The way the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) recruits people for civil services has undergone a lot of changes over a period of time. The present system of a three-stage selection process started 40 years ago, but the content and type of questions keep changing every few years. Earlier, winning was a monopoly of students from prestigious institutions as it was primarily a test of knowledge one had acquired during college years. The intense competition in the later years demanded specialised coaching and initially it was only available in Delhi. Now almost all cities in India have centres for civil service coaching.
In order to ensure winning in this prestigious examination, some people do extreme things. I know a person who bought a lot of general knowledge books from a second-hand bookshop and made all his children memorise them during weekends. His idea of building a strong foundation in general knowledge was certainly strange. There are others who enrol their children in civil service foundation courses from a very young age to get that early start.
Recently a student of mine who cleared civil service this year was sharing his experience while interacting with the public. Someone asked him about how to choose a graduation subject which will be most beneficial for civil services. This person wanted to register for a correspondence course so that he does not need to waste time going to a college! He wanted to study for civil service full time. He was not ready to listen to the benefits of joining a good college and was even suspicious that the successful person did not want to share his winning tips! This was indeed a bizarre idea.
I remember a fellow aspirant of mine who used to get advice from her father about the need for single-minded devotion. The father wants his daughter to study the whole time without doing anything else. What will happen when one studies for civil service like this?
Let's consider the first case mentioned above. Joining a correspondence course for graduation and studying for civil service full time might have sounded logical to some. But the person obviously will fall short of all the exposure to which one is entitled at this age. An educational institution provides an environment where one can interact with a lot of people. There will be good teachers from whom one can learn much more which a text book may not be able to provide. The interpersonal skills will get sharpened as one spends time with fellow students in class as well as in campus. The extracurricular activities help one to mould a well-developed personality. There will be lot of famous personalities visiting the college which is an additional opportunity to get inspired. That is why it is advisable to choose a college with a good learning environment.
All this first-hand experiences are going to be crucial especially during the personality test. There is a lot of difference between a person who has done things and someone who has just memorised the same. One who has experiences will be able to deliver in-depth answers enriched with personal examples. Such candidtaes can make the conversation interesting and will be rewarded accordingly. Even while writing answers, a person with more exposure will be able to use better examples and get more marks.
Even after college while one prepares full time for civil services, there is no need to cut down on extracurricular activities. Watching movies and cultural programmes, attending seminars, joining for volunteering etc. all can have a positive impact on studies. One can pick up useful information from all these activities. These things will be in your memory longer than the things you have only read. The usage of all five senses in studying is definitely more rewarding.
The dynamic nature of civil service examination as well as the career of a civil servant demands a person who is strong in basics as well as ready to adapt and update. A bookworm may still be able to crack the exam, but is most likely to be a failure in his/her career as it happens with certain toppers. This job demands good interpersonal skills and people who have more experiences are better suited for it. So, instead of being just a bookworm, try to learn and understand things holistically to be a better civil servant.
(The author is a former IPS officer and a trainer for civil service aspirants)