Interview with Sizal Agarwal: UPSC Preparation Journey of the 112th All India Rank Holder
The Union Public Service Commission released the UPSC 2019 results on 4th August and 2020 and that was the day when Sizal’s dream came true. Sizal Agarwal, from Assam, scored the 112th all India rank in the UPSC civil services exam.
Let’s have a look at the interview session with the super elated Sizal Agarwal.
Interview with Sizal Agarwal
First of all, congratulations on your success in the UPSC 2019 examination. You must be super elated at this moment.
Thank you. I am overwhelmed actually.
Is this happiness because the UPSC preparation journey has finally come to an end or the rank?
I believe the former one is not the reason because the civil services exam was more about the journey than the final destination. But that I have made it in my fourth attempt and it has taken too many years of hard work and dedication, so finally clearing it with a good rank makes me happy.
Sizal can you tell me something about your education background, from where you belong and when you started preparing for the civil services exam?
I am from Jorhat, Assam. I did my basic schooling from there only. I went to Delhi for my higher studies. I completed my B. Com from Lady Shri Ram College for Women and currently, I am doing my post-graduation in M. Com marketing from Delhi School of Economics.
I started my UPSC preparation immediately after my graduation so that was in 2014. There was a lack of guidance as I belong from a business family where nobody has any connection with any government jobs. So I took a 10 months long coaching from 2014 to 2015 and ever since I have been doing self-study.
I made my first attempt in 2016 and then continued in 2017, 2018 and finally made it in 2019.
What was the outcome of your previous attempts?
In my first attempt, I did not even clear the preliminary examination despite being very well prepared. There was a fundamental strategy failure from my part. I was very scared of the negative marking and only answered those questions which I was very sure of. I ended up answering very few questions. I think until and unless you push for at least 80 – 82 questions in the preliminary examination then it’s very tough to clear it.
I learnt from my mistakes and then in the 2017 exam I made it to the third stage but I did not make it to the merit list because I scored really bad in my optional subject that was philosophy. I scored decent enough marks in essay papers, in the personality test round I scored 179.
My interview was on 20th April and the results were released on 25th April so there was only one month left for the 2018 prelims exam. I was not well prepared and it became a wasted effort as I could not even clear the preliminary exam.
Did you have self-doubt when you failed in your previous exams? Ever felt that it might not be your cup of tea?
No, I did not. I know it’s very disheartening to be so close to your destination and then returning empty-handed but I was always so motivated and determined that I knew that I will crack this exam one day.
I knew that hard work will pay one day and that is what kept me going.
What motivated you to choose the rigorous path of civil services exam than opting for any other career opportunities?
I will be very blunt and honest here. When I was in school I didn’t even know that there is an exam called civil services.
I was a university rank holder. After I completed my graduation I did not want to opt for CA. MBA also didn’t interest me. I didn’t want to get into anything related to the commerce stream.
However, I was interested in income tax so I started searching on the internet to find out the kind of examinations I could take to join this field. So I came across SSC and UPSC. Then I read about the civil services examination, about the syllabus and the career opportunities and then I just knew that this is what I was looking for.
What is going to be your service choice?
I chose Indian Police Services as my second preference so as far as my rank is concerned I would probably be getting IPS.
You will definitely be getting IPS, IAS might be difficult.
How come somebody having an interest in income tax didn’t take IRS but IPS?
As I said, it has been a journey of growth. It was out of sheer ignorance that I didn’t know that there are so many opportunities. It was during my UPSC preparation when I came to know that there are diverse fields that I could join and out of all those the IPS training appeared to be the most attractive to me.
It was like everything I wanted to do in my life packaged into one service. That’s why I opted for IPS over the IRS.
That’s amazing! So Sizal, what was your meta plan for the preliminary examination?
As I mentioned earlier, for my first attempt I was well prepared and well-read but that was a strategic failure. So there are both the aspects that you have to read well and also have a proper strategy.
You need to analyse the previous year papers because you need to get a grip of the kind of questions being asked. There are certain kinds of questions being asked year after year like location of national parks, questions about rivers or asking you about different trends etc. So that analysis is primary so that you know where to focus and what kind of questions to read.
Secondly, we can divide the preliminary examination paper into three parts. So if you are a serious candidate and read for a year or a year and a half and give tests, you will be getting at least 40 – 45 questions which you can attempt from the static parts like history, polity, economics etc. If you can not answer those correctly then there is a fundamental error in the way you are preparing because those questions are very straight forward. You just assume that you have to attempt those questions if you have read for so many years.
And then there are some 15 to 20 questions which no matter how many years you prepare, those are completely unseen and unheard and nobody knows how UPSC gives them.
Then there are 35 – 45 questions where you need to push yourself. There you need hard work and smart work. This is where the role of test series comes into the picture because you really need very good guesswork.
So there what you need to do is go for a lot of test papers. I won’t say that you have to sit in a classroom and solve the papers. There are many materials available, take from there and prepare. Test papers will give you new questions, there will be revision plus that will also improve your guesswork.
Apart from these, I don’t think that UPSC gives you something very recent in the current affairs so you need to be thorough with the current affairs that have taken place over two years at least.
Coming to the static part, that is high scoring. If you analyse the papers well, you will find lots of questions being asked from the polity, economy, environment, ancient India, modern India. So this is one part where you can prepare well and score well as current affairs are unpredictable and unexpected and no matter how well you prepare in this section, there will always be questions which you don’t know.
The static portions have to be very strong and for current affairs, don’t stick to one source. I read newspapers regularly. I mostly read the Hindu and sometimes referred to the Indian Express. I made my own notes too.
Since the preliminary examination is MCQ based, you need to have a detailed and in-depth view of everything.
As you mentioned about referring to multiple sources for current affairs, how did you manage your time? What was your day to day time breakage?
See, when you start reading the Hindu, initially it would take a lot of time. For me also it took three hours to three and a half hours because at that time you don’t know what is important and what is not. But eventually, the time would reduce when you get a grip of the kind of questions being asked and what is more important.
Apart from that, I used to have micro-level planning. I would make a time table for the whole day and at the end of the day when I used to get mentally drained then I used to do internet research for current affairs and incorporate multiple angles into everything.
You have to set a target and you must know how much should be covered in a day because without proper planning you probably won’t be able to cover the entire syllabus.
So for me, it was micro-level planning and handwritten notes. What I used to do is, I read and wrote those in my own words. That helps you revise and re-revise in less time and do it easily.
So, how many hours do you usually devote to the UPSC preparation? Or how many hours do you think is required for civil services exam preparation?
8 to 10 hours was a normal routine for me. It varies from people to people as per their concentration level but for me, it was the time that I dedicated on a daily basis.
How did you manage to avoid distractions from things of today like the Internet, entertainment etc.
First thing is that I have always been a very studious person. Sitting with my books and getting indulged in them for hours were very natural to me.
The second thing is there was no plan b for me. I just knew that I had to crack the civil services examination.
For the mains examination, how much did you prepare for the answer writing?
See, I did not join any test series but I am not recommending that for all as it varies for person to person.
The paper for mains is very lengthy. If you devote more than 7 minutes to go through the questions, you won’t be able to finish that. You have to organise your thoughts for certain questions in a very limited time.
So answer writing for the mains exam becomes vital because you need to understand the demand for the questions. All of the questions in the mains examination carry command words like describe, illustrate, an analysis which means that the demand for every question is different. So until and unless you practice some answers you won’t know the patterns. You won’t be able to organise your thoughts, you won’t know if your time management is good but then again joining a test series is not necessary. You can do these on your own too.
There are many websites which give daily practice questions. You can take two-three questions daily and prepare. Then there are topper answers booklets available. You can read those and see the kind of answers they are writing and attempt to write those on your own.
What is essential here is that you understand the demand of the question and answer accordingly. If that comes to you without answer writing practice then it’s fine, this is what happened to me. I didn’t do a lot of answer writing but I always knew what I had to write in a certain answer.
This is for the general studies paper but for optional, the strategy would vary especially if your graduation or post-graduation doesn’t align with the paper you take. And for the essay paper as well.
I never attempted any test series for that but whenever I was reading the newspaper or there was certain news which I thought would make a very good essay topic, I would collect news articles on that and write an essay on it.
I also used to write essays on basic topics like education, health, growth and development and I collected data that could be used in multiple write-ups and I kept all those handy.
So, what I am trying to say is that all of these are possible only when you understand the demand for the exam. Not all students have the resources to join the test series, so you can do that on your own as well.
Did you attempt all the questions in the mains exam or skipped a few? What was your strategy?
My strategy was to be able to attempt every question but because the quality of the content is very important, if there was a certain question which I had no idea about, I would leave it. But, in the 2019 UPSC civil services exam, I attempted all the questions in all the papers.
In my previous attempts, I left a few questions which I had no idea about but in UPSC 2019 probably there were no questions which I was completely unaware about so I attempted all.
People say that you should write the one first which you are confident about because that will help you maintain good quality. but I did not follow that because I believe that if you spend more than 7 minutes in a question, you can not complete the paper. So I tried to maintain a moderate quality and attempt all the questions.
Now coming to your choice of optional subject. Coming from a commerce background, you chose philosophy, any reasons behind it?
The choice of the optional subject is so critical that it is absolutely a game-changer and it’s totally going to determine if you make it to the list or not. So when I graduated and saw the commerce syllabus I thought it’s not manageable and I would never be able to complete it, because the time period is limited. So I thought, with commerce, that is never going to happen. So for picking up the optional subject, you have to be smart.
I opted for philosophy because when I saw the syllabus, I found it more streamline and more manageable. I had a peer group which was preparing for philosophy optional so that helped me a lot.
Apart from that, philosophy has four parts, there is Indian philosophy, western philosophy, social-political and religious. Now I come from a very religious background, from a conservative family so Indian and religious philosophy were the parts that I have heard since a kid like in my day to day life. So that was something I already knew.
When I started reading the subject, I got a good grip of it and developed an interest.
You have appeared for two personality test rounds. So how would you describe the UPSC interview rounds and how you prepared for it?
It is important for you to understand that they are not going to check your knowledge at this stage because that has already come out in the written papers. What is important here is how you come across as a person.
I had previously read a lot of interview transcripts. Nowadays we all are digitized and there are many telegram groups where you can read a lot of transcripts.
So I segregated the kind of questions that were being asked. There were opinion-based questions they were asking. So whenever I read a news item I tried to form my own opinion about it.
There were also questions based on your profile. That you have to be very thorough with. They may ask you anything about your schooling, your college name, hobbies. So you have to be extremely thorough with your profile. If you are employed, there will obviously be questions regarding that.
For me, there were questions based on my commerce background, on my optional subject. And then there were situation based questions as well. For instance, if you are the district collector of a district and there is monsoonal flooding so how would you prepare in that case.
There are a variety of questions so I made segregation and I prepared for each one of them. Since I belong from the state of Assam which is very earthquake-prone, which has monsoonal flooding so these were the obvious questions that I could be asked from. So you need to brainstorm.
What I did, I took a diary and brainstormed every possible question that could be asked, made notes and prepared for it. Obviously you can not accurately predict what you will be asked but you can always brainstorm and do some basic preparation.
Apart from these, I took two-three mock interviews. Because grooming is very important. Even small things like how you sit, how many times you nod, how you move your fingers, your body language, how confident you are, how humble are you all of these matters a lot.
For instance, if you ask me a question, I should take at least 2 to 3 seconds of time to sync that in and appear like I took some time to organise my thoughts before opening my mouth. So grooming is very important here.
I saw the recordings of my mock interviews and found out the flaws like nodding too much, sitting tilted, so I groomed myself. Apart from these, there is always preparation regarding current affairs and your profile.
Any specific interesting interview question you remember from this year’s personality test round?
This year’s interview questions were totally on my optional subject philosophy. I was grilled for 30 minutes on philosophy. So one of the questions that I was asked was, there is a glass in front of you. Is it real or not. Can you see it or can’t see it?
Another question was, why is philosophy called the mother of all sciences? Does philosophy answer the how or the why?
So these were a bit tricky. And then as I am from Assam, they completely diverted towards Assam’s philosophy and they questioned and cross-questioned a lot about the Baishnaba culture.
So how do you plan to spend the one or one and a half month of time you have now?
So now that I have realised that I will be actually getting into the Indian Police Services and as I have become a couch potato with all these years of preparation, so I have the plan to go for some kind of physical activities now and prepare myself mentally too.
I want to spend more time with my family and also want to do something to make myself more physically active.
But IPS Academy is not as tough as they tell it to be.
True but I don’t want to go there and fall down when they ask me to do a single push up.
But even if you fail to do a single push up, you will not be alone, there will be others too.
Yes, I have been told that there is a zero week before they begin and then they divide you into groups based on your physical strength. So I am just hoping to get a head start by doing some kind of workout so that I am not put into a group where people lack all these.
So are you not planning to appear again for the IAS or are you happy with what you got?
No. I am more than happy to embrace the IPS, I won’t be re-appearing.
So this was an inspiring interview session with AIR 122 Sizal Agarwal from Assam. It’s mesmerizing to see that more and more women are taking IPS these days, unlike previous times when they used to skip IPS and chose IRS or other services. Hopefully, this inspiring journey of Sizal will motivate many aspirants to work harder and achieve their goal. Best of luck!