“If we are born ordinary, it’s not our fault. But if we die ordinary, that’s solely our fault”
The Indian Civil Service Exam is perhaps one of a kind in the world because it offers a cheat code to life. It is an exam which opens up the highest seats of permanent power to one who manages to clear it. Thus, by merely cracking an exam, an aspirant irrespective of his background enters the corridors of power in India. While those in political sphere have to compete ever five years to maintain power, a Civil Servant enjoys the same till retirement, with a steady rise in position and reach.
Civil Service consists of three stages, the preliminary examination, popularly known as prelims, the mains examination and the personality test. The prelims consists of two papers, the CSAT I or the General Studies Paper which deals with the current affairs and other knowledge based questions and CSAT II or the aptitude paper which tests the mental ability of the aspirants through comprehension passages, simple mathematics and logical reasoning questions. The first paper decides the candidate’s fate in the prelims round. The second paper is qualifying in nature and requires one-third marks to clear. The mains papers are divided into nine, three-hour-long written papers. These include essay, general studies papers I-IV which includes an ethics paper, two papers on the optional subject opted by the aspirant and two qualifying papers, one in English and one in the regional language of our choice. Personality test endeavours to assess a candidate’s mental acumen as a civil service officer. As the candidate’s knowledge has been assessed in the previous two stages, this stage is not an assessment of the candidate’s knowledge but of his capacity to become a bureaucrat. There is a clear cut syllabus for the prelims and mains papers, but none for the personality test.
Even today, many see this exam as an impossible task, only to be attempted by the extra-ordinarily bright. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Only a negligible percentage of the total intake into civil service every year falls under the category of bright. The vast majority of aspirants who make it are regular people from regular backgrounds who have put in dedicated effort and thousands of hours of hard work. Intelligent hard work is what civil service finally boils down to. The ability to sit down and read, to practice hundreds of question papers, to undertake hours of writing practice, to shift through books, newspapers, web sites and coaching material on a daily basis, the ability to do this for an year or two, without losing patience or motivation. At the end of the day it’s a numbers game.
Civil service coaching used to be an expensive affair. People still associate civil service preparation with images of aspirants taking the first train to Delhi after graduation to attempt this impossible feat, spending lakhs in the process. Times have changed. Now quality coaching is available much closer to home. Thiruvananthapuram now house some of the best coaching centers in the country, so much so that even people from Bihar and UP can be found preparing for civils in our little heaven. While individual classes in Delhi usually hold up to three-hundred students, classes in Trivandrum usually keep a ceiling of fifty students. Thus classes here ensure that the students get personal attention and one-on-one care. Perhaps more important is the expense incurred. A single prelims class in a good institute costs over one and a half lakhs in Delhi. Living expense is astronomical. Closer to home, a prelims, mains and optional package costs less than a lakh while maintaining, if not surpassing the Delhi counterparts in quality. It begs the question, why go anywhere else?
Civil Service is, at the end of the day one of the best jobs that India has to offer. Successful candidates are inducted at a senior bureaucratic post which provides ample opportunity for affirmative action. This is the beauty of the job. A civil servant gets to lead from the front and make key policy decisions in her twenties. To be an active participant and contributor to nation building is no mean feat! And the power, status and privileges that accompany the job are second to none. This is utopia for someone who wants to serve the nation but also wishes for a stable life. And all that stands between you and this life is one exam. So the question you should be asking is “If they can, why can’t I?”