Nazuk Kumar from Chandigarh, ranked 58 in Civil Services Examination 2015. Allotted to the IAS, with AGMUT cadre and scored 209/275 in the interview, which was the highest marks given in 2015.
I feel that the interview phase of the selection process is the haziest and most of us have many unanswered questions. Not much guidance and material is available on effective interview preparation. I am writing this article to share whatever little I learnt as I went through this process.
Some general points:
- Maintain a positive attitude and positive energy – In my opinion this is the most important factor that determines the course of the interview is your general energy level. You must have a positive vibe.
- Interview is not arbitrary- You may hear a lot of people saying that interview can be random. It all depends on the board and the mood of the chairperson. I strongly believe that the UPSC is one of the fair government organizations. The interview boards tally marks thrice a day to maintain uniformity. Majority of the boards are rational and try to make the candidate comfortable. Even if you believe or have experienced randomness in say, a previous interview, I think its in your best interest to have faith in the selection procedure. This will lead to positive vibe. Being skeptic and negative will not lead to anything positive.
- Interview is to test your personality and not your knowledge- this is true. But at the same time it is a good idea to have adequate knowledge about your own background. Even to test personality the board will require talking material.
- General right answer approach- answers should follow a logical line of thought. Be rational and scientific as far as possible. In case you are not sure of what stand to take, always think as per the ideals of our constitution. If you base any answer on the constitution, it is very difficult to go wrong.
- You can prepare for the interview- You will often hear that interview is a test of your personality and not knowledge. You can’t change your personality and hence can’t prepare for the interview. I think you can fine tune and augment your personality. Give adequate time and effort to interview preparation. It could determine which service or cadre you end up getting. So don’t take it lightly.
- Structure hazy questions – sometimes they may ask you a very wide question. It is good to divide the answer into parts and at the outset only define what all you will be covering. This tells the board member that while you go into a particular issue you have the larger picture in mind. E.g. I was asked to compare India and Pakistan. I said that I will do this on the social, political and economic basis.
- Balance answer vs taking a stand- I think it’s a good idea to keep balance in your answer. Present both sides of the argument and then say what you support. It is a good to recognise counter opinions. However there are certain issues which are black and white. On these you must take a clear cut stance. E.g. The issue of khap panchayats. You must take a clear stand that they are unconstitutional and undermine rule of law.
- Mock interviews- mock interviews are definitely helpful. They give you good feedback on tactical issues, body language etc. But be take what they say with a pinch of salt. Sometimes they are over critical, which may kill your self confidence. Don’t let that happen as it’s important to remain positive. I did seven mocks during my preparation.
- DAF- do a detailed study of your DAF. Google each word. Study background issues related to what is written in your form. E.g. I had interned with RBI, so I prepared all key banking issues. Similarly revise your graduation subject thoroughly, specially if it is different from your UPSC optional. You can even think of strong parts of your DAF that you may want to talk about in case you get a chance
- Current affairs – I read the Hindu and the Indian Express thoroughly. I made notes on all key issues. Current affairs for pre is fact based. For the mains you need to know multiple aspects and give many points. For the interview you need to be crystal clear on the crux of any issue. You will have limited time to explain so you must get to the core of the issue right away. Pay special attention to current affair topics relating to things mentioned in your DAF. Revise your notes. Also you must read the newspaper on the interview day. Learn to build a well supported opinion. There are some evergreen issues that you should prepare e.g. Death penalty, euthanasia, legalisation of prostitution etc. Do cover these.
- Study group- form a study group and take mocks for each other. Give honest feedback. This helps garner multiple perspectives on your answers.
- Personality questions- prepare some standard answers like why do you want to join the service? Think so of genuine answers. Don’t make a story to bluff the board. It will mess with your body language and you are likely to get caught in cross questioning. Honesty is appreciated.
- If you have time you should read some general non fiction books. This will help you build opinion on issues. I had read “An uncertain glory” by Amartya Sen. Incidentally I was asked about it also!
Some tactical issues-
- Sleep well before the interview day
- Take a comfortable place near UPSC so that you don’t have to travel too much
- Read the newspaper on the day of the interview. This is a must! You can read a common man newspaper like Hindustan Times also.
- What to wear- for the ladies, it is safest to wear saree with a well fitted blouse. The blouse should not be revealing. Wear the saree well so that you feel confident. For the men it’s a good idea to wear a suit with a tie. Make sure it is washed and ironed properly.
- Body language- be comfortable. Sit in a relaxed and upright position. Don’t fidget around with anything.
- Ask permission to come in and to be seated. Wish all the members. Say thank you before leaving in the end.
- While talking maintain eye contact. Try to establish a connect with the member asking the question. At the same time do look at all the members. Have a comfortable smile (not a grin).
- Maintain a good audible volume and don’t talk too fast. Take a pause to think about your answer before jumping to answer.
- Get to the crux of the matter right away. That shows that you have clarity of thought.
My interview transcript
My interview was scheduled in the afternoon of 28th April 2016. I was the third person to be interviewed in the afternoon slot. I was allotted Vinay Mittal Sir’s board. I have tried to recall as exactly as possible, but there may be minor variations.
I was a little nervous while entering the room, but thankfully that vanished when I went inside. The board consisted of five members, with the chairperson sitting in the middle.
Me: May I come in Sir? (With pleasant smile)
CM: Yes, please come in.
Me: Good afternoon Sir (to each member)
CM: Please take a seat
Me: Thank you Sir
CM: (Looking at my DAF) So, I see you have been very active. You have won many awards. What is this Bal Shree Award? (Luckily they started with areas of my strength)
Me: Sir this is a national award given by the President of India to children between ages 12-14, for creativity. There are four streams in which it is awarded – creative scientific innovations, creative performing arts, creative arts and creative writing. I was awarded in the scientific innovations category. The National Bal Bhawan conducts a three tier competition – local, regional and national level, to select the awardees.
CM: So what was your idea?
Me: Sir each level was a residential camp with multiple tasks. At the national level, one of our tasks was to present innovations with the theme of disaster management. I presented the concept of an accident safe car. It had features like a sleep detector, which would monitor the eye lid movement of the driver and prompt his/her seat to vibrate in case he/she feels sleepy. Another feature was an alcohol meter to analyze breath. This car would have sensors all around to optimize seat positions in case of a collision.
CM: Very interesting! This can have application beyond cars also. You should pursue it further. You went for the Physics Olympiad. Did you win anything?
Me: Yes Sir, I went for the Olympiad. I did not win a medal.
CM: Who won the maximum medals?
Me: The Chinese team.
CM: Why do you think they won the most medals? Why doesn’t India win?
Me: Sir, we don’t have the institutional set up to train for such events. We sent class 10 students for a class 12 level Olympiad. The Chinese team had very rigorous training.
CM: What else? Do you think planning has a role?
Me: Yes, we did not plan ahead for the event. The Chinese team trained for two years.
CM: You are an NTSE scholar? What is this?
Me: Sir, this is the National Talent Search Examination Scholarship conducted by the NCERT.
CM: You have worked with the Reserve Bank of India. What is this RBI Young Scholar?
Me: This is was a summer internship program, at RBI, for young people. It was based on a national exam conducted by RBI. We were each given a topic to study. My topic was financial inclusion. (I mentioned financial inclusion, even if not directly asked, to keep the conversation on a topic I was comfortable with)
CM: What work did you do? What were your findings?
Me: I studied the status of financial inclusion in three villages in Panchkula district of Haryana. I found that while most households had a bank account the usage of these accounts was very low. I also made some recommendations, some of which have now been incorporated in the PMJDY.
CM: What are the features of the PMJDY?
Me: The Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna is a financial inclusion scheme to ensure that every household has a bank account. Banks have been mandated to open accounts and banking correspondents are also being used. XX number of bank accounts have been opened.
CM: Do you think it can happen? Will illiterate villager understand?
Me: Sir, currently the awareness level among villagers is not as much as it should be and there is a fear towards formal banking institutions. But, I think, the juncture at which the country is, it is apt time to make the transition. Slowly people will understand the importance banking institutions. (I remained positive)
CM: I see you have been active in college. You were a coordinator in rendezvous. What is this?
Me: Rendezvous is the annual youth festival at IIT Delhi. I was the publicity coordinator.
CM: And you have been active in debating also. What is this Model United Nations?
Me: Model United Nations is a format of debate where each participant represents a country and a global issue is discussed.
CM: What is this Sarva Shiksha Netra?
Me: In my summer vacation I worked for an NGO on a project called Sarva Shiksha Netra. This was a project with Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, Haryana. We screened all government school children, from class 1 to 8, for eye defects in seven districts.
CM: What is Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan?
Me: Sir, it is a scheme started in 2001, aimed at universalization of primary education. It has now been supported by the Right to Education Act which makes education a fundamental right.
CM: What do you think are the problems in school education system in India?
Me: I think the most important link in any school is the teacher. In India, teaching needs to be perceived as a respectable profession so that we are able to recruit the best people. There recruitment should be more scientific. Teachers should have a defined career progression to keep them motivated. Teacher training can also help improve their capacity. Sir, other problems in our education system are infrastructure and funds. (Focused on one core issue, instead of giving a laundry list of issues)
Member 1: Ok Nazuk, can you compare India and Pakistan? Give marks to each based on performance
Me: Sir, I would like to divide this into economic, political and social aspects. Politically, India has done well. It is the world’s largest democracy. Elections are conducted in a smooth manner and each citizen has a voting right. On the other hand Pakistan is a very unstable state with multiple power centers, leading to inconsistent policies and even internal security issues. (The question was very open ended. It is better to structure such open ended questions into parts)
Member 1: How many marks would you give?
Me: Sir, I can analyze the issues in both the countries but I don’t think I have the expertise to give marks. (I was hesitant to give marks as that may have lead to a value judgement)
Member 1: No, go ahead, give marks
Me: Sir politically I would give India 7/10 and Pakistan (still hesitant)
Member 2: (laughing) Don’t worry you can give Pakistan less marks.
Me: Sir about 3/10. Next I would compare the countries on the economic front. India has shown impressive growth in the last decade and we have withstood the global financial crisis well. However growth in India has not been very inclusive. It did not lead to mass employment generation. Sir, I am not aware of the exact growth numbers of Pakistan, but as far as I remember they were not very impressive. I would give India 6/10 and Pakistan 3/10
Member 1: Ok that’s great, can we move on to the next question..?
Member 2: No, I want to hear the social aspect also.
Me: Sir, socially I think India has done well. The constitution of India recognizes right to equality and rule of law. In India, at least on paper, women are given equal rights and many protections. There are many areas of potential improvement like the caste system that still exists. However the situation in Pakistan is much worse. I would give 7/10 to India and 3/10 to Pakistan.
Member 1: You were talking about education. Do you think you would take out time to teach children, if you are posted somewhere?
Me: Sir, I would definitely take out time to teach children as I think it’s a great way to unwind and to learn.
Member 2: Nazuk, you went to Carmel Convent School in Chandigarh. Why did you not go to the government model school?
Me: Sir, that decision was taken by my parents.
Member 2: Why do you think parents send their children to convent schools and not government schools?
Me: Sir, in Chandigarh even the government schools, like 16 model, are very good. However parents feel that their children will learn English better in a convent school. Further they feel that the quality of education would be better.
Member 2: If you were to improve 16 model school, what would you do?
Me: An important difference between a convent school and a government school is the awareness level of the parents. When parents form an effective pressure group, education quality improves in a school. Parents also help students perform better. Thus, I would empower the parent community. For example, in Delhi, they have started a simple initiative, where a question is sent to parents by SMS, related to what is taught in class that day. Using this the illiterate parents can also get involved in their child’s education. Other measures would be around teacher training. (Focus on one core issue rather than laundry list)
Member 2: Can you recall any famous saying by Gandhi and how is it relevant today?
Me: Gandhiji said that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. It is especially relevant today in the context of the nuclear arms race. If all the countries develop nuclear arms and in case these get used, it would lead to destruction of the whole world.
Member 2: Very good. What is Gandhiji’s trusteeship principle?
Me: Gandhiji said that the rich are the trustees of the wealth of the society and should use it for the betterment of the whole society.
Member 2: Ok. I will say a sentence, tell me what you understand by it – “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far take everyone along with you”
Me: Sir, I can relate this to sociology, which was my optional. If you want to go fast, go alone. Legal changes imposed top down create fast change, but this change may not be sustainable or widely accepted. If you want to go far take everyone along with you. To create durable change, it is important to create a bottom up consensus for that change. For example, in India we see that Dowry is prohibited by law but socially accepted custom. Similarly corruption is technically illegal but there exists a latent social acceptance for it. (Gave concept and supporting example)
Member 3: You are a sociology student, what are the major problems in India?
Me: Sir, some of the major problems are poverty, patriarchy…
Member 3: What else?
Me: Sir, caste is still a problem in India…
Member 3: What else? Do you think drugs is a problem?
Me: Yes Sir
Member 3: You come from an engineering college. Was it an issue in your college?
Me: Sir, it was not a pervasive issue, but the problem did exist among some students.
Member 3: What do you think can be done about this?
Me: To curb the drug menace the enforcement machinery needs to be strict. Police officers mostly know where and who is dealing with drugs.
Member 3: What about education?
Me: Educating the youth is equally important. It has to be a dual strategy of prevention and cure. Awareness generation is the more sustainable solution. As we have seen, in the case of smoking, now people’s awareness has increased and they are voluntarily not taking to smoking.
Member 3: When a bill is passed in the Parliament, it is sent to the President. The President can either assent to it, withhold it or return it. Can you give an example of each?
Me: The President can assent to the bill, for example the Right to Information Act. The President had withheld the Office of Profit Bill. Sir I am not very sure of the third one..(I was not sure of the answer to this, but luckily I remembered it)
CM: Take a guess…
Me: The Gujarat Bill against organized terror is one bill that the President has repeatedly returned.
Member 3: But that is a state bill
CM: I think we can give that to her. (I was very relieved!)
Member 4: You have done textile engineering. Can you describe the whole process of textile manufacturing?
Me: We start with ginning of the cotton followed by carding and combing. Next steps are roving and drawing to make yarn. This yarn is sized. Weaving or knitting then gives us fabric. This fabric is desized and finish treated. Finally the fabric is dyed and colored and then stitched.
Member 4: Between 10 and 20 tex yarn, which is finer?
Me: Sir… (I knew the concept but was double checking the answer in my mind)
Member 4: Do you know what is tex?
Me: Yes Sir, tex is defined as mass in grams per 1000 metres
Member 4: All right, I am satisfied. There are many textile dying units in Panipat, which create a lot of pollution. What do you think can be done about this?
Me: Sir, the pollution laws should be strictly enforced. The dying units should treat the waste, separate harmful heavy metals before discharging.
Member 4: Do you think consolidation can help in this?
Me: Yes Sir, a common treatment plant between units can effectively use economies of scale reducing cost of treatment.
Member 4: There are a lot of skilled artisans in the textile sector, who are not getting their due share as remuneration. What can be done about this?
Me: Artisans can form a cooperative to collectively bargain for better prices.
Member 4: What are the problems of textile industry in India? Why are we not able to compete in the international market?
Me: Sir, in India the average size of a textile unit is smaller than those in China and Bangladesh. Thus economies of scale are not that effective in Indian units, translating into a cost disadvantage. China has followed a cluster based approach which we are now starting with. Other problems hindering growth of textile sector are erratic power supply and labor union problems.
Member 4: Good. One last question. You spoke about education. There is a famous Indian origin economist who talks about the importance of education in growth. Do you know who am I talking about? (I was very happy to hear this question)
Me: Yes Sir, Amartya Sen. In fact I recently read his book, “An Uncertain Glory”.
Member 4: Which states does he talk about?
Me: Kerala and Tamil Nadu
Member 4: Thank you
CM: Thank you very much. You can leave
(I thanked everyone, put the chair back and left)