More than a decade and a half ago, Ankur Garg, then 22, became the youngest person ever to top the prestigious IAS exams. While his academic track record suggests that topping comes easy to him, he is obviously not one to rest on his laurels, for he has once again made the headlines; this time for achieving a score of a 171/170 in a Harvard University exam.
The Patiala-born achiever, who is currently on study leave from the government, to pursue a Masters in International Development at Harvard University says, “I received a scholarship from the World Bank for the program, and I joined in August 2018. Our macroeconomics course is taught by Professor Jeffery Frankel. He occasionally gives extra credit points for answers which go beyond what is required for a full score. In my final exam, I got extra credits for some answers and a full score on others. This made it a total score of 171 out of 170. It was a pleasant surprise for me.”
Incidentally Prof Jeffrey Frankel, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, is a world-renowned macroeconomist.
“Professors sometimes give extra credit points for answers which are better than what is required for a full score. So if you get all answers right, and extra credit on some answers, you can get more than the maximum score,” explains Ankur who adds, “In the American education system, scoring more than 100% is not uncommon because of extra credit opportunity. Only some students from a batch achieve this feat.”
Coming from a family which accords high value to education, Ankur was a bright student from the very beginning. “My parents are both doctors — father Dr K. C. Garg is a professor of plastic surgery, and mother Dr Parveen Garg is a professor of paediatrics at Govt. Medical College, Patiala. I was a serious student since school days,” he shares.
Ankur, who topped at both, secondary and senior secondary school levels, was good with numbers, making the engineering stream a natural choice for further studies.
“At IIT Delhi, I tried to maintain a balance between the course requirements and my preparation for civil services. By the grace of the Almighty, I topped the prestigious civil services exam in my first attempt. I also secured the first rank in the two-year IAS training at the Mussoorie Academy,” he recalls.
Given his academic excellence, no surprise that job offers from the private sector came with six-digit salaries, but Ankur’s heart was in joining the civil services to serve the nation.
He says, “As a career, the IAS provides immense opportunity towards public service from a very young age and at a very large scale. I was always more inclined towards working with the government than with the private sector. In fact, I had made up my mind to attempt the IAS exam even before joining IIT.”
His family is his go-to and best support system, and Ankur says, “My parents gave up on their social life so that they could spend all their time with their children and ensure the best for us when we were growing up. My wife — Swati Sharma, my batch mate in the IAS is my strongest personal and professional support. She was the Special Secretary to Lt. Governor of Delhi and will be joining Harvard next year for a one-year Masters programme.”
Drawing inspiration from his father and from the late President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the IAS topper recalls, “President Abdul Kalam personally replied to every letter I wrote to him.” Coming to the issue of preparing for the Civil Services Examination — arguably the toughest examination in the world given the wide range of subjects and the sheer number of people who compete, he says, “It has been almost 16 years since I took the exam, and the syllabus and pattern have changed significantly. However, the strategy for success retains certain key ingredients — sincere and single-minded devotion, effective time management, a strong control on distractions, and developing a joy for learning rather than treating it as a burden.”
In spite his hectic schedule, Ankur likes reading, quizzing and debating. “I also like teaching science and math to school kids,” says the topper, who is currently reading Sapiens: A brief history of Humankind by Harari.
As a civil servant, Garg has helped start a campaign against open defecation and is even taking steps to ensure that the government doesn’t deter the initiatives being taken by IAS officers.
Isn’t undertaking such a demanding course, as the one at Harvard, a challenging task?
“All that I learn here will help me perform better when I join the government back on completing the course. Studying with much younger and brighter students in the class is a challenge, but it also keeps you on your toes, and the neurons active. Having exposure to best international practices and contemporary global development models will add significant value to my existing skill-sets,” he reasons.