Teenagers in India have big ambitions--and the confidence to match.
By John Elliott

(FORTUNE Magazine) – WHAT KIND OF GLOBAL COMPETITION DOES YOUR KID face? Check out 15-year-old Saksham Karwal--as smart and creative as any American overachiever you're likely to meet, and maybe a little more driven. "We have the best brains, and we can beat anyone--no one is ahead of us," he says. The son of a former top executive at a multinational appliance manufacturer, Karwal wants to go to one of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) to study engineering, then get an MBA and join "a good company." At the other end of the social spectrum, meet Amar Nath, 17, who has never been to a conventional school and has just started learning to read and write--but has the same drive as Karwal. After meeting "high-class people" in a Delhi market, where he was a porter, Nath realized that "speaking their English was a basic driving force." Now he wants to start his own hotel or restaurant and benefit from India's growing consumerism.

These teens are not unusual. The self-confidence of India's youth has grown exponentially since the country's economy began to open up 14 years ago. That has given them a big incentive to succeed at school--as has the insecurity of not having a social safety net. "In the U.S. the government provides for unemployment and Social Security," Karwal says. "There is nothing here."

They also feel relentless parental pressure. "The parents set strict goals, and they feel they must succeed," says Arun Kapur, who runs both the Vasant Valley school in Delhi, which Karwal attends (annual tuition: $960), and the Ritinjali "second chance" school for poor children, where Nath goes. Vasant Valley lacks some of the amenities of Delhi's more expensive American School. But its students score high on exams and benefit from the rigors of the Indian system: They are not allowed to use calculators or computers as a crutch. "In Canada they have an overreliance on laptops," says Svati Goyal, 15, who spent three months there as an exchange student. Her goal: to study nuclear science at the University of California at Berkeley or MIT, to get a Ph.D., then to set up her own research laboratory--in India.

India's focus on grades and success can be excessive. Parents discourage their children from studying the arts because universities do not consider them when assessing applications. Shiv Mohan Dutt, a tall 15-year-old with a wide range of interests who excels at chess and sports at Vasant Valley, would like a broader curriculum. He says the IIT "do not produce balanced individuals." He thought the focus was wrong when he was introduced during an internship at an engineering company as "93 Shiv"--the number reflected his good grades. Stories about students nervously waiting for exam results are widely reported, as are suicides by those overwhelmed by the pressure. (In Mumbai this year six students killed themselves before final exams.) But the strong survive. "If you try," says Svati Goyal, "you will succeed." -- John Elliott