India’s Civil Services Examination (CSE) is said to be one of the toughest of its kind in the world, so much so that Professor Lant Pritchett, from Harvard University, said in 2010: “The Indian Administrative Service is full of officers who have passed an entrance examination and selection process that makes getting into Harvard look like a walk in the park.”
Recently, ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence chatbot which has come to grip public imagination with its ability to answer any question cogently, write code and poetry, and even pass competitive
exams, failed to crack India’s Civil Services preliminary examination. ChatGPT’s popularity attained new heights when it cleared Wharton Business School’s MBA exam. However, AI chatbot struggled with India’s Civil Services Examination.
When the Analytics India Magazine that conducted the test asked if ChatGPT could clear the UPSC prelims, it replied that though it knows various subject areas, we need critical thinking and time management to clear UPSC. However, the chatbot did not give a specific answer on whether it could pass the test. This speaks a lot about the mental calibre of the candidates who have to pass this grueling three-tier exam to get inducted into the prestigious civil services.
With the success rate of less than 1 percent and continually evolving and unpredictable nature of the papers set by the UPSC, a lot of popular myths about this exam have been floating around that further aggravate the fear of aspirants, making them nervous towards pursuing such a field. It is precisely these myths that we will be busting in this article.
Myth: It is the toughest exam on earth and mother of all exams.
Reality: No doubt it’s not an easy exam. The grueling three-stage process spread over a year can dread anyone weak in spirits and lacking proper guidance. There is no other exam which requires a candidate to have a sound knowledge of a vast syllabus cutting across various areas like polity and constitution, history, geography, international relations, economy, science and technology, disaster management, to name a few. Candidates need to have a well-rounded knowledge of these subjects, making the preparation process both exhaustive and challenging.
However, it is to be remembered that there is no such thing as the toughest exam on earth. If you enjoy the process, love learning about new things, are inquisitive in nature and are conscious about the events happening around you, then civil services exam becomes an exciting learning process which can sail you easily past this exam.
Myth: One needs years of preparation to clear this exam
Reality: Even though there has been a consistent rise in the number of candidates who clear this exam in their first attempt with around 1 to 2 years of preparation, still a lot of candidates believe that it was either because they came from privileged families and thus had a sound academic and financial background throughout or perhaps it was pure luck, or perhaps they started preparing since first year of graduation or maybe even during school days.
It is true that with the ever increasing craze to join the coveted civil services, many parents are nudging their children towards civil services preparation right since their high school. However, that’s not really needed. While in school, child is still exploring the world and learning the many truths it offers.
It is an age where his/her personality develops. Pushing them and burdening them with IAS preparation is only harming them. Graduation years can be a good time to start with your civil services preparation if you are clear about it as your career goal. However, it’s not a hard and fast rule, that you need 3 to 4 years of preparation to ace this exam. Even a 12 to 15 months’ preparation can be good enough to clear the examination if you are studying with a clear strategy, consistency and hard work.
There are numerous success stories of candidates cracking the examination in one attempt after just a year or even less than a year’s preparation. All it needs is sheer dedication and right guidance.
Myth: Aspirants should know everything under the sun.
Reality: It’s a common myth that IAS aspirants must possess knowledge about every conceivable topic under the sun. While the UPSC syllabus is extensive, it is well-defined, with the exception of current affairs. Even for current events, a structured approach involving daily news, important magazines, and relevant programs like that on RSTV can suffice. Comprehensive preparation is about depth, not breadth, ensuring that candidates understand the subjects thoroughly rather than trying to grasp everything under the sun.
As per UPSC, “the main examination is intended to assess the overall intellectual traits and depth of understanding of candidates rather than merely the range of their information and memory. The nature and standard of questions in the General Studies papers (Paper II to Paper V) will be such that a well-educated person will be able to answer them without any specialized study.
The questions will be such as to test a candidate’s general awareness of a variety of subjects, which will have relevance for a career in Civil Services. The questions are likely to test the candidate’s basic understanding of all relevant issues, and ability to analyze, and take a view on conflicting socio-economic goals, objectives and demands.”
The exam does not require one to be an expert on a topic; rather aspirants should have general awareness and analytical skills. Therefore, a thorough understanding of the syllabus, a focus on the NCERTs, regularly reading newspaper and following current affairs, following some standard books, making notes and revising them frequently, and practising mock tests is the key.
Myth: It is a game of luck or a wild goose chase
Reality: Luck does play a role in this exam just as it plays a role in every sphere in life. UPSC mains exam and the personality test are subjective in nature. A small difference of 4 to 5 marks in the interview can prevent you from getting your preferred service or getting selected in the final list altogether. Subjectivity or the human element the copy evaluators or the interviewers can’t be done away with totally.
Luck has a role to play even in the prelims exams where with the increasing difficulty level and breadth of the questions covered, a candidate has to attempt many questions by taking calculated risk, but it is after all a risk. There have been instances where a candidate cleared prelims by securing just the cut-off marks or secured only 1 mark above the cut-off marks or and went on to join the civil services and another candidate who fell short of clearing it only by 1 mark or even less than that.
But there is nothing such as sheer luck that can get you through this exam. Luck factor becomes relevant or comes into play only when you have burned the midnight oil and worked really hard. In this exam luck only favours the prepared ones, as rightly said by Gary Player: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” Success is the mutual intersection between hard work and luck.
Hard work puts cause and effect into motion. Once you have experienced the effects and rewards of hard work, luck willingly climbs aboard. The thing to remember is that between hard work and luck, you can control only one. Therefore, if you want to change your destiny start working hard.
Myth: You need to be a topper throughout to clear CSE
Reality: IPS officer Manoj Sharma, on whose life the movie 12th fail is based, hails from Madhya Pradesh’s Morena district. He wanted to become a civil servant since childhood, but he failed in class 12 and also got the third division in Classes 9 and 10. Interestingly, he failed in all subjects except Hindi in Class 12. But despite facing failure in Class 12, he did not lose faith and kept his dream of becoming a civil servant alive.
While studying, he also drove a tempo to earn his living and worked as a library peon in Delhi. Eventually, he cracked UPSC exam in fourth attempt and got rank 121and became an IPS from the Maharashtra cadre in 2005.
This is just one the numerous stories where aspirants have defied all odds and achieved their dreams. Although being a topper throughout indicates that one has been diligent with the studies, it does not guarantee you success in this exam. That is the beauty of this exam. No matter what the background is, UPSC provide you a fair opportunity to realise your dreams.
Myth: you need to cut off from social life and live in isolation.
Reality: UPSC preparation does require a focused approach and strong discipline. One can’t afford to be chilling around with friends every other day or spending countless hours on social media or OTT. However, it does not mean that one has to lock himself up in a room in isolation as that can take a toll on your mental health. CSE is a long and arduous journey. There will be highs and lows. You need to strike the right balance between preparation and social engagements. Regular conversations with the family members and company of dedicated fellow aspirants can be a boon to your preparation. They can keep you motivated when you feel low. Therefore, mindful distance, and not isolation, is the key.
Myth: You need to refer to multiples sources to become a master of a subject.
Reality: First of all, the temptation of attaining mastery over a subject should be resisted. CSE is a general exam. It’s not demanding scholars on various subjects but well-informed candidates with an organised mind who are well aware of the happenings around them. Secondly, it is always advised to read one book 10 times rather than reading 10 books one time.
One of the most quoted lines from Bruce Lee is “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” It’s a quote that emphasizes the importance of focused practice and a high level of proficiency. So rather than running around to collect all that is available in the bookstores and on the internet, define your sources and stick to them. Read them multiple times, make notes and revise.
If you genuinely understand a topic and want to expand your knowledge and/or build more perspective, reading more books can certainly help. Mere collection of materials will only add to your perplexity.
Myth: You should have a strong command over spoken English to excel in interview.
Reality: UPSC is quite liberal when it comes to the language of the interview. It allows the candidates to opt for English, Hindi or any other regional language when facing the UPSC panel. A candidate can choose his or her UPSC interview language out of the 22 mentioned languages in the 8th schedule of the Indian constitution, irrespective of the language used as a medium in the mains examination. However, candidates exempted from the compulsory Indian language paper have to be interviewed only in English or Hindi.
Therefore, a candidate who wrote mains exam in English language can choose Hindi or any other language from the 8th schedule for the interview. However, you need to inform UPSC in prior so that they can arrange a translator. So the choice of language doesn’t matter; what matters is fluency, clarity of thought and convincing arguments. UPSC is not searching for spoken English trainers but candidates who are well informed and have clarity of thought.
Nevertheless, it is advisable to work upon improving your written English if that is your language for the written exam. You can’t afford to write in a simplistic or a mediocre way and hope to get through with flying colours. Your writing should reflect a certain standard and convey the ideas with clarity and brevity.
Thus, while this exam can be a bit overwhelming, exacting and daunting, it is to be remembered that it is just another competitive examination entailing a vast syllabus. With right guidance, clear strategy, unwavering will and determination, you can clear it and join the service of your dreams. Therefore, rather than paying attention to the myths floating around and doubting your potential and losing your confidence, stay disciplined, determined and believe in your hard work to sail through this journey smoothly.