The World’s Toughest Test.

Choosing careers is never easy. Particularly if you are in India, the variables of the decision go up as we gauge what suits best. It’s a race between what you want to do versus what can sustain you.

Few months into my first job at a leading private bank, I hit the realisation that I wasn’t born to sell bank accounts, irrespective of what they paid me. With the blessing of parents, I let it go and embarked on a journey that would change everything — from my perspectives to my very fibre.

I chose to appear for the Union Public Service Commission’s Civil Services Examination (Group A services). Touted as the ‘World’s toughest examination’ there was no exaggeration in the description. With a success probability of 0.001%, the examination happens at three different levels, once a year. If one failed even at the third level, s/he had to start from scratch again. I’ve known people who have spent 5–6 years dedicating their youth to clear this examination. The odds of success dropped to half if you were in the general category, like in the case of yours truly. It was for a reason that aspirants liked to call it the ‘Unpredictable Public Services Commission’ exam.

I moved out of my Mumbai life and went to Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) in Kerala, after finding a coaching institute that could help me with the preparations. It was imperative that I gave my best to this exam, as it was a well-accepted career that I was sacrificing in lieu of it. If I succeeded, I could become a district magistrate or a police superintendent, or as my aspiration was – a diplomat for India through the Indian Foreign Service (IFS).

With the help of a very close friend, I found an accommodation in Trivandrum. A 130-year old structure, with a dedicated room for me. I started well in advance, and was clocking 12–13 hours of study everyday. I was determined to give a full year to this herculean effort.

Classes began and I picked and chose the classes that added real value. I attended those and did back-breaking self-study during the rest of the hours. My 12–13 hour study routine continued and I confident about what I was doing. While the final results mattered, the fortitude with which I prepared mattered the most to me. My friends from the institute served as constant motivation, apart from family and other friends.

In under ten months from the start of my preparation, the first and the toughest level of the examination arrived. 1.1 million (11 lakh+) applicants, 1069 vacancies, 498 general category vacancies. Those were the odds for this Preliminary or ‘Prelims’ exam. Final hours counted with me achieving near-zero sleep.

The morning of the exam came and my parents dropped me at the centre. I went in with an open mind, playing in my mind the myriad subjects I had delved deep into. The examiners checked our credentials and flagged off the test. I started. Current affairs, my forte, served me in good stead. So did polity and economics. I finished the first paper (general awareness) and the appeared for the second (aptitude). Confidently I finished both and came out. I cross-verified the answers and was sure that I would clear prelims. I start clocking 15–16 hours a day for the second-level, ‘mains’ examination.

Then came the shocker. The absence of my name in the list of those who cleared. I had lost by ONE question. I felt like I’m in the Titanic. Shockwaves, heartburn, sweat and tears, everything exploding in front of you at once. My parents pacified me, and friends urged me to come and meet them for a change. I didn’t believe I could be strong, yet I persevered somehow. It could have been self-confidence, self-respect or plain denial. But I did and I continued my studies, started a freelance writing gig, travelled a bit and was gearing to write the exam again.

However, a different calling came in between and I shifted paths. That notwithstanding, the amount of knowledge and research capabilities I had mustered in the past one year were unparalleled. The nerd in me proudly heralds that that one year escalated me to be someone different.

The title of this article is ‘The World’s Toughest Test.” It could very well be a reference to the UPSC examination. But the connotation here begs to differ. The world’s toughest test is not an examination, it is the perseverance to undergo a grind so hard that every minute you feel like giving up. It is the conviction that you will make it, even when the world says no. It is the belief in yourself that you are supposed to be something bigger, someone better, who can make a difference. That, I believe, is the real test.