Chasing the IAS dream: The many challenges in cracking India's most demanding exam

The UPSC examination is one of the toughest tests around. Recently, even ChatGPT failed to clear the first hurdle. What are the challenges faced by those preparing for it?
UPSC aspirants attending the exam in 2021 in Coimbatore. (File | EPS)
UPSC aspirants attending the exam in 2021 in Coimbatore. (File | EPS)

Tamilvendhan R hails from a village in Thanjavur district. He was brought up by his single mother who is a daily-wage laborer. Presently working with a leading private firm in Chennai, Tamilvendhan is an IAS aspirant.

Way back in 2018 when he set out with the ambition to crack the Union Public Service Commission Examination (UPSC), he was an unemployed youth. It seemed like the odds were stacked against him.

But Tamilvendhan was not to be deterred. He shifted to Chennai with the aim of fulfilling his dream.

Civil Services. Thousands dream of cracking the prestigious exam each year to embrace a career that they believe offers them the power and privilege to change lives -- including theirs -- for the better.

Tamilvendhan recalls the challenges he faced in his initial days,

After reaching Chennai, he took up a part-time job and gave tuitions to children to supplement his income and buy books for the UPSC exams.

"I found myself in a tight corner. There was a time when I needed a book to prepare but there was no money as I hadn't received my salary for the part-time job I was doing then," he said.

Tamilvendhan frequently thought about his mother. Back home, his mother too thought about him. She sent him money whenever he was in dire straits.

Amma Unavagam turned out to be a boon. Moreover, whenever he faced a financial crisis, his friends were quick to bail him out.

He recalled that there were occasions when he felt like giving up and returning home since he was unable to make ends meet in Chennai. His passion and determination to succeed, however, gave him the strength to face the challenges and stay the course.

He remembers another hurdle. In his village, people were always asking him about what he was doing.

''During the early days of preparation, I had trouble making the villagers understand my pursuit. They would ask me whether I would complete my studies this year. I used to explain it to them. But later on, I got tired of repeating the same narrative to everyone every time," he said.

These days, he hardly bothers. All that matters is his goal.

The mental strength the exam demands is huge. Whenever he feels low, he reassures himself that his present situation is better than the past.

Tamilvendhan is highly optimistic about his preparation and shares, "I am improving and progressing in life. I firmly believe that my efforts will not go in vain. I can totally understand what I knew before I began preparing and how my knowledge has expanded manifold now. If I am able to move ahead in life, it is not only because of my hard work and effort but also because of my focus and clarity of thought. I have derived a lot of benefits apart from knowledge through my UPSC preparation and it is helping me out in many ways and it in turn is one of the many reasons for my relentless hope."

'Don't demotivate me'

Pressure from society is something Suganthan L is also grappling with. An automobile engineering graduate, presently in Coimbatore, he has been preparing full-time for the Civil Services exam for the past few years.

"I wish that those relatives who can't support me can at least avoid demotivating me," he says.

Suganthan underwent coaching at a premier institute in Delhi for one year, right after completing his graduation.

He confides that "my relatives expected that I will start earning quickly. Most did not know the process involved in cracking UPSC and how tiresome it can at times be. Instead, they make comparisons with others who are employed and brush aside my ambition."

When asked about how psychologically taxing the examination is, he says, "The process is so tiring and it has broken me very badly at times, making me feel like quitting. But, I give up the thought always as I  have high self-confidence."

His mother and brother have been supporting him constantly and that has given him the mental strength to make fresh attempts at attaining his goal every year.

Suganthan has also turned to yoga to take care of his physical and mental well-being.

'Self-motivation and inner drive'

Obaid Abdullah, a mechanical engineering graduate and a UPSC aspirant from Baramulla, Kashmir, believes that what keeps him going "is self-motivation and the inner drive to achieve personal goals.".

He also adds that, ''It is not uncommon for moments of self-doubt, stress, and anxiety during the journey of preparation." He admits that he is largely cooped up in his room as preparation requires a lot of dedication and time.

When asked how friends, family, and society at large can change their perspective, he says that it will be really encouraging if they try to have measured expectations and are sensitive to the mental health of the aspirants. He finds that emotional and moral support from near ones plays a crucial role in the preparation.

'Having a backup plan is essential'

Talking about the uncertainties involved in the exam, Arun B, an automobile engineering graduate and a long-time UPSC aspirant based in Chennai, says, "Having a backup plan is essential as one sets aside prime years of their life for the preparation and the journey to success might be longer than expected.''

Arun has recently cleared the SSC-MTS Examination, his backup plan.

Deepak Kumar Mandia, an aspirant and a law graduate based in Faridkot, Punjab, says that adaptability to changing exam patterns, time management, and achieving consistency in preparation are his major challenges.

When asked about specific efforts he has taken to adapt to the tiring and strenuous preparation, he says, "I always try to develop a positive mindset before studying. I take short breaks in between the preparation to break the monotony and recoup. I ignore negative influences and keep myself enthusiastic. I learn from my mistakes and make sure that I don't repeat them."

He also adds that "over the years, I have realized it is equally important to take care of my health. Now, I am more aware of the need for a balanced diet and regular exercise.''

Dream born on a motorcycle ride

The UPSC examination is one of the toughest tests around. Recently, even ChatGPT failed to clear the first hurdle. There is a preliminary examination, a main examination, and a personal interview, all spanning over a year.

The dream of becoming an IAS officer takes shape in the minds of many during their childhood days.

For instance, I can recollect how the seeds of my IAS dream were sown in my young mind during a conversation with my father while he was taking me to school on his motorcycle in Tiruchy. I was then in Class II. En route, I saw people huddled below an overbridge and asked my father why they are where they are and not at home. He replied, "You should grow up and become a Corporation Commissioner or district Collector so that you can build them a home."

The key driving factor that motivates most aspirants is an opportunity to serve the people, particularly, the less-privileged lot.

The exam offers a level-playing field and allows candidates from different educational backgrounds ranging from medicine to humanities and from different socio-economic backgrounds to have their shot at glory. The resources and guidance are at hand. Nevertheless, the conventional mode of attending premier coaching institutes and getting tailored guidance is still the most preferred method for aspirants.

Delhi beckons

Aspirants often move to Delhi to prepare for the all-important exam as the coaching centres there are seen to offer the best guidance, There is easy availability of study materials including test series, an affable community and a conducive atmosphere

The hurdle of adapting to a new location awaits the aspirants anyhow, especially young ones from small towns.

A decent accommodation that suits their budget will be the first thing they would be looking for in the metropolis. Hostels located nearer to the coaching institutes are preferred by most. Once a suitable accommodation is arranged comes the hunt for good food. The language barrier is a common and primary problem faced by aspirants coming from regions other than the Hindi-speaking belt. The extreme weather conditions of Delhi are also an acid test for most.

Old Rajinder Nagar, Karol Bagh, and Mukherjee Nagar are hubs of UPSC training centres and one can find a slew of coaching institutes, libraries, study halls, and book stalls dotting these places. The places are as busy as the aspirants. Backpacked aspirants rush from the metro to the classes often with the just-read newspaper in hand, visibly scribbled and with important points highlighted, thanks to the travel time. Often, aspirants juggle from one building to the other as they choose different institutes for GS (General Studies), CSAT (Civil Services Aptitude Test) and Optional. After fully-packed classes and a tiring day, it's then time for endless study hours in the room.

Lakhs go for it, only a few clear it

Every year, lakhs of young people appear for the preliminary examination, but it is less than 1000 who make it to the final list. The success stories of those who have cleared the exam get into the limelight every year once the final results are published, but what happens to the rest?

For them, it is back to the labyrinth of clearing prelims-mains-interview. The study hours stretch longer and the preparation style is adjusted to be relevant to the new pattern of questions.

The examination is always unpredictable and the candidate who has given an interview might fail at the prelims stage itself the next year. A candidate who has never cleared prelims in all their previous attempts might clear all three stages in their last attempt. A candidate could even end up writing mains in all their attempts but never make it to an interview even once.

The game is put on reset every time one fails any stage of the examination and thereby tests the endurance capacity more than the cumulative knowledge. With the preparation demanding a strategic approach and expertise in multiple formats, the struggle is not just to prepare for the exam itself but to face new and peculiar problems.

Once the close circle of friends and family gets to know that one of their own is preparing for the exam, then they are definitely in for a whirlwind. The progress of the aspirant is closely monitored, and constant enquiries about the results follow. There is no end to the random advice/critical comments that the aspirants receive, especially if they are unsuccessful when it comes to clearing any stage of the examination, which is more likely to happen in a highly competitive exam like the UPSC.

The lot of aspirants who prepare year after year despite failures then is particularly challenging. Most of the time, the advice is not constructive and only distracts from the preparation. Yet, what pushes the aspirants to rise, relearn, and fight back is their conviction and drive to realise their cherished dream.

As the number of attempts that remain gets whittled down, the uncertainty of the examination is likely to grab you by the shoulder. Sometimes, after a few unsuccessful attempts, aspirants turn to alternative career prospects. But then again who waits is who conquers...

To sum up, civil services preparation is certainly a journey that tests the limits of endurance before the destination arrives. Egg on those who are chasing the grand prize despite the many obstacles!

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