Interview with Mr Punith Kuttaiah, IRS.

Interview with Mr Punith Kuttaiah, IRS.

“Opportunities don’t happen. You create them.”

Chris Grosser

Mr Punith is an officer serving in the Indian Revenue Services. He also cleared the CAPF exam and got AIR-8. UFLS congratulates him for his success and future & presents his interview.

What attracted you to Civil Services? 

The need for a certain balance in my life where the work involved was meaningful, service-oriented and blended with the passion of what I looked for in a career. The Civil services seemed a logical choice. The balance provides in the form of service orientation, a reasonable standard of living, prestige in society and merit oriented meant that it ticked all the boxes for what I felt would be a meaningful professional career.

When did you start your preparation – along with graduation, immediately after it or something else?

I started approximately six months after graduation while I was working. However, that was half baked as it involved balancing work, studies and personal life. I started very seriously after quitting my job, which was approximately one year after graduation.

Was this your first attempt? If not, what changes did you make in your strategy for this attempt?

This was my fourth attempt. On the first attempt, I cleared prelims but did not clear the mains. The primary reason being, my preparation for mains was focussed more on knowledge gathering rather than answer writing practice. In my second attempt, I did not clear prelims. I was overconfident about the prelims and concentrated excessively on mains preparation, and neglected prelims. In my third attempt, I cleared the exam and was selected for the Indian Defense Estate Services. My fourth attempt preparation was to focus on repeating the already successful strategy for the 3rd, and the only difference was that I worked harder than the previous attempt.

Were you satisfied with your level of preparation before the exam, and were you hopeful of being successful?

The syllabus is so vast and the competition so intense that I doubt anyone can claim complete satisfaction with the level of preparation. However, I was satisfied that whatever strategy and syllabus I had prepared during the beginning of preparation, I had executed it successfully. So whatever the outcome, I had given my 100%.

Considering the extensive syllabus of general studies in preliminary examination and main examination, what strategy did you adopt?

For the prelims, it was primarily knowledge and fact-gathering exercise. That involved being thorough with the basic books, regular analysis of current affairs, going one step deeper than what was present in the newspapers, multiple tests to reflect my progress, and identifying the loopholes in my preparation.

I was confident that the knowledge I had acquired during the preparation for prelims was adequate for mains. So the only thing I focussed was on answer writing and time management for the mains. I specifically prepared myself to identify multiple dimensions of a single issue so that the answers would not be one dimensional. 

Did you give special emphasis to some particular sections or equal emphasis on all areas? In your opinion, can certain sections be skipped by assuming them to be not so important?

I gave equal emphasis to all. Of course, the level of time dedicated to each subject varied depending on my past educational background, my level of comfort with specific topics, and my preparation level. But, the question of leaving a subject or preparing less for a matter never arose. I did not want to leave anything to chance.

I do not support the idea of skipping any section. That would mean taking a chance with your career and life, and I was not ready to do that. I ensured that no section was skipped, and I had at least a cursory understanding of all topics to at least make a reasonable guess in prelims or write at least a few lines in mains.

How much time did you take to complete your preparation for all three stages of the examination? Did you prepare for each stage in sequence or all the steps simultaneously?

Since there is a significant overlap in the syllabus for all stages, the initial preparation phase simultaneously. That part involves covering the syllabus for both mains and prelims, including optional. However, the last two months before the prelims, I focussed exclusively on the same. I took a break of 1 week after prelims. The following month was spent on a quick revision of all the topics in mains. (it doesn’t take long as most of the syllabus is typical for prelims). The remaining time between prelims and mains, I focussed exclusively on answer writing and evaluation. After the mains till the personality test, the focus was on preparation for the personality test exclusively and current daily affairs.

How important do you think is making your notes with studies? Please enlighten us based on your experience.

It varies from person to person. I didn’t waste much time making notes on topics present in textbooks, preferring to read the same books repeatedly until I reached a point where a glance of the page would suffice to recollect all the essential topics on that page. However, for current affairs, I made notes of only the factual aspects of the subject and ensured that no opinions were part of it. That confirmed that the notes aren’t too bulky and information is readily available at hand.

Did you rely on any electronic material and other social networking sites for your preparation? If yes, did you find them helpful? Please share some websites you frequented.

Social networking sites, a definite no. I temporarily deactivated my Facebook account and was not a part of any other social media websites during preparation. However, I referred gktoday (current daily affairs) and vision (current monthly affairs) for current affairs and the newspapers. If I felt that there was any topic where I needed to go a bit deeper or research more, I would google the case and lift critical points from the articles and add it to my notes so that I did not have to revisit it.

How did you determine which books, magazines and periodicals to study and which to ignore/leave?

One of the biggest mistakes during my initial days of preparation was to read multiple sources for the same topic. It is not only a waste of time but creates confusion and hampers one’s ability to recollect critical points during the examination. So eventually, I stuck to the basic books (NCERTS and classic books for static syllabus), preferring to read the exact multiple times and current affairs from the sources already mentioned above. Apart from this, the handwritten notes I made was what I relied on. I read Yojana and Kurukshetra at a later stage only after being thorough with my preparation of the static syllabus.

In your opinion, how useful is participating in mock test series at different stages of this examination?

I believe it is the most crucial step which many people neglect. It is essential to look in the mirror to understand whether your preparation is going on the right track. Every time you give a test, it gives you a basic idea of your strengths and weakness and enables you to make a course correction before it is too late. Providing multiple tests also sharpens your instincts, your ability to make reasonable guesses and mentally prepares you for the day of the exam. The importance of the mock test series cannot be stressed enough during your preparation.

How did you tackle the challenge of time management- whether it was on a daily, monthly or annual basis?

Daily basis. Time management has to become a habit and not something that is followed on a whim. I prepared a timetable where the entire syllabus had a fixed time allotted. This was further broken down to topic wise allocation, and each day I followed a set routine where each topic/ test/ recollection/ notes was already allotted. I always kept a day as a buffer in a week for any disruptions in the schedule. But overall, to the best extent possible, I stuck to the timelines that were prepared.

How did you maintain consistency in preparation despite the de-motivating and often frustrating nature of this exam?

By taking it one day at a time. It was only during the initial days of preparation before I prepared the timetable that the whole situation seemed lonely and depressing. Once I had broken the entire journey into a series of smaller steps, each day, the goal was simple. To achieve the target for that given day. I cut myself from all distractions in social media and ensured that only a limited number of people who were very close to me knew about the preparation. Once the external stimulus for distraction is cut off and the internal targets are easy, it becomes easy to motivate yourself to achieve your targets and keep yourself motivated.

On average, how many hours in a day did you devote to your studies? What activities did you indulge in when not studying?

Approximately 8 to 12 hours during the initial days. But once, the static syllabus was covered, I reduced it to 4 to 6 hours. I played a sport for at least an hour a day. There was not much free time at the end of the day as I would take frequent breaks during my studies to recharge myself and come back to books. I would watch a few movies, tv-series or documentaries during my break hours too.

What was your optional subject? Did you study it during your graduation or at any level after that? If not, on what basis did you choose it?

Public administration. No. The first time I studied the subject was during preparation. I chose it based on the facts that the issue had a significant overlap with the rest of the syllabus, availability of guidance and my inclination and interest towards the subject.

Some people say that some optional subjects are smaller, easier and more scoring than other subjects and are more popular. In your opinion, would it be correct to say so? While choosing your optional subject, did you consider its popularity as a basis?

It varies from individual to individual. For me, the critical factor is your interest in the subject. Even if the issue is easy, it becomes tough to keep yourself motivated to study if you have no interest in it. Besides, there are cycles in Civil Services were some subjects which are high scoring in a specific year tend to be low scoring in the following years. So the popularity of a subject, in my opinion, should not be a deciding factor in choosing an optional topic.

In your opinion, to what extent is success in the main examination dependent on the answer writing style? What approach did you follow in developing the right kind of answer writing?

A unique answer writing style provides a distinct attractiveness that could play a role in fetching a few extra marks. Considering the level of intelligence and knowledge among the serious aspirants are more or less equal since the material used to prepare for the exam is the same, having a distinct answer writing style could provide an edge over the other aspirants. I tried to include more diagrams like maps, flowcharts etc., wherever possible. It must be remembered that the content of the answers is more important than the style itself. If your content is poor, then no amount of beautification can give you any extra marks. I tried to write my answers brief and specific to the point. There is a tendency to show off ( for the lack of a better word). This must be avoided, and the answers must be as brief as possible.

How did you prepare for the essay? On what basis did you select the topics of the essay in the exam hall?

I did not prepare anything specific for the essay. The topics are more or less broadly what is part of the syllabus, and the fact that you have the luxury of choice and time compared to the other mains papers made me believe that essays did not deserve any special preparation.

I choose the topics based on the content I could recollect quickly and issues I felt I had adequate knowledge and understanding about to put across my views in a clear and precise manner.

How did you prepare for the interview? Does the preparation do during the short period immediately after the mains result in help in the interview?

Interview preparation begins the day you decide to start preparing for the exam itself. It must be remembered that it is a personality test and not a test of your knowledge. So studying a few topics just before the interview cannot shape your personality instantly. So it is essential to approach the topic of your study as an administrator from the initial days of preparation, especially the issues which are part of current affairs.
After the mains, the focus should be primarily on factual knowledge involving potential questions from the DAF and burning current affairs topics that you are expected to know. It is excellent to say “ I don’t know” if you aren’t sure of the answer to other questions.

Which board conducted your interview? Does the board that you get for the interview make a difference in the result?

When I cracked CAPF, it was Chhatar Singh sir’s board, then I faced Vinay Mittal sir’s board and eventually Sujata Mehta ma’am’s board. In my personal opinion, the board doesn’t make much of a difference. The Board members are generally seasoned administrators and have seen several candidates over a long period. So they are well aware of how to award marks based on the evaluation of the candidate’s personality.

How did you manage your studies while working?

It was hard to balance work and studies. You come back home after a tiring day in the office, and it takes an enormous amount of strength and willpower to pick up the books again to study, which again leaves you exhausted for the next day. Eventually, I realised I wasn’t doing justice to my work or my preparation. So I decided to quit and focus exclusively on practice.

In my opinion, I believe that at least one year must be dedicated exclusively to the preparation of the exams, after which one can easily balance work and practice. However, this is arguable, and it can vary from person to person.

Is it necessary to support/justify/endorse the policies and views of the government while writing the answers to the civil services examination or replying in the interview? Can the government’s opinion on any issue be opposed?

The Government’s opinion can be opposed, but it must be based on facts and logic. Reasonable criticism is allowed, and steps on how it can be improved can be offered too. A balanced approach must be taken rather than a one-sided approach and not based on any ideological leanings.

How important do you think it is to have an alternate career backup while preparing for civil services? Which path had you chosen? (PLAN-B)

Sometimes, despite all the effort we put, things do not go in our favour. There are always some things that are beyond your control. So it is practical to have an alternate career as a backup while preparing. I started my preparation with no backup, and it was only later I realised the enormity of the risk involved. Fortunately, I cleared CAPF in my first attempt, which served as a backup during the rest of my preparation.

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