How Neethu chased her IFS dream and bagged 28th rank

Neethu George Thoppan: Manorama Online

One cannot achieve their dreams simply by wishing for it. Incredible courage and confidence too are the key to success. Idukki native Neethu George Thoppan possessed both and thus bagged a high rank in the Indian Forestry Services (IFS) examination.

A lover of mountains who wouldn’t miss a chance to hike to the summits, Neethu is thrilled that she finally got her dream job.

In an exclusive interview, Neethu who bagged the 28th rank and the highest score for interview in the IFS exam, speaks about her preparation for the highly competitive exam. Interestingly, Neethu came second in Kerala too as per the results published a few days ago.

Did you dream of becoming an IFS officer when you were in school? Is that the reason why you chose Forestry for your bachelor’s degree?

I wished to become an IAS officer when I was in school. However, it was quite unexpectedly that I did my higher studies in Forestry. After Plus-Two, I had written the Kerala medical entrance examination. There were several courses related to agricultural studies too. Even though my first option was Agriculture, I got Forestry in my first allotment.

I spoke to the teachers to understand the nature of this course. When I realised that this course had great potential and involves lot of field work and hiking trips to the national parks, I cancelled my first option of Agriculture and joined for BSc Honours in Forestry at the Kerala Agricultural University at Mannuthy, Thrissur.

After completing my graduation I wanted to join a coaching centre for Civil Services Examination. However, in my final year of study, my preferences changed and I wanted to become a forest officer.

In the last year of my graduation course I travelled all over India as part of a field trip for students. When I visited the Great Himalayan National Park (in Himachal Pradesh), I got the chance to speak to several forest officers and enjoyed trekking to many beautiful spots. Those trips had offered a peek into career prospects. I returned from that trip with a new-found passion for a career in the Indian Forest Service. I felt that the chance to work anywhere in India by deeply knowing the nature and forests was an advantage. So, I decided to train for the IFS examination.

After graduation, you joined a coaching centre without pursuing higher studies. You have been to Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram for training. Besides, you did group study and self-study too. What do you think is the best way to study?

I went to Delhi for coaching after completing graduation. I got a pan-India exposure during my Delhi stay as I got the chance to study with many people who had come from various background. From alumni of Indian Institutes of Technology to aspirants from various social and cultural background, I was exposed to fabulous people and unique experiences. The Delhi days gave me not just knowledge but new friends too.

I have understood that the coaching centres everywhere, be it in Delhi or in Thiruvananthapuram, follow similar training patterns. In Kerala there are even centres which bring trainers from Delhi. Having a basic idea of the exam and understanding about what to study and what not to study is more significant than where you train. In the last two years when I was at Thiruvananthapuram I was staying and training with a few friends who think like me. I believe that group study with my friends really helped me.

How did you manage to cross the cut-off marks of the exam?

The cut-off marks of IFS exam is greater than the Civil Services Exam. I should also talk about the changes that were made in the exam pattern. Until 2013, there was no preliminary exam for admission to Indian Forest Services. You could enter the service after passing the mains and the interview round. However, this pattern was changed after 2013.

Now, IFS aspirants should takes the preliminary exam. Besides, you have to score up to 10–20 marks more than the Civil Services cut-off to clear the IFS prelims. You have to train well to score good marks. I, along with a few friends, joined the training centre in Delhi as we were focussed on the IFS. As I had completed my graduation in Forestry, I chose it as the main option. Botany was the second option. I had gone to Delhi mainly to get good training in that.

You failed thrice despite proper training. Were you able to analyse your problems when you couldn’t get through? How did you manage to overcome these failures?

I had a clear idea about my problems and shortcomings every time I failed. Time management was a big challenge. There were times when invigilators had to snatch the answer sheet from me as I continued to write even after the time was up. Then I began training for better time management. I used question papers from previous years to improve my time management skills. I followed this method while preparing for the preliminary and the main exams. I have learned from my experiences that you could easily overcome your problems with hard work.

It was in the fourth attempt that you achieved success. Even though you were lucky to have the support of your family, how did you manage to overcome the stress of the exams and failures?

I couldn’t clear the preliminary exams of both IFS and Civil Services Examination in the beginning. Even though I was able to clear the preliminary exams of Civil Services in the second and third attempts, IFS was still elusive. It was only in the fourth attempt that I could clear the civil service preliminary and the preliminary, mains and interview round of IFS.

Unpredictable trends have been observed in competitive exams lately. You cannot expect questions only from a particular topic even if you have studied well. I took a risk following the elimination of options in the exam. Amazing presence of mind during the examination is vital to score good marks. So, I tried to be cool by not giving myself too much pressure. I spoke to my family and friends. I decided to write the exam, as well as I could, without thinking about the results. Instead of trying my luck, I skipped questions that had options that I didn’t know. I tried to answer at least 87 questions for the IFS preliminary.

Did the mock interviews help? What are the factors to note about the length of the answers?
I attended the interview round with the confidence I had gained from practising mock interviews. This time, even though I had written both the exams pretty seamlessly, I was really stressed during the interview round. Communicating our ideas with a panel isn’t as easy as writing down answers on a piece of paper. Most questions were from the details that I had submitted in the biodata. I had included information about my hobbies, achievements and aptitudes in the resume. I was active in the National Service Scheme (NSS) when I was a student. Besides, I am a 'C' certificate holder of the National Cadet Corps. I had won individual championships in sports during my school days. I really enjoy singing songs.

They began the interview by noting that I have secured a 'C' certificate, the top-most one issued for NCC training. However, most of the questions were about my favourite hobby, birdwatching. The interview panel was interested to ask questions from that topic. Most questions evaluated my deep knowledge and passion for the subject. So, while preparing the biodata, make sure to write only about matters that you know well.

In the beginning I was stressed thinking about facing an expert interview panel. The number of officers selected to IFS has dropped after introduction of preliminary exams. It has been almost ten years since someone from my college had attended the IFS interview. I got lots of support and encouragement from my college. The high hopes that my college authorities had on me and my decision to pursue higher studies if I could not clear the IFS exam this year, had in fact made me stressful. But, I was relaxed when I spoke to other candidates.

The panelists were friendly and made us calm. Moreover, they encouraged the candidates to give their best answers. In my experience, more than the theory, most questions test your practical knowledge. It is important to speak the truth and prepare the resume with honesty. It would be better if you focus on the main points rather than beating around the bush, while answering the questions.

Did you expect to score such a good rank this time?
I wasn’t sure I would find a spot in the rank list until it came out. I suffered many health problems from the time of prelims. I tested positive for COVID-19 while doing the final revision for the prelims. My friends had taken care of me then as I couldn’t even get out of the house. After completing the quarantine, I fell down the stairs and injured the ligament of my leg. I attended the test with plaster on my leg. However, I was determined to write the exam despite all the difficulties.

Meanwhile, my wedding too happened quite unexpectedly, between the exams and the interview. We were already engaged and got married within three weeks after the results came out. I got married last November between the prelims and the main exams. My husband Ashish Alex is pursuing PhD in the United States. My husband and his family too have been encouraging.

I tested positive for COVID-19 again as I was preparing for the interview round. The interview was scheduled 10 days after I had tested negative. I am happy that my hard work, without expecting any result, had really paid off.

What made you dream of achieving a career in this field? Who was your inspiration?
As a child, I used to ask my father about his dream for me. He said that he wanted to see me as a Collector. I think I was in Class Three then. Even though I didn’t know who a Collector was, I used to tell everyone that I wanted to become a Collector. When I grew up I had dreamed to clear the Civil Services Exam. However, IFS suddenly entered my mind when I chose Forestry for graduation.

I had gone for lots of trips as part of the course. It was indeed a fabulous experience learning from travels and real situations rather than just classroom sessions. Three of us once went to the Nilgiris to record the population of the Thar as part of an assignment in our second year. Anamudi was the location that we were assigned. We got the chance to reach the core zone which is not accessible to the common people. Trips like that had given me incredible joy and peace of mind.

My dream to get a job that made me happy led me to the IFS. I wished to do something that was related to nature. I am grateful to my college that had arranged such trips for the students.

Your parents were teachers. Did proper training in academics, from childhood onwards, help to achieve this?
Perumala Thoppan George Joseph and Jessy Joseph of Kanthalloor are my parents. My father was a physical education trainer. Meanwhile, my mother was a lower-primary school teacher. They weren’t strict at all and gave us the freedom to study whatever we liked. They gave priority to our preferences in everything. My parents used to give me proper guidance. Moreover, they wanted us to study as much as we wanted. They didn’t pressurise us. My sister Geethu George Thoppan is doing her masters in Germany. Meanwhile, brother Naveen George works in Ireland.

We used to follow a proper academic system from childhood onwards. I continued that even during my training days. I made sure to wake up at a particular time to study. Even though I never set alarms, I am able to wake up at that time. I used to spend most of the day time for studying. I did cooking too as studying for long hours can be tiring. Instead of studying continuously for hours, I took breaks in between. During the initial training days, I used to study continuously. However, I changed that method to enjoy music and cooking so that I could return to my lessons with a clear head. I dedicated Sunday afternoons for other activities. I got better results when I began managing my study time efficiently.

As a child, Neethu used to take part only in arts fests as she has a flair for music and singing. However, in her teenage days, she realised that she was a strong athlete too. Long-distance running was her favourite item. She had to work really hard with determination and perseverance to achieve her dream job in IFS. Neethu’s incredible achievement shows that anyone could dream big if they are determined to chase after it.  

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.