Sarthak Agrawal, a former student of Delhi Public School in Vasant Kunj, scored 99.6% in science and topped the CBSE Board exams in 2014 at the age of 26. He pursued a BA in Economics from Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi University from 2014 to 2017 and later completed an MPhil in the same subject from Oxford University between 2017 and 2019. On his first attempt, he cracked the civil services exam and secured All-India Rank 17. He is currently serving as a Sub Divisional Magistrate in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh.
Q. What’s the best thing about your work?
I get to serve society, especially the least fortunate, and get an opportunity to make our government more citizen-centric and responsive. I also have the power to drive and sustain outcomes in diverse sectors like health, education, and livelihoods.
Q. What habits from your school or college life have been beneficial to you?
Reading widely and deeply, having high ambitions and wanting to stand out, and developing cross-cutting professional networks. Most of these are from college, I must add – in school, I couldn’t bother about any of these…
Q. What is one thing you wish you had done differently in school, college or life in hindsight?
Maybe picking up some more skills and hobbies, like playing a musical instrument (I wish I knew how to play the violin, for instance). Also, remaining in touch with a wider set of people. Right now, I am close to the people I spent most of my time in school and college with but practically nobody else. In sum, trying to get out of my comfort zone more often.
Q. What were the two factors that contributed to your success in topping the CBSE board exam?
Securing the top position in an exam is often attributed to luck, but it can also be achieved through effective strategies. As I learned from my Physics teacher in school, Vivek sir, excelling in a subject and performing well in an exam are two distinct skills. To perform well in an exam, one typically invests a significant amount of time in comprehending the exam’s format, typical question types, and the type of answers that examiners anticipate.
Unfortunately, most of this effort is unproductive in terms of gaining a deep understanding of the subject matter.
It’s important to balance these two goals, and examiners should strive to align them. Additionally, having ambition is crucial, as it’s difficult to excel without a strong desire to do so.
However, Vivek Sir and I held different views on this matter. He used to advise me not to think too much about the outcomes. He once posed a question to me, “If Sachin Tendulkar went onto the field aiming to score a century in every match, how much pressure would he put on himself? Do you think he would even be able to make a single run?”
A closely related factor is innovation. Prior to delving into any task, I would spend considerable time analyzing my strengths and how best to leverage them. For instance, if I have a strong grasp of a subject, how can I effectively communicate this to the examiner? This may involve writing lengthier responses, necessitating strong time management skills, which I would work hard to improve.
Q. How did being a national ranker open up new opportunities for you?
Being a national ranker allowed me to study at the college of my choice, which provided excellent opportunities for both professional and personal development. It also likely played a role in securing a scholarship for my higher studies at Oxford University.
The accomplishment boosted my self-confidence and ambition, but it also instilled a certain type of delusion that nothing is unattainable. Despite facing multiple failures after completing Class 12, I never deemed myself unworthy or unsuccessful.
Friends and family began to have higher expectations of me, and I of myself. However, I didn’t want to become fixated on my past accomplishments. When I started at SRCC, I made a commitment to myself that my greatest achievement in three years’ time should not be my Class 12 result.
Q. How have you changed since topping the exam several years ago?
Looking back at who I was in 2014, I realize that I have changed a lot since then. I am more mature and balanced now, but I am not sure if that is due to my age or the exposure I have had. My perspective on the world has also evolved. In the past, I used to attach greater importance to exams, but now I know better. Additionally, my interests have shifted towards politics, cricket, economics, international affairs, and travel.
Looking back, I might discover that I am still the same person as I was in 2014 – eager, excited, and prone to procrastination. Instead of facing a challenging issue, I may still prefer to skip it and move on to the next one, never to return.
Q. How would you improve your school education if you could change one thing?
There are many changes that I would wish for in my school education. Firstly, there should be a greater emphasis on innovation and creativity, with students being incentivized to come up with interesting and novel ideas, and failure being normalized as a part of the learning process. Additionally, critical thinking should be encouraged and students should be taught to question all received wisdom. There should also be an increased focus on practical learning, especially in subjects like science, with students being exposed to well-equipped laboratories from an early age and given opportunities to perform experiments.
One suggestion would be to focus on making examinations more conceptual rather than rote memorization. Additionally, prioritize depth of understanding over covering a wide range of topics in higher classes, and move away from rigid marking schemes. Another important step would be to reduce the disparities in school and teacher quality. To achieve this, encourage senior students in high-performing schools to dedicate some time to teaching children in low-capacity schools. Finally, it would be beneficial to instill a sense of service in students, as demonstrated by my school motto – “service before self”.
The education boards should give a serious consideration to the idea of grade disinflation. The grade of 100 should be reserved for students who have demonstrated exceptional excellence and creativity in subjects like English and History.