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IAS topper reveals the secrets of cracking the Civil Services exam

Apeejay Faridabad alumnus A Mona Sreenivas, who topped the Civil Services exam in 2005, shares her winning strategy to unlock the UPSC code which includes time management and choosing your Mains subjects wisely



An officer of the 2006 batch in the Indian Administrative Service from the Haryana cadre, A Mona Sreenivas is working as a director with the Election Commission of India for the last few years. The Apeejay School, Faridabad alumnus says her late father, N.L. Pruthi, an Additional Sessions Judge, was a big influence in inspiring her to join the IAS. In a freewheeling interview, she discusses, among other things, her fond memories of school, tips to prepare for the Mains and Prelims stages of the exam, the job satisfaction that one derives from impacting people’s lives as an IAS officer and the secrets of being a successful administrator.  Edited excerpts:

At what age did you decide that you want to become an IAS officer?

I must have made up my mind sometime in school. Since my father was in the Haryana judiciary, we lived in a colony in which there were a lot of IAS officers. The inspiration came from being around them, but I didn’t know much about it at that time.

You bagged the top rank in the 2005 Civil Services exam. What strategy did you adopt for the Mains and Prelims?

There is no set strategy. It is something that evolves. The examination pattern has changed since the time I wrote the exam. But I can share the strategy that I myself adopted with the readers of The first stage begins when you start reading newspapers and getting interested in current affairs. That is the first part. Start reading newspapers and magazines along with your NCERT textbooks and brush up your basic History, Civics and Geography: subjects that are part of the Civil Services Examination. The more focused preparation should begin at least a year before you actually write the exam. Begin with trying to understand the concepts. So it is better to go to Mains first and then go to Prelims and then get back to Mains again. Over a period of time you learn to differentiate between what is important and what isn’t. This is important, because there is so much reading material to study.  

Your optional subjects in the Mains were English Literature and Sociology. How important is choice of subjects and time management to ace the exam?

Both these aspects that you mentioned are extremely important. Time management is very, very important because as I said, time is less and the material is massive and you can’t spend years and years preparing. There are times when people take four to five years to prepare and this can tire them out. It is better to be focused, sharp and incisive and try and score in the first three attempts. You have to be mentally very strong. Regarding the choice of subjects, what is most important is the ability to score. You must decide depending on what is the subject that you studied in college and understand best. One has to strike a balance between what is scoring and what one knows best. In my case, literature wasn’t supposed to be a very scoring subject, but I knew I was good at it. I didn’t want to pick an altogether different subject. That can be very difficult. As for the other choice, pick a subject that you like to read. If you pick a subject you don’t want to read, it becomes very difficult to carry on with it. I picked up Sociology since I knew my writing skills were good. Sociology again is related to how you express your understanding of society. And it has elements of current affairs. So, I could mix my understanding of society and relate it to what was happening in contemporary times. If you can mix the two, it makes for a very good answer in the Civil Services exam.

In your interviews, you mention the tremendous support that you have received from your parents, particularly your late father [Mr N.L. Pruthi] who was an Additional Sessions Judge. Did they always inspire you to be a Civil Servant?

Both my parents constantly inspired me to get into the Civil Services. They are both my inspiration and guides. My mother used to sit outside my examination hall the entire time I was writing the exam. And the habit of reading newspapers is something that my father made me pick up. I found it difficult to get up in the morning and read newspapers but I have realised its value now. Being in the judiciary, my father was somebody I always looked up to. 

You topped the IAS exam in your third attempt. What kept you going and not give up?

My first attempt was a very rudimentary attempt in which I thought that just because I was a brilliant student, I could go and simply ace the exam. Frankly, my first attempt was extremely non-serious and this is something I wouldn’t advise to others. The second attempt was more serious in which I got through the Indian Revenue Service (IRS), Customs and Central Excise. Once you get into it you realise this is the kind of service that will give you the satisfaction you would get in a lifetime. In the third attempt, I took the exam while I was on probation in the Indian Revenue Service. So the third attempt, in which I ranked one, was actually simultaneous with my working and having joined the IRS.

That’s remarkable. You were already working and you bagged the top All India rank. How was the feeling?

(Laughs) How did it feel? Well it didn’t sink in very fast. It took some time to realise how it happened. I don’t know, it was just the grace of God and the blessings of my parents. I would say it was nothing else: everybody does their hard work!

Those who work in the government talk about the enormous job satisfaction in touching people’s lives and serving people. What are the challenges and opportunities of being a civil servant?

I think that whatever job profile you have in the Civil Services, it impacts people’s lives in a very good way. Not that other services don’t. If you are a teacher, you bring up an entire generation of students who may do well in their career whether in the private or the government sector. But in the government sector whatever one does is a big responsibility. It suddenly changes lives for a lot of people. And I think government services give you a lot of scope to innovate and make things better. Your experience in the field and how you connect to people is diverse. When you work for such diverse sectors, you realise life is so meaningful and that the challenges and the opportunities come together.  

Please tell us about the time you received appreciation for organising a roadshow to motivate Delhi University students to vote.  

This was during the 2014 general elections when I was the returning officer for the Chandni Chowk Parliamentary constituency. This was part of our outreach efforts. The Election Commission of India has this big programme called Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) wherein we reach out to voters and encourage them to come out and vote. This is to address urban apathy of people not wanting to move out on Election Day, thinking that it is a public holiday. This was a programme in which we reached out to a lot of youth around Delhi University. We had wonderful participation of students and a very good voting percentage. This has been one of the motives of the ECI, which was nicely put as ‘no voter to be left behind.’

You are an inspirational figure for IAS aspirants and students. How important is it for young people to come out and vote, especially for a generation that is very expressive on social media?

Ours is a very young country. And I now increasingly find younger people thinking about making things better. You find college students engaged in a lot of social activities. Especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, one found a lot of young people making collective efforts to help those who were stuck in their houses. I feel the youth of today is much more connected and wants to do something for society. I find a positive change in the youth of the country. Of course, is it very important to go out and vote because tomorrow you can’t simply sit and blame the policies if you did not go out and vote! It’s our right and each and every one of us must exercise it.

What are your memories of studying at Apeejay School, Faridabad?

I have such beautiful memories of that time. You have transported me back to school with this question. I joined Apeejay in class 5 and we had a separate primary school building that is still there I think. I have such lovely memories of being in class 5 and being the head girl of a school. Then I went to the senior school and studied in the senior school building in Sector 15, in class 6 and 7 and then came back to school in class 11 and 12. So, I have lovely memories of the huge playground and singing the theme song: Soaring High Is My Nature. I have a lot of fondness for Apeejay School, Faridabad.

You are indeed soaring high in your career. Are there any life lessons that you picked up during school, which have helped you in your career?

One of the things that the school gave me and gives to many other students is a lot of opportunities to get up on the stage and gain confidence in public speaking. I think life is much of a confidence thing and whichever things you do confidently you sail through in them. Apeejay really encourages students to come up on stage or read news every day. So this confidence in public speaking and the sense of discipline that was inculcated in my life and I am sure in many other lives through Apeejay Schools is really, really something that I owe to them.

You’ve taught at Delhi University before becoming a Civil Servant. How important is the job of teachers in moulding personalities?

Teachers are so important in our lives. For a student a teacher is the first role model. I fondly remember all my teachers in Apeejay. Most teachers in some way or the other contribute to moulding one’s personality. Now it depends on you: How much do you retain. Life will try and suck things out of you: but how much can you retain and build up and how much can you stay grounded and become a multi-dimensional happy person, that depends on you.    

As a sought-after administrator and IAS officer, how do you strike a healthy work-life balance?

 Don’t all of us do it all the time? I don’t know why this question is asked of officers in the Civil Services. I think every lady out there who is working is kind of trying to strike a balance, taking care of children and family and then working. This balance isn’t very difficult to achieve. There will be times when you will have to prioritise. There will be times when your work will be so important that you will have to ignore your family for a while. And there will be times when the family will be so important that you will have to give your work a little space. Gradually, you learn and strike that balance for yourself. It works out. It is not that difficult to achieve.

You mentioned your family. Does having another civil servant as a partner help in striking this balance?

Yes it does, because Sreenivas [her husband A Sreenivas] and I share that bonding in being colleagues and batch-mates. So you have common friends, common issues and problems you can share. If you have a problem you want to thrash out, you always have a friend and husband to talk things out. And he understands your priorities and that your time will not sometimes be in your control. Having a partner who understands all these challenges and opportunities, does help to an extent.

What is the secret of being a successful career-woman and good administrator?

I think the secret is firstly being yourself and having a very positive atmosphere around you and having the trust that you can make a difference, however big or small it might be. You are not just a cog in the wheel. There will be times where there’ll be conflicts, there will be contradictions but I think God has given you enough strength to tide through all this and find out a way that is best for everybody. That’s what I believe in.

“I think that whatever job profile you have in the Civil Services, it impacts people’s lives in a very good way. Not that other services don’t. If you are a teacher, you bring up an entire generation of students … But in the government sector, whatever one does is a big responsibility.”

-A Mona Sreenivas, IAS officer, alumnus, Apeejay School, Faridabad

Aasheesh Sharma is a seasoned journalist with an experience of more than 25 years spread over newspapers, news agencies, magazines and television. He has worked in leadership positions in media groups such as Hindustan Times, India Today, Times of India, NDTV, UNI and IANS. He is a published author and his essay on the longest train journey in India was included in an anthology of writings on the railways, brought out by Rupa Publications. As the Editor of Apeejay Newsroom, he is responsible for coverage of the latest news and developments in the Apeejay institutions. He can be reached at [email protected]. He tweets @Aasheesh74

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