation many Japanese students take time off to study for the entrance exam and their dedication has to be seen to be believed. It leads me to believe that their potential applicant pool of of higher quality.
It may be assumed that the student quality and the selection rates are similar to that in Japan, if not better. Means it appears that IITs, however difficult they are to get into, could be overshadowed by institutions in neighboring countries with more difficult admission standards.
There is a difference though. While graduates of universities like Tokyo are quietly working hard to bring their countries up to top and compete with the West, India with its population of a billion or so, through its IIT and other engineering college graduates, seems destined to become a country where the developed world can chooose its low-cost subcontractors to do the jobs they don't want to do or have a shortage of workers.
While it seems true that admission rate at IITs is less than even the most selective US school like the CalTech, it does not mean IIT recruits students of higher caliber. In a country like the USA, educational resources were well developed and the enrollment capacity for engineering majors is kept about the same as the number of seniors intending to enter those programs, if not more. It means less desparation. Moreover, there are lot of top-notch schools schools of about equal caliber which decreases their selectivity figures. My guess is that the top 50 engineering schools in the USA exceed IITs in almost all respect and another 100 or so other schools are not far behind.