Ms. Ira Singhal (Rank 1, UPSC 2014) on 'Overcoming Barriers in the Pursuit of Civil Services Examination'
On February 18, 2016, the GNLU Centre for Law and Society organised an ‘Open House with Ms. Ira Singhal’ on the topic “Overcoming Barriers in the Pursuit of Civil Services Examination”.
Ms. Singhal is a 2015 batch, AGMUT cadre IAS officer. She was the highest scoring individual in the UPSC’s Civil Services Examination for the year 2014. She got Indian Administrative Service (IAS) on her fourth attempt. In her first three attempts, she got the Indian Revenue Service (IRS). Ira Singhal is an engineer and also holds an MBA degree. Before joining the civil services, she worked as a Strategy Manager with Cadbury India for two years. She designed the launch plan of Cadbury Dairy Milk Silk and many other projects during her tenure. Disillusioned with the idea of the sole pursuit of money and wanting to bring about change in society irrespective of the magnitude, she left her job and appeared for the UPSC exams.
The ‘Open House with Ms. Ira Singhal’ witnessed a huge turnout with around two hundred civil services aspirants from GNLU, PDPU, SPIPA, Chahal Academy and many other institutes attending the session and interacting with Ms. Singhal.
After a brief introduction with the audience by Ms. Singhal, students got the chance to ask her questions. With her succinct and often humour-laced answers, the session was engrossing and informative.
The following are a few questions the students posed:
Student: What should I focus more on - Prelims or Mains?
Ira Singhal: One needs to have a very practical approach while making such strategies. You should understand that you only need to pass Prelims, but it is the Mains that you need to score well in to clear the examination. So, I personally believe that you should focus more on the Mains. Someone might ask what the difference is between preparation for these two. Now fundamentally, Prelims have questions which ask ‘What’, whereas in Mains they ask ‘Why’. So, there is a different approach altogether in attempting these papers. If you only focus on ‘What’, you will never be able to clear the Mains.
Student: Should I join some test series?
Ira Singhal: Whether or not you should join a test series is something that differs from person to person. Personally, I could not join a test series since I started late and did not have time to write test papers. Nevertheless, writing test series does help bring a flow in your answers. I have seen many people who mean something else but when they write they are not able to present their views. In such cases, writing test series helps you. Test series may also help you gauge how much you know.
Student: What is the difference between a corporate job and a government job?
Ira Singhal: Corporate jobs and government jobs are very different things. With regard to your personal life, you get more freedom in a corporate job. But I personally feel that there is more job satisfaction in being a civil servant. You can bring about change in the society. If you see that something is wrong, you have the authority to amend it. But there are times in the office where work is very slow, as opposed to jobs in the private sector where everything is fast paced.
Student: What are the benefits of having work experience and then appearing for UPSC exams?
Ira Singhal: Having work experience helps you a lot and I personally feel that one should have work experience of at least two years. The reason being, first it helps you have a backup plan. Second, it gives you maturity which shows in the answers you write. Third, it teaches you how to handle pressure.
Student: How do you choose an optional subject?
Ira Singhal: Many people say that you should select such and such a subject just for the reason that they feel that people do not pass it. But there is no optional in which no one passes. So choose an optional, which you are interested in because the syllabus is so vast that if you are not interested in it, you will never be able to complete the subject.
Student: How was your life in Mussoorie?
Ira Singhal: The academy has an extremely beautiful campus but we had no time to go see it. We were busy throughout with our classes on weekdays and treks and hikes on the weekends. We were so busy with our classes, treks, mid-terms and finals that we couldn’t explore the campus. The only time we could go around the campus and click pictures was when our families visited us. The experience at the academy is extremely interesting since one meets and interacts with hundreds of new people from different states and cultural backgrounds. For me the three months at the academy whizzed past.
Student: How helpful are coaching institutes?
Ira Singhal: Even this is something which is very dependent on the individual. Coaching institutions help you make a schedule. They also tell you how to begin and from where to begin. For someone like me who studies at her own pace, they were not beneficial for me. But at the same time, I had to take coaching for Geography, since I had taken an optional subject in which I had no background.
Student: How did you prepare when you never made notes?
Ira Singhal: I never made notes so I read the books again and again. The problem with making notes is that when you read a book you only understand sixty percent of it and while making the notes you only write 20-30% of what you have understood. So, effectively you only write 20% of what has been written in the books. I feel that making notes is a short-cut and a lazy way to do things and there is a limit to lazy ways you can opt for while giving UPSC.
Student: While writing answers should I be diplomatic or should I be honest?
Ira Singhal: There are few questions where you have to put in your opinion, for example, there are questions where they ask for a critique of the government. In such cases, many people believe that writing a diplomatic answer is a smarter option. But I do not feel the same. The question requires you to objectively analyse the government policy or whatever is asked and write accordingly. By not doing so you will end up writing an incomplete answer. However if you have a very biased or very radical opinion about something, it is better not to write it. There is a difference between a biased and an analytical opinion. You should realise which it is and write an analytical/honest answer.
Student: Can you give some tips about the interview?
Ira Singhal: An interview carries 275 marks and all other subject carry 250 marks. So first, don’t view the interview as a next step, but look at it like another subject. In the interview, you should present yourself as you are and not someone else. There can be two kinds of questions: one, where the interviewer focuses more on the candidate’s personal life, his/her interests and hobbies, his/her decision making skills and ability to deal with certain situations rather than facts. The other type is where the questions would tend to be more factual and related to current affairs. I personally believe that the former makes more sense. Also, communication skills matter but the interview is not dependent on it alone. So, even if you don’t have very good communication skills, do not worry much about it.
Student: What were the mistakes that you made in your first three attempts?
Ira Singhal: I made quite a few mistakes and before giving my fourth attempt I had to analyse my previous mistakes and prepare accordingly. One mistake that I made was that, on being told by coaching institutions to do so, I started writing answers in paragraphs when I was more comfortable with writing answers in points. Another mistake that I made was that I used to attempt questions which I did not know and because of this I wasted my time and it was never fruitful. In my fourth attempt, I attempted only those questions, which I knew.
Two things that you should note - while writing answers think like an examiner. Also, everyone makes different mistakes and so you should analyse the reasons behind these and amend them.
Student: How did you prepare for current affairs?
Ira Singhal: I used reading material of coaching institutes and some online websites.
Student: When should I start practicing answering questions?
Ira Singhal: When you are done with preparing the content, because for a major part of it, it is not the way you write but what you write that matters.
Student: Does any prior internship at government institutes help?
Ira Singhal: It is fine even if you do not have any such experience.
Student: How does one apply for foreign services?
Ira Singhal: You are given options, you can choose it as a top preference.
Student: What kept you motivated?
Ira Singhal: One factor because of which I was never de-motivated was that my preparation was not continuous. Also, you need to see why you get de-motivated. You get de-motivated when you start feeling that you will not be able to achieve your goal. Never allow these thoughts to gather and try removing them.
Student: How did you manage your hobbies with your studies?
Ira Singhal: I never thought that I will study for eight hours or some definite number of hours. I used to schedule my studies according to content. I used to plan to study certain topics every day and not plan to study for eight hours every day. This strategy helped me save time and allowed me to pursue my interests along with it.
Student: What is the goal of your life?
Ira Singhal: To create some change in society and better the lives of as many people as I can.
Student: I am a first year student, from when should I start preparing for UPSC examinations?
Ira Singhal: You are too young to even narrow down that you want to appear for the UPSC. Do not restrict your growth. It often happens that students start preparing for the UPSC from their first year and because of this they forget to study in college. After this, they take a drop year and attempt it again. In case such a student does not clear the test, he/she opts for a career in the private sector. But because he/she had closed many doors in his/her graduation time, his/her market value falls. As a first year, you should not fall for this, you should always have something to fall back on and so, at this stage don’t restrict your growth.
Student: What do you think when you fail?
Ira Singhal: I have grown accustomed to failure. The definition of failure is different for everyone and the stage of failure also matters. But one thing my parents have taught me is to never blame the circumstances.
Student: How does one adjust to social pressure?
Ira Singhal: You should learn how to adjust to social pressure not only for the UPSC but for life. This applies especially to women. You need to understand that people are not going to live your life, it is you who has to. So don’t let anyone tell you what you should do in life.
Student: How do you navigate the vast amount of information available online?
Ira Singhal: You should first complete a study of all offline material such as books etc. and then move on to online material. Books act as your base.
With these and many more questions, the doubts and apprehensions of UPSC aspirants were resolved. The interactive session went on for a couple of hours. Towards the end of the event, Ms. Ira Singhal was felicitated by Prof. Saurabh Anand, Director, GNLU Centre for Law and Society. The event was concluded by a vote of thanks delivered by Mr. Sameer Rashid Bhat, Student Convener, GNLU Centre for Law and Society.
(Report written by Jayaditya Mallik & Anmol Rathore and edited by Muizz Drabu & Samira Mathias; Pictures by Sanskriti Sanghi & Jayaditya Mallik)