With over 10 lakh applicants each year, and only 1,000 selections—the UPSC exams can seem like an insurmountable hurdle. But they can be crossed! In ‘UPSC Simplified’, The Better India catches up with toppers to uncover the dos and don’ts for India’s toughest exam.
Follow the series for all the tips you need.
I was quite confident and was expecting a score of about 216 after attempting the paper. However, to my dismay, I managed to score only 206, while the cut-off that year was 209. I missed by three marks!”
In this exclusive interview with The Better India, Civil Service Examination (CSE) 2015, AIR 300, Vivek Chauhan answers some pointed questions on failure, determination, preparation, and his strategy. He failed the CSE four times, missing the cut-off in his fifth attempt, and finally clearing it in 2015 in his sixth attempt.
Growing up, his days began at 5 a.m. Because he stayed in Ghaziabad, he would have to travel for five hours each day to and from school.
He dreamed of becoming a doctor, but with no means to study medicine, he eventually decided to attempt being a teacher.
The Municipal Corporation of Delhi conducts teacher training programmes. At 19, he joined one of these and was selected to be a teacher, going on to teach for 13 years of his life.
“I was almost 25 when the thought of attempting the CSE came to me. Being a general candidate, it was already quite late in the day. I also had the responsibility of getting my brother and younger sister married before I could do something for myself,” Vivek begins.
The first attempt in 2010 was one without much preparation. Recounting that experience, he says, “I felt bad that I had lost one precious attempt that way. At that time, we had only four attempts to clear the examination.”
During his stint as a teacher in the Delhi MCD School, he joined the Teacher’s Association as a nominated General Secretary. The various issues that teachers faced motivated him to become a bureaucrat.
With one failed attempt, in 2011, Vivek wrote the examination yet again. He missed the passing marks in the prelims by seven marks.
Looking back, he says, “That loss was hard to take. While I felt bad about the results, they also gave me the courage to see myself getting closer. It motivated me to try again.”
Third time lucky?
During the third attempt, he took the help of his wife, Pooja Rani, and several friends. “I was quite confident and was expecting a score of about 216 after attempting the paper. However, to my dismay, I managed to score only 206, while the cut-off that year was 209. I missed by three marks!”
The lesson he learnt was to refrain from analysing the paper immediately afterwards. He says, “I made the mistake of exaggerating my score before my friends, and that turned out to be a costly mistake. I wept so hard that some of my friends came to see me at my home. They just wanted to ensure that I did not do anything untoward after the results.”
For Vivek, it was yet another failure.
Not one to give up, he decided to appear for the exam again. “During the fourth attempt, I got support from a friend who had cleared the examination earlier. I had scored 232 in the prelims and attempted the mains with optimism,” he says.
As luck would have it, the cut-off for the 2013 CSE shot up to 241, so Vivek fell short by a few marks yet again!
Terribly disappointed, he says, “I wept once again, and this time everyone in my family wept with and for me. They saw my failure as theirs and felt deeply hurt by it.”
What added to his agony was the fact that he was already 30-years-old and could not appear for the exam again. So, with a heavy heart, he returned to teaching, where he was met with taunts and sarcasm.
“I had created such a hype about appearing for the exams that not clearing them was coming back to bite me,” he shares.
A turning point
Just when he was sure that his dream of becoming an officer had ended, the UPSC had declared that aspirants could appear for the examination six times until the age of 32. Vivek had two more chances, and he was determined to make the most of them.
In the fifth attempt, he cleared the prelims but could not get past the interview stage. With that, he had managed to fail the CSE for the fifth time!
With just one more chance left, it was a do-or-die situation for him. He focused all his energies on the preparation and analysed past mistakes to make sure he didn’t repeat them.
Remembering 10 May 2016 as though it was just yesterday, Vivek says, “The results were declared, and I had secured an All India Rank of 300. My relief and joy were unparalleled. It proved that a simple middle-class family boy with no formal education (all correspondence) could crack the coveted UPSC civil services examination.”
Learnings from failures
With each examination, Vivek got better. He realised that while perseverance and consistency were crucial, it was equally important to use the right material.
Vivek narrates how he would never give up on something, even as a child. He recalls, “My mother sent me to buy bread once. The nearest shop didn’t have it, so I kept looking around. I finally returned home after three hours with a packet of bread in hand!”
It was this perseverance and determination that saw him through these attempts. And after each failure, he made sure he analysed each mistake, making sure he didn’t repeat it. “For example, if I found myself doing badly in polity, I ensured I gave it more time while preparing the next time,” he says.
For the optional History paper, he referred to Balyan sir’s notes and teachings. He had secured 263 marks in CSE 2014 and 239 marks in CSE 2015 out of the total of 250.
For General Studies, he relied on the content from Insight on India, an online portal. This, he says, was comprehensive and helped him score well. Focusing on NCERT books will also be beneficial for aspirants, he suggests.
For Indian Polity, he recommends using M Laxmikanth’s book as it is quite comprehensive while addressing most questions that appeared in the exams.
For the Environment subject, while many resources are available online and offline, he found the IGNOU booklet extremely useful. He also recommends the Shankar IAS booklet for its factual approach.
With these pointers in mind, we wish you the best!
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)