Half-a-million young men and women give their all in an examination that offers less than a one in 400 chance of success. Toppers often don’t score more than 50% in the written stage, and final rankings can still swing significantly after the interview, the final step of this gruelling 10-month-long process.
Welcome to the Civil Services Examination, India’s toughest test for the elite public administration services whose aspirational value still draws hordes of middle-class hopefuls every year.
Nothing exemplifies the rigourous standards for the exam more than latest topper Tina Dabi’s marks, which were made public last week by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). The political science graduate from Delhi’s Lady Sri Ram College topped the three-stage exam due to her score in the written exam. She had 868 out of 1750 marks, the highest this year. This comes to 49.6%.
But a quick analysis of the marksheets shows there were 59 other candidates who scored better than Dabi’s 195 in the personality test. But she retained her top position in the final tally due to her marks in the written exam. The personality test carries 275 marks, and the large variation in its scores has a great impact on the final merit list.
IIT’s Yogesh Kumbhejkar scored the second-highest in the written exam but ended up with the eighth rank overall due to his less-than-impressive score of 138 in the personality test.
In all, there were only three candidates who secured over 50% marks, a figure that mirrors the stringent assessment standards for getting into the elite public services such as the IAS and IPS.
Contrast this with India’s school-leaving exams where securing more than 90% is common place, and toppers often score close to 100%.
The UPSC can be stingy with marks, said AN Tiwari, former secretary at the department of personnel & training that plays the role of a human resource manager at the Centre. “It is possible an examiner might give a candidate more marks for the same answer in another exam... but not here,” he said, pointing out that examiners were advised to be tight-fisted.
And to make sure, UPSC moderates the marks to ensure candidates do not lose out because some examiners were more liberal than others. A second round of moderation prevents aspirants appearing in a particular subject, say mathematics, from crowding out those who opted for subjects where it is difficult to score.
Dabi’s performance also illustrates how the gap in marks secured by candidates from the unreserved and reserved categories had narrowed down. This year, the cut-off for a general candidate to make it past was 43.3% as against 40% for a SC candidate, 39.55% for an ST and 41.67% for candidates from other backward classes.