One of the most difficult exams in India to qualify for posts in the civil service is the UPSC, as the Union Public Service Commission’s civil national exam is known. Nearly a million applicants show up each year for a set of nine examinations that determine whether they will have the chance to work in the Indian bureaucracy and eventually assume jobs on both the national and international levels. Only a thousand of these are chosen. What about the remaining candidates, who often work for years and use up the majority, if not all, of their six chances to pass the exam?

They frequently start off by repeating the procedure, caught in a vicious cycle of optimism and despair.

WION contacted various UPSC applicants who are still torn between hope and despair as well as a previous candidate who has crossed the battlefield and is now an IAS, or Indian Administrative Service, officer, to learn more about what precisely those “left behind” go through. We also conducted interviews with mental health professionals and career counsellors, who provided insight into these applicants’ struggles and offered helpful solutions for dealing with their discouragement.

They stated the following:

Stuck in one place…

The sense of remaining stuck while the rest of the world progresses is a frequent tale among many seekers. A 27-year-old aspirant named Chinmay Desai, who has made five of a possible six appearances for the civil services examinations, presented a bleak picture.

“You feel like you’re stuck in one place…like you’re standing in a crowd of people and everyone is rushing by, but you can’t move.”

Chinmay has been studying for the test “on and off” since 2017 and has a master’s degree in international studies. Six years later, he worries that, if he fails the final exam, he will have to spend at least an additional two to three years completing a certificate or course to be on par with individuals his age in order to enter the industry.

Another UPSC aspirant, 25-year-old Aafreen, who has been working as a legal clerk while still studying, concurs: “After a certain number of attempts, you do feel tired, you feel exhausted, and you definitely want to step out of the race.”

She describes the exam’s impact on her mental health by saying, “It was very exhausting, there is no other way to put it.”

“Right after graduation, all of my close friends began working at legal firms. In essence, they began making money. They all matched a specific profile and continued to advance. You always feel like you’re falling behind, but you tell yourself that you’ve chosen a difficult road, so even if it takes some time, it will be worthwhile.

But it’s rather draining, I must say.

She continues by discussing the potential effects of the ‘UPSC preparation’ on a person’s finances. The mere act of taking a little vacation with friends might cause mental and emotional pain.

When travelling with pals, she claims that “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.”

There are times when “you have to be a miser and that sometimes makes you feel…sometimes…a little lesser than someone else.”

“It is very exhausting to keep feeling like you don’t have a direction when they (your friends) do,” she continues.

Pranav Puri, a 26-year-old journalism and international studies student, remembers feeling exhausted after giving it his best in his first effort and not being selected.

When I looked at the answer key, I wasn’t first discouraged, but for the following two days, “I just could not get out of 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

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a previous candidate who is now an IAS officer disclosed that she failed even the qualifying test on her first try and that her second attempt, in which she missed the final list by just seven marks, brought her to her knees. In spite of this, she succeeded in her third and last effort. In order to “retain their mental health,” she advises aspirants to learn to “insulate themselves from comparisons,” even though it may “feel like you’re not moving ahead.”

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