Quest for excellence

Print edition : June 15, 2007

Indian Administrative Service trainees enter Parliament House to view the proceedings.-

The year-long exercise of preparing for the Civil Services examination begins.

IT is that time of the year when lakhs of students in India grapple with questions for which there seems to be no ready answers. How to go about the preparation in order to make it to the final list of successful candidates in the Civil Services examination? Which subjects to choose as optionals? How to prepare for the mammoth General Studies paper?

`Examination' is a misnomer in the case of the Civil Services. It is not a test of a person's intellectual attributes alone; it is an exercise to test the overall persona of a student in order to judge whether he/she will fit the iron-frame called the Civil Services. There is no set formula for success. So the students are best advised to take the examinations with a positive frame of mind and have a balanced attitude. They should realise that this is not the "be all and end all" of life. Having a balanced view of the examination is of great importance because that would leave the students with the energy to cope in case of failure.The competition is so tough that only 500-odd aspirants out of more than three lakh are selected.

Nila Mohanan, the 13th ranker in the 2006 Civil Services Examination (and the only one from Delhi among the top 20), says: "It is a year-long exercise, so you cannot be under stress and take this examination under pressure. It is very important to be relaxed while taking the examination". And relaxation can come only when the examination is approached with the right attitude.

Experts coaching students for the examinations yields stress on some common points, which are of importance to students as they start their preparation. These are: the right frame of mind, a balanced attitude, proper choice of subjects, realistic planning, right amount of hard work and sincerity of purpose and consistency. Broadly, the attributes required for achieving success are psychological and intellectual.

As the vision statement of Rau's IAS Study Circle aptly puts it: It is not the direction of the gale but the position of your sails that takes you to the destination. And the sail here can be kept in the right position only by a proper mix of psychological and intellectual strength.

THE UNION PUBLIC Service Commission office in New Delhi. The organisation has a track record of fairness.-R.V. MOORTHY

Why is psychological strength so important? Simply because the Civil Services examination is the toughest one held in the country. "A positive attitude is one factor that all successful students have in common. They always look for the "can do" side of every situation because as Anton Chekhov says `man is what he believes'. When the candidate is positive, he/she will find his/her interaction with the world becoming brighter and more productive, perpetuating the `feel-good' factor, which adds to their ability to succeed." says Synergy's M.K. Mohanty.

"This examination is a combination of a student's intellectual acumen and his/her psychological attributes. It is a test of your perseverance because it is a year-long exercise so it is important to have a positive frame of mind otherwise you can be left drained out," Nila Mohanan says. She says it is important to approach this examination with the idea of not getting in. This approach takes the burden off you and then you can concentrate on the preparation without any pressure. "It is important not to let the examination obsess you, not to let it control you. It is a gruelling exercise, so take it along with your normal routine because nothing else will sustain for the long duration of the examination," she says. Nila Mohanan was doing her M.Phil in International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University and teaching Political Science at Lady Sriram College in Delhi even as she was preparing for the Civil Services examination. She succeeded in the first attempt. She did not give up her hobbies - music (she has trained in Carnatic music) and reading - while she was preparing.

According to Dr. Abhishek K. Singh, director of Evolution, a successful candidate has five attitudinal attri<147,2,1>butes: realistic planning, consistency, initiative, a balanced approach and a huge amount of practice. "This examination demands a long and sustained preparation which cannot be done without initiative on the part of the candidate. With initiative, the candidate is able to upgrade constantly his preparation and overcome the severity of the competition. This idea is apparently simple but powerful. I have noticed that all successful candidates invariably have this attribute in them," he says. The founder-directors of ALS Interactions IAS Study Circle, Shashank Atom, Manoj Singh and Jojo Mathews agree that right guidance, determination, hard work and perseverance are the key to success.

Experts say that a wrong choice of subjects can undo many a brilliant student. "There are a number of factors for selecting the right optional papers. Selecting the right optional is like winning half the war," says Ramesh Singh, director of Civils India, Delhi. The students, he says, should keep in mind certain factors while selecting the optional subjects: an ability to comprehend the fundamentals of the optional in the time available for preparation, the level of objectivity in the optional subject (the higher the objectivity, the easier it is to score well), a rational relationship between the labour input and marks output, availability of standard books and an ability to go against crowd behaviour.

According to Mohanty of Synergy, the candidates should consider their background, interest, ability to connect with the paper and analytical power in selecting the optional papers. "If the candidate has a particular academic background that comes close to any of the optional papers, then he/she should opt for that optional. Familiarity with the subject makes the preparation easy," he says.

AT A STUDY circle of Civil Services aspirants in New Delhi.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Since there are two optional papers to be selected, the candidate should choose the subjects with which he/she has natural compatibility. For example, a student of law would be comfortable with the Indian Constitution and Paper Two of Public Administration deals with that. So, he/she should opt for public administration as the second optional. Similarly, it makes good sense for students to opt for subjects that have a bearing on the General Studies or essay paper. "The idea is to choose the subjects in such a manner that the students are able to maximise their time and minimise their effort," says Mohanty.

Good quality study material is another factor students should keep in mind while selecting their optional subjects. In this context an observation by Nila Mohanan is significant. According to her, students should avoid short-cuts such as use of guide books and rely on good, standard books. "Although it could be time-consuming reading these books gives a good foundation, which comes in handy while critically analysing issues," she says.

Here is a bit of good news for the aspirants. McGraw-Hill, an established name in the publication of quality books for engineering and management entrance examinations, has entered the Civil Services examination segment in a big way in both Hindi and English languages. The publisher will come out with 20 books authored by high-profile scholars on subjects that will include Political Science, Sociology, Geography and International Relations, by October-November. The company has been publishing a General Studies manual for the past 15 years.

Abhishek K. Singh advises a balanced approach while preparing for the optional papers. The objective of the examination is not to select a specialist, but to find a person who could handle various positions in the civil administration. "The very purpose of making a candidate select two optionals is to test his ability to learn new and different things with an equal degree of proficiency," he says.

V.P. Gupta, director of Rau's IAS Study Circle, advises students to focus more on substance than on form. According to Gupta, who has seen the exam pattern change over the years, initially the emphasis was more on presentation, finesse and polish but the focus has shifted to substance since the pattern changed in 1979. "Essentially, this has been done to do away with the elitist nature of the service. Now <147,4,0>the examiners test the student's grasp of the basics of a subject and his/her depth of knowledge, there is less stress on presentation and style," he says.

According to Abhishek K. Singh, realistic planning can go a long way in achieving success in the examination. Starting well in advance, he says, can help students tremendously. "One year is too short a time for someone who is just starting out to beat the competition. One needs to start a year and half or two years ahead," he says. He adds, "When we plan with a realistic amount of time in our hands, we save ourselves from the mid-preparation blues of not meeting the finish line or preparation going haywire."

Rau's Study Circle, says Gupta, helps students concentrate on the essentials of each theme or topic. "There is no foolhardy effort to acquire an encyclopaedic range of knowledge in a short while. The approach is, therefore, to develop a higher degree of intellectual clarity and critical ability to learn new concepts and ideas better and faster," he says.

It is also a good idea for students to take guidance from professionals in preparing for optional subjects because it helps them focus better. Nila Mohanan is not in favour of attending coaching classes where she says 100-130 students sit in a cramped hall and a lot of time is wasted in travel. She sought guidance from a Professor of Sociology at the JNU to prepare for her second optional paper.

Institutes specialising in particular optional papers have the advantage of experience and can help students achieve optimum use of their time. RIAS Academy (Ramaswamy's IAS Academy), for example, has been specialising in Sociology, Essay, Interview and modules of General Studies and plans to enlist Philosophy and Psychology experts soon. The IAS division of ALS Interactions IAS Study Circle, specialises in Geography, Sociology, Philosophy, History, Public Administration and Psychology. But its geography module has a special recognition all over India as it has enabled many students to achieve success. In the past six years, ALS has produced 432 successful candidates, including two IAS toppers, Alok Ranjan Jha and S. Nagarajan.

Similarly, Patanjali IAS specialises in Philosophy and General Studies. Dharmendra Kumar, director of Patanjali, has a piece of advice for the aspirants: make the books brought out by the National Council of Education and Training (NCERT) the basis of your knowledge. According to him, the present pattern of the Civil Services examination tests the students' grasp of the basics of any subject and the NCERT books are capable of dealing <147,5,0>with that. "The problem with students is that they get distracted by a plethora of reference material available in the market with the result that they lose focus and lose out in the race," he says. He has an interesting observation: the success rate of students who take the Civil Services examination fresh after graduation is much higher than that of Ph.D scholars.

"The General Studies paper needs to be streamlined. It is too vast to be humanly possible for anyone to cover in such great detail," says Nila Mohanan. V.P. Gupta agrees. In fact, both of them suggest that the entire examination structure, and not merely the General Studies paper, needs to be streamlined. They feel there is no point having two optionals. Nila Mohanan says one optional is enough while Gupta advocates doing away with the optionals altogether. "This is an examination to select generalist administrators, not specialists so everyone should be made to write only common papers," he says. For the General Studies paper, he says, students should take care to keep themselves updated about the current national and international events, social issues, political developments and generally be aware of happenings around them. Reading a national daily and a national news magazine regularly also helps students keep themselves abreast of current affairs and national and international events. "Actually, the examiners are more interested in judging how much of the subject a candidate has internalised. They are not looking for a bombardment of facts and figures, but how well one can analyse a particular issue by giving it a perspective," says Nila. That, perhaps, can be the key to getting high scores in both the optional and General Studies papers: understand the subject well, internalise it and then put it in perspective. The ALS Interactions' General Studies course, aided by its special module called Magic Moments, which is a transformational workshop, is also hugely popular among students because of the unique technology employed in classrooms, which are equipped with state-of-the-art facilities.

The Union Public Service Commission, which conducts the Civil Services examination among others, is an organisation with a track record of fairness. It is surprising then that the Commission refuses to disclose marks obtained by aspirants in the preliminary examination, the cut-off marks for successful students or the scaling formula that it adopts to bring parity among subjects. "Disclosure of the marks, if anything, will help students know their <147,6,0>weak points and prepare better for their next attempt, Gupta says. Nila Mohanan agrees. "I would like to know my marks in the preliminary examination. As for the Main, the only way to know the marks is by not qualifying, which makes no sense because even those who have qualified would like to know how they have fared in different subjects."

NILA MOHANAN, WHO ranked 13 in the Civil Services examination this year.-SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

The controversy over the right to information about the marks scored by students started in August last year when a group of aspirants, under the aegis of "Transparency Seekers", approached the UPSC for their individual marks in the preliminary examination and also the cut-off marks for the General Studies and optional papers. When the UPSC refused to disclose the marks, the students appealed in the Central Information Commission for the necessary information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

The UPSC, however, went to the Delhi High Court against the CIC order saying if the marks secured by the candidates was disclosed it could be misused by the coaching institutes and this would harm the interest of meritorious candidates. The Commission also pleaded that its scaling system was too sensitive to be disclosed in an open court. This argument was, however, rejected by Justice B.D. Ahmad, who directed the UPSC on April 17, to disclose the marks obtained by the candidates and also put the model answer sheet on the Internet. Justice Ahmad, in his order, said that the disclosures could harm the interest of the UPSC or any third party and the CIC order in this regard was in the "correct perspective".

CELEBRATION TIME, ON May 17, at the house of a successful Civil Services candidate, Govind Jaiswal, at Alaipura in Varanasi.-K.V. SRINIVASAN

The UPSC, however, appealed against the order on May 3, saying its examination pattern, and the evaluation process would be damaged if the individual scores, cut-off marks in each subject and the grading and scaling systems were disclosed. In its petition, the UPSC also contended that if the marks are disclosed, it would lead to mushrooming of coaching institutes of interested group of aspirants all over the country. "Disclosure of the information sought for has the potential to cause serious damage to the examination system," the petition said.

On May 22, a Division Bench comprising Chief Justice M.K. Sharma and Justice Sanjiv Khanna suspended Justice Ahmad's order until July 30 and directed the UPSC to place all the original records in a sealed cover before it.

Meanwhile, the students demanding the disclosure of their marks have also filed a petition before the High Court seeking a stay on the appointment of successful candidates until the matter is adjudicated. They have alleged that the UPSC's selection process was full of irregularities. Experts are at a loss to understand why the UPSC, whose credentials are not in doubt, is scared to disclose the marks.

IAS ASPIRANTS WRITING the Preliminary examination in Chennai. A file photo.-K.V. SRINIVASAN

Interestingly, it is not the candidates alone who have to face the UPSC's silence in this matter. Even its nodal Ministry, the Department of Personnel and Training, has been given a similar treatment for several months now.

The Department had sought details of the marks scored by general and reserved category candidates in the main paper and interview following a complaint received by the Prime Minister's Office from a reserved category candidate alleging bias at the interview. Despite repeated reminders, the UPSC has not provided any information.

The UPSC has antagonised the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice also in a different way. The Committee, which tabled its report in Parliament recently, has taken exception to the UPSC's failure to appear before it. The committee, in its report, said: "The UPSC, under the pretext of constitutional status is trying to hide its inefficient working due to which many governmental organisations are headless for years together because the UPSC has not bothered to recommend the right candidates. Many institutes of the Department of Culture are examples of the apathy of the UPSC. There are even instances where the UPSC recommended some names for appointment but when the process of appointment started, it withdrew its recommendations. The National Archives of India and even the premier investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, are suffering shortage of staff owing to the apathy of the UPSC."

It further said that the UPSC, being a constitutional body, should uphold the high standards of "transparency and accountability" but strangely it was projecting itself as an institution above the law of the land and did not want to give information under the RTI Act. It did not want to reveal how it was spending the public money given to it and was accountable to none," the committee said. The committee further noted: "This attitude of the UPSC is reprehensible and falls within the purview of the breach of privilege of Parliament". It recommended that the government deliberate upon the situation at the highest level and take necessary action to ensure that such a grave lapse and subversion of democratic norms did not recur.

TRAINEE OFFICERS AT the IAS Academy in Mussoorie.-RAMESH SHARMA

Experts agree that there is a "disconnect" between the UPSC and the government and also between the UPSC and the people. "The UPSC has a mind of its own. There seems to be a sense of apathy towards people's grievances. Otherwise why should it fight shy of being seen as fair," says V.P. Gupta. The UPSC, counters the charges by saying that in keeping with the provisions of the RTI Act it has taken all "proactive measures to meet the goal of expedient furnishing of information to citizens regarding the matters, which come under the functioning of the Commission".

According to information available on the UPSC website, 279 applications under the RTI Act have been received and only in 48 cases were applicants not entitled to access the documents pursuant to the requests. It further notes that replies were sent to each applicant and an attempt was made to provide all information that was sought for. "Only that information was withheld where the questions were of hypothetical nature or in the nature of seeking opinion in a matter or on such matters about which the UPSC has already made a reference to the government seeking exemption from the purview of the RTI Act," the Commission says. But experts say that the UPSC cannot be treated like a holy cow; in order to maintain its credibility, it will have to become accountable and answerable.

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