Rajat Ranjan mumbles choice Hindi expletives when asked what he thought about the admission process adopted by Delhi University colleges. The 18-year old from Begusarai came to Delhi after class 10 to pursue a dream - to get into the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). He studied classes 11 and 12 from a south Delhi school, staying up nights to study for the IIT entrance test with friends at Jiya Sarai, in the shadow of IIT Delhi.
He is waiting for the fourth round of counselling to see if he gets a seat at the prestigious engineering schools. As a backup, he had planned to apply to some of DU's top colleges - confident that his aggregate 95% would see him through.
Then the cut-offs were released and Ranjan found himself staring at the prospect of studying at what he considers a second-rung DU college if his IIT dreams weren't realised. "My neighbours' kids all went to the IITs or top DU colleges. How will I face my father?" he asks.
A shortage of quality higher educational institutions and consequentially rising cut-offs, rising investment costs in education and the uncertainty of the future are principal reasons for anxieties and stress in students graduating from school.
But if Indian students are more stressed than their American counterparts we may need to look at our dinner-table discussions for answers, an HT C-fore survey of 1000 students aged 15-19 from Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore suggests.
Over half the total respondents listed parents and relatives as the set of people causing them maximum stress, a pattern almost uniform across the cities and for both boys and girls. Peers and friends (21%) and tutors (18%) are other sources of stress, while 9% blamed no one.
A disconnect between children and parents is a factor. Only 19% students said their parents were comfortable with them pursuing a stream they wanted. While 12% students want to pursue the arts and humanities, only 5% parents prefer these streams for their children.
What makes parental responsibilities even more critical is the survey finding that students still prefer turning to parents for advice on stress and anxieties instead of seeking out teachers, counsellors, friends or medical help.
"We've focused a lot on student counselling. But I often think what we need more is parent counselling," says Ulhas Vairagkar, Director, TIME, a coaching institute that also offers counselling.
Our stress, their stress
Half the surveyed students argue that more good colleges will help reduce stress the most. Unsure of securing a seat at any one college or set of colleges, 95 % students surveyed have appeared for more than one competitive exam.
The same uncertainty - coupled with confusion over career paths which Indian students, unlike American counterparts, need to choose straight after school - is reflected in 72% students applying to more than one discipline.
But the perceived shortage of quality colleges, leading to an increasing number of students applying to the same select, top institutions, is a problem increasingly afflicting the US too.
"Many kids are applying to 15-20 schools even though they will only end up going to one," says Dr Denise Pope, Stanford University education lecturer and author of Doing School, a book on stress and anxiety among American high school students.
As in India, students applying to multiple colleges across diverse streams for admissions push up the number of applications at each institution. This creates the impression of tougher competition, leading to more stress, even though many of the applicants may only be treating a particular college as a backup.
Race to Nowhere, a 2009 documentary that shook the US education community, traces the growing stress-related illnesses high school students are suffering from, as they try and build a resume that will help them beat other students to top colleges. "It documents how preparing for the SAT consumes many teenagers because of a false but pervasive belief that they will become 'failures' if they do not post top scores and get into a top school," says Bob Schaeffer, Director of Boston-based Fairtest, a group that argues against standardised testing.
The cost of higher education in the US - where, unlike India, most top institutions are private - is another stress-inducer, particularly following the economic downturn.
The most expensive colleges generally also have the largest endowments and therefore the largest scholarship budgets. "But families often do not understand this clearly and worry about their ability to meet costs, especially as family incomes have been affected in the economy," says William Hiss, Vice President for external affairs at Bates College.
A neighbourhood problem
Last month, news agency Xinhua captured a day in the lives of students preparing for the gao kao - China's single common entrance examination for colleges. "It's 5.30 in the morning…students have already worked up a physical and mental sweat. And Mr Jiao is as anxious as his pupils. The gao kao is coming," it reported.
Like in India, and unlike in the US, China too faces the problem of parental expectations and the consequent stress mixing with the ambient anxieties of finding a good college in a competitive space.
"It's a deadly cocktail," says Liu Weng, a Chinese education consultant who works with Indian students pursuing higher education in his country.
But blaming parents would be simplistic. Parents understand that in India without family wealth, quality education offers the only route to a successful socio-economic status for their children, argues education consultant Arindam Lahiri. "I completely understand where parents come from," says Lahiri.
Meena Thakur, a schoolteacher and mother of an 18-year old who has just obtained admission to Hindu College, says parents can unintentionally pressurise their children. "My daughter keeps telling me to relax but I just don't know how to," she laughs.
It may be time to learn.