July 5, 2015 was a special day not just for the UPSC topper Ira Singhal, but for the whole nation. Ira became the first-ever physically challenged person to top the civil services examination in India. Certainly one of the proudest moments for the world’s largest democracy. Despite being afflicted with scoliosis, a spine-related disorder, Ira never shied away from dreaming big. The 31-year-old Delhiite managed to top the prestigious civil services exam in her fourth attempt. In an exclusive conversation with ParentCircle, Ira talks about the role played by her parents while also sharing her valuable tips for future civil services aspirants.
PC: First of all, congratulations! It is a remarkable feat. What has been the biggest challenge in realising your goal?
IS: Staying motivated continuously has been the biggest challenge. It calls for some effort to keep striving repeatedly for the same thing, despite not getting it, and telling yourself to keep trying. It is emotionally draining to read the same text again and again. That's when people around you come into play as they constantly repose faith in you and affirm that you are competent enough to do this.
PC: You’ve always said your parents have played a huge role in your success.
IS: Initially, I grew up in a joint family. But now, it’s a nuclear family. It's just the three of us - my parents and I. My parents never had any expectations from me. They just pushed me to give my best, given that they themselves are hard-working by nature and work very long hours. They never compared me to anyone else or made me feel inferior. They were always very appreciative of me.
PC: Why and when did you choose civil services as a career option?
IS: I wanted to do something good for the country and work in the social services sector. As a child, I had only two options - either to become a doctor or a civil services officer, more specifically an IAS or IFS officer. I couldn't become a doctor as I was not physically fit. I chose to do MBA after engineering as civil services is something you can never be sure about. I wanted to have a back-up option in case I did not clear my exams.
Besides, functioning in a managerial role is similar to having a career in the civil services, especially the administrative aspect of it. So, I started working after completing my MBA to gain some experience. It was only natural that civil services became the next step.
PC: As part of your preparation, did you take help from any coaching institute?
IS: Yes, I attended coaching classes in 2010. I did not have any friends or relatives in the civil services. I did not know which book to study first. So I took help from institutes where classes were conducted from morning to night, and I had to study after that. It was a hectic schedule.
PC: Was it a challenging journey to the top, involving four attempts and a legal battle for your posting?
IS: I was taking it one day at a time. I didn't hang on to it as the only thing in life. So, it was never tough or tiring for me to study again.
PC: What about your friends? Did they play a role in your remarkable achievement?
IS: Yes, they encouraged me very much, especially for the fourth attempt.
PC: Any tips for upcoming civil services aspirants?
IS: Civil services aspirants must specialise in a subject of their interest so that they always have a back-up option in case they do not clear the exams. They must give their best and should never build too much expectations. It is expectations that set you up for failure. Aspirants must make a conscious attempt to stay positive and surround themselves with positive people. They must be realistic on what they want to achieve.
On that note of confidence and inspiration, we now tell you how you can look at civil services as a career option for your child.
How to enter the civil services
As was the case with Ira Singhal, merely nurturing ambitions of pursuing a career in the civil services isn’t enough. First and foremost, it is important to understand if your child is keen to take this up as a career option and then, whether he is up for it. Lakshmi, a teacher from Hyderabad says, “I am a mathematics teacher and was initially hoping my son takes up engineering as a stream after school. But, he was never ever interested in conventional career options. I noticed that he was very drawn towards subjects of national interest, be it politics, civil services and social issues. I then talked to him to understand his career interest and then came a spontaneous answer – ‘Mom, I want to become an IAS Officer’. It was a moment of pride for me and as a parent, I am doing my bit to guide him towards his dream career.”
Like in the case of Lakshmi, it is important that you become familiar with the eligibility criteria and career progression options. With the top three Civil Services in the country - Indian Administrative Services (IAS), Indian Police Services (IPS) and Indian Foreign Services (IFS), being hotly pursued by several aspirants, here's what you should know:
There are three stages of the exam - Preliminary, Mains and Interview. The Preliminary examination, known as Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT), comprises two compulsory papers (General Studies Papers I and II) of 200 marks each. Each paper consists of objective-type questions. The criterion for selection to appear in the Main Exams will be the total marks obtained in General Studies Paper-I and a minimum of 33 per cent in General Studies Paper-II. There will be negative marking for wrong answers. The Main examination has a total of nine papers of conventional essay-type questions, including two qualifying papers - English and any of the languages mentioned in the eighth schedule of the Constitution. Candidates need to score 25 percent marks each in the two qualifying papers for evaluation of the other seven papers in the main exam.
There are four General Studies papers of 250 marks each. Paper 1 focusses on Indian heritage, culture, history, geography of the world and society. Paper 2 includes topics such as governance, constitution, polity, social justice and international relations. Paper 3 revolves around technology, economic development, biodiversity, environment, security and disaster management, while Paper 4 evaluates candidates on ethics, integrity and aptitude. This apart, candidates need to appear for two Optional Subject papers of 250 marks each. The Personality Test in the Interview round accounts for 275 marks, thus taking the grand total to 2025.
The total marks obtained by the candidates in the Main Examination (Written and Interview) determines their final ranking. Candidates will be allotted to the various services based on their ranks and the preferences expressed by them for the various posts. Apart from the three main services, depending on their rank, they may be posted to the Group A or Group B services which include Indian Revenue Service, Indian Postal Service, Indian Defence Accounts Service, to name a few. The Indian Forest Service is another major stream, wherein the candidate has to successfully clear the Civil Services Preliminary Examination to qualify for the Indian Forest Service Main examination followed by an interview.
There must be at least one year of intensive study after graduation. Candidates can enrol in government-run or private coaching centres to ensure their readiness for the exam. Besides, it pays to stay updated on the latest news from dailies, and publications from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry of India.
Now that you have a clear insight into what it takes to enter the Civil Services and what’s at stake once your child is successful, begin charting out your child’s career path right now. Let your child serve the nation, and serve it well!