“My interview had not gone that well, and I didn’t think I would make it. So, coming first was a complete surprise,” said 25-year-old Shruti Sharma (25), who topped the 2021 UPSC Civil Services Exam.
A History (Hons) graduate from Delhi University’s St Stephen’s College, Sharma said she always had the inclination to connect with the public directly. “Academics was one area where I thought I could connect with people and contribute to society in some way, but eventually I decided to do something more practical,” she said.
Sharma said her experience at Stephen’s was great in terms of the access she had to a wide range of people she met there: “I was a day scholar. The environment was away from college politics, and it was a little isolating sometimes. But I had a good experience.”
Sharma was pursuing her Master’s in Modern History at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) when she heard about Jamia Millia Islamia’s Residential Coaching Academy (RCA), which provides free coaching to underprivileged sections.
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“My father had heard about the RCA and asked me to sit for the entrance in 2019. I got through while I was pursuing my masters at JNU. That was when my preparation for UPSC actually began. I made a lot of good friends in Jamia who helped me through this journey… the place provided an environment where I could thrive,” Sharma said.
This was Sharma’s second attempt. In her first attempt, she had to give the prelims in Hindi. “Due to a technical issue, I ended up writing all the papers in Hindi. I did not get through, but I wasn’t disheartened with the result,” she added.
Sharma is the first to qualify for the civil services in her family. She lives with her parents, younger brother and maternal grandmother in East of Kailash.
Her father Sunil Dutt Sharma (54) is an architect and runs a construction consultancy firm in Delhi. Her mother Rachna Sharma (49) used to be a teacher.
She said: “My son plays cricket and is currently at a Ranji Trophy Camp outside Delhi, while my daughter has been preparing for UPSC for the past two years. There were no financial difficulties, hence, I decided to stay home and take care of the kids.”
Sharma’s parents are from Uttar Pradesh – her father hails from Bijnor and her mother from Bulandshahr – which is one of the reasons why the state is her first preference for a cadre. “I was born in Bijnor and I have always wanted to work in the state. I specifically want to work in the fields of education, health and women empowerment,” she said.
In her free time, Sharma likes to reads poetry. “I like to read Hindi poems; my favourite poets are Sarveshwar Dayal Sharma and Dushyant Kumar,” she added.
Her tip to all civil services aspirants is simple – work hard. “First you have to be sure that this is what you want to pursue. You cannot prepare for civil services based on any external motivations. Make your own notes and read the newspaper daily instead of only relying on reading material,” she said.
Sharma believes that she grew up in an environment where things were relatively easy for her in terms of the preparation for the exam. The constant support of her family and friends is what kept her driven till the end. “All of us have it in us to qualify for competitive exams. We just need the right opportunities and the right avenues to reach our potential,” Sharma says.
She said every girl can crack the civil services, provided the people around them are supportive and give them that space, adding that girls must also fight for that space.