Back in the seventies, I’ve been taking entry exams to the Kiev Politechnic Institute (KPI). I lived in Ukraine, which was a part of the Soviet Union. At that time people of the Jewish decent had really hard time in getting into most of the colleges and universities. Typically, there were four entry exams for the engineering majors: the verbal math, the written math, the verbal physics, and essay. There were no such things as multiple choice tests – we had to solve problems.
Beying a Jewish boy myself, I was raised knowing that getting into college will be extremely difficult for me, and I had to be much better prepared than regular Ukrainian and Russian kids. I was strong in math (can’t say this about the Physics though).
Anyway, during the first written test at KPI, there was a problem with the purposely wrong description. Each of the four hundred people that were taking this test had to solve it. I caught the trick in that problem, and my written math grade was 4 out of 5. Two hundred and twenty people got 2 out of 5, which meant that they wouldn’t even accepted to the second exam.
At the verbal math exam, each applicant had to randomly pick a sheet (a. k. a. ticket) with different written problems. Everybody was sitting in a large auditorium preparing their answers followed by the face-to-face conversation with a professor. He or she was reviewing your solutions and could ask additional questions.
I glanced at my sheet – all problems were easy for me. I quickly wrote the answers, then helped to a girl sitting next to me (this was her 5th attempt to get admitted) and wrote all the answers to the guy in the military costume – guys who server in the army had a preferential treatment (you may be surprised, but helping other people during the tests was considered a noble thing to do in the USSR). Each of them had a face-to-face before me and each of them got a quick 4 without any additional questions.
I said to myself, that if they got 4, I could expect getting 6 out of 5.
Then was my turn. All answers for the ticket problems were correct, and then the professor started to ask me additional questions. After answering 11 (!) questions correctly, he asked me the next one from trigonometry, “What’s the difference between the graphs of functions arcsine and arccosine”. Piece of cake. I started answering “The function arcsine looks the same as arccosine… ” He didn’t let me finish or draw the graphs. “Stop. So you think that arsine and arccosine look the same? Your grade is 2.” This meant the end of my exams.
I was speechless for a moment…He didn’t let me finish the sentence! I started mumbling that I was awarded a second place in the math Olympiad of the central borough of Kiev. Then I pooled out the award certificate… He just said, “Apparently your math was better back then, but now you have a serious gap in trigonometry…”
Two months later I went to Novocherkassk, Russia, which was a town 600 miles away from home, got two easy fives on both math tests, 4 on essay and 3 on physics, and got admitted to the Applied Math major.
Several years ago, I was browsing books on Amazon and found a pretty interesting one – “You Failed Your Math Test, Comrade Einstein” . The authors compiled many tough math problems that were prepared specifically for the Jewish students applying to the Soviet “ivy league” universities. I bought this book to show my respect to the authors for their work.