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Success Stories

Interview with Ira Singhal and Nidhi Gupta (UPSC Toppers 2014, NSIT alumni)

1. How did you decide for yourself, that civil service is ‘the’ career for you? What were the initial apprehensions and reactions from people, after having taken the decision?

Nidhi:When I was in college, there was this tiny thought in my mind to join civil services, but I took placements because I wanted financial stability and a backup option.

While working at Adobe, I discovered that a sedentary cubicle job wasn’t my calling. That was when the thought of civil services as the medium of achieving my ultimate objective of self-satisfaction materialized. So, that was the time I quit my job and started preparing for civil services.

There were apprehensions, but for any job you do, you have to take in the pros and the cons and decide on your own.

Ira:I had dreamt of serving the society and doing something for the country when I was five or six years old, and had the profession of either a doctor or civil servant, in my mind. Since I ended up doing my bachelors from NSIT, civil services wasthe only option left for me.

However, keeping in mind the risks involved in opting for a career, an examination for which, observes a mass application, and the little percentage of people being recruited every year, I decided to build a fall back option for me by pursuing MBA at FMS. Work experience for a couple of years helped me earn confidence, experience and perspective in addition to knowledge and made me capable of handling pressure situations.

My parents weren’t too enthusiastic about my decision to sit for UPSC. Not that they doubted my ability, it was simply because they were doubtful as to whether I would be able to study, yet again in lieu of a present financially stable job. However the lacking emotional satisfaction in my job compelled me all the more to give UPSC a shot.

2. There are several distractions(friends, social life, social network etc.) that one faces during the preparation? How can one combat them effectively? How were you self-disciplined during the preparation phase?
Nidhi: To achieve any objective, self-satisfaction, discipline and dedication are the most important requirements. I was confident about what I wanted and knew that I had to nullify the deviations at my own level.

During my time, WhatsApp and Facebook weren’t omniscient. But there were distractions in the form of chitchats/gossips. I found out that sometimes, even those random talks help you in terms of personality development. So, what it boils down to is how you manage your deviations and how you prioritize them with respect to time management. This is entirely a person-specific issue.

Ira: I am actually the most ill-disciplined person you would ever meet. But, when you know that you have put things at stake for something, you realize that you got to do it. Distractions for me was more about managing things and setting realistic goals for the day and at the same time give time to other things. I could not restrict myself to be unidimensional, and I gave time to everything while preparing, along with completing the set targets.

3. What gave you the impetus to toil hard for five/six long years to prepare for the rigorous exam?How did you maintain the enthusiasm, motivation and temperament, while preparing keeping societal pressures at bay?

Nidhi: Enthusiasm comes from self-motivation. I had the conviction that I have to reach my achieve my target no matter what happens. As I was more involved in my job at Adobe, I couldn’t devote much time to my studies as soon as I realised my true calling, I refocused my energy towards civil services.

The UPSC exam requires a lot of inspiration and motivation which should come from yourself.

Ira:  Not getting through something you’d longed for was what gave me the impetus to keep on trying. It wasn’t a failure for me. The preparation was more about improving myself. I believe, when you externalize things, you get demotivated, but when you realize and more importantly accept your mistakes, there’s always a scope for improvement. I didn’t find faults in things nor did I blame the system, exam paper or the subject. Each time I couldn’t succeed, I analyzed as to where I went wrong and worked for the same.

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Also, The UPSC exam lasts for a year, first the preliminary exam, then the mains followed by the interview? How can one keep oneself motivated throughout the year, for the twelve month process?

Nidhi: It’s a long process unlike CAT or some other exam. But you have to understand the fundamentals, the spirit of UPSC behind this.

The reason behind the length of the exam is actually the spirit of UPSC. The exam is, in fact, a test of your perseverance. Your ability to remain cool, calm and composed amid pressure is being checked, which is what is required of you, after joining Civil services.

For senior players like you, what was the motivation to keep on revising the same material multiple times, keeping in mind that the revision gets monotonous after some time. How did you maintain the momentum?

Nidhi: UPSC renews the exam curriculum every year. Some portions are added and some are removed. So, it’s not boring to revise. Some portions are, indeed, static but you just need to be conceptually clear with them. You just have to develop your analytical and logical skills, which is not boring for a person from engineering background.

Ira:I was always the person who would start work in the last hour, yet I believe in quality studies.

For the first time, when I sat for the prelims, I was quite serious. In the successive attempts, it was more about revision. Usually, I started preparing for the exam, after the result of the previous stage had been announced

4. Considering the fact that at NSIT, an internship and a placement are the things, most of the people target, should one first test the water by working in an organization or pursuing further education OR straightway drop out of the college after final year and devote oneself completely to studies?

Nidhi: This is again a very individual-driven question. In my case, I took up placements to pursue a small career in corporate life.

Sometimes, the external factors are not conducive and you are not totally sure about your goals.

One needs to take all factors into consideration before deciding upon anything.

If you take my opinion, the most opportune time to go for civil services is right after college. But if you are not confident enough, you can enrich your personality in the corporate sector.

Basically, you can take any of the three options but you have to be very clear in your goals.

Ira: I don’t think starting with the preparation as soon as college ends is a smart way. UPSC is one exam which, according to me is 40% luck, 40% hard work and 20% intelligence. So luck is important and you cannot really bank on it. Luck slaps you when you are stupid.

When you go for a job, you know that life won’t stoop to a zero in case you don’t get through. A lot of people quote that they face depression while preparing for the exam. Having done a job before helps you combat this depression.

In addition to this, you get to discover a lot about yourself while at work. You are a subject to various situations which help you understand issues and your surrounding better. A job helps you develop your decision and analytical skills, something which gets reflected in your answers in the exam.

5. Shifting the focus to, how to attempt the paper and write answers.

 a) Should we have balanced answers adopting middle ground or take a stand?

Nidhi:There is nothing like a perfect answer. Every answer has some positives and some negatives.

Your answer should not only include the shortcomings but also focus on the real problem and its solution from all directions. If you are sure that you have thought about every aspect about the problem, take a stand else take a balanced approach.
Ira:If they ask you to take a stand, take a stand, but the stand has to be rational and not an emotional one. You are supposed to write ethical answers everywhere, solutions that can be practically implemented. Concrete steps need to be given. Vague suggestions don’t fit the bill.

b) Is it desirable to add personal perspective in answers like in GS-4 and in essays? Is pitching in new solutions or perspectives to a problem advised?

Nidhi:UPSC requires you to think innovatively. You will be at a position where you will influence government policies. If your solution provides an innovative mechanism to solve the problem, India would want you to come forward.

So, if you have some innovative ideas, do write them.

c) Please tell us about your approach/structure adopted in essay writing. Also tell us about the topics you chose and why?

Nidhi: My topics were tourism and standardised tests in education. You must have a broad framework and should think about the impacts, influences, future problems, solution and any future innovations that could be incorporated. These things will make your essay quite holistic along with a text of 7-8 pages which is required.

For e.g. standardised tests in education can be in professional fields, in medical fields or even in engineering and social fields. You could include their impact on culture, society, national and international affairs. You could also muse upon the requirement of standardised tests in technical fields and other areas. Moreover, you can always add some real life examples.

Ira:While choosing an essay topic, go for the one which has substantial things –substantial points to write about. Go for philosophical answers only if you are really good at it. Additionally, your answers have to be balanced and not biased.

d) People have various methods of starting their essays. And beginnings do matter. So, what was your approach in starting essays?

Nidhi: It’s good to remember a quote. It’s good if you end with a strong positive message. But it is not necessary. Everyone is not going to write quotes in the beginning. And, you can always make 2 line quotes on your own. If you are writing facts, ensure that it is word-perfect.

Basically, you should start with something that will impress the examiner.

e) In general, how should we plan our preparation strategy to write different answers in comparison to other UPSC candidates?(extra books, reports, websites(ministry ones) or anything else to refer)

Nidhi:If you consider the different reports, committees and the different recommendations, your answer will have a certain depth. However, this is not the foundation of your answer. The foundation is the concepts on which you will base your answer. Your presentation also matters. You can impress the examiner only if you write in an innovative mechanism. You can consider any number of sources available at your disposal. You just have to write in a way, which is not boring for an examiner to read and also doesn’t sound like it’s taken right out of some book.

Ira:Extra books and other material helps but that doesn’t necessarily give you an edge over others. Reading other people’s views and opinions gives you a perspective but doesn’t give you a different answer. They are public opinions, not your individual opinion. Difference is something that comes from within.

6. During preparation, considering changing trends of UPSC, how should an ideal candidate customize his/her strategy to make their thinking more analytical and dynamic?

Nidhi: There has been an evolution of the questions in the UPSC exams. If you consider the previous year papers, you will observe that the questions have become more analytical. Analytical skills will come to you think about all the relevant ‘whys’. The thinking horizons need to be widened and research on various facets of an issue needs to be done. Only then will you have a holistic answer.

Ira: Friends are your best guide in this. Take an issue, be it a magazine cover or societal issues, discuss with your friends. While discussing, make sure that you listen. Generally, we tend to impose our views on people for we try to win the discussion, and that’s where we lose. Discussions are more of learning and understand why somebody else could think in a manner different to yours, rather than simply winning. Simply pushing your agenda onto others doesn’t help.

7. A lot of people have dilemmas like workloads, postings in and outside metros, political pressure, Group A v/s Group B and further developed v/s BIMARU states, North v/s South, north-east states, Naxal v/s Non-Naxal etc. while filling the Detailed Application Form (DAF)

Please elaborately explain what all factors are considered while filling cadre and services preferences and accordingly how have you classified cadres and services on those parameters when you filled the DAF.

 Nidhi: The spirit of UPSC tells you to work hard. If one is dedicated towards his/her own work, these factors no longer hinder you. It all depends on what you want. If you wish to work on development, BIMARU or Naxal states are open for you. Political issues should also not be a criteria for judgment. But, language is an important criterion as language propels you to work better.

Regarding DAF as a whole, DAF filling is important because it determines how your interview will go, to some extent. One just needs to be honest in the DAF and good things will succeed.

Ira:I wasn’t very strategic about this. I chose my home cadre in this as that was the best choice. According to me, geographies shouldn’t really matter, it’s just the factors that stimulate your performance, at some places. For me these parameters were language and compatibility with the culture. I wanted to work in a place, where there are no language barriers and where I could gel well with the culture. My top five six choices were Hindi states- northern India states.

8. Please tell us about 1) overall revision strategy, 2) last month revision strategy, 3) Last week revision strategy and 4) Last day revision strategy , you guys adopted ?

Nidhi: For optionals like physics, prepare handy notes. For e.g. if derivations are there, you can start off with the name of the scientist, some fundamentals of the derivation and the end result or some specific condition you have considered for the derivation.

For the last week and the last day, revise the basic formulas.

For GS, concept clarity is required. On the last day, just brush up on some events which took place in the last month or so along with a few facts on international affairs.

Ira:I tend to underline important things while reading books. I generally go through the underlines, things I know I might forget, during the last days. My last month strategy involves going through the whole course once.

9. Many people face anxiety, restlessness, and sleep issues a night before their prelims and mains exam. Have you faced them? How did you overcome such problems?

Nidhi:Anxiety is very common for a normal person. But if you are thorough and confident, you will be able to overcome that anxiety. So, just be relaxed, calm and composed.

If you have been consistent with the preparation for the last year, that confidence will develop in you and sleep will tag along. Sleep is very important especially in mains. So, if you don’t sleep on one day, you end up messing the whole thing.

Ira:I am generally studying even in the last minute. I haven’t slept the nights before the exam. But you cannot afford to do new things in the last moment, the way we have been doing things at NSIT. Last day can be reserved for revision, but not getting acquainted with entirely new things. But, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone, for if you aren’t as stable as me, you would end up in a panic state.

10. a) What role do co-curricular activities, projects and internships play in the interview?

Nidhi: The interviews wish to know whether you are a balanced personality or not. Your academics have already been tested by the prelims and the mains exams. Your leadership and management skills, reflected by your co-curricular activities, are checked. It is just a test of your personality.

Ira: They look at the PORs (Positions Of Responsibility), awards and the curriculars in your CV. They check whether you are a balanced personality or not. As far as your hobbies are concerned, you can have any hobby under the sky, as long as you can justify it and you think that it is productive.

There are people in IPS, IRS. How do you defend yourself in front of the panel?

Nidhi: This question was asked to me at one of the interviews. Here, your clarity of thoughts is being checked. You should think of the things you can do as an IAS officer and the opportunities that an IRS lacks. But you should also think about the positives you are bringing from your previous job.

b) Please explain the factors viz. candidate body language, mind-set, knowledge , confidence, ability to handle pressure situations etc. interviewers consider while judging a candidate. Any special trick or measures you adopted to improve any of these?

Nidhi:Knowledge is, of course, not tested in the interview. The things mentioned above make your personality. But the main thing they look to is if whether you are willing to serve the weaker sections. This is reflected by the thoughts you communicate. So, personality development at the thought level is being checked.

Ira:All these factors do play a pivotal role in your interview. They look at the way you think about things given to you on the spot and how you construct ideas, how open you are and how well you carry yourself.

c) What role does work experience in 1) branded private companies, 2) Start-ups, 3) Government services play? How can a candidate with no work experiencehandle the interview? Does a post- graduation from a reputed school supplement your personality?

Nidhi: Every day is a new experience. Be it a stint at a start-up or a job at a private or a government company, every small thing brings out your true self. All these things make you feel more confident about communicating since you have experience interacting with so many people. That does give you an edge but it is not the sole path to success.

Ira: They look at you as an individual, it does not matter which brand you belong to.

11. What was the reason you chose Geography and Physics as your optional subject respectively? How should one go about selecting one’s optional subjects?

Nidhi:I chose physics because I thought I could carry it for 2-3 years as I had an interest in it. My             strategy was to choose an area where the interest lies.

Ira: I had loved Geography since school and it was one subject that I was confident about and hence my choice for an optional subject.

12. Any words for NSIT?

Nidhi: NSIT is not just a name. It is a brand in itself. When you rise, you just have to be connected and carry the name of NSIT with you. Networking is very important if you want free flow of thoughts and ideas. So, the only advice is do whatever you want to do in college. The college has immense opportunities and you must explore to find out where your true love lies. But at the same time excel in whatever you choose because ultimately, you are responsible for your own life.

Ira: NSIT is the place which will always be associated with us. Wherever we are, whoever we are, we will always be NSITians. Your graduate education is something that stays with you throughout life- it is all about extreme learning, exploration. It gives you room for improvement. This place will help you make friends, friends that stay forever. I would suggest everyone to explore to the fullest as this place provides you with tons of oppurtunities. Enjoy, work hard and discover yourself.

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