In the next few paragraphs are some of the things I’ve pulled off over the years.

Now, I’m not listing them for self-glorification. It’s for conveying that, first, I’m speaking from experience in this blog and, second, most of these have been a result of good strategy, hard work, and perseverance – something even you can do. In fact, in some of these pursuits (for example, essay writing) I started with severe disadvantage.

These exams and contests are extremely diverse in nature: whereas one lasted four hours, another lasted thirty-two hours spread over a year; whereas some were based only on objective-type questions, others were based primarily on essays and networking; whereas some were regional, others were international; whereas one had 180 applicants (it was still tough), another had 300,000:

Civil Services Examination (CSE)

This is arguably the toughest academic exam you’ll ever face, not just in terms of competition but also amount of preparation (one year, to say the least), rigor (spread over a year, the three rounds – Prelims, Mains, and Interview – have two objective-type papers, nine conventional essay-type, and an interview), and extreme uncertainty (a person finishing in top 0.01 percentile may have to re-take the exam). This is what Wikipedia says about CSE:

The examination is the toughest examination in India, with more than 900,000 applicants and a success rate of 0.1%-0.3%, one of the lowest in the world.

I finished in top 0.0017 percentile among nearly 300,000 applicants, with highest (by a big margin) in the written part of the exam.

Indian Forest Service Examination (IFoS)

It’s a mini version (though still extremely competitive) of CSE.

I finished in top 0.008 percentile among nearly 100,000 applicants. Back then, a person finishing even in top 0.02 percentile could be writing the exam again next year.

Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), JEE

It’s the entrance exam to the most prestigious engineering institutes in India.

I finished in top 0.3 percentile among nearly 150,000, and attended IIT Kanpur.

Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT)

Administered by Graduate Admission Management Council, GMAT is a computer adaptive test required mainly for admissions to MBA programs.

I finished in top 3 percentile with admission in the 2-year MBA program at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania.

Essay writing competition [national level]

Organized by the popular magazine Competition Success Review, I wrote on AIDS – The Ticking Time Bomb (there were two topics) and finished second among 1,200 participants.

Essay writing competition [state level]

Organized by Banaras Hindu University Alumni Association, I wrote on Is Secondary Education Curriculum Adequate for Self-Employment and finished first (not sure about the number of participants). In the award ceremony at HBTI Kanpur, I was told that I wasn’t even eligible because the competition’s rules required submission in Hindi. (I had missed the fine print when going through submission guidelines.)

Rotary International’s Group Study Exchange Program (GSE)

As part of GSE, a team of five – four members (non-Rotarians) and a team leader (Rotarian) – from a Rotary District in one country goes to a District in another country on a month-long cultural exchange program.

I made it to the team from among 180 applicants (the process involving an application-cum-essay and an interview), and went from Rotary District 3040 (India) to Rotary District 7850 (parts of Vermont and New Hampshire in U.S. and Quebec in Canada).


  • In my undergrad, I published a quiz in the then popular national sports magazine Sports World.

  • I made it to 18-member team for Kanpur-Kathmandu (approx. 800 kilometre) cycle trip. Unfortunately, the trip was called off, as the sponsor backed out at the last moment.

  • I almost always got the highest marks/ grade in math from 6th standard onwards, including that in undergrad, and right up to exams such as CSE and GMAT. And this when I was extremely bad at it when young.