New Delhi: Large classrooms packed with hundreds of students from every corner of India. Teachers taking a lecture using a microphone so that their voice can carry to the far ends of the room. The sound of students scribbling furiously on paper. These are the markers of a typical classroom in a UPSC exam coaching centre.
For decades, these centres have been helping young men and women of the country crack the — notoriously tough — national-level competitive exam conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) for recruitment to the civil services.
Nearly 5 to 6 lakh people take the UPSC exam every year on average, for a few hundred jobs, leading to a thriving coaching industry. In 2021, for example, over 5 lakh candidates appeared for the exam.
The industry, which experts valued at nearly Rs 3,000 crore in 2018, has diversified over the years. It is no longer limited to just classroom teachings and online lectures — it now also focuses on ‘personal mentorship’ and the ‘holistic development’ of an aspirant.
The shift, insiders say, is driven by the realisation that aspirants don’t only need to crack the UPSC exam, but do it within a certain period of time and choose the correct service for themselves.
And this is where the “mentor” — an offering said to have been introduced a couple of years ago — steps in.
Often a former civil servant himself/herself, the mentor is essentially someone who managed to clear the exam and knows what it takes to do that.
This guidance, however, comes for a hefty sum, driving up the price of coaching by nearly 20 to 30 per cent. For instance, if a coaching class charges Rs 1 lakh for the ‘prelims and mains package’ on average, one will need to shell out approximately Rs 1,30,000 to also get a mentor.
“Getting content for exam preparation is not the problem anymore, especially with the advent of edtech platforms. Be it online or offline lectures, one can easily get the content to prepare for exams,” said Sajal Singh, founder of Civilsdaily, a UPSC preparation platform that focuses on one-on-one mentorship.
“The trend has moved more towards personal mentorship these days. A mentor is someone who prepares students for everything… the exams, the interview.”
A personal mentor operates by first identifying the potential of an aspirant — what level they are at, if they simply need to change the strategy they employ while taking the exam, or if they need to study more. These mentors usually guide their students through the entire journey — from the prelims to the interview.
Often, the help can be as basic as teaching the candidates how to frame a certain answer or an essay. Letting the aspirant develop an individual personality and encouraging critical thinking are also described as a part of the mentorship process.
Singh is a mentor himself and has so far coached nearly 50-60 people/year — candidates who have cleared their preliminary exams (prelims) but have been unable to clear their mains for the past two-three years.
As someone who has already cleared the examination, Singh said he knows the nuances of acing it. “I analyse all their past performances and tell them how to improve, or where they went wrong,” he added.
Richa Khera, 22, who is currently on a postgraduation gap year to prepare for the UPSC exam, is among those who opted for personal mentorship with a private coaching platform in Delhi.
“I have no dearth of reading material, there are hundreds of videos online — both free and paid content — to help me study, but what I need is more realistic guidance on how to crack the exam,” said Khera.
‘Clearing the exam not enough’
Badal Soni, an educator with edtech platforms PrepLadder and Unacademy, who prepares aspirants for engineering and civil services, said that clearing the exam is not enough.
One also needs to understand that they have to clear it at the right age so that they get promotions on time and are able to rise up the ranks, he added.
“Earlier, people used to take a gap year after college to prepare for the civil services exam. Now, they start preparing while still in college,” said Soni.
“Age is the fuel for promotion in government jobs… if you enter the services late, your promotion will be limited. But if you enter the civil services early, there are higher chances to grow,” he added.
Aspirants and successful candidates ThePrint spoke to agreed. One needs to be smart about how they prepare for the UPSC exams, they said.
A 28-year-old civil engineer from Ranchi, who joined the Indian Police Service (IPS) after clearing the UPSC exam last year on his third attempt, said he “was able to reach the mains in the first two attempts, but failed at the interview stage”.
“I was unable to comprehend where I was going wrong until a former IPS officer, a family friend, coached me personally and pointed out my mistakes to me,” he added.
Khera had a similar experience. After going through her test prep papers, her mentor pointed out that the introduction paragraphs in her essays were too long.
“I was taking too long to come to the point while writing the opening paragraph of my essays. My mentor told me that the introduction should be crisp and should make a point quickly,” she said. “That is something I have started working on now.”
A focus on ‘holistic development’
Chandrahas Panigrahi, co-founder and CEO of Edukemy, another platform that helps students prepare for the UPSC exam, said the “holistic development of an aspirant’s personality” is crucial. Rote learning and cramming, he added, no longer cut it.
“The UPSC exam has changed over the years and, with that, the method of preparation has also changed. Currently, there is more emphasis on questions based on current affairs both in prelims and mains,” he added. “For example, the question could be ‘write the course of Indian history if Gandhi was not part of it’,” he said, adding that teachers have been promoting “alternative thinking or imagination for problem-solving”.
The approach, he added, needs to change from the age-old formula of “one needs to lock themselves up in a room to prepare for the UPSC exam”.
“Teachers themselves need to be more dynamic while teaching, they need to include open-ended discussions or questions in class,” Panigrahi said. “They need to encourage students to stay updated on actual world developments, like popular movies, books, debates, discoveries, and focus on inclusion of students into the real world.”
(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)