An 81-year-old Indian is taking one of the toughest examinations in the world. Here's why

Apparently, he woke up at 5.30 am each day and studied till 10 pm.
Deena Theresa
Majority of learners in the US are adults.Alex Liew/iStock
  • For 81-year-old Nandakumar Menon, age is no barrier.
  • He appeared for the entrance exam of a course in programming and data science offered by the Indian Institute of Technology Madras.
  • In 2021, more than 141,600 students took the exam, and only over 41,860 qualified for the next stage in the entrance process

Nandakumar Menon from Kerala, India, loved his student life so much that at the age of 80, he chose to return to it.

Menon, now 81, recently appeared for the entrance exam of the Bachelor of Science course in programming and data science offered by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, one of India's most prestigious universities and ranked the top engineering college in India by the Ministry of Education's National Institutional Ranking Framework.

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He also appeared for the Joint Entrance Examination—an assessment needed to gain admission into engineering colleges in India—which s considered by many to be the toughest entrance exam in India. In 2021, more than 141,600 students took the exam, and just over 41,860 qualified for the next stage in the entrance process.

But nothing fazed Menon.

"My son, who's an advocate, was interested in Data Processing and wanted to take the exam. He asked me if I would be interested. I was down to the idea - I wanted to challenge myself and upgrade my skills. Additionally, I had the complete support of my family. Unfortunately, my son couldn't [take] the exam, but I did," Menon tells Interesting Engineering (IE) in an interview.

Menon's home state, Kerala, currently has the highest elderly population (16.5 percent) in India, according to the National Statistical Office (NSO)’s Elderly in India 2021 report. A decade from now, it will increase to 20.9 percent. Literacy levels among elderly males and females have improved over time in rural and urban areas, and Kerala has consistently remained the most literate state in India, with a 96.2 percent literacy rate.

Age is just a number

Menon isn't alone in his pursuit. Like Menon, former solicitor Archie White decided to complete a degree in fine art at the age of 96. Today, he is believed to be Britain's oldest graduate after he completed the degree. White had retired at 92 and had a stroke six years ago. But nothing could stop him. He told ITV News that age was no barrier.

In 2018, a Forbes article stated that adult learners were the majority of degree seekers in the US. A national survey from Champlain College Online, known for its career-focused adult education, found that 60 percent of US adults aged 23 to 55 without a bachelor's degree have considered returning to school.

However, rising costs and student debts were major hindrances.

While many adults may be returning to school to open a "new chapter" in their careers or start a brand new one, other older students begin a degree in their later years to upgrade their skill set in a fast-changing world or simply to challenge themselves. For the rest, who perhaps couldn't go to college for various reasons when they were younger, getting a degree might be a "lifelong goal" that they finally have time for and are able to afford.

Menon happens to fall into the second category.

To achieve his goals, the octogenarian woke up at 5.30 am each day and studied diligently till 10 pm. 

"Student life was the best part of my life. There were no responsibilities; all one had to do was study. And now that I returned to the books, it honestly makes me feel like a student," says Menon.

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I have a few physical difficulties, considering my age, but that's about it

Menon also tells IE that he didn't have a lot of trouble recollecting the concepts. "I have a few physical difficulties, considering my age, but that's about it," he says.

Menon is right. To qualify for the entrance exam, he had to write 16 papers. He also had to appear for weekly exams on four subjects - mathematics, statistics, data processing, and English and had to score a minimum of 50 percent in all four subjects in order to qualify for the entrance examination. "I cleared them all and became qualified to write the entrance examination, which in itself comprises four papers. I've already cleared two of them [Menon was prepping for the third paper at the time of the interview]," he says.

Proficient in STEM

Realizing that only a few coveted seats are on offer at IIT, Menon decided to stay away from a classroom exam prep course and opted instead for online classes. 

"I do not want to be an obstacle for the thousands of youngsters who will be appearing for the exam and hog their seats. So, I decided to solely take up an online course [which will be a three-year course]," he says.

You're probably wondering how Menon learned advanced science and math at his age.

Well, he's actually no stranger to these subjects. When he was younger, Menon had completed a degree in mathematics and spent a year studying for a Masters in Statistics. Later, he completed his post-graduate studies in cryogenic engineering at Syracuse University, New York, with a NASA-sponsored scholarship. Upon receiving his degree, he returned home to spend his career working in India.

A decision he regrets even today.

"It was 1970, and we didn't really have cryogenics experts in India, and I didn't get a chance to pursue [that field]. I left [India] in the hopes of serving my country, but I missed a good opportunity to work [in the US]," he says.

No rest for Menon

Menon is unsure if he will want to work after acquiring new skills. "I just wanted to study something that I haven't earlier. Also, I believe studying at this age would be an inspiration to many, especially youngsters," he says.

And his inspiration? "My elder brother. He was an ardent student - all I've wanted to do is follow his path," says Menon.

Interestingly, Menon has not retired from his job either. "I'm currently working as a consultant at a firm," he says. Does that mean he has no plans to rest? "None," he responds. "Neither do I receive pensions nor do I get any support. I continue to pay income tax at this age - tax paid is of no benefit to me, and it makes me hurt. Nevertheless, I've not felt the need to take a rest," adds Menon.