My experiences with the UPSC Civil Services examination – From an ex-aspirant’s perspective

UPSC Civil Services examination is probably one of the toughest experiences one can go through. More than the technical aspects of the examination, overall as an experience, it can be challenging and takes a lot away from our personal lives. It offers people job security and in general, there is a lot of honour attached to it and is considered aspirational among the upwardly mobile middle classes. It is a mass obsession as every middle class family has always wished that one of its members becomes a civil servant. It is a gamble that everyone is willing to take due to the mobility it provides if one is successful in the exam. With the nature of jobs in the private sector increasingly being informal, temporal, and drawing on an entrepreneurial culture reflected best in the start-up culture and  the gig / platform economy, people from the private sector too are quitting or preparing along with their jobs to pursue this exam as it offers them security and stability.

Most of us have some generic ideas about the Civil Services examination, and more than that, a lot of misconceptions surrounding it that we believe to be true. Just to get a sense of the competition, if we go by the statistics, approximately five to six lakhs aspirants appear for the Preliminary examination every year and by the time the entire process is over (Mains Examination and Interview), there are just about 150 selections into the two most sought after streams – IAS (Indian Administrative Service) and IFS (Indian Foreign Service). That makes it a success rate of 0.03%! Hence, the point I am trying to make is, it is very important for one to not beat oneself up about being unsuccessful in the exam and equating intelligence to success in UPSC is just unfortunate.

There is a widely accepted notion that coaching is a must to clear UPSC. The coaching industry is growing rampant and is unchecked, exploiting people’s anxieties and hopes to achieve job security by gaining a job like the civil service which has become highly competitive over the years. Firstly, the pool of people aspiring to pursue and clear civil services examination come from varied, unequal backgrounds with very different kinds of exposure with the minimum qualification for the exam requiring one to be a graduate in any subject of their preference. Secondly, the examination tests people on multiple topics that most people are not exposed to during school and higher education. And hence, coaching seems to bridge that gap which was otherwise created by a distorted education system where aspirants coming from premier institutes and certain parts of the country already have an edge over others in terms of the content acquired. But coaching has extremely limited benefits for most people. It’s true that it may help some people much more than others, but it also depends on a lot of factors. People come from all parts of India to metropolitan cities like Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore which are famous for UPSC coaching centres under difficult financial conditions staking a lot of limited economic resources on very expensive tuition fees, and costs of living in metros with escalated prices in neighbourhoods famous for coaching institutes. Hence, this exam starts off at an unequal ground and the inequalities are further widened by the coaching industry.  Also, not to mention the extremely unhealthy and highly competitive environment one has to live in, usually for an extended period of time, often about 2-3 years due to repeated attempts in the examination.

Emergence of online forums has proved to be a boon in many ways for aspirants who cannot afford classroom coaching or live in remote areas, as a lot of good content is made available for free and it prevents aspirants from having to move to bigger cities which they would otherwise be unable to afford. But the internet itself is not an equalising force as many don’t even have access to it still, and for yet others, language and costs of accessing the internet and familiarity with how to use it are further barriers. Hence, difficulties in access to coaching still continue to exist.

While it is said that there should be a balance of health and work, UPSC is almost always work with little or no time for personal care. There is a strong perception that there is so much to read and write that one just can’t keep up if one spends 1-2 hours on personal recreation. This is indeed a dangerous trend and a lot of students always tend to get physically unfit during the course of preparation.

Apart from the physical stress and the ignorance of personal care, emotionally too, UPSC preparation is a draining period. Aspirants are faced with intrusive attention from a lot of people including parents, other family members and friends who are convinced that you aren’t doing enough. I once had a neighbour who asked how I never cleared the exam after getting coaching from Delhi. These kinds of attention from people who have limited knowledge of the prevailing circumstances can have detrimental effects on the psyche of certain aspirants. It becomes a challenge to maintain one’s sanity with this kind of constant prodding by the society. Questions on why one is unable to clear the exam are not always easy to answer, because aspirants themselves will sometimes find it difficult to identify the causes due to the inherent randomness in the examination pattern. There is always discussion among the aspirants on how this exam has become a lot about ‘luck’. If you are ‘lucky’ enough to have read about the particular news item asked in the exam considering current events of the past 2-3 years can appear in the questions, then you somehow already have an edge over the others, just by virtue of sheer ‘luck’. But this in no way becomes a test of one’s capabilities and aptitude to be a civil servant and rather so much of the examination has become dependent on rote learning.

The examination takes away prime years of our career building time away from us. The age limit of the exam extends from 21-32 years currently, with relaxation for reserved communities. These are probably the most important years when one is trying to make a career. Most often, aspirants spend at least 3-4 years in trying to clear the exam. It acts like a vicious cycle, since one always, in the expectation that will be better prepared next time, gives repeated attempts sometimes losing precious years of their lives. Also, going back to work/industry with the tag of being a ‘failure’ can have emotional effects on the person and they tend to get stuck in the process instead of opting to go back and restart their careers. For aspirants who entered the preparation right after graduation and were unable to clear the exam, it becomes difficult to explain the gap years after college since taking a break in career is not the norm in India and is not considered desirable.

There is a lot of talk about overhauling the entire examination process which has undergone changes over time with various committees being set up to look into it. Currently, the examination is conducted in three stages, Preliminary, Mains and Interview. Candidates are tested on various subjects including Polity, Geography, History, Economy, Ethics and other such topics of national and international importance.

Preliminary Examination is an elimination round with one general studies paper and one aptitude paper which is qualifying. It has become a tough nut to crack with changing patterns and complexities of the paper. In 2011, the introduction of an aptitude paper whose marks were counted for merit and was not just qualifying with a pattern similar to the  CAT, saw an unusual number of selections of students from IITs and IIMs affecting and attracting protests from students coming from mostly rural backgrounds with no access or exposure to that kind of education. These protests led to changing the aptitude paper to a qualifying nature in 2015. Since then, the general studies paper saw extremely tight competition leading to framing of a very tough and complex paper as elimination of lakhs of candidates was dependent on a much smaller score of 200 marks. For example, in History, some years saw a record twenty plus questions from Ancient and Medieval History picked from bulky books written by noted historians. It was humanely not possible to read and remember facts from such books. When one manages to clear the Preliminary examination, the Mains examination is the real test of patience and endurance. One has to write a total of nine papers, the format is descriptive and duration is of three hours each. The General Studies papers are anything but general, where one has to go into a little depth with some specialization in each of the topics, and mere generic newspaper reading as some would claim, would not do. Also, specific Optional papers tend to have an edge in certain years over others due to ease of question paper, better grading system etc. There has also been disproportionate number of selections observed in particular regional literature papers which are chosen as optional subject papers in some years. Although, scaling system exists in UPSC, it has not taken care of this pattern of unusual number of selections.

When one manages to clear all stages of the examination, the nature of the civil services job is such that all of this exhaustive reading may necessarily not be appropriate or relevant for the specific posting since service specific training is given to candidates.

Hence, it is high time that apart from revising the technical details of the examination process, the government keeps in mind this whole unfair structure that has evolved around this exam and takes some positive measures which would hopefully someday lead to well-being of the aspirant community at large.

[Disclaimer: Views presented above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CBPS]

Achala Yareseeme
Research Advisor, CBPS

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