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INTERVIEW Preparation Tips – Abdaal M Akhtar, IAS (CSE-14, Rank 35)



INTERVIEW Preparation Tips

Abdaal M Akhtar, IAS


The UPSC Personality Test is among the most unpredictable elements of this exam. The aspirant is befuddled by the sheer volume of gyaan that well meaning advisers, old hands and self proclaimed experts dish out on this topic. It may be disheartening to a few, but here is the truth-Nobody knows ANYTHING about acing the Interview. Each Board and every member on the Board has a different approach to life that comes through in their questions. The same Board may mark identical answers from two different people very differently, depending on how the Interviewee made them feel. Therefore, the most one can do is to ensure that this essential component of the Exam is not bungled up beyond redemption.

Overconfident aspirants, especially repeat Interview takers or those who have done well in their Mains, do not quite grasp the importance of the Personality Test. While a great GS Paper can only take you to the 110-120 mark, a great interview almost always is around the 200 region. In sheer numerical terms, an Interview is about as important as two GS papers. Respect this fact and approach the Interview with the seriousness that it deserves.

Your turnout is a very important element of the Interview. You are an unknown quantity to the Board. They have never seen you before and probably never will, after this; if they can help it. The impression you create in the first few minutes determines the tone of the Interview. So do make an effort to look good and presentable. It is surely not too much to ask for the Gentlemen to shave, wear a suit and generally appear well turned out. Questions like what colour should the suit be, whether the tie needs to be patterned or solid are irrelevant. Wear what looks good on you. Women generally appreciate the importance of this point far better.

Absolute Honesty is the cornerstone of this process. I cannot possibly overstress the importance of this. A single lie in your DAF or oral answers will destroy everything. It would be the end of all the years of hard work, those endless slogging hours of answer writing and all those dreams and aspirations. Do NOT risk it all in order to appear smarter than you are. You do not need to know the answer to every question. Your CV need not be one to rival Amartya Sen’s. You will not be judged if your activities do not display leadership traits or world-changing abilities. The Government needs everybody-from motivated risk takers to backroom anonymous workers. Do not try to showcase a face that is not yours. If caught out (and there is a high chance that you will be-those Board members have seen a lot more of life than you), you can pack your bags for home that very day.

Now that we have got the preliminaries out of the way, we can look at the Interview per se.

The preparation for the Interview can be never ending. But always keep in mind that it is not a test of knowledge or erudition. The UPSC wants to make sure that the person being recruited is of a moral and intellectual standard suitable for the Services. 

My preparation was restricted to my DAF-hobbies, degrees, languages I speak et al., some information about the places I have lived in, my past career choices and newspaper headlines of the last fortnight. In both my interviews, I have not been asked anything dramatically different from these broad pointers. I would strongly suggest great familiarity with your DAF, stretching to the cadres selected and services opted (or not opted for). If you are already in a service, make sure that you are familiar with its role and (more importantly) the issues it faces and how they can be resolved.

Nightmarish interviews are a fact. I know of a lawyer friend who was grilled solely on International Law when she knew nothing of the topic. The key in such situations is to retain your equanimity. Fumbling guesses and attempts at digging up answers you have no clue about can only embolden some questioners. A firm and prompt “I am sorry Ma’am. I have no idea about this topic” is a far better answer in such cases.

Err on the side of caution in your DAF. You may know a couple of whatsapp forwarded Mirza Ghalib shers, but surely that does not mean your hobby is Urdu poetry. Only put in stuff that you know well. It also helps to keep your hobbies generic without being vague or too exact. For example, ‘Playing Cricket’ would be a much easier hobby to explain (and answer questions on) than just ‘Cricket’ or ‘Studying the Life and Career of Sachin Tendulkar’. Remember that the gentlemen interviewing you belong to another generation. If somebody with a ‘Cricket’ as his hobby says he has no idea about the West Indian pace quartet, it would be a bad outlook.

Your socio-political views should not be extreme. It is all right to have certain radical opinions on contentious issues of the day, but bear in mind that a Civil Servant is oath bound to the Constitution. When in doubt, always do what this document commands you to. This includes affirmative action, minority rights, freedom of speech and expression and other topics that everybody thinks he/she is an expert on. You have a relatively freer hand in foreign policy, but that does not give you a license to suggest whack job ideas like a nuclear attack on troublesome neighbours. Keep in mind that you are going to be a responsible policy maker. Barber shop gossip will not get you there. Nuance is the key.

Do not bring in your Ethics paper-esque overly idealistic self into the Interview room. This is a conversation. And a conversation demands reasonableness and workable solutions. Try to think of what you would do in the real world when confronted with a situation they put forward. More importantly, always suggest a way out. The interviewers know the problems as well as you do. They are looking for somebody to give them ideas on how to tackle the same. A hypothetical situation involving a public representative asking you to do something illegal should not lead to you shooting off an answer about lodging an FIR against him. Approach it with tact and nuance and always suggest a way out that is feasible in your work.

Concentrate on India during your preparation, especially on those parts of it that one does not hear too much of in the national media. You should display the same familiarity with the insurgent groups of Manipur that you do with the operations of the LeT. The Board members come from all sections of the society and would expect you to have some idea beyond your native town or state.

Try to maintain a calm and smiling demeanour throughout the Interview. It shows you are confident and are not intimidated easily. Another component of this is maintaining eye contact. Some of the rooms have a circular table and you can look ridiculous doing this. In such cases address yourself to the Chairman or to the Member asking the question but do look around at the others between questions.                                              

Lastly, do bear in mind that you are not in anyway inferior to those interviewing you. You are being judged for your suitability as a Civil Servant and you have reached this stage after overcoming half a million other aspirants. Try to behave as one-with dignity, poise and firmness. Vacillating answers are a no-no. Acknowledge factual mistakes, even step down where you detect a fatal flaw in your argument but never surrender your point of view in order to please the Board.