In 2016, nearly half a million students sat the preliminary Indian Civil Services exam, hopeful it would lead them to a coveted job with the government

My desire to join the prestigious Indian Civil Service began when I was 22 years old. I was a recent graduate and by that time had flunked the Chartered Accountancy exam eight times. Changing tack to focus on the civil service didn’t get immediate support from my parents and sister but I knew several bureaucrats in the foreign ministry and had always dreamt of a lifestyle like theirs. It was one reason why I had never applied for a passport – I wanted my first passport to be a government or a diplomatic passport!

I knew the journey wouldn’t be easy as the whole process takes more than a year and a single mistake along the way can send you right back to the start. In fact, just a tiny 0.2 percent of applicants make it all the way through the preliminary exams, main exams and the final interview.

In January, 2016 I enrolled myself in a coaching institute in Delhi’s famous hub for government service preparation, Mukherjee Nagar. With just eight months to prepare for my first attempt in August of that year, I was taking quite a gamble.

Students sit the Civil Services Exam across India at thousands of venues in more than 50 cities

The 2016 attempt and after

2016 was the year of my father’s retirement and your parents’ retirement is a big thing in India. Society expects you to be standing on your own feet by this time. If you aren’t, you are seen as living off your parents’ money. This idea was preying on my mind as I prepared for the exams in August. On top of that, when it came time to sit the exam, students like me who had focused on the static portion of the syllabus got a horrendous surprise. The majority of the questions in General Studies Paper 1 concerned recent current affairs and government schemes. The results came a month later and my roll number was not in the successful candidates’ list.

My parents had high hopes but all they got from me was a bitter disappointment. I started spending time alone and would get angry at trivial things. There was no one I could talk to or share my feelings with since Indian parents don’t believe in counselling. I thought of expressing my feelings by writing a blog, but never did anything about it.

With time, I began to get over it and on the recommendation of a friend, I enrolled myself for a Master’s degree course in English literature. I decided it was time to study something I actually liked.

The 2017 attempt

At the start of this year, I wasted two precious months worrying about my father now being retired and the strain I was putting on him so to snap out of it I decided to join a library. The 2017 civil service exam was scheduled for June so I had even less time to prepare than in 2016. I started regularly visiting the library from March and soon after, I met a young woman there that I fell for straight away. She became the reason for my daily library visits and that somehow improved my preparation.

The preliminary Civil Services Exam consists of two multiple choice papers with a possible 200 marks each.

I studied all the subjects, Indian history, art and culture, geography of India and the world, Indian polity and governance, science, economics, social issues, ecology, international relations, and the current affairs of the past year relating to national and international events. I also ran through some 2,000 questions from previous exams.

I stopped responding to calls and messages during the last three weeks of preparation and then finally, it was the day of the exam. My heartbeat was rising fast as I entered the hall and I tried to calm myself down by remembering the supportive words of my parents, friends and well-wishers. Their belief boosted my morale but the exam itself was tough and the answers very difficult to choose from. In the press the exam was widely acknowledged as being the toughest in five years.

After a very long month I got my results – failed again. For the first few days I didn’t show any emotion but finally, I couldn’t hold it in. I cried, I cried a lot and I decided those tears wouldn’t get wasted!

I took a good, hard look at myself and realised my lack of revision was the main reason for my most recent failure. Talking to successful candidates I found they were answering 6,000 to 7,000 practice questions and were focusing on revising the whole syllabus at least three times! Nothing can be anticipated in this exam, anything can be asked to test candidates’ knowledge and analytical ability.
Unlike my first attempt, now I knew where I was lagging behind. My Dad took me to visit someone who himself had prepared for the exam several times and now worked as a successful bureaucrat for the government. His words struck a chord in my head.

“Have you given your 100 percent in this exam?” he asked. “If not, then try one more time. Give your 100 percent. If you pass, good, and if you don’t, at least you won’t have any regrets.”

I hate the idea of looking back with regret and I also don’t want to settle for less in my life. I believe our thoughts invariably materialise so we should cultivate them well. After all, attitude is more important than aptitude.

I hope someone reads this and finds some inspiration because here I have just done one thing I have dreamt of doing for several years – writing and expressing myself.

By Lakshay Mathur

I am a knowledge enthusiast and a writer pursuing my post- grad in English literature. My interests include watching TV shows and movies from different countries and cultures and finding discrepancies between statements. You can find me on Facebook.