Unlike many who appear multiple times for the Civil Services Exam (CSE) conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), the 2018 topper Kanishak Kataria told indianexpress.com that he would not have attempted what is considered to be among the most difficult exams of the country more than twice. However, he not only cleared the competitive exam in his first attempt itself but also emerged as the all India rank 1 holder by outperforming over 11 lakh candidates who appeared for the UPSC exam 2018.
Talking to indianexpress.com Kataria said, “When I started preparing for UPSC, I was clear that I wanted to give a maximum of two attempts at it. My family was supportive of my decision and always asked me to focus on the learning part of it rather than thinking about the results which also became my strategy moving forward. It helped me remain focused throughout.”
Despite hailing from a family of IAS including his father, Sanwar Mal Verma, who works in the Revenue Department, Jaipur, Kanishak was not sure that he would be able to clear the exam at first go. “The UPSC civil services exam is subjective and people from diverse backgrounds attempt it. There is no right answer key by which you can judge how much marks one will get and I was not clear how my answers will be evaluated. I know people who secured less in Mains exam during their first attempt and hence there was a doubt that it could be a possibility that I might not have cleared the exam at all,” he said.
Even if Kataria would have not cleared the exam, he still had intentions to work for the benefit of society. “No matter whether it is through the public or private sector, I would have still done something in the field of public service only. There are many companies which help the government, I would have opted for them but having known how it feels to work for public services through my father and uncle’s work, I knew that it was what I wanted to do,” he said.
This clarity on working for the public was not always there in Kanishak’s mind. Before preparing for UPSC exam, he was working with Samsung as a software developer in Korea after which he moved to a Bangalore-based startup as a data scientist. He left both to focus on what he calls ‘sustainable happiness’. “I was happy with my profile and salary in Korea, but that is not the only motivation for me. I can not sustain the materialistic happiness as I wanted to do something where I could make an impact and be satisfied with what I do,” he said while adding, “I had seen my father and uncle how concern they were for the benefit of people. I realised if I am able to improve the life of a needy, I would consider myself successful.”
After leaving the job at Korea he moved back to India and decided to give a chance to public services.
Kataria had an engineering background and hence had to start preparing for the UPSC CSE exam from scratch. “I made an informed decision after talking to my family and friends who have cleared the exam. I was not in touch with the subjects since 7-8 years, so I had to start from the basics. I first began by reading NCERTs. These books are lucidly written and provide a foundation for any subject. Only after clearing one’s basics does it make sense to refer to advanced books. For subjects including geography and history, I referred to NCERT only. For geography, if I needed extra help I would refer to the internet. For history, I also referred to the spectrum book it gives a concise version of all the events,” he said. He also read a polity by Lakshmikant.
Refusing the usual belief of reading as much as possible, the UPSC topper said, “It is important to know how much to read and from where to read.”
UPSC CSE prelims: Mock tests are important
For civil services prelims, said Kanishak, appearing for tests helped too. “I also attempted for several mock tests. My focus was not to just attempt it correctly but the mock tests also helped me to know about new topics. All the topics that were asked in the exam, I used to read that if I had read about it earlier then it gave me a revision and if I had not then I studied about it,” he said.
The topper never prepared keeping results in mind, as suggested by his family and that made him more focused. “I weeded-out any anxiety or negative thought on purpose and focused on only one round at a time. For prelims, I prepared notes and started to study mains only when we came to it. This focus and clarity of thoughts also helped me remain calm and objective during interview round too,” he said.
Questions asked in the interview round
Considered to be the trickiest round, Kataria said he was not grilled during the interview. “I was asked about my work experience abroad and job profile here in India where I worked as a data scientist. They wanted to test what was my understanding of my core subjects including big data and its implementation in policy making,” said Kanishak who also plans to make a transcript of his interview available to the UPSC aspirants.
He informed that some of the questions included his opinion on recent major decisions from the court. The interview, informed Kanishak, was scheduled in March when Pulwama attack was in news. He was also asked about his opinion on India’s terror strategy.
“They gave me a minute to think of a scenario where I was a secretary and was to talk about technology’s development and its impact on job loss while creating a strategy to counter any loss in jobs. There were questions about my Korean experience. I know the Korean language so they asked me how is it related to Hindi. I was asked about Koren food people and culture too,” he said.
Having worked in several places including an MNC and a start-up helped Kanishak answer in an organised manner. He believes clarity in thoughts is one of the factors interviewers judge you on.
Kataria has secured 1121 marks followed by Akshat Jain who scored 1080 marks, and Junaid Ahmad got 1077 marks. This year, a total of 759 candidates cleared the UPSC examination, the result of which was announced on April 7, 2018.