Toppers talk


ASIM ANWAR. IFS

An interview call by UPSC marks the first taste of real success for a serious UPSC aspirant. It shows that she/he has been able to survive the grueling main exam. Most importantly, the probability of final success now start looking very real, the initial 0.01% nowincreases to almost 50%. While it is an important morale booster to a new entrant to the race, the stakes are now too high to afford any margin for error in preparation.

So, how should one approach the UPSC Personality Test.? As most readers of this article are most likely aware of the basics, I will only look into some specifics, and clear a few common misconceptions. A brief list of areas ofpreparation is also provided, which should be suitably modified according to the candidate profile and the time available at hand.

Typically, there is a duration of 2 weeks to about 2 months between the mains results and the actual personality test. In some cases, this could be much lesser, in case the mains results were delayed for any reason. In such cases, the prep strategy should be suitably modified and primary focus should be on the DAF as a source of likely questions.

So here are the some things to keep in mind, before starting preparation:

  • First and foremost, always keep in mind that this is a test of your personality, and not a test of knowledge. The knowledge is only to help you have a serious conversation on issues. In most cases, there are no right or wrong answers. A bureaucrat is not expected to be a ‘know it all’. What is important is that you know enough to be able to critically analyze and draw logical conclusions on an issue.
  • Be yourself. Many coaching institutes recommend specific style and language to be used during the interview. It is generally quite difficult to change some of these traits in the matter of a month or so, since these have been developed over many years. Try to take specific suggestions and feedback from the mocks and inculcate it within your overall personality. There is no such thing as an ideal personality or style. What is important is thatyou are able to demonstrate the basic qualities of a civil servant – honesty, leadership, empathy, reasoning ability, among others, by showcasing your true self.
  • Be ideologically flexible. All of us have a viewpoint on certain issues that may be related to our own ideological or political beliefs. Civil servants are expected to be politically neutral, and will most certainly work for several different governments over the course of their career. On sensitive issues that have a political angle, make sure that your stand is constitutionally valid and understandable to a rational person. You may disagree with specific policies of the government, not on ideological grounds, but on the grounds of outcomes and implementation risks.
  • Brevity is important. The panel knows that you have cracked the mains, and are bursting with facts on most issues. Remember, unlike a mains question, you do not have time to go into too many details and show-off your knowledge. There is no need of any introduction. Focus on 2-3 most important points (or reasons for your opinion, if an opinion is asked), and conclude your answer in 30 - 45 seconds. If the panel wants more details, they will ask in a follow-up question.
  • Confidence. All of us know that it is important to be confident, but when the time comes, everyone experiences butterflies in the stomach. It is okay to be anxious. However, during the interview itself, do not let your confidence drop because of a couple of unsatisfactory answers, or even if you say “I don’t know” to a few questions in a row. Sometimes, the panel can test you by being aggressive or even rude, or may make some off-hand remarks that can put you down. Do not get flustered or defensive. Remember to get your smile back and be ready to face the next question.
  • Never analyze your performance DURING the interview. We sometimes start thinking whether the panel is impressed/unimpressed with you till now, and start thinking about how many marks we may end up with. This could have disastrous consequences. Never let your answer to any question bother you subsequently during the interview, even if it went horribly wrong. Once the interviewer starts asking the next question, forget about the last one and start listening. If you don’t, not only will your confidence level start to dip, but you may also risk not listening to or misunderstanding the next question.
  • There are no such things as ‘unforgivable’ mistakes. Even if some basic facts (such as names, dated etc.) related to a question slip out of your mind, it is okay. Apologize for not recalling, and say what you know about the issue. More often than not, the interviewer may himself give you a hint or prod you to the right answer.
  • Do not be afraid of saying what you know on a matter,. even if you think that you don’t have enough details to fully answer to question asked. This is a delicate issue, and you will have to do this humbly and honestly, without bluffing or introducing inaccurate facts.
  • Maintain a balance of confidence and humility. Being too subservient is not a good idea. You are expected to demonstrate courage of conviction, and cannot be seen to be a doormat, who will change her/his stance without reason. You need show that you are leader capable of withstanding difficult circumstances and political pressure when taking decisions in the near future.
  • Dress well. Remember that this is an important day for you. If you are used to wearing a suit in your previous job, please wear one. If not, at least a necktie is essential. This demonstrates that you are taking the interview seriously. Since the weather is Delhi is hot around this time, you will have to get used to wearing the suit/tie in this weather during your mock interviews.

Areas of preparation

1. Why Civil Services? 
This is one question that can be asked in many forms – what makes one suitable for the services, reasons for service choice, how one’s background may help in the service, key strengths and weaknesses etc. This is the one question that will require considerable amount of deliberation and background work. It has to be suitable tailor-made to reflect one’s background and strengths. A generic ‘serve the country’ will just not do the trick.

2. DAF
As soon as the mains results come, one should take the DAF, and sit calmly without distraction, and build linkages with every word you have entered – starting with your name, all places you have lived in, the institutions you have studied in, your previous service / work experience, hobbies etc., and try to build questions around it – what, why, who, how, when and where. The bulk of your interview will revolve around your DAF – and it is likely that even the current affairs related questions will have some link with what you have disclosed in your DAF.

3. Current affairs 
First and foremost, it is assumed that any serious candidate, irrespective of whether it was her/his first or last attempt, is regular with current affairs. One cannot afford to drop the ball on daily newspaper reading; even after the mains are completed (perhaps a 1 week break should suffice?). This will help you quickly identify the top issues that are likely to come up, and prepare accordingly. In case you have not done this, there is no need to panic and try to cover a two month backlog of The Hindu (an exhausting and futile exercise, in my opinion). Instead, go to the nearest monthly current affairs manual (such as the one by Vision IAS). An intensive reading of the issues of the last 3-4 months should suffice. Make a special note of controversial issues that may require you to develop your own reasoned opinion.

Make sure that at least for the period within a month of the interview, at least two newspapers are read. Apart from the usual The Hindu/Indian Express, I would recommend reading Times of India or Hindustan Times (the popular newspapers in Delhi). Why? That because there is high probability that the interview panelists also read them?.

If you have a finance/commerce background, then one business daily (Mint/Economic Times/Business Standard) should also be read with focus on significant corporate developments as well.

4. National economy and polity
This is one area which is already covered in GS for mains, and it is just a question of quick revision, apart from new issues (covered as current affairs). The Union Budget and Economic Survey are essential reading. Regarding India Yearbook, specific chapters related to health, education, rural and urban development, infrastructure and welfare can be covered briefly – especially with regard to new and flagship schemes of the government. Specifically, both advantages and areas of improvement of the key schemes and policy initiatives – Swachh Bharat, Jan Dhan, JAM, demonetization etc. must be covered.

5. State and District 
While it may not always be the case, it is likely that there will be someone in the panel from your state, especially since, this year (2017), UPSC has mostly allotted dates for the PT based on the candidate’s state. One should do a good general reading of the state and the district – its history, geography, and recent issues that have got national attention, important personalities etc. Go through the economic survey or yearbook of the state (or at least ask someone to give you a quick overview), and recent schemes and policies of the state government.

Know the basic statistics– size of the economy, contribution to national income, demographic indicators, MMR, IMR etc. Major industries both at the state and district level, and the reasons for state’s and district’s success in that industry should be known.

If you are from a major city, focus on specific issues of the city – infrastructure, pollution, traffic etc. and how these can be tackled. Be ready to give a comparison of the various the cities and regions you have lived in.

Make sure you pick about 3 areas each for your district and state that you will focus on, if given a chance as IAS/IPS, based on the specific needs of the district/state.

6. Foreign Policy and International affairs
While this is of utmost importance to those who have IFS as first or second preference, it is equally important for others, as the current geopolitical setup presents many juicy issues that the panel can use for questions. Here, apart from the current affairs of the last 3-4 months, try to prepare the following:

  • Broad features of India’s foreign policy and its evolution over the years
  • Key historical events since independence, such as wars, treaties signed etc., and their significance
  • Bilateral issues – Some historical context on India’s relationship with each of the important neighbors and global powers, and the top 2-3 bilateral issues currently in the news.
  • Multilateral fora and partnerships – the objectives of each and differences between them. India’s stand on each of them.
  • Keep track of VIP visits – both incoming and outgoing during the days/weeks preceding the interview.

7. Subject of Education and Optional subject 
While it is practically impossible to remember everything one has studied in college, the focus here should be on applied aspects, especially if anything is in the news (particularly for engineers, try to go through the common areas of innovation in your field). For optional, go through the syllabus once and revise those areas that may be of interest to a common person, or any area of relevance to a career in the civil services.

8. Hobby 
Finally, the hobby can be a tricky area to cover. Since it is unlikely you can actually demonstrate your prowess in the interview room, it is important to know the theoretical aspects of the activity – its history, rules, famous players/performers etc. You need to demonstrate genuine interest in the activity, even if you are just a beginner. Remember that the panel knows you have been studying for mains for the last 1-2 years and will obviously not have had too much time to pursue your hobby since then.

All the best, and remember, that most people across the table in the interview room have also been exactly where you are today.

Note: Over the years, I have taken advice from many people regarding interview prep. Some points are based on my own experience, many others are what I have learnt from seniors and friends.I do hope the suggestions here are useful to as many aspirants as possible.

About the author
Asim Anwar is in the Indian Foreign Service, having secured the 149th rank in Civil Service Exam 2015. He was previously in the Indian Revenue Service (Customs and Central Excise). He has secured 225/300 (2012), 206/275 (2013) and 209/275 (2015) over the three times he has attended the UPSC interview.

He may be reached at asimanwar@gmail.com or 9972777308 (whatsapp)