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How to Become an IAS Topper?

To get a rank in UPSC, you need to work hard.
To get All-India Rank 1, you need to work hard and smart.

Every serious candidate who enters the UPSC journey, dreams of securing the All-India Rank-1. And, although all UPSC toppers claim that they had no idea they will secure Rank-1, the reality is they leave no stone unturned in their preparation.

Apart from maintaining discipline, parallel smart and hard work, relentless practice, a well-thought-out strategy, and time management, you need to be filled with a burning desire, motivation, and perseverance.

One must have to be aware of his/her strengths and weaknesses critically to get a top rank or any rank for that matter. Patience and an undaunted self-belief are a must-have.

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The challenging UPSC Civil Services Examination has produced a diverse group of successful candidates, each with their unique approach. Despite their varied backgrounds and strategies, a common thread runs through their stories: unwavering dedication and hard work.

A view of the journeys of toppers of the last 5 years will demonstrate how there is no one path to success.

Year of Examination Topper’s Name Optional Subject City Number of Attempts Professional Background
2022 Ishita Kishore Political Science and International Relations Delhi 3rd Attempt Did not clear Prelims 2 times. Economics Honours from Delhi University
2021 Shruti Sharma History Delhi 2nd Attempt Did not clear Mains in first attempt Post Graduation from JNU
2020 Shubham Kumar Anthropology Bihar 3rd Attempt Btech from IIT Mumbai
2019 Pradeep Singh Public Administration Haryana 4th Attempt In 3rd Attempt had become IRS officer. BCS from Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University
2018 Kanishak Kataria Mathematics Rajasthan 2nd Attempt BTech from IIT Bombay and 2 years work experience

In 2022, Ishita Kishore, a Delhi University graduate and Air Force officer's daughter, topped the exam on her third attempt. Her journey highlights the importance of discipline and focus. She followed a comprehensive study plan, maintained a healthy lifestyle, and regularly practiced mock tests to enhance her speed and accuracy. Her success proves that UPSC requires not just knowledge but also a disciplined approach.

Shruti Sharma, the 2021 topper, emerged from Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, with a remarkable story of resilience. After missing the interview call by just one mark in her first attempt, she turned disappointment into motivation. She focused on NCERT textbooks and utilized online resources to enrich her notes. She also wisely avoided social media distractions. Shruti's journey exemplifies that setbacks can be turned into stepping stones by learning from mistakes and prioritizing quality study.

Shubham Kumar, the 2020 topper, emphasized the power of self-belief, positive peer pressure, and regular practice. He encourages aspirants to build supportive friendships and select suitable optional subjects to create a conducive environment for success. His success mantra lies in maintaining motivation, practicing mock tests consistently, and avoiding distractions throughout the preparation period.

Pradeep Singh, the 2019 topper from Tewri village in Sonipat, Haryana, epitomized the strength of determination and consistency. After four attempts, he achieved his dream through perseverance. He focused on completing specific portions of the UPSC syllabus daily, while he was already working in the IRS. He holds his father to be the pillar for his motivation.

Kanishak Kataria, the 2018 topper and a data scientist from Bangalore, approached his preparation with a clear understanding of his strengths and weaknesses. Two months before the exam, he completely detached himself from social media and dedicated 13-14 hours each day to focused study. His success mantra emphasizes hard work, maintaining a positive mindset, and solely focusing on the exam preparation without dwelling on the outcome.

So, you should always remember that your journey is your own and you should create your own roadmap.

1) How Ishita Kishore (2022-23 topper) could secure an AIR-1?

Ishita Kishore, a Delhi University graduate and the daughter of an Air Force officer, secured AIR 1 in the UPSC Civil Services Examination (CSE), 2022. The 26-year-old woman passed the prestigious exam on her third attempt. She failed her preliminary exam on each of her first two attempts.

Ishita's approach to UPSC preparation was marked by a precisely organized study schedule, judicious selection of study resources, and good time management. Her preparation strategy includes a rigorous study, comprehensive preparation planning, and a healthy lifestyle. Ishita Kishore said that “one has to be disciplined and sincere” in preparation to crack the civil services exam.

During her preparation, her strategy followed-

  • Routine: Ishita maintained a rigid daily routine, devoting adequate time to reading and understanding the concepts of each subject. Consistency was her key to success.
  • Study Materials: For her core subjects, she focused on NCERT textbooks, while for her optional subjects, she referred to standard books.
  • Mock Tests: She practiced mock tests regularly in order to improve her speed and accuracy.
  • Current Affairs: Keeping track of daily news and making notes on current affairs played a considerable role in her success in the IAS exam.
  • Revision: She limited the study materials and revised the same multiple times.
  • Balanced Lifestyle: Finally, she maintained a balanced lifestyle by incorporating regular exercise and meditation to manage stress.

2) How Shruti Sharma (2021-22 topper) secured AIR 1 in IAS exam?

Shruti Sharma, the topper of the IAS exam, 2021 is an alumnus of St. Stephens College, Delhi, and hails from Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh. She pursued her Postgraduation from Delhi School of Economics. She had always wanted to serve society in one way or another and saw IAS services with the most scope of serving the underprivileged and therefore decided to pursue civil services.

She has achieved rank 1 as a result of her hard work and perseverance. Her story should serve as motivation to anyone who has failed this exam. She also failed in her first attempt, but later came back strong in her second attempt and secured Rank 1. In her first attempt, she had taken the mains exam in Hindi medium and she missed the interview call by just 1 mark which served as a motivation to work even harder. She learned from her mistakes and achieved the feat of all India topper in the UPSC CSE 2021 exam.

During her preparation, her strategy followed-

  • Focus on NCERTS: Shruti Sharma began her IAS preparation 4 years ago by reading and understanding NCERTs.
  • Strong hold on Current Affairs: Her strategy was to focus on current affairs which she covered by reading newspapers and making her own notes.
  • Answer writing practice: She gave equal importance to answer writing, which is the most important aspect to clear the IAS exam.
  • Judicious use of the Internet: She extensively used the internet to enrich her notes while seldom using social media.
  • Not limit herself with study hours: She did not believe in counting the number of hours while studying but rather focused on the quality of her studies.
  • Limited resources with multiple revisions: She stressed on having limited study resources, maximum revision, practice tests, and solving-analyzing previous year’s question papers.

3) How Shubham Kumar (2020-21 topper) could secure an AIR-1?

Shubham started his preparation in 2017 and secured AIR-1 in his 3rd attempt. He believes in saying ''Where there is a will, there is the way". His father and his commitment to serve people were the source of his motivation.

During his preparation, his strategy followed-

  • Working on basics.
  • Batching mock tests for prelims and mains in his daily study plan.
  • A wise selection of optional (scored 320/500).
  • Newspaper reading for current affairs part.
  • Focus on revision.

He suggests UPSC aspirants believe in themselves, make a friend circle of his/her fellow aspirants stay motivated and for positive peer pressure, practice mock tests regularly, wise selection of optional subject and during revision time not to read new books.

4) How Kanishak Kataria (2018-19 Topper) Could Secure an AIR-1?

Although each one of us thinks that it was his first attempt, he had already appeared in UPSC CSE examination in 2014 and could not qualify. So, technically this was his second attempt.

What was different this time?

Earlier (2014), his dad had filled up his form without telling him and he had little motivation and no vision for CSE. This time (2017) he himself decided to clear this exam or in other words he had enough motivation.

Secondly, before commencing his UPSC preparation he had identified his strengths and weaknesses beforehand so as to devise a strategy that would work for him.

He also talks about filtering out the relevant information from the ocean of data available in the market and internet. After all, to get a top rank one must know what not to study.

If one could observe, Kanishak has scored a remarkable 360+ marks out of 500 in his Mathematics optional alone. He chose Mathematics as his optional because it was logical, scientific, static (with no current affairs involved) and lastly, he knew he could never get bored of Math. One can gauge that he could secure All-India Rank 1 because he chose the right optional.

5) How Anudeep Durishetty (2017-18 Topper) Could Secure an AIR-1?

Anudeep Durishetty failed UPSC CSE 2016.

He was absolutely shattered by his marks and blamed almost everyone except himself for his defeat. He became lethargic, timid, under confident and even dumped his books in a corner.

Who could knew, that his marks would become his only motivation that drove him to rank 1?

His marks in 2016 are as follows:

Anudeep Durishetty

If one observes deeply, one could understand that Anudeep was nowhere near the cut off (565 marks only). 

After he bounced back (after 9 months) he observed that he was not able to complete the paper in time. So, his focus was just on completing the paper in those 3 hours and not All-India rank 1. He practiced and practiced hard. Slowly and gradually, he started completing the paper on time.

And in 2017, the result came out and all the hard work paid its due.

Anudeep Durishetty Mains Marks

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6) How Tina Dabi(2015-16 Topper) Could Secure an AIR-1?

The ability to be clear about your goal in your initial years and getting ready for it in advance gives you an upper hand.

Tina Dabi AIR-1 has a very interesting story to tell. Honestly speaking, when news of her cracking the UPSC Civil Services Examination at the age of 22 in the very first attempt, broke out, many were dumb-founded and others were jealous.

So, what it took for a 22-year old young lady to crack the mother of all examinations?

The answer is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in improving each and every aspect of the UPSC CSE exam including one’s strengths and weaknesses.

After she passed and probably topped her class 10th Board exam, she opted for Science initially and possibly out of peer pressure.

But she always wanted to sit for Civil Services Exam and later after her parents counselled her, she made a very conscious decision of choosing Humanities over Science. Her mother even resigned from her highly prestigious Indian Engineering Service. Thus, began a journey which was no ordinary one.

Tina has mentioned that she used to study for 8 to 14 hours. This she did for five continuous years. This means that she must have dedicated 12,000-15,000 hours in that five-year time period to studies only. After knowing this, one can easily gauge that her becoming an IAS topper in her very first attempt was no accident!

She used to read newspaper purposively and there were days when she could complete newspaper in half an hour only instead of the regular two hours. This is because she would only hunt for topics which were in the UPSC CSE syllabus.

She also chose an optional (Political Science and International Relations) she knew she was very comfortable with.

In PSIR, she secured full marks in class 12th Board and also bagged Delhi university Gold medal.

She joined GS foundation courses in class 11th itself and devoted most of her time in reading IAS related material.

But this is also true that many aspirants devote more than 8,000 hours to studies and still can’t get through UPSC. The reason is they don’t devote the entire time in deliberately practicing for UPSC. We can open the book in front of us for 18 hours but how many hours do we genuinely study?!

The key lies in being conscious of one’s goal and continuously working on it.

One should focus on studying more honestly and to a certain extent more cunningly and be alert and aware of one’s weaknesses to clear the UPSC CSE Exam.

This was true for Tina Dabi and is true for every other IAS aspirant.

7) How you can also get an All India Rank-1 and top the list?

  • Firstly, you need to forget the thought of getting rank 1 or this cadre, that service, big house, big cars etc.
  • Know your strengths/ weaknesses/ likes/ dislikes. This will help you in formulating a strategy that works for you.
  • Devise a strategy and stick to it, unless it is not working for you.
  • Focus on the preparation part, and more importantly enjoy it.
  • Choose the right optional- one which you enjoy thoroughly, in which you can score well, which takes the saturation off you and refreshes your mood.
  • Develop tactics for each and every part of your preparation.
  • Be clear about the exam pattern, syllabus and the demand of UPSC.
  • Don’t be distracted, always be inquisitive in your approach.
  • Most importantly, don’t waste time. Even if you get 5 minutes, try utilizing it in studies.
  • Revise each and every topic multiple times.
  • Avoid unnecessary opinions of people (who give you negative vibes) around you.
  • Start your preparation and start with NCERTs- most aspirants fail to even start their preparation. This results in lot of despair.
  • Revise your class notes. If you are doing it, you are already at the upper hand.
  • Focus on both GS and Optional adequately. Give both of them ample time.
  • Calm your minds. Practice meditation.
  • Develop a mechanism to monitor you in case you are deviating from your goal.
  • Practice as much mock tests and as much answer writing as you can.

In the end, getting All-India rank 1 is a cumulative outcome of many checks and balances. You need to make sure that you’re on the right track and you need to do that often.


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