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Are you smart enough to pass India's civil servant exam? (No.)

On a scale of high-stakes tests, there's pub trivia, there's the SAT, and then there's the Indian civil services exam.

This year's exam, administered on Sunday, drew nearly a million registrants from around the country. The preliminary test drills logic, reasoning skills, and detailed knowledge of a mind-numbing bevy of facts, news snippets and concepts covering everything from obscure geological and historical facts to contemporary legal, political and health news.

Probationers of the Indian Police Service, whose senior officers also have to take the grueling test, strut their stuff.
Noah Seelam | AFP | Getty Images
Probationers of the Indian Police Service, whose senior officers also have to take the grueling test, strut their stuff.

Even after a revision to the test reducing its focus on rote memorization of arcana, test-takers have to be prepared for questions like:

The "American Revolution was an economic revolt against mercantilism. Substantiate." Or:

"In which decade was the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) founded?" Or:

"Who of the following founded a new city on the south bank of tributary to river Krishna and undertook to rule his new kingdom as the agent of a deity to whom all the land south of the river Krishna was supposed to belong?"

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"This examination is the mother of all written exams in India." -PS Ravindran, director of Vajiram and Ravi Institute

This year, roughly half a million test-takers showed up at 2,186 test venues in 71 cities across India. From there they will be whittled down to around 16,000. These lucky "winners" will go through 27 more hours of graduate-level testing on languages, history, geography, governance, economics, the environment and science in the main exam. Then, once it's down to roughly 2,000, they will be subjected to an exhaustive interview. In the end, after 10 grueling months, around 1,100 will be admitted into government services.

Of these, fewer than twenty — or .002 percent of those who registered to take the test — will become foreign service officers.

On Sunday one such group of test-takers streamed anxiously from a small government school in New Delhi, holding booklets and discussing the questions they contained. They were eager for answers, as one mistake could define the rest of their lives.

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"This examination is the mother of all written exams in India," said P S Ravindran, the director of Vajiram and Ravi Institute, which "coaches" aspirants, making an estimated $8 million to $10 million annually along the way. Similar institutes are spread across Delhi, and the popular ones, like Vajiram and Ravi, cause rents in the neighborhood to skyrocket as competitive candidates believe they should not be wasting time on commutes — precious time that could be spent studying. After all, Ravindran recommends that a serious candidate should dedicate 12 hours a day for at least 18 months to preparation.

Six attempts at the exam are permitted, which means "serious" candidates can dedicate more than half a decade to the preparation alone—six years of devouring recommended books, newspapers and magazines, coaching notes, websites and video lectures, which stress the necessity of continuous, unending study. "The candidate should understand that the most important quality to pass this exam is extreme hard work. The intelligence of the candidate may only help to some extent," said Ravindran.

"You can say more than 90 percent of the aspirants know nothing about the services." -Sahil Grover, student, Jawaharlal Nehru University

One would think that a Herculean task like this can only be taken up if government service is the only job the candidate wants to do. Unfortunately, the career is usually not the goal; the exam is.

"You can say more than 90 percent of the aspirants know nothing about the services," said Sahil Grover, an MPhil student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. This year's preliminary exam was his fourth attempt. "The only idea is, this is a prestigious exam, once you make it through everyone would start respecting you."

And respect there is in plenty. Candidates dream of joining the administrative services, of social recognition and a secured government job in a "Yes Minister" culture. "They know it comes with a lot of power, authority, and position. Most of them don't know the nature of the job they have to perform," said Ravindran.

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There is a lapse on the part of exam administrators as well. No effort is made to explain what the services entail, points out Kalrav Mishra, a successful candidate. "If a company is hiring for a position, it will have a job profile, it is easy to find out what the job entails. In the civil services there is no such thing."

Apart from the highly desired services like foreign, administrative and police, the examination sorts successful candidates into a range of less-desired, arguably less glamorous services such as revenue, taxation and customs. Those assigned to the states must work at the grassroots as representatives of the government to the people, implementing essential schemes and maintaining law and order.

Each of these services require diverse skill sets and knowledge, some of which is developed during a one- to two-year training for successful candidates. There is, however, no aptitude testing, and no attention is paid to your existing academic specialization or work experience.

"It is presumed that your [final test] rank signifies your aptitude for a specific service," said Mishra. He gave the example of a person who may not be fluent in English, but can be assigned to the foreign services. This would entail learning English as well as another foreign language in a limited time. "That is something which is a flaw."

According to Mishra, a domain-specific test or mandatory qualifications would be a useful update to an examination which is a colonial relic from the 1800s, similar only to testing systems found in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

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Though recommended formulas, study hours and books abound, there is no one perfect method to approach this test. In the end, it is about beating out half a million people who want exactly the same thing as you — to ace a test that is seen as a symbol of status — even if that has little to do with the actual job to be performed.

"The real reason this exam is considered so difficult and so respected in society is not because you need to be particularly smart, but because it is so competitive," said Mishra. "You might be very intelligent and very hard working, but that is not a guarantee of success. You might be neither, but that is not a guarantee of failure."