Journey of UPSC – CSE
I am Lakshay Kumar Chowdhury, (Rank 378, CSE-2018). I am writing this blog to guide people/aspirants who might have the talent but are not able to utilise it effectively for achieving the desired result. The purpose of this blog is to help the aspirants and to wipe out the mysteries/theories around the Civil Services Examination.
A brief background of my life will help you comprehend my journey in a better way. I was born and brought up in Delhi. I graduated from Sri Venkateswara College, DU with a B.Com (Honours) degree in 2014. Further, I completed my post-graduation (M.Com) from SRCC, DU in 2016.
Personal Tip: Be brutally honest with yourself and others, so that there are no misconceptions about anything. It will help you find the right direction and will ensure success.
What made me choose CSE? I was effectively short of career alternatives at the end of my graduation. I did not want to pursue CA as my family already had plenty of CAs. I planned to do MBA from some top institute but after attempting CAT in 2nd year of college, I realised that CAT was not my cup of tea.
Finally, I had two alternatives: Either to sit in college placements and find a job in the private sector or start preparing for a job in Government Sector. This was the actual goal “to find a job”. My communications skills were not upto the mark and after appearing for 2-3 corporate interviews, I realised that the corporate world required better communication skills. To be honest, I started preparing for the Government sector as I had no other option left and the fact that my father is a retired Government Officer from Ministry of Finance gave me that extra motivation.
I started preparing for Civil Services mainly in the final year of my graduation. I had no clue as to what a District Magistrate is, till the time I entered college in 2011 (being born and brought up in Delhi, I did not get to hear about DMs as compared to other surrounding regions). I used to read only the Sports Section of any newspaper till the last year of College. My batchmate was preparing for CSE and I started following his footsteps. He guided me initially and then I found my path gradually.
Everybody has this doubt about what it takes to be a civil servant? Attitude, Hard work, Luck or something else. In my view, all factors combine together for successful candidates. Smart & hard work combined with a tinge of luck is the recipe that worked for me. Your formula might be a little different due to the peculiar circumstances you are in.
How many attempts are needed? Some crack it in the 1st attempt and some in their last. I would like to clarify that those who start late generally take more time than others. My case is a perfect example of it. I cracked it in the 3rd attempt. Those who crack it in the 1st go are mostly well guided or they have followed this dream from the very beginning or they might be experienced enough to develop the requisite level of maturity.
I gave my first attempt in 2015. I could not clear prelims. I scored around 57 and the cutoff was around 107. I was well short. I knew that my preparation was not on the right track. I had barely covered polity, economics and a little bit of other sections from May 2014 to August 2015. I wasted my time in reading NCERTs. Yes, you read it correctly. I do not recommend NCERTs for CSE. I feel that the time spent and the outcome achieved are not worth it. I did not attempt previous year questions. I was not aware of the trend of the examination. I was clueless. Even if I had cleared Prelims, I would have never cleared Mains as I had not written even a single answer till August 2015. In hindsight, it was good that I did not clear Prelims as I had much time for introspection. This helped me realise my mistakes.
Just before the 2015 attempt, I joined a small coaching institute in Mukherjee Nagar (I am deliberately not mentioning the name, as I won’t recommend it to anyone because of what happened just before the Mains of 2016 attempt. Wait, you will get to know. Be patient). I learnt many things by going regularly to a coaching centre, which I will mention separately.
I kept preparing from August 2015 to August 2016. On the very next day of prelims, I was quite confident of not clearing prelims. There was too much clarity in my mind and I think that was the key. One of my batch mates was hopeful of clearing prelims so the focus of the coaching was on mains preparation. I knew that had I planned things properly and given adequate time to each section, then I could have cleared prelims. What I did for such a long period is worth mentioning here:
a) I kept things very simple. Reading newspaper daily, going to coaching, writing one question daily and relaxing throughout this period.
b) I did not leave the things I followed. I kept doing things that made me happy be it watching cricket or following meaningless shows like MTV Roadies.
c) I developed the habit of writing regularly. After sometime, I started loving writing mains answers.
d) I knew that clearing prelims was a challenge for me. At any time, I would be better prepared for mains than prelims.
e) Without sitting in 2015 mains, I attempted the 2015 mains questions and that too by following the time limit. I tried to emulate the same exam environment at home.
f) I knew that I can’t study for more than 8 hours regularly. I can’t even study for the same hours for consecutive days. So, I was never concerned about the hours I spent on preparation.
g) Every Saturday or Sunday, I made plans with my friends where I relaxed and had some outside food.
h) In 2-3 months prior to prelims, my entire focus shifted to prelims preparation including practicing previous years’ questions.
i) I stopped going to the coaching centre atleast 2 months before prelims. I did not find it useful. I was wasting too much time on coaching and the mentor was very casual in his approach towards the syllabus.
j) I kept giving different examinations- Banks, State Civil Services, SSC, RBI. Any exam which I found meaningful and worthy, I attempted it without any ego or burden.
In August 2016, I gave the prelims. I kept my mental composure and attempted around 76 questions. I had a fair bit of idea about my accuracy level, therefore, I adjusted according to the difficulty level of the paper. Till the time of result, I kept preparing about mains writing. The number of questions increased and the focus of optional increased. Just before the result, my mentor started asking for more fees. I had already paid the amount asked by him (around 1.2 lakhs). I had a fight with him but it proved to be a futile exercise. I left that coaching in September 2016.
This was real phase of my preparation. Till this point, I was dependent on others to find my path. Now, I was left with no option but to use my own mind and find my own solutions. I had taken History as my optional just on the recommendation of my coaching centre. This was the biggest mistake I could have committed. Choosing an optional for which my heart did not say yes.
I went to Rajendra Nagar and got Baliyan Notes for history. I knew I had to concentrate on my optional. I kept increasing questions I wrote daily with an equal focus on optional answer writing. History is such a subject that it demands rigorous answer writing practice.
Meanwhile, I got selected in NFL in clerical cadre. Despite family pressure, I did not join it because I did not want to miss the mains or even disturb my preparation. What is the point of joining this job when you have cleared prelims- the 1st stage of the exam you were actually preparing for.
I gave mains in December 2016 with severe back pain and extreme winter did not help the cause. However, I was quite relaxed during the 5 days. The experience was amazing. I saw different breeds of aspirants. I had given mains but was not sure of the result.
In February 2016, the result came and my roll no featured in that list. I was too happy. I started thinking that this is my year and I will make it to the list. I started dreaming about it. This was effectively my 1st real attempt and I was going to give the interview. The dreams and wishes flowed with unbridled hopes.
My interview was scheduled on 31st March, 2017. Mr. Vinay Mittal was the Chairman. The interview was descent but with some blunders. I was an under confident guy with an immature mind and unrealistic thought process. One thing that I decided after the interview was that I would not give any attempt with History as an optional. One of my panel members asked me about a quote of History and I could not even understand the language he spoke in 😀
Meanwhile, I got selected as an PO in Canara Bank. The result came on the day of my medical examination. So, effectively, my 1st goal was achieved- Getting a Job. I was not sure of giving the next attempt.
In May 2017, the final result came. I did not feature in the list. I fell short by around 19 marks. All the dreams got shattered by a single pdf. All the friends and relatives, even my father’s colleagues called that evening to know about the result. पैरों के नीचे से जमीन खिसक जाना – This idiom will explain the situation aptly.
This attempt was a great learning curve. I had completed the whole cycle once and it gave me the confidence that I can do it. I started believing that I have in me what it takes to clear the exam. I knew I had a job and not everything was lost. I always had this is mind that even if I don’t become a civil servant one day, I will definitely become a better person by preparing for it. Detachment is the key.
I planned to skip the 2017 attempt as my PO’s joining was due in August 2017 and I had not touched the books since the time of the interview (from April to May 2017). My brother’s marriage was also scheduled in November 2017. Lastly, I wanted to change my optional from History to Commerce & Accountancy. There were enough reasons to convince myself for skipping the attempt.
In the meanwhile, I had given an exam for a Govt. job that offered around 15 lakhs p.a. but I did not knew about the organisation well. I cleared the written examination and was called for the GD and PI. I got the job in PFRDA and joined in July, 2017. Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority is one of the financial sector regulators with an objective of regulating and supervising the pension sector in India. It currently regulates NPS & APY.
Everyone was happy for me. My parents were happy that I got a job in Delhi that paid well. I was happy that I had got a suitable compensation for my efforts. My girlfriend was happy because we both achieved success in our respective careers simultaneously. She became an CA in July 2017. I joined the job without any plan of preparing for UPSC but had this desire to give one more attempt since I had come so close.
During the initial days, most of my seniors motivated me to keep preparing for UPSC as they thought that I will attain saturation from this work very soon. My General Manager was a torch bearer for me. He kept telling me stories about his relatives cracking the exam and why he did not prepare for this exam. This experience of working in PFRDA has been a significant factor that has pushed me across the line this time. I literally had nothing to lose this time. I was fearless and bold.
I shifted to a flat near my work place in January 2018 so that I don’t waste energy and time in traveling. My parents resisted but at the end agreed to it. My father told me this thing, “Do whatever you want to do, I want outcome”. I started my preparation with focus on commerce and current affairs. I knew that the ground work had already been done and I needed to construct the building now.
It was not easy. I had to miss a lot of parties and be detached to my work. I used to leave office on time and I did not waste any time here and there. I generally studied for 2-3 hours in the morning and around 3-4 hours after coming back from office. The only thing I maintained was consistency. I would visit home on weekends so that I didn’t get overburdened during this phase.
My mother met with an accident in May 2018 just before the prelims and suddenly I had to start commuting from home. My seniors and team mates cooperated a lot. I got leaves for preparation easily as compared to other departments. This situation would have created panic in most of the aspirants. This is the difference between the people who clear prelims and who do not. (Just want to convey a message- Stay calm, whatever the situation may be)
After giving the prelims, I had no idea whether I would clear it or not. 5 of my colleagues attempted prelims and everybody was more or less at the same place. The answer keys were amazing that year. One could see all the options in different answer keys. Consistency was missing :p
I gradually started preparing for Mains after taking 10 days break. After 40-45 days, the result came. I was happy to clear prelims but I knew that I was under prepared for mains. Therefore, I concentrated my energy in writing rather than covering the whole syllabus. I tried to correct my mistakes. Commerce was the key for me. My focus was to score more in commerce as practical questions can fetch you more marks. I had written around 10 essays as compared to 4 last time. There was special focus on ethics, essay and optional.
Essay day was good. GS 1 was not that great but GS 2 was satisfactory. Similarly, GS 3 was good and ethics was satisfactory. There was a 5 day break for optional this time. It helped me a lot. Commerce papers were good. Although, I expected more from Paper 1 rather than Paper 2, overall I am satisfied with my performance in Commerce.
From October to December 2018, I concentrated on my job and life. I did not touch any book or read any newspaper during this period. I was not sure about clearing mains but I was hopeful to some extent. After mains result, I was worried about the date of the interview. To my surprise, I had ample time this year as my interview was scheduled in mid-March. I was relaxed this time as compared to the previous attempt. I knew that interview is not only about knowledge but also about presenting yourself and exuding confidence. I also concentrated on these aspects this time. My seniors, especially my Executive Director, gave me tips that helped me eventually.
The interview transcript is attached for reference. I have only captured the questions asked because there is no specific answer for most of the questions. One of the members was relaxing throughout my interview with his eyes closed. Luckily, my interview was full of questions where my opinion was judged rather than factual knowledge. I somehow had more control on my tongue during this interview which displayed calmness and confidence I guess.
I plan to share more specific insights related to preparation in future. This write up is only about the holistic view of what I have felt throughout this journey and sharing my experience which somebody might relate to.