IAS Officer Nidhi Siwach, who bagged AIR 83 in UPSC CSE speaks about how she picked herself up and changed her preparation strategy after two failed attempts.
After two failed attempts at the Union Public Service Commission’s (UPSC) Civil Service Examination (CSE), to give up on a steady corporate career to focus on preparing for the exam is like taking a leap of faith.
This is precisely what Nidhi Siwach (28), who secured an All India Rank (AIR) of 83 in the 2018 CSE, felt. “It was a huge risk. One that required me to almost put my life on hold. So in hindsight, I’m glad it paid off,” she tells The Better India.
She spent the early years of her life in Faridabad, after which her parents shifted base to Gurugram to give Nidhi and her siblings a chance at better education. She says her mother was insistent on her children studying in an English-medium school. “My mother could not attend school and my father was also unable to complete his education. This was perhaps one reason they wanted my siblings and me to study well,” she says.
In an attempt to give them a chance at education, Nidhi’s father shifted from Meham in Rohtak to Gurgaon to Gurugram and started a small departmental store.
“Even though our early years were difficult, my siblings and I never even got a whiff of it. All I saw was how hard my parents worked – my mother not only looked after us and our home, but also helped my father at the store,” she says.
A mechanical engineering graduate from Deenbandhu Chhoturam University, Sonipat, Haryana, Nidhi says that she has always been a very diligent student. “Education was the only option I had to ensure that I made a better life, not just for myself, but also for my family. So I always worked very hard and made sure I got great scores all through my school life,” she says.
With little to no help from parents in academics, Nidhi did a lot of self-studying. “I also had to ensure that whatever I learnt, I eventually taught to my younger siblings. This also meant that I had to be 100 per cent sure of what I was learning myself,” she adds.
Nidhi’s initial desire was to join the armed forces. “In Gurugram, where I grew up, the Air Force station was very close by, and I had grown up seeing the aura and respect that the officers commanded. Since I was from a mechanical engineering background, the options were many – logistics, flying and the administrative branch,” she says. Nidhi got 95 per cent in her Class 10 examination and 90 per cent in Class 12.
It was through campus placement in 2015 that Nidhi found herself in Hyderabad working at Tech Mahindra. “I did have two other offers, including one from Gurugram, where my parents resided. But my father wanted me to take up an offer from a tech company and thus I found myself in Hyderabad. I didn’t want to say no to him. I have seen how hard both him and my mother worked to get me where I was,” she says.
The search for something more
But Nidhi’s heart was never truly in moving to Hyderabad and taking up the software job. She did it only because she did not want to hurt her parents in any way.
She was all set to appear for the Air Force Common Admission Test (AFCAT) at this time, and it was during the personality interview preparation that the thought of UPSC struck her. “The IAF (Indian Air Force) officer who was interviewing me suggested that I appear for the UPSC examination instead. The last date for submission of the application form was merely three days away, and yet, I took that leap of faith.” It can well be said that once Nidhi submitted the application form, life as she knew it changed.
For her first attempt in 2016, all Nidhi had three months of preparation time before the prelims. “In that first attempt, there were many current affairs questions and I remember feeling good about my performance. I also got the confidence to appear again if the need arises,” she says. The fact that she was attempting this paper was a secret that she kept to herself.
“Even though I did not clear the exam, my score that year was 96 after three months of preparation, which was a big boost for me,” she says. With increased dedication and vigour, Nidhi started preparing for the 2017 examination while working at Tech Mahindra full time. She says it was difficult to hold on to a job and find time to prepare. “Even though I was in the morning shift, some call or the other would hold me back in the office for several days and that hampered my study schedule,” she says.
The paper in 2017 was tough and with a work schedule that was hectic, Nidhi did not manage to clear it. This was the moment of truth for Nidhi. “During this time, talks of marriage were also being broached. My father had agreed to give me one year, until I turned 25, after which he was sure that he’d like me married,” says Nidhi. With one year ahead of her to do as she pleased, she chose to quit her job and focus on her third attempt.
A risk that paid off
After the second attempt, the same evening, Nidhi realised that she would not be able to clear the exam and called her father up in tears. “I remember telling him how badly I had wanted to do well in the exam and told him that I wanted to quit my job and focus on preparing. He was livid when I said that. He told me about how people were struggling to find a job and here I was wanting to quit. It was such a difficult conversation, but one I had to have.”
For the next ten days, Nidhi’s father refused to speak to her. He had a change of heart on her birthday, when he called her and gave her permission to quit her job and prepare. “It was such a huge relief for me to get that call from my father. His acquiescence meant so much to me,” she says. In November 2017, with bag and baggage, Nidhi moved back to Gurugram.
This was like a brand-new chapter in her life. She was home with family and for the first fifteen days, she says, she just let that sink in. “Being at home was a big deal for me, it offered me such a sense of security and support. Once I settled down, I started preparing for the prelims in December 2017.” Now with a fresh mindset and a schedule in place, Nidhi was ready for the preparation. Through consistent practice and studying, she was able to not just clear the exam, but also bagged an AIR of 83 in her third attempt.
“My mother had somehow been sure all along that I would clear the examination. In fact, she was ready to celebrate, but my father was skeptical, and until he saw the results, he wasn’t sure of what I would do. But when he saw the result, I saw him cry for the first time. There was so much pride and joy I saw in him that day,” says Nidhi.
She also shares some tips that can help candidates clear the paper:
1. “Always make a basic check-list before you start studying. This should include reading the newspaper every day, going back to almost one and a half years prior to the examination. Ensure that you are thorough and up-to-date with your current affairs preparation as well.”
2. “Treat the NCERT textbooks as your guide. For economics, one should use the economic survey and budget well for the prelims.”
3. “Appear for a mock test without fail periodically before the prelims.” Nidhi started solving one mock paper a day and says she would devote close to 2.5 hours to it.
4. “Spend time studying the UPSC notification. Do not get put off with how lengthy it might be. Most of the time, the questions framed are directly from the notification itself. This will help aspirants understand what is demanded of you.”
Looking back at the first two attempts, Nidhi says, “I was very inconsistent in my preparation then. I did not read the newspaper every day, skimmed through the NCERT textbooks, and had not attempted any mock test. These were big mistakes that I rectified in my last attempt.”
(Edited by Divya Sethu)