Interview Program

BLOG BY DEBRAJ DAS(IPS-2018) || How to Say Things Better

Cracking an interview is an art and one has to master it through practice. Personality Test is not about knowledge only. It is an art to present ideas in a non-confrontational amicable manner. Hence any element of self doubt, propensity to argue to prove a point or taking extreme views/ opinion can turn out to be detrimental for your success.
Here I have tried to put forward some tested strategies and analysis which are cardinal for cracking any interview with confidence. Some of the ideas may appear counter-intuitive or different from what has been advised during mock tests. The materials provided here are based on my personal experiences in facing the Board and culmination of years of Corporate experience in the areas of recruitment and negotiations.

In order to prepare for UPSC personality test or as such any interview, it is important to understand the demand of the services and the qualities an interviewer seeks within the candidate.
The services of IAS, IPS and Central Civil Services are meant to provide efficient leadership to the entire bureaucratic apparatus. They do not require domain experts, or they could have recruited PhD students. They require people with normal intelligence, having good amount of common sense, excellent communication skills and those who can appreciate the changes /impacts brought about in the society by events occurring around us.
What you say and what you communicate are two different things. Through your answers, at a subtle level you are opening up your mind and thought process. This opens up a window for the interviewer to peep inside your value system. You must ensure that these values are in sync with constitutional and liberal democratic values.
The qualities the interviewer looks for in the candidate are-

  • Leadership qualities: Leadership is a cluster concept which is a culmination of several qualities like integrity, honesty, compassion etc. But what is one of the most important aspects is clarity of thoughts. Do you hold a clear opinion about an issue / incident/ development going on around you? Only when you are clear within yourself, you can provide an unambiguous direction to others
  • Whether you can understand the consequences of an action/ policy across various sections of the society and economy
  • Whether you criticize everything or hold a balanced / positive view. Every action has a positive and negative aspect. There is very few win-win decisions made in today’s world. It is important that you know both sides of the coin. But if a policy is not yielding its desired results, it does not mean that the idea should be rejected, it only means that the policy suffers implementation failures. Hence the lapses must be plugged using say technology/ governance/ innovative monitoring / social engineering etc.
  • Whether you are dogmatic or flexible/ tolerant in accepting new views- It is natural as human beings to hold perception biases towards different aspects of society eg. Gender Chauvinism, Cultural superiority etc. These are ingrained in us during our formative years. However holding such biases as a public servant is not desirable. You need to be tolerant and receptive of new ideas/ norms which are progressive in nature in line with liberal values.
  • Whether you are firm in your decisions or shift to impress others- If you hold an idea/ opinion which you think is right and the interviewer expresses a contrary view point, accept it and enrich your answer but don’t totally shift from your opinion. Truth is multifaceted and sometimes contrary opinions form the part of same truth. It does not mean that you are wrong. So stay firm but not dogmatic.


DAF is the most important piece of document from where the interviewer gets acquainted about you, your hobbies and area of interest and other aspects. They more often than not start their questions from the DAF only. So make sure you read and re-read your DAF, find out of there is any word/ event/ sentence/ achievement written which can attract a person’s attention and prepare about that topic well.
If you have written generic things like reading books or listening music which are open ended and interviewers’ delight to open his salvo, I would request to select a genre and read / prepare at least from the book summaries given on the internet on that topic.
I had written a specific word (“experience in arbitration”) in my experience column in which I had limited knowledge and I was apprehensive that the interviewer will ask on that point. They did. As soon as one of the panelists asked, I clarified that “I would like to elaborate on this point a bit that the subject is of vast domain and my knowledge is limited to a specific aspect of it. I was part of the steering group in my company which handled the arbitration process under AMRCD (Administrative Mechanism for Resolution of CPSE Disputes) with another PSU. As such I got considerable exposure on the art of drafting our case and the technical points which are legally critical to the matter. I also learned the cardinal concepts like ‘principle of natural justice’, ‘right to be heard’, ‘jointly and severally responsible’ etc. ”

The merits of the answer-
Defined the boundaries of knowledge- showed honesty
Explained the case in lucid manner- refrained from exaggerating personal achievement
The last few words were deliberately planted to guide the interviewer take up one of them and ask a question on them, as I was confident with them.

Connecting the dots- Finding correlation among seemingly discreet events

This is the most important quality being sought in a public servant. In today’s complex world, every sphere of life is being connected with every other. There is always a spillover of the consequences of a social/ environmental / political event into the economic sphere and the other way round. Moreover a seemingly isolated event has repercussions at regional, national and global level. As a public servant, one must be able to appreciate the consequences of a policy decision being made and how it will affect the different sections of the society. It has to be decided whether the policy will stand the test of cost benefit analysis in the long run.

Eg. The Covid crisis and Non Performing Assets. These are two distinct events, one a public health crisis and other a financial crisis. How can you relate the two phenomena?

  • Covid crisis has led to several responses like nationwide lockdown, social distancing etc in order to ‘flatten out the curve’
  • The industry output has plummeted both due to demand shock and production shock
  • As the top-line sales collapsed, the corporate witnessed financial crunch to service their debts. (Any project is financed with an optimal blend of equity and debt, the debt being serviced with the project earning only). Some production houses and SSIs which run on wafer thin margins and low levels of operating capital have become bankrupt and shut their operations.
  • RBI guidelines regarding moratorium on debt servicing coupled with a halt in Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code functioning through an ordinance has resulted in subdued recovery of loans and building up of NPAs

Develop impeccable arguments

Is NAM relevant?
An organization is only relevant as long as it serves the purpose of present times
NAM was formed at a time when the structure of the international system was fundamentally different from what it is today
Though there is a rising trend towards bipolar structure around the Sino-US poles, relationships among and between nations have become more multilayered and categorizing a nation as friend or enemy state is no longer a plausibility.
However for economic and national security concerns, it has become an imperative now to leverage on the decoupling trend between the two economic heavyweights (China and US) and pursue strategic alignment with the west.

Are we losing our friends in the neighborhood?
The current flaring up of Sino-Indian border issues and tensions over territorial claims with Nepal along with the animosity with Pakistan may be seemingly perceived that we are ceding our ground to China in the neighborhood.
However this is not an enduring phenomenon and may be seen through the prism of bandwagon phenomenon. As contrast to South China Sea maritime territorial claim of China which hardly witnessed overt protest from nation states, India has stood firm against any kind of cartographic assertion of China. The developments along the international border are being closely observed by the world including our neighbors.

The neo-colonial tendencies of China are obvious after the crisis at Hambantota port of Srilanka or the high handedness showed in Pakistan regarding CPEC.
Rather proximity of nation states with China has opened up new opportunities for India too, as along with China, they need more of India to act as a counterbalancing power.

Saying “NO”

It is ok not to know the answer to all the questions being asked in the interview. The mock tests and coaching experts always insists on saying “I don’t know Sir” as a prompt reply in case candidate does not know the answer.
Reason- It demonstrates the qualities like ‘honesty’ and ‘humility’
During my interview, I was asked a question on current affairs (specific question) to which I only had a superficial knowledge. So after a one liner answer, another question was asked relating to my opinion on that matter to which I had no clue.
So I replied- “Sir I need to delve deeper into the issues and facts of the case in order to form an opinion about it.”
The attributes of this answer are-
You said “I don’t know” but without actually saying it.
You portrayed the qualities of honesty and humility
What is most important- It demonstrates that you don’t form an opinion on half knowledge.
Notes- This services needed some innate skills and crafts where in you cannot say “no”/ “don’t know”/ “Cannot do” all the time. The art of saying “no” is a skill to be learnt. You may substitute by saying “I will revert back”/ “I will go through the case and get back to you” in order to buy some time in actual services.
Many people opine that the candidate should be straight forward and candid during interview. But “Situational Realism” is more important than being simply “Straight forward”. You need to analyze the context and situation in which the question is being asked and reply accordingly. Its like playing cricket; you need to play each ball accordingly as it comes, you cannot pre determine a shot before being bowled.

Use phrases/ quotations and examples of eminent personalities

The candidate may liberally use generic phrases which can be used in any circumstances to ornate their answer. My personal favorites are-
“It is important to do what is strategically right than what is immediately profitable”

This can be used in order to describe leadership qualities, or to justify any hard decisions taken by the Government (like lockdown).
You may also say that “A distinction may be made here about what is an expense and what is an investment”
Another appealing liner is “We do not grow as individuals, we grow as a community and it is our socio-moral duty to give back to the community whatever we can so that the community can grow as a whole.” This portrays that you appreciate that how individual is connected to / embedded to the community and why paying taxes or providing altruistic works/ charity is imperative in tough times (viz during lockdown individuals and corporate came forward to alleviate the plight of marginalized)
Candidates need to create their own ‘power pact one liners’ and use them as per situation.

Start with generic answer for specific issue based questions

Candidates are often asked specific questions on a particular issue and are told to express their opinion. The propensity is to start straight away with the opinion. What the interviewer is more interested in is not only your opinion but the material basis/ considerations based on which you took your decisions. This will give an idea to how your thought process works. The opinion in itself is of secondary importance.
A question was asked on what opinion the candidate holds regarding PM –KISAN scheme. Along with that the interviewer gave his own negative opinion that it was not sustainable.
The answer started with the basics of “work and wages”. The conventional discourse was to work and provide labor and get paid for that labor. This was the basics behind schemes like MGNREGA. A person gets enrolled, demands job, gives labor and gets paid for the same. However with automation and increasing machine hours replacing man-hours, returns to labor has disproportionately reduced. Hence is disposable household income and Consumption Demand in the economy. Hence discourses like Universal Basic Income has cropped in which is based on the premise of delinking work with income, ie you get an income even of you do not work. This is imperative for the survival of the capitalist system itself, else if people do not have money then who will buy all the commodities being produced..!! PM-KISAN is a scaled down and targeted version of UBI concept only.

What this answer communicated are-
Your conceptual clarity behind the implementation of this scheme You appreciate the progressive development of ideas with time
You have nullified the negative connotation given by the interviewer by telling that this idea is a natural development of techno-economic progress.

Give unconventional perspectives

Give the interviewer some fodder for thought.
Eg.1 On Technology, you may say ‘technology has the potential to concentrate power and wealth. Those who are in a position to leverage it can climb up the socio-economic ladder in contrast to those who cannot, thus escalating the inequality in the society. Hence this demands positive social intervention by the Government to bring down the gap. The Digital India program was initiated to bridge the Digital divide. The impending 5G revolution must be carefully rolled out so that it is accessible to all sections of the society, else the inequality may further accentuate.

Balance and Optimism- no extreme- guiding principles Constitution/ liberal values/ democratic decision making

Balanced answer is one where you take a middle path instead of taking stances like ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Taking a stance may be detrimental as it pushes the candidate to a point of no return and the interviewer can easily corner him.
Eg. The Police response to Covid crisis has been very harsh and unbecoming-(it already gives a negative connotation which is a trap. Don’t reiterate like “yes they have been harsh/ insensible etc because there has been instances of frequent use of force and excesses”)

  • The police action as portrayed in the media is perceived to be harsh. However the pace and scale of the Covid crisis is unprecedented. Most countries had no clue on how to deal with it
  • The policy response time of lockdown has been so quick that there was hardly any time to sensitize the Police or equip them with a standard procedure.
  • The public in general have also initially failed to appreciate the reasons of lockdown.
  • This has led to frequent confrontations which are natural in the beginning of onslaught of a new normal.

As told earlier, as public servants your only guiding factors for professional ethics are constitutional and liberal values irrespective if what your values are in your private sphere.
On questions of reservations and its efficacy (specific or generic)- as told earlier, start with generic answer of principles of affirmative action and social justice. The desirability of meritocracy is to be balanced with the demand of equitable distribution of benefits and burdens. The Indian society is unique in its stratifications and hence borrowed models of individualism from the west may not hold the answer to social problems in the country. However what is not desirable is the politicization of this issue as it only accentuates the fault lines and defeats the very purpose of affirmative action. However there has been a discourse from various quarters regarding implementing the creamy layer concept among SC/STs as well because caste and class no longer map over one another.
The answer communicates that you understand the basics behind constitutional values and hold the idea of tolerance.

Guiding the interview

This is a bit difficult thing to do in an interview. But the candidate holds the key to guide the interview instead of being simply answering the questions thrown at him. This is done by leaving some ‘key words’ or ‘word bites’ in the sentence deliberately which always appeals to the interviewer is receptive and which is taken up by them to salvo their next question. The interviewers are usually receptive to words like “technology and innovation”, “strategy”, “disruption” “inclusive solution”, “servant leadership”, “financial architecture”, “AI, data science”, “social crisis”, “global governance”, “economic response” etc. the common thing in these words are that they are a bit sophisticated and high sounding, not used in common parlance.

Being Original

Saying or holding ideas which are original to you establishes your identity different from other candidates. The interviewers become weary of hearing the same old hackneyed answers. You need to rephrase the same or be original with your answers in order to stand out and be noticed.
Eg. One of the most favorite and banal question being asked is- Why do you want to join this service. They will also add discouraging things like low salary, less scope of innovation, better private sector jobs etc. These are traps and do not fall into it by saying things like “job security, social status and power”. These are individual gains and perks you get when you enter the services. You don’t get into the services to avail the perks, these are hygiene factors. You want to get into the services to serve some noble purpose and your answer must reflect that.
The answer given by author was- These services are fundamentally different from other services in the sense that this is not about pursuit of profit, it is about selflessly serving the Nation and its people. But what personally appealed to me is that these services are so demanding that it brings out the best stored in a person. So if someone likes international relations, it gives you a first hand opportunity to handle the foreign policy of the country. If one has leadership quality, this service gives an opportunity to become a leader in his domain.

Take away from this answer-
You demonstrated that you are original and not a product of rote learning You articulated your reasons of joining in simple words.

Your thought process is mature.
You deliberately left a “sound bite” ie “Leader” which may guide your next question (which actually happened in this case).

Body language- eye contact/ sitting posture/ hand gesture
This is one of the most important and yet overlooked aspect in an interview. You communicate your confidence and positive attitude through your body language. So be natural in your swings of body. Keep your body posture straight or slightly leaning forward, opening up your chest and refrain from leaning back or closing your frontal part.
Regarding hand movement, maintain your natural gestures of hand. Though some suggests not moving your hand as this looks indecent, the contrary is true. Natural hand movements demonstrate that you are confident. Keep your palm open as it shows you have nothing to hide.
Keep your eye contact maintained with the Chairman when she is asking you questions. While answering other panel members, maintain eye contact with her as well as the Chairman. Again keep your eyeball movement natural and avoid looking up the ceiling or the floor or the curtain.
We will recommend watching YouTube videos of speeches of Sundar Pichai, Barack Obama, Elon Mask, Jack Maa and others to emulate how they give pauses between sentences, their gestures, smiles, eye/ hand movement etc. Watch them over and over again.

How to practice- before mirror/ friends relatives
As told earlier, as you watch the videos, you also need to stand before a mirror and practice saying sentences and short paragraphs. Start speaking before your friends and parents and tell them to evaluate you. Give mock interviews and go through your videos 2/3 times to see where you need to improve. During interview practice, feedback mechanism is the strongest tool for self correction.
Your answer must give a hint of futuristic solution wherever possible. Eg. In case of border management

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