SSB: Insights Into The System

"The Training Standards at the Academies are linked to Service Requirements post Commission whereas SSB is required to ascertain the suitability and training potential of a candidate," Opines Brig. Sanjay Sangwan (Retd).

SSB: Insights Into The System


It needs to be appreciated that the candidates, SSB selectors and academy trainers are all humans and not robots or androids and wherever humans are involved subjectivity can be minimised to a great extent by a designated system or process but can’t be ruled out 100%. There are inbuilt checks and balances in the SSB system and the process itself to rule out individual subjectivity of an assessor. The SSB system is, however, time tested credible system.

Officer Qualities

The military needs leaders for which identified and proven traits are sought and assessed in candidates. These human traits are almost universal since times immemorial and are applicable to leaders in any field.  These traits have also been reviewed over time and reduced from a larger number earlier. Hence SSB is an assessment of Personality of candidates and the system is a refined and proven system over the decades.

The proof of the system is not in performance at the training academies but in operations, crisis management and disaster management etc and the results are for everyone to see. The system is under constant monitoring and review by the assessors, Commandants of Boards and DIPR scientists with central annual reviews. Changing times have changed technology but the leadership traits or human personality required doesn’t change.

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SSB System

SSB is an assessment of human personality through his behaviour identified by three independent assessors using three separate aspects of behaviour- subconscious thoughts and values (by the Psychologist), demonstrated action (by the GTO) and spoken words (by the Interviewing Officer). This connection of thoughts leading to words, words turning into action and shaping personality and destiny while being guided by the ethics and values embedded in the subconscious is a universally recognised linkage. The system has been quantified in the assessment technique to minimise subjectivity.

At any stage in the five-day process, the benefit of doubt is given to the candidate. It is only at the conference on the 5th day where they open their assessments and exchange notes. In case of a doubt, the candidate is given another chance during the conference itself. Consideration of the candidates background, socio-economic conditions, opportunities available and adversities faced are all important factors in shaping a personality and all of these are inbuilt in the system purposefully. The SSB aims to only select potential candidates who can be trained or groomed to be an average officer.

Stage 1 Testing

There is a financial and administrative angle to conduct of SSB of five days stay. The candidates who qualify for SSB run into thousands with each batch going anywhere up to 300 plus candidates. All first timers also get train fare to and from home station. If all 300 are allowed to go through the five-day process then the number of SSB Boards may have to be increased by 5-6 times with corresponding increase in infrastructure and attendant cost to the govt. Besides, experience shows that clearing the written exam is the easier part with a large number making the grade but only a small percentage are found suitable to join the academies.

A sizeable number are neither suitable nor genuinely interested in joining the academies. Hence an appropriate screening method was devised as Stage 1 testing wherein the Officer Intelligence Rating (OIR) Test and Picture Perception Description Test (PPDT) including a Group Discussion where each candidate presents his story to eventually arrive at a Group Story are carried out. This helps to identify the few probable candidates for a detailed assessment of five days. It helps reduce the workload of assessment, infrastructure and administration cost to the govt.  

The Stage 1 allows a quick assessment of the same 15 OQs in an abbreviated manner as per a set format within one morning to retain only the small number clearing Stage 1 testing. This test is also conducted by the same experienced assessors with years of experience and who are actually capable enough to see a candidate for a brief duration and assess his potential. Even in this the benefit of doubt is given to the candidate in case of borderline personality.

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System Transparency  

The system is transparent amongst the assessors and is closely monitored by the President of the Board, Commandant of the Selection Centre and even independent assessors from other boards. The process is explained to the candidates to the extent they need to know. Any further revelations will jeopardise the system as human nature is to find shortcuts and alternate ways. In fact the system is designed to identify over coached candidates who respond in an ideal or utopian way to every situation which is somewhat unnatural. Every Assessor is also under continuous observation to identify individual biases, if any.

It also must be appreciated that credibility of every assessor is also at stake. People assume that children of Service Officers get selected easily or their fathers can easily influence the selection process. Please set aside any such hearsay as officers children in fact get a stricter analysis being from the environment and any attempt to influence the process invariably has a negative impact and also gets reported to Army HQ. There are a large number of children of senior officers who never got selected.  

Service Needs

The service needs are defined by performance in crisis be it war, fighting terror and insurgency, disaster relief, aid to civil authority and even the less military areas of the Services like sports and administration. Obviously, all can’t be Olympians but the Services have more than fair representation. Indian Army has the highest officer to OR casualty ratio in operations in the world and there can be no better testimony to the efficacy of the system and it meeting the need of the Services.


We all are human beings impacted by the environment, own attitudes, emotions, situational needs, survival instincts, ego, performance aspirations, desires etc which are not constant and vary as per the situation. Even within one SSB, the candidate response varies amongst the three assessors and hence three independent assessors for a fair assessment.

Varying Performance & Repeat SSB

At the SSB a candidate is under stress to put his best foot forward and in doing so, at times one slips up or genuinely a candidate may be a borderline case and doesn’t make the grade as every candidate has to achieve a minimum pass grading. Individually also a minimum score has to be achieved in every trait to get selected. To ensure a balanced personality of any selected candidate, the traits cover qualities of the Head, the Heart (Social aspects), the Effectiveness and the Limb and Courage are assessed necessitating a minimum score in each and overall.

Any good leader is likely to be strong in a few traits and middling in the rest which reflects in their grading and merit. It is because of the same factor, a candidate may not fare well in one SSB but does better subsequently having realised his shortcoming earlier. It would be grossly unfair to a candidate if he is unable to put forward his correct personality which may even be an assessing error and if he doesn’t get a second chance.

Yes, a smart candidate will learn from own mistake and improve.  People often compare IQ of a person to his performance. It needs to be understood that IQ is one component and other aspects are there too. In civil also people recognise the relative importance of IQ, Emotional Quotient, Social Quotient and another one being looked into now is Adversity Quotient for Leadership in any walk of life.

Behaviour In Academies

It is because of this circumstantial range of human behaviour that at times variations in behaviour at the academies is noticed to suit the changed environment from the SSB and home. Even the most well-disciplined cadets on spur of a moment or just to seek thrill may violate the local orders which are extremely stringent in the academies. It doesn’t mean the cadet lacks OLQ or that the SSB selectors made a mistake but just a momentary aberration for which he gets punished by the system. If we look at own-selves we will find variations in own responses to similar situations in different environments.

Physical Tests

SSB does not include physical performance tests though a certain minimum standard does get ensured in the various GTO testing system but it by no means ensures physical fitness. That part is left for the training academies to work on and develop. The criteria for SSB and Training Academies is different as in SSB seeks basic abilities, locomotor coordination and trainability while the academies build on it progressively to meet service requirements on commission.

Coordination With Training Academies

SSB is a feeder system for the academies, comparable to say JEE or NEET for Engineering and Medical Colleges. It assesses the basic suitability of a candidate and his trainability. The entrance systems are not responsible or accountable for the end result after graduation wherein based on performance a candidate can move up or down in merit. Training academies would do well to introduce a SSB assessment capsule in their probation training of instructors and also introducing a common terminology and assessment factors for greater synergy and uniformity.

Wastage Rate

Wastage rate at the academies is due to multiple reasons from Physical to Medical to Discipline and there could be many justifications or reasons attributed for them but certainly not weakness of the SSB system though one can’t rule out one odd smart aleck or rogue managing to beat the system but that would be rare. Additional financial burden due to training of relegated cadets does not reflect on SSB and can’t be a consideration of tweaking the system. May be the Instructors at the Training Academies need a better orientation and merely qualifying on JC Course is not sufficient to assess and train cadets.

The SSB is required to assess a minimum standard of Leadership traits in a candidate and his trainability quotient. The Training Academies are required to enhance the leadership traits through training. The Training Standards at the Academies are linked to Service Requirements post Commission whereas SSB is required to ascertain the suitability and potential of a candidate.

Follow Up

For candidates who are doubtful or exceptionally strong in a few traits, a follow up is done by DIPR in the academies and even in service for up to ten years to obtain feedbacks for improving their assessment system.

De Novo

Since the system had been in use for a few decades and a few doubts were raised by the environment, an effort was made by DIPR to try out a De Novo System, however, after two years trial at SSB Bengaluru it was found to be needing further refinement and validation and hence was deferred further.

SSB & Errant Behaviour In Service

People also tend to question the SSB System if an officer displays erroneous behaviour not realising that he has spent 30-40 years in a different environment which is bound to impact his personality. Personality of any person is dynamic and is under constant development based on opportunities and influences. The environmental demands also shape personality. People also tend to corelate the Appraisal System with the SSB system which is incorrect.

Not very many Service Officers would understand the linkages and intricacies of the SSB Selection Process unless he has attended a DIPR run course including practical exposure to SSB functioning. The system has proven its worth over last so many decades and the YOs in all three services have proved it in difficult situations.

In-fact, amongst civilians those who observe the performance of Service Officers and Civil Officers often comment on need for a similar system of selection for the Civil Services. In absence of an equivalent system in the Civil, Neuro Linguist Programming skill has caught on very much as an assessment of Personality Traits and quite a few companies HR staff include a NLP expert who is part of HR interviews for assessment of candidates suitability.

About The Author

Brigadier S Sangwan is a veteran of the armoured corps, and trained Interviewing Officer with extensive experience in training youth at the Indian Military Academy (IMA), National Cadet Corps (NCC) and in schools.

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