Ashish Verma is an engineering graduate from Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology (NSIT), Delhi. He started preparing for the UPSC exams from his third year of engineering. After preparing for the UPSC for 4 years, he decided to move on to pursue an MBA. He scored 97.93 %ile in XAT 2021 and is all set to join XLRI Jamshedpur's coveted PGDM HRM programme in 2021! Ashish likes reading academic books, watching political or historical OTT based entertainment series, and teaching. In this story Ashish talks about his journey, starting from preparing for UPSC to converting one of the most sought after B-schools in the country. Read on!
Hi Ashish! Tell us a bit about yourself.
Hi, I am Ashish Verma. I am 26 years old. I have done my schooling from DPS Sushant Lok, Gurgaon and I was a school topper in classes 10 and 12 examinations. I have done my engineering in Electronics and Communications from NSIT, Delhi (2013-17). My father works as a manager in Haryana Housing Board, my mother is a homemaker, and my brother is a budding actor. I would be joining XLRI Jamshedpur’s HRM programme this year, i.e., 2021-23.
When did you start preparing for UPSC? What led you to aspire for civil services? Which exams did you write throughout your preparation?
I started preparing for UPSC in my third year of engineering after a very moving meet with Ms Ira Singhal and Ms Nidhi Gupta, ranks 1 and 3 respectively in UPSC 2014. My inspiration for UPSC also came from my father who has worked with Haryana Housing Board for 34 years, and from my cousins who work in the government sector. I had been inclined towards civil services since my school days.
I have taken more than 15 exams for government services which include UPSC ‘18, ‘19 & ‘20, HPSC & RPSC (I cleared the prelims for both), SSC ’18 tier 1, 2 & 3, SSC’19 tier 1, 2 & 3 (I cleared all rounds both the years) and a few more. I managed to clear some of them but I was not completely convinced so I wrote some MBA entrance exams as a backup option. I have taken CAT ‘18, ‘19 and ‘20, IIFT ‘20 and XAT ‘21.
What were the hardships and low points of your UPSC preparation? Did you ever feel like giving up? What kept you going?
UPSC preparation is not just preparing for 1 or 2 exams; it is a collection of 11 exams designed to deeply scrutinize one’s knowledge. When I started my preparation I learnt about the vastness of the UPSC syllabus. The number of books to go through was the biggest challenge of all, but with hard work and dedication, I was able to cover most of them.
However, COVID-19 hit me hard. As was the case with everyone, I had a lot going on around me and all the negativity pushed me towards depression and anxiety. I also had to bear the loss of the last set of my grandparents. I still remember having as negative thoughts as suicide and how my life had been a waste. I even took medication for anxiety and was under parental supervision for almost 15 days.
However, throughout my journey and in my lowest phases my parents have been my biggest source of strength. It was because of their continuous support that I was able to continue preparing for civil services. I never felt any pressure from them, which is an exception in these highly demanding times. Even when I decided to move on to MBA, my parents had my complete back. I really can’t thank them enough for their unconditional support.
Why did you take the MBA entrance exams along with UPSC? How did you manage to prepare for both exams simultaneously?
I always kept MBA as a backup because of the similarities in job profiles and the impact it creates. A lot of people who want to get into UPSC want to do something for society, lead meaningful lives and create a direct impact on other people’s lives. Today all of these things are also true of higher-level managers who are creating direct impact through various roles, like job creation and CSR activities. The similarities between the work profiles and the fact that managerial skills are transferable were my keen reason for inclining towards MBA. Preparing for MBA entrance exams was easy as there is a huge overlap in the syllabus. Most of the civil services exams have verbal and quants sections, just like MBA exams. So there was not much of an extra effort as I was already practising for them diligently. For the XAT, the Decision Making (DM) section was coherent with the syllabus for UPSC Mains GS Paper 4, so I was well prepared for it.
In your past CAT attempts, you were able to convert some of the best B-schools in the country, like IIM-I, K & L. Why did you not join them?
In 2019, I took CAT and received calls from FMS Delhi, IIM L, K, I, DMS IIT Delhi and New IIMs. Out of these, I successfully converted IIM L, K and IIT Delhi, but I was still not sure about it. Another big factor was COVID. I suffered a huge loss of my grandparents, my Nani and Dada Ji. This shattered my parents and I could not even think of leaving them in their time of grief. Because of COVID, I was also a bit wary regarding placements and the online mode of MBA, which I thought would not benefit me much because of my drop years.
When and why did you decide to move on from your UPSC dream? How difficult was it to move on? Did you have second thoughts?
The decline in my interest in UPSC and moving on to Plan B, i.e., MBA, was a gradual process. It began after I didn’t clear my UPSC ‘19 prelims (my second attempt) which made me realise the uncertainty and the luck factor associated with the exams. I decided to be more serious about my MBA entrance exams, moved on from UPSC after June of 2020.
As I mentioned earlier, I was suffering from depression and anxiety at the time. Now that I look back on it, I am really happy that I can share my story with people who might be in a similar position so that they can reach out for help. It was no doubt the toughest time of my life and moving on felt like freedom - no more preparation and no more worries. By this time, I was aware that I was good at cracking CAT. Before starting my serious preparation for it, I hit the pause button for one and a half months and watched a lot of entertainment series to refresh my mind. After that, there were no second thoughts. I completely devoted myself to CAT, XAT and other MBA entrance exams, and just wanted to excel at them.
CAT and XAT continue to be two of the toughest MBA entrance exams to crack in the country. What was your preparation strategy for these exams?
My section-wise strategy for these two exams was as follows:
- Verbal Ability (VARC): I solved around 5-7 RCs daily. In addition to this, I watched a lot of English web series like The Crown, The Good Wife, etc. to improve my vocabulary, which is a very tough task otherwise.
- Decision Making (DM): I had an advantage here as the syllabus is similar to UPSC GS Paper 4. I referred to Ethics, Integrity & Aptitude by G Subba Rao & PN Roy. It is important to learn the basics of ethics and apply them in different situations. Stakeholders Analysis is also an important area.
- Logical Reasoning & Data Interpretation (LRDI): I have always felt that this is the toughest section and can be a deciding factor in determining one’s overall percentile. I solved previous year papers, referred to books by Arun Sharma and attempted 4-5 sets daily. There are no shortcuts here; just practice & retain.
- Quantitative Ability (QA): I brushed up my basics by referring to books by Arun Sharma. Most questions in CAT are usually straightforward, so knowing the most important formulas and tricks is key.
What was your XLRI Jamshedpur interview experience like? How did you justify your gap years in the interview? Why do you think you got selected?
My HRM interview with XLRI was a really good experience. I feel that I was able to answer and fortify most of my arguments quite well. The interview started with the customary “tell us something about yourself” and then went on to discuss my preparation for civil and gap years, as one would expect.
When asked to justify my gap years, I was blunt and honest. I explained why I was preparing for civil services, why I decided to move on from it, how I fought failure and anxiety, and what learnings I had from my UPSC prep journey. I feel my honesty had a huge part to play in my selection. I was also asked some situational questions, which I handled well.
How does it feel after making it to Asia’s best HR programme? What are your future aspirations and how does XLRI fit into the picture?
It feels really different and positive to be selected for XLRI Jamshedpur’s HRM programme. I feel that I can leave my past behind more easily and happily knowing that I have achieved the best of the best. I want to learn it all, connect with people, build my profile and be future-ready. I am ready to put in the efforts and want to work my way to the top management roles.
If you got a chance to relive your journey all over again, what is the one thing that you would change?
If I really had to change one thing, I would give fewer exams and focus only on a couple of them, depending on my interest. Because I failed at UPSC, I started writing too many exams when I was not even sure if I would join them even if I got through. I could have avoided unnecessary struggle and would have saved a lot of my time and energy had I focused on only those exams that I genuinely wanted to take.
It is very common for MBA aspirants with unusual profiles (like gap years, poor academics, work ex of more than 3 years, no extra-curricular, etc.) to get discouraged by people from going ahead with their MBA preparations. Do you have any advice for such candidates?
My advice to every MBA aspirant would be this: give your best in the exams and once you are on a B-school’s shortlist, things like gap years, poor academics, etc. matter very little. Even if you don’t have strong academics, or have a lot of work experience, the interviewers will judge you on your learnings and positivity. Just give your best and keep putting in the work required. If you are consistent and perseverant enough, you will achieve something wonderful.
What advice would you like to give to UPSC aspirants who spend year after year trying to clear it? Should they keep trying? When is it that they should consider moving on?
I have many friends who prepared for UPSC and very few of them got selected. Most of them are struggling to pick up the pieces of their lives in their late 20s and early 30s. So I would call out to everyone who is preparing for UPSC that even after giving your best and doing everything right, you might not be able to clear it because it is a fight between the brightest minds of the country for a very limited number of vacancies. A lot depends on luck as well. Be wise, set a time frame of 2-3 years, and take only the top 3-4 exams (including state PSCs). If you can’t get through even then, it might be time to move on and start afresh while you still have the time. And if you decide to move on, surround yourself with positive and supportive people. Have no fear and have no regrets!
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