UPSC Interview: The Final Frontier
That morning I woke up earlier than usual. Not because my alarm went off, but that my subconscious was acutely aware that something special awaited me: It was the day of my UPSC interview.
I got out of bed, freshened up, did some push-ups and sit-ups to get the heart rate pumping. After the workout, soaking in that stillness, I meditated for 10 minutes. Exercise and meditation are such wonder drugs. They instantly put me in a state of focus and unshakeable clarity.
In 2014, when I first visited Dholpur House (seat of UPSC office) for my maiden Civil Service interview, the experience was contrasting. I was much younger back then, and understandably, less mature, and more anxious. But having scored 204 that year, it helped me face this second interview with confidence and poise. Also, nothing like age and experience to teach you how to handle your nerves.
This time I was neither excited nor anxious. I only told myself this: “No matter what questions they ask, or how much they grill you, give the best answer you can in that moment. Your best is the best possible outcome. That’s a win.”
The day also happened to be my mother’s birthday. When I called to wish her, she was already at a temple, breaking coconuts by the dozen and seeking God’s blessings for me. Like all mothers, she was more tensed than I.
After the call, I sat down for a couple of hours to revise my notes, mentally reviewing my profile and some of my accomplishments which I wanted to convey to the interview board. I also went through the day’s newspapers before heading toward UPSC.
At UPSC, after the security checks, we were ushered into a large waiting hall. As we took our respective seats, an officer with a smiling face walked into the hall to address all the interviewees. With a wide grin, he briefly explained us the procedure and the guidelines. He even cracked a couple of jokes in between, which only drew light murmurs. The tension in the room was palpable, but he did his best to ease the nerves. Towards the end he wished us good luck.
Those wishes felt genuine. How ironical, I thought. As an aspirant, all that the word UPSC reminded me was an imposing concrete building, separated from the rest of us by an iron curtain. No one really knew what happened inside. So it was nice see someone from the institution who smiled, joked and genuinely wished us well.
After the document verification and paperwork, we were told that we will be interviewed by Retd Air Marshal Ajit Bhonsle. My interview began at around 3:00 PM and went on for 35 minutes. I was asked on a diverse set of topics: Aryan migration, hate crimes, meditation, Artificial Intelligence, Swachh Bharat and why I want to get into the IAS. I had anticipated and prepared for some of those questions apriori, so I could answer them well. After the interview, I was glad with how I did.
When the final marks were declared, I was slightly disappointed that my interview score of 176 was 15-20 marks less than what I had expected. I protested with a friend. He turned towards me and said, “Man, are you serious? You might have gotten more marks than you deserve in some Mains paper. Stop complaining. If you whine even after getting this rank, aspirants would come find you and punch you in the face.”
I think he had a point. Regardless of my interview marks, I still believe it was the best I could do. I guess that’s how it works, no? Sometimes the results are beyond your expectations (for instance, my mains score), and sometimes underwhelming (interview marks). But when you strive to give your best each and every time, on the whole it evens out.
So if I were to give the interview this year, I’d probably polish a few areas, but the overall strategy would be the same. I am indebted to my friend Rishanth Reddy (IPS 2015). Most of what I learnt about the interview preparation is from his personal advice and this video of his.
Before I dive into the preparation strategy, I must tell you something important. I’m not an authority on UPSC interview. No one really is. The following points and tips merely reflect my learnings from the two interviews I had given. If you feel what I suggest here isn’t right, or that I’m not making sense, ignore the advice.
Having said that, I really hope that the following suggestions and notes add value to your interview preparation, and you take home something useful.
Tips for the Interview
- The content of your answers matters more than your looks and demeanour. In mock interviews, panel members put undue importance on attire, colour of your suit, manner of your walking etc. But in reality, they don’t matter much. Just be presentable and let your answers tell the board the kind of a person you are.
- When the opportunity presents itself, don’t be afraid to tell about yourself. The board members are really there to know about you. So take each question as an opportunity to convey about yourself. And the board tries to judge your personality not by the answers themselves, but your reasoning, beliefs that led you to such an answer.
For instance, for a question like: “Do think our country needs smaller states for better governance?” When you say a simple yes or no, it doesn’t say much about you. What led you to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is paramount.
My answer would have been:
“Yes, ma’am. I feel that smaller states are easier to govern because it brings administration closer to the people. For example in my own state, previously, districts and mandals were so huge that the Collector didn’t have much time to physically visit and oversee developmental works in my mandal. Now with a smaller state and smaller districts, projects are expedited because Collector can come visit regularly and monitor projects better. Grievance redressal is also faster now. So from my experience, I believe smaller states and smaller districts are better for the country.”
(This answer conveys to the board that: first, you have a reasoned opinion, and second, you are aware of how administration is working in your native place. This is how interview answers are different from Mains. In Mains, you state the opinion of some committee or ARC or some expert to argue a point. But in interview, your answers must be more personal. It’s your opinion and reasoning that counts.)
- Remove every strand of inferiority and insecurity you may have because, say, you are 30+ or that you aren’t from a good college or you haven’t worked at a reputable company. I know of friends who had done graduation from IITs, interned at MNCs with good extra-curriculars. Yet year after year, many such people fail to get exceptional marks. Remember that the interview board rarely gets impressed by what’s on paper. Rather they are more interested in knowing you and what you speak in those 30 minutes. So whatever be your background, face the interview with confidence.
When we watch a movie, we don’t memorise the all minute details such as the dialogues, the locations, and the names of the characters etc. But when we come out of the movie hall, we have an overall sense of how the movie was— terrible, decent, excellent and so on.
From the panel’s point of view, it’s something similar. When you come of the room, they will not remember each and every answer you uttered, but they will have an overall perception of you. Irrespective of your background, if you can have a good intellectual conversation and convince them that you are fit for the job, you’ll certainly score well.
- Have no preconceived notions about any particular interview board. Tackle each question on its merit; the asker or the board is not important here. Also, statistics such as average marks given by a particular board etc. are not only irrelevant but also counter productive.
- The hyper-conscious among us have this habit of self evaluation even as the interview goes on. It’ll keep you stuck on something you may have uttered at the beginning of the interview. Inevitably, you’ll feel nervous and unable to focus on the present question being asked. Don’t be too conscious of your words or your presence. Be your natural self, and at ease.
- Answers should be neither brisk, nor too protracted. When they ask opinionated questions, ideally you must state your opinion upfront and then give a brief reasoning of why you think so. There’s no ideal duration for an answer, because it varies from question to question. But try not to belabour your point unnecessarily. If they want to know further, they’ll anyway ask follow up questions.
- This point is straight from the video I shared at the beginning of the post. Sometimes the panel asks you flat questions such as “What are the problems with politics in India?” Instead of giving a standard mains answer such as criminalisation of politics, money power etc you can choose to elevate the discussion. For instance in this case, you can say “Sir the problem with Indian politics is that capturing power has become an end in itself, rather than a means to do greater good.” It might lead to further discussion on ethics and politics etc. Hence such provocative statements lead to follow up questions and engaging conversations. Choose your moment wisely and elevate the discussion when they ask flat questions.
- Take a moment to think after they ask a question. It exudes calmness and also helps you collect your thoughts. I’ve observed that the board members are patient listeners. Only when you are rambling or belabouring your point, they’ll cut you short. For some questions you can even use pencil to write down.
- If I have to summarise in one word what they look for in a candidate, I’d say ‘balance’. Don’t get carried away if they are jovial, or flattering. And don’t lose your footing if they are confrontational. Stay calm. Balance must reflect in answers too.
Let’s say if they ask about Aadhar debate, my answer would have been:
“Sir I believe Aadhar and privacy is not a zero-sum game. We need both Aadhar and protection of individual privacy (my opinion stated upfront). Currently the debate is skewed either as only Aadhar or complete privacy. But we need more nuance.”
And from here, if they want, they might ask follow up questions on data breaches, benefits of Aadhar, privacy law etc. which you must be comfortable with. So for contentious topics that are in news, prepare such balanced opinions.
- Prepare a question bank of most probable questions from your DAF. Your goal must be to pre-empt as many questions as possible. If you prepare well for the expected questions, it’ll give you the confidence to tackle unexpected questions.
- Don’t lie to the panel. Their experience in public life is more than your age. They can easily tell.
- Go with an open mind, but have a clear strategy for the interview. By this I mean you must have definite things about you that you want the board to know. It may be some academic project or some professional achievement. They may or may not ask the question directly. But when they ask a question related to that area, you should deftly bring in your strong point naturally as part of the conversation. Experiment this in your mocks. For instance, let’s say you have won an award for being part of a project in your college or at your workplace. So when they ask- “What are the qualities of a good leader?” Instead of giving a bookish answer, you can talk about your project, and the traits that helped you successfully lead and complete it.
- After writing Mains, we tend to get into a habit of throwing around jargon such as ‘participative approach’, ‘multi-stakeholder model of governance’, ‘women empowerment’, ‘disenfranchisement of the marginalised’ etc. In the interview, instead of such complex phrases, use simple words.
Eg: To a question of what must be done to tackle gender bias, don’t say ‘Sir, we need women empowerment, inclusive growth and a participative approach’. All this mumbo-jumbo doesn’t mean anything.
Instead, say ‘Sir, we need to provide good education to the girl child, strengthen our policing to ensure women safety, encourage more women in politics— from panchayats to the parliament, and support women SHGs in a big way. These are some of the few steps we can take to build a gender just society” From here they can branch off to either of the sub-points you had mentioned.
Simplicity is clarity.
- Think deeply why you want to join the civil service. When they ask this question, it’s a good opportunity to convey about yourself— your life story, your beliefs and core values. Instead of cliched phrases such as ‘job diversity’, ‘work satisfaction’, ‘public service’, ‘varied challenges’ etc., make the conversation lively by telling about yourself. If you can convince the board with a good, honest answer, your job is half done. Also, if you are already working, your answer must focus on the positives that you see in the civil service that excites and brings you here, rather than talking about what you find lacking in your current job. Avoid negativity.
- It’s absolutely fine to say ‘I do not know’ to some questions. But there’s a slight catch here. If it is a factual question— say, the share of thermal power in India’s energy basket— and if you say you don’t know, it’s okay. But let’s say the question is from your DAF. For instance, I had mentioned ‘Reading about Artificial Intelligence’ as one of my hobbies. Now when asked, if I cannot tell the difference between AI and machine learning and deep learning, I was either lying on my DAF or that I’m just plain incompetent. Either way, it’s a serious indictment of me and I fall in the eyes of the panel. So prepare well for your DAF related questions.
- I’d suggest you to take 4-5 mocks depending on the time available. If your last mock before the interview goes disastrous, seriously affecting your morale, take another one to boost your confidence. The point is to go into the actual interview with high morale. Sometimes you might receive contrasting feedbacks from different mock interviews. Don’t get confused. When in doubt, go with your gut feeling of what is right and what is not. I was in Hyderabad through out my preparation, and took all my mocks here, so I can’t comment on institutes at Delhi. The following are the institutes I had taken mock interviews at:a. Officers IAS Academy- Skype session (average)
b. Lakshmiah Institute (didn’t find it useful)
c. RC Reddy (good)
d. Feynman IAS Institute (personal discussion with Venkata Mohan sir was helpful)
e. Hyderabad Study Circle (Excellent)
- Finally, don’t let the weight of the aforementioned advice burden you. Don’t treat them as cagey rules that you must follow to the last word, but only as a mere compass that helps you navigate through your interview preparation.
My Notes and Reading Material
Go through these notes and customise the questions according to your profile. You may need to update some of the statistics in my notes, wherever necessary.
1. Home state (Telangana) & Home district (Jagtial/Karimnagar)
Book on Telangana Economy
Latest Socio Economic Outlook of the State
2. Graduation (Electronics and Instrumentation): Notes
3. College (Birlas, BITS Pilani, Rajasthan): Notes
4. Hobbies (AI, Meditation) : Notes
5. Leadership positions (Football, Creative Activities Club, Project): Notes
6. Work Experience (Google, IRS, GST): Notes
7. Innovative Solutions: Notes
8. Compilation of Most Probable Questions from my Profile: Notes
9. Optional (Anthropology) : Notes
10. My Interview Transcript: Download
Interview preparation really forces us to know about ourselves deeply. It also gives us a rare opportunity to walk through the hallowed portals of UPSC, and to have an intellectual conversation with a distinguished panel of members. So cherish the occasion.
I really enjoyed preparing for the interview. In fact, after the results, I took my parents to UPSC, showed them the main building and the museum, explaining the interview process and the rich history of this eminent institution.
The following pictures are some of my favourites.
It’s only a matter of time before you find your name in the list, too. As you face this final frontier, I will not wish you good luck. Luck is something not in our hands and it presupposes a sense of lack of control. So I wish you what I told myself on the day of my interview.
Do your best. That’s a win.
Read more on UPSC Exam preparation at: https://anudeepdurishetty.in