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Interview Preparation Strategy: By Saikanth Varma (Rank 18, CSE-2014)

Interview Preparation Strategy

Saikanth Verma, IAS

The author is C M Saikanth Varma and he has secured an all India rank of 18 in Civil Services Examination, 2014, in his very first attempt. He has scored 208 in his interview and this article talks about his interview preparation strategy.

Importance of the Interview

Get over 200 in the interview and you will surely find your name in the final list.

Interview marks are extremely important for getting a good rank in the Civil Services Examination (CSE). Although, theoretically, it’s weightage is just 15.6% it’s effective weightage is as much as 50%. Because, if you get over 200 marks in the interview, you will certainly find your name in the final list irrespective of your marks in the mains. And if you score low marks in the interview you may not make it to the final list at all. I cannot take the name for obvious reasons, but there’s this friend of mine who had just cleared the mains cut off but scored over 210 in his interview and ended up with IRS. On the other hand, last year, I had heard of this girl who had scored as many as one of the top 10 rankers marks in mains, but ended up with a very bad rank due to her abysmal marks in the interview. Also the range of marks in the interview is as high as 120-140, greater than any paper in the mains. In other words, the difference between highest and lowest marks in any mains paper cannot be as high as this. That’s why it is imperative to get a good score in the interview.

The best part about the interview is that one can start on a clean slate. One is not aware of his/her marks in the mains at the time of the interview. Even the interview board will not be aware of the marks of the interviewee. As a result, one can start afresh and perform well irrespective of his/her perceived performance, which most of the times would be wrong, in the mains.

Here, a myth needs to be busted. People say that the interview is a test of one’s personality and since it cannot be changed in a matter of few weeks, there is no need to prepare for the interview. Most of the aspirants fail at the interview stage because they largely subscribe to this view. Because it is not that easy to give a well structured and a matured answer that truly reflects one’s personality in a matter of few seconds. Not to mention the mental pressure that he/she would be under, during the interview. So, preparation for the interview is a must, by which one can give well structured and matured answers that can fetch very good marks in the interview.

If one knows how to prepare, interview is the easiest stage in the whole three staged selection process.

Module 1: Filling in the DAF

The interview begins from the moment you start filling in the Detailed Application Form (DAF).


When one enters the interview room, the chairman and the members would begin by going through the DAF. There is a very high probability that the first few questions would be from it. Advantage with these kind of questions is that one can thoroughly prepare on his/her DAF, predict all possible questions and prepare ready-made answers for them. This gives you two advantages. One, you will give great answers which would fetch you more marks. Two, the panel would take you seriously and not ask you any frivolous questions. In other words, these questions would set the tone and tenor of the interview.

But there is no guarantee that they would ask questions from the DAF, especially if it is not written in an interesting manner. So it is extremely important to write the DAF in an ‘interesting’ manner, so that the panel couldn’t resist itself from asking questions on it. For example, I used to do some programming during my preparation to keep myself in touch with it, as a career backup. For this, instead of just saying ‘Programming’ in my hobbies, I had written ‘Reading about Ethical hacking’ in my DAF. And at the beginning of the interview itself one of the members got super excited at it, said the term ‘ethical hacking’ out loud and that was his first question. If I were to appear for this exam again, I would have written ‘Want to write a book on Vedic Mathematics’ in my DAF, since my optional was Mathematics, so that it might be a point of discussion in the interview.

But remember interesting doesn’t mean ‘lying’. It’s a suicide to lie in your DAF and the moment the panel gets to know this, you can kiss the chances of clearing this exam goodbye.

Just one last word of advice here, if you have been preparing for this exam exclusively and not working somewhere, then don’t be under pressure to put some fake experience. You can always be honest in telling them that you’ve been preparing for this exam, which is what I did.

Interview preparation involves preparing on 2 aspects – Content and Presentation.

Module 2: Interview Preparation – Content

A smart person is not someone who knows everything, but someone who knows – what he knows and what he doesn’t know.

The key for having a good content in your answers is to have ready-made answers with you. But for that, you need to know what questions could be asked in the interview. 90 percent of the questions in the interview can be predicted. If you prepare well for all these questions, you can easily sail through the remaining 10% of the questions with the same thought process and you will be able to score over 200 in the interview. The questions that are asked in the interview can be classified into 4 categories.

  1. Questions based on DAF
  2. Questions based on current affairs
  3. Static and Traditional type of questions
  4. Factual questions (for which only God knows the answers)
1. Questions based on DAF

One must do a thorough research on each and every single word that has been mentioned in the DAF. One must also think from various vantage points on what sort of questions can be asked in the interview and prepare answers for them. These answers must be short and to the point. Please refrain from giving long answers as the panel would not be interested in them. Once an answer is prepared, one must also think of what subsequent questions can be asked based on the given answer, prepare answers for them too and continue the process. So this is like building a large tree or a multi-branched chain.

To illustrate, look at the following questions, which are not exhaustive, that might be asked to someone with Mathematics as the optional.

  • Why did you choose Mathematics as your optional?
  • What are your favourite chapters and why?
  • Questions about famous Indian mathematicians and their contributions
  • Who according to you is the greatest Indian mathematician?
    • I had prepared thoroughly on Srinivasa Ramanujan for this
  • Srinivasa Ramanujan became famous only when he stepped out of India. Don’t you think this is true in case of all Indian geniuses?
  • Why is India witnessing a massive “brain drain” and how would you address this as an administrator?
  • Who is Manjul Bhargava?
    • Mathematician of Indian origin who had won the prestigious Fields Medal honor a couple of years ago
  • What is Fields Medal?
    • It is considered to be the most prestigious award in the field of mathematics.
  • Is Nobel prize awarded to mathematicians?
    • No. Fields Medal is considered to be the Nobel Prize of Mathematics
  • How can you use your mathematical skills in administration?
  • What is Vedic Mathematics?

This is a continuous exercise and one must simulate these questions in his/her head multiple times so that new questions can be identified

2. Questions based on current affairs

These questions are largely, but not necessarily, opinion based. To prepare for these kind of questions, form your own opinions on all issues that come up in the newspapers. When answering such opinion based questions it is advisable to specify your stance in the first statement and then give 3-4 solid arguments to justify your stance. Remember that these arguments must be absolutely rational and free from any bias or misconceptions. Expect counter-arguments and be prepared to further justify your stance.

There is one little piece of wisdom that I would like to share here, which I have acquired after reading the interview transcripts of those who have scored exceedingly high marks in their interviews. Whenever an interviewer asks you to comment on an observation or a remark made by some personality, always validate the mechanism that was used for making that observation or remark. Following examples would help you understand this better:

  • Top academicians like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler have condemned centre’s action at the JNU. What are your views on this?
    • My answer would be: Keeping the merits and demerits of the centre’s action aside, I would say that these American academicians may not be appropriate entities to judge whether the Centre’s action is justified or not, because they don’t know the Indian context as well as we do. We would be in a better position than them to decide what course of action should be adopted. Also their views are likely to be biased towards USA’s interests, which may not necessarily be in India’s interests.
  • Why are IITs ranked poorly in global university rankings?
    • My answer would be: There are certain fundamental flaws in the global university ranking mechanisms which are unfair to Indian universities. For example, if a graduate from IIT Madras does his PhD from Stanford University, he would be considered as an alumnus of only the latter but not the former. These need to be rectified first.
3. Static and traditional type of questions

These are the set of questions which are static and are asked in the interviews every year. Some examples are: Should India be given a permanent membership in UNSC, should we move from FPTP to PR, should we adopt Presidential form of government etc. Identify these questions by going through the CSE interview transcripts and prepare answers for them. You also need to get your basics right so that you can answer fundamental questions like “what is infrastructure?”, “what is the difference between a patent and a copyright?” etc.

4. Factual questions

These are the questions which are factual in nature and are in no way related to you nor your background. These are the questions like “what is the chemical reaction that happens in Sun”, “what is the chemical composition of wood”, etc. I think the board asks you these questions not because they expect you to know their answers, but because they want to test your honesty and your ability to withstand pressure. The best way to deal with these type of questions is to say, “Sorry sir/madam, I don’t know”. Don’t guess or lose confidence when answering these kind of questions.


Module 3: Interview Preparation – Presentation

You have to walk in into the interview room as a civil servant to walk out as one.

Interview is the last stage in the selection process and the moment one steps out of it, his/her fate would be sealed off. And if you want to walk out of the interview room as a civil servant, you should walk into it as a civil servant. You should enter, sit, think, talk and exit the room as a civil servant. It is only when the board sees a civil servant in you, they give you enough marks for you to become a real one.

The key is confidence, but not arrogance. To get an idea of how to present yourself, watch RSTV videos on YouTube, especially the programmes like India’s World and State of the Economy, where in they invite former and serving diplomats and bureaucrats. Observe the way the think and talk, and more importantly how they talk their way out of criticism.

Some good links:

Give adequate mock interviews because they will boost your confidence. Also you will be able to rectify any mistakes and improve your presentation skills. After every mock interview, do an introspection, identify your mistakes and rectify them so that you don’t repeat them again.

During the interview, smile but not laugh, be confident but not arrogant, take criticism but do not concede and finally be the bureaucrat that you want to become.

All the best!