In conversation with Akhil V Menon on securing AIR 66 in UPSC CSE 2021

   

Akhil V Menon is a 2018 NUALS graduate who secured AIR 66 in UPSC CSE 2021. While in law school, he was actively involved in mooting, debating and managing the Center for Law and Economics. He cracked the Kerala Administrative Exam after his graduation, and then went on to crack UPSC CSE 2021 with a stellar AIR of 66. He can be seen playing cricket in his free time.

1. I see that you graduated in 2018 from the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi and appeared for UPSC this year. Did you always want to go for civil services, if not, how did it span out, and what prompted you to go for it?

I first appeared for UPSC in the year 2019; however, I only cleared it in my third attempt. While in school, I used to casually say that I wanted to be a civil servant but never really believed that I would clear this exam one day. Law school was a turning point in my life; the culture of debate and dialogue made me aware of many issues around me. Looking back, these debates have played a vital role in my journey.

2. What were your plans after law school, were you working with an advocate/law firm or did you want to go for a corporate job?

I did not have any plans after law school; maybe that fear of free fall may have pushed me to work harder to conquer this dream. However, it is a big risk to take; civil services is uncertain in many ways. Therefore, if I were to take that decision of pursuing civil services right after graduation at this point, maybe I would give it more time and space.

3. Do you think doing an undergraduate course in law helped in your journey towards UPSC? An undergraduate degree in which other course do you think would be helpful?

My graduation subjects covered a lot of areas connected with the civil services examination. Especially the knowledge in constitutional law has been important in all stages of this exam. My optional was also law, though I did not score high in it, I could manage my optional on my own. Even during the interview phase, most questions had a direct connection with law. Above everything, I feel that law is an indispensable element in administration. It is indeed “law in motion”; thus, a degree in law is always an advantage. Apart from law, degrees in political science, sociology or economics can also help at most stages. Having said that, any degree subject that one pursues can help in some way or the other in civil services preparation.

4. I see that you were briefly involved in Kerala Administrative Services as well. Tell us about Kerala State Civil Services, how you cracked the exam and how your experience so far has been.

The KAS exam closely resembled the syllabus and pattern of the UPSC examination. Therefore, the preparation was not very different. The only difference was that Kerala-related portions had to be prepared for KAS. I took a bridge course to ensure that such a gap is filled in my preparation. In hindsight, cracking the KAS with 6th rank gave me the confidence to attempt the civil services exam again.

The experience so far with the KAS has been really good; I am a believer of the idea of State civil services and its potential to bring changes in the administrative set-up. We were taught on the history and the economy of Kerala in detail. The Kerala Darshan trip and the attachment with various State Government departments done as part of the training have helped me to understand the needs of the State and the role of an administrator.

5. Briefly tell us about your preparation strategy for UPSC, focusing particularly on a specific detail that you would want the aspirants to know about?

Failure was my teacher in this process. I have failed both in prelims as well as mains; I derived lessons from both and made necessary changes to get to this stage. My focus during these three years was to maintain that element of consistency and discipline all throughout; an average of 6 to 7 hours of time was set apart for prep.

My preparation was in and around Trivandrum for the last few years. For GS, I took guidance from Fortune IAS Academy. However, the role of coaching is limited in a highly competitive examination like the civil services; your daily routine plays an important role there. It is also important that we focus on our physical and mental health during the same period. Therefore, I tried to formulate a balanced timetable incorporating sufficient breaks in my recent attempt.

6. Can you also tell us about the changes you brought about in your preparation during your first and second mains attempts? Also, elaborate on your journey from prelims to mains and finally cracking the interview.

My first mains was a story of under preparation. I failed my first prelims in 2019; thereafter, my sole focus was to somehow clear prelims in the next attempt.

I followed a strategy of solving a maximum number of mock questions for prelims. With this method, I did clear prelims in 2020; however, I did not have much idea about the demands of the mains examination. I did not cover my optional properly, and my attempts in GS papers were also a bit haphazard. This reflected in my attempt, and I did not clear the exam. However, this year I knew that I had certain gaps in my preparation, and my focus was to cover those gaps. I identified my weak subjects in the mains examination. Furthermore, I practised writing answers in a given time limit. This helped me to build my skills to write an organised answer.

With this change in approach, I cleared mains this year. In the interview stage, I did not invest a lot of time preparing for the interview, but my focus was on the day of the interview. I tried to simulate conditions that reflected the actual interview. Also, mock interviews of various institutes helped me to better assess my preparedness for the interview. The actual interview was much easier; it was more like a sensible conversation around different topics of law.

7. I see that you were rank 2nd in your batch in NUALS. What activities were you involved in during your law school days? Elaborate on how it contributed to your personal and professional growth.

I loved mooting and debating; it has taught me the importance of reasoning in building an argument. I think that is one skill which has helped me immensely both at the answer writing stage and in the interview process. NUALS also gives you ample opportunity to understand the society that you are part of. We had a vibrant student body, which actively participated in the affairs of the university. The legal aid camps at the university helped me understand some issues at the grassroot level. For instance, the camp at Attapadi taught us the issues faced by the tribal population on a day-to-day basis and also the power of good governance to resolve such challenges.

8. How can one streamline one's preparation for UPSC exams when in law school?

I do not think I am fit to comment on that; I have just lived a laid-back life during my law school days. However, if I could ever meet my younger self, I would ask him to read daily newspaper and go through some of those NCERT textbooks. UPSC expects you to have a general understanding on a lot of issues across different subjects. Therefore, being keen to learn new things is a trait that we need to inculcate and carry forward from the law school times. Also, constitutional law should be given special attention as it helps you at several stages of UPSC preparation.

9. How do you think being a lawyer will help you in your role as a public servant? And what obstacles do you think you are going to be facing?

Knowing law is an empowering factor for any administrator, so that way, I feel I will benefit from my training as a lawyer. I think training in law also helps one to develop a sense of justice which will help a lot in the decision-making aspect. Further, a good understanding on legal provisions and its interpretation can make an officer more decisive at several levels.

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