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."