India's UPSC exam has 1 million candidates, just 1,000 seats. What happens to those who don't make it?

India's UPSC exam has 1 million candidates, just 1,000 seats. What happens to those who don't make it?

"You feel stuck in one you're standing in a crowd of people and everyone is rushing by, but you can't move."

UPSC, as the civil national exam conducted by the Union Public Service Commission, is popularly called, is one of India's toughest tests for positions in government civil service. Every year, close to a million aspirants appear for a series of nine tests that decide their fate of getting an opportunity to serve in Indian bureaucracy, eventually enabling them to hold positions both national and international. Of these, only a thousand make the cut. But what about the rest, who usually toil for years and exhaust most, if not all the six attempts available to pass the test? 

More often than not, they initially repeat the process, trapped in a vicious cycle of hope and despair. 

Stuck in one place...

A common narrative that many aspirants share is the feeling of being stationary while the world moves on. Chinmay Desai, a 27-year-old aspirant who has appeared for the civil services exams five out of the total six attempts, painted a dark picture. 

"You feel stuck in one you're standing in a crowd of people and everyone is rushing by, but you can't move."

Chinmay holds a master's degree in International Studies and has been preparing for the exam "on and off" since 2017. Six years down the line, he fears that, if he fails the last attempt, to enter the workforce he will have to spend at least 2-3 more years, doing a diploma or a course to match up to people his age.

Another UPSC hopeful, 25-year-old Aafreen, who along with the preparation has been working as a law associate, agrees: "After a certain number of attempts you do feel tired, you feel exhausted, and you definitely want to step out of the race." 

"It was very exhausting, no other way to put it," she says, talking about how the exam has affected her mental health.

"Right after college, all my close friends, they started working at law firms...they started earning basically...they fit themselves into a certain profile and they kept moving forward. You always feel like okay you are left behind and then you counsel yourself by saying, okay, I have chosen a very difficult path, if it will take time, it will be fruitful, which is why you know, it's worth the wait."

"But it's really exhausting."

She goes on to talk about what the so-called 'UPSC preparation' can mean for a person's finances. Something as simple as a short trip with friends can contribute to mental and emotional distress.

She says that if you're on a trip with a couple of friends somewhere, "they would like to splurge" but "as an aspirant and as a person who doesn't ask money from their parents, I don't like doing that."

At times, "you have to be a miser and that at times makes you feel...sometimes...a little lesser than someone else."

India's UPSC exam has 1 million candidates, just 1,000 seats. What happens to those who don't make it?
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"It is very exhausting to keep feeling like you don't have a direction when they (your friends) do," she adds.

Pranav Puri, a 26-year-old student of journalism and international studies, recalls how when he didn't qualify after giving his all in his first attempt, he felt burnt out.

"I wasn't really demoralised (initially), but when I checked the answer key," the next two days "I just could not get up from my bed."

Dealing with hopelessness

All three aspirants confessed to mental pressure and duress but revealed that they have not sought help from a professional. In the perilous journey of UPSC preparation, their families have been their support systems. 

Aafreen confessed that at times when she found herself battling other stressful situations along with the examination, she did "consider talking to a professional," but "that didn't materialise for me".

Psychologist Jhanvi Jain, CEO and founder of WhyNott, a mental health wellness centre, says that while familial support is important and needed, "your parents are not going to be able to give you that objective, non-biased view."

"Through therapy, you see a very different perspective," says Jain. 

She says that while you may feel lighter after talking to your parents or your friends, they will make you feel good, but "that emotion has not been processed, it's still in your body."

"Emotions, they get stored in your body, trauma gets stored in your body. Your past experiences are already in your body, so you'll not be able to recognise the triggers if they were to happen again and again." 

This, as per the mental health counsellor, can be remedied through therapy.

How to deal with stress that comes with civil services preparation?

According to the counselling psychologist, how the exam affects an aspirant's mental health needs to be addressed at the exam prep institute level. She suggests that seeking mental health help while preparing for the exam should be made mandatory. "I personally would really love it."

Acknowledging that therapy can get expensive, Jain suggests that UPSC aspirants struggling with stress, anxiety and other issues can seek help from psychologists that offer therapy on a "sliding scale basis". 

Describing the concept, the therapist shares that she and many of her colleagues try to help out people from different walks of life at a fee much lesser than their normal charges. She also suggested platforms like "Youth for Mental Health, Recover Media, and Talk to Therapist," for low-cost or free therapy.

Career counsellor Hanish Dogra says that failure in the UPSC exam is not the end of the world. He says that during their preparation, the aspirants gain a huge amount of knowledge, which they can utilise for other "reputed jobs" like state services etc. "Hope for the best, prepare for the worst," he said.

'Victory speech:' You are your own person

A former aspirant and now IAS officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, revealed that she was unable to crack even the qualifying exam on her first attempt and that her second attempt — in which she failed to make the final list by just seven marks — brought her to her knees. However, she emerged victorious from her third and final attempt. She says that while it may "feel like you're not moving ahead" an aspirant must learn to "insulate themselves from comparisons" so as to "retain their mental health".

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