Taruni Pandey cleared UPSC CSE in her first attempt. She tells us how she managed this incredible feat with just six months of preparation.
If someone asked Taruni Pandey what her aspiration was a decade ago, becoming a civil servant wouldn’t have featured in her list. She always dreamt of becoming a doctor and tells me she would sign as ‘Dr Taruni Pandey’ since she was in class 3. But, today, Taruni is all set to start her training as an officer in December, after clearing the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) Civil Service Exam (CSE) earlier this year.
The 32-year-old grew up in Chittaranjan, West Bengal, and spent her schooling years in Jamtara, Jharkhand.
“We barely have any resources in Jamtara. Due to financial constraints, I had to shift from a private to a government school after class 10. So, I completed class 12 boards from a government school in Jamtara. I was a good student throughout and performed well in medical school too. I worshipped medicine and was very clear about pursuing that path. I even enrolled in a medical school in Sikkim and completed two years,” says Taruni.
However, a series of health scares forced her to drop out after two years of MBBS.
“While I was in my second year of medical college, I faced a plethora of health issues. Nothing was chronic, but it was a line of acute infections. I had dengue, typhoid, and cerebral malaria. To add to all of this, I slipped from a hill slope and hurt myself,” she adds.
Starting from scratch
She says that she had to start from scratch after returning home.
“I took some time to compose myself. My qualification then was just that of a class 12 pass. I pursued my Bachelor’s and Master’s in English Literature from Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). After this, we were again faced with a tragedy. My brother-in-law, a CRPF commandant, was martyred in Srinagar in 2016,” adds Taruni.
The death of her brother-in-law meant that she had to accompany her sister to various bureaucrats and politicians’ offices to talk about her job. Here, she found her second calling in life.
“When I accompanied my sister to meet these bureaucrats, I saw the amount of good that they do. I met a very dynamic bureaucrat and he helped us. I realised how much good one person can do by being in the system. That day, I decided that I too want to become a civil servant, and help somebody’s family, the same way that gentleman helped mine,”
After that, Taruni was sure of what she wanted to do. She was all set to give her UPSC CSE in 2020, but could not attempt it as she contracted COVID four days before the exam. After that, she gave the exam in 2021, knowing well that it was her first and last attempt (as per the age criteria for general category students).
“The first bout of COVID hit me really hard. I was hospitalised for almost four months. After that, I was left with just about six months to prepare for the exams. Also, while it was my first attempt, it was also my last, so I had a lot of pressure,” she adds.
Clearing UPSC with no coaching
Taruni secured Rank 14 in the Consolidated Reserve List in the CSE mains 2021. What makes her victory even more special is that she did not attend any coaching classes.
“Since childhood, I have never attended coaching classes, even for my board exams. I’ve always believed in self-study. Even when I gave the exam, I got COVID again. I wrote the exams with pneumonia,” adds Taruni.
She prepared notes herself and watched YouTube videos for the same.
“I had to prepare for my prelims in just four months. I honestly believe that under normal circumstances, a person should prepare for UPSC for at least two years. Since I didn’t have a choice, I had to develop an ultra-smart strategy to clear the exam. I prepared my notes by watching YouTube videos. I didn’t read from the standard books as I simply didn’t have time,” adds Taruni.
She says she worked on a strategy to eliminate the wrong answers.
“The important thing is to mark the right answers and I studied accordingly. I kept on revising and re-revising the notes that I had prepared. I would keep a target of finishing X number of chapters per day, and I finished it, whether it took two or ten hours,” she says.
She says that for the mains, her class 1-10 education helped her greatly.
“Since I have a science background, science and ecology were doable for me. Economics and Polity were tough, and I had to focus on them. Finally, my hard work and destiny played a role, and everything just fell into place,” says Taruni.
She now wishes to be a part of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and has a few tips to help other aspirants:
- Be honest
“I found many people who qualified in the exams but didn’t clear the interview. Their motivating factors for joining included money, power, a big bungalow, etc. While these can be add-on factors, they shouldn’t be the main reasons to join the service. Please join only if you want to do good for society,” says Taruni.
- Don’t lose hope
“I have experienced a lot of challenges in life. The one thing that helped me is being perseverant. Even if you don’t clear on the first attempt, don’t lose hope. Keep going,” she says.
- Look forward
She says, “People tend to keep hanging on to the past. Even if you have committed mistakes, don’t keep stressing about them. Don’t look in the rearview mirror of life and drive.”
- Coaching is not needed
She says, “There is a myth that coaching is compulsory for preparation, or that people can’t clear without coaching. We live in the digital age, with so many free resources at our disposal. Use them.”
- English is not a barrier
“I hail from a small town. English is considered a barrier in many towns like mine. Trust me, it’s not. You can attempt the UPSC exam in 22 languages. You can even have a translator. English is not a marker of status or education. People need to get out of that mindset,” stresses Taruni.
Edited by Yoshita Rao