HOW TO PREPARE FOR UPSC CIVIL SERVICES EXAMINATION
When I was asked by the Civilsdaily team to write on the subject, it instantly reminded me of the cluelessness I faced as an aspirant deciding on what and how to study, combined with the mixed emotions attached to taking a shot at one of the most prestigious examinations in the country.
Like every aspirant, I was bothered by questions like coaching or no coaching, ideal timeline for preparation, which optional to choose and other stock queries. I am fully aware of the desperation and panic one faces while looking for answers to these basic questions. It would give me great satisfaction if this article can be a beacon of light in some manner or the other for any aspirant new or experienced. I would try to keep this article as scientific and objective as possible.
CSE 2017 was my second attempt at this examination. In my first attempt in CSE 2016, I reached the interview stage, but couldn’t gain a spot in the final list. Having started preparation as late as March 2016, I knew that there were a number of mistakes I had committed in my approach combined with a severe crunch of time. Rectifying those mistakes was my prime focus in this attempt, which enabled me to eventually realize the dream.
The question of “How to prepare for CSE?” is quite wide-ranging. Consequently, I have presented this article in the form of a stepwise process; which I as an aspirant would have liked to read to gauge the real depth of waters. I would like to remind you that this is a generic framework and different aspirants can work out the intricacies of each step in their own unique way, while the skeleton of the preparation remains the same.
STEP 1: FINDING ONE’S SOURCES OF MOTIVATION
First and the most crucial of all subsequent components, I am going to talk about. Your sources of motivation need to be multiple, so that if any one of the factors ceases to be your motivator temporarily during the course of this long preparation, you can fall back upon other factors and continue working relentlessly without long periods of break from preparation
Service to the nation, proving worthiness to oneself, fulfilling self and parents’ dreams, social prestige that comes with civil services, diversity of the job profile, etc. were some of my motivation sources. Different moods and days called for me to summon different motivational factors to keep me glued to the study table.
STEP 2: DEVELOPING THE RIGHT MINDSET
Approaching this examination in a logical manner with clarity in ideas and expectations about the work to be put in to get into the services and future prospects as a civil servant, is extremely important.
You should clearly know what you are getting into, what UPSC exactly wants from the candidate through testing at each stage of the examination, the slight element of luck that is involved and what all are the stakes that are going to be. Such objectivity is a pre-requisite for the so called “Smart Work” than endless “Hard Work”.
Clearing this examination is not an end in itself, but a means to an end, that is working for the society and the people. CSE is not the biggest challenge but only one of the challenges which needs a dedicated and project oriented approach. Keeping any exam on too high a pedestal as “toughest exam”, “mother of all exams” or clearing it as “ultimate achievement of life” only generates fear, exaggerated adulation and attachment which itself ultimately becomes the biggest roadblock in clearing it.
Even if one with such mentality enters the civil services, he or she would be a hindrance to the progress of our nation in the long run. My sincere advice to aspirants would be to refrain from such thoughts and thoroughly ignore the elements who perpetuate such thinking. Planning and execution that will emanate from such mindset would be realistic, clinical and result oriented.
Failure at any stage of this examination is in no way a measure of one’s capabilities. It just calls for correcting the mistakes committed with proper analysis of strengths and shortcomings. I personally feel that my biggest achievement in preparation for CSE has not been getting an All India Rank 266 but in realizing the importance of “Nishkaam Karma”, i.e., work to be done as a duty in best possible manner, without worrying for results.
Considering the unpredictable nature of the examination, I would advise aspirants to have a strong backup, if possible. Believe me, it gives huge confidence in desperate times during preparation and also invaluable experience to develop as a mature individual, who has a fair idea of different opportunities and perspectives life has to offer than just civil services. In my case, I joined my dream company Intel after my college graduation and left my job in exactly one year to develop a mentionable industry experience, so that I can come back to it if needed in future. My corporate experience in a way strengthened my resolve for civil services and the work culture there helped me develop a thoroughly planned and deadline focused studying approach. After my CSE 2017 Mains and before interview, I joined the industry back, which ultimately proved to be a crucial confidence enhancing factor in getting me a huge jump in my interview score in comparison to my first attempt.
STEP 3: PLANNING & EXECUTION
As Abraham Lincoln said, “If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the axe”, the importance of planning cannot be overstated. Clear timelines need to be chalked out for completion of different parts of syllabus with quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily targets. At least 8 months of preparation before Prelims exam date is required to prepare holistically for all exam stages. Importantly, planning should be such that:
- Daily study targets that are realistically achievable
- Mix of subjects to keep interest alive
- Prelims and Mains preparation goes on simultaneously
- Syllabus is complete roughly 2 months prior, in case of Prelims
- Answer writing practice with at least 5 questions every alternate day
- Every weekend to be dedicated to attempting Pre or Mains test depending on phase of preparation and writing one essay. Studies to be aligned based on test syllabus to be taken on weekend.
- Time between Pre and Mains is the most crucial part of CSE preparation and needs revision timelines to be drawn carefully.
- Developing a routine, with fixed timetable for 6 days a week. Breaks at regular intervals for walk or exercise and meditation, interacting with friends and family, all in a disciplined and time bound manner
- Keeping half a day on a weekend for relaxing, going out or pursuing one’s hobbies.
As cliché as it might sound, but I believe a routine is essential to bringing forth discipline in overall preparation, answer writing, attempting the papers well, developing self-satisfaction and ultimately clearing the exam.
I personally took coaching for my optional, as it required developing subject expertise. Choosing the right optional should depend on following factors:
- Will the subject hold your interest for long periods, possibly next 2-3 years to come?
- Amount of guidance, material, successful examples available pertaining to that optional
- Narrow down to shortlisting two to three optionals to choose from. Study each of them an hour or two daily for about a week. Optional which kindles your interest longer would be your chosen one.
GS, in my opinion, can be done well through self-study itself, however, it again depends on the individual to what level he/she needs guidance in GS preparation.
I personally did not make notes for Prelims or Mains preparation and relied mostly on self-highlighted stuff in book sources and current affairs PDFs. I always felt note making to be a time taking exercise, whenever tried my hand at it, thus eventually giving up the idea in favour of completing the syllabus. I only made notes on important statistics, examples and quotes. Also, I did make extensive notes on my DAF related information and current affairs during interview preparation, that too only digitally on Evernote, as I had time and wanted a quick revision source till the last minute before interview. I will thus refrain from giving judgement on the utility of note-making and leave it to the individual aspirant to decide upon the style of study that suits him/her better.
Next, I would talk about the individual stages of the exam and how to best prepare for them based on my experiences.
STEP 4: TACKLING PRELIMS
People usually focus on the odds of getting selected in the Prelims, which are obviously highly skewed. However such thinking lowers confidence, prevents aspirants from attempting enough number of questions and even deviates them from making the right guesses, had they been attempting the question paper with a positive mental focus. More than 10,000 people getting selected at this stage is in itself a high number and a motivating factor. What is needed on aspirants’ part is right study, strategy and practice to maximize his/her marks in those 4 hours in the exam hall.
In the 3 attempts, I have taken at this exam, I have felt Prelims to be the most enjoyable and easiest stage and cleared each time comfortably. In my opinion, Prelims is not a test of knowledge, but a test of aptitude based on knowledge gained. This has become more relevant with the 2017 & 2018 CSE Prelims. It is not about knowing the right answer, but getting to it is what matters in Prelims. This ability needs to be developed through rigorous practice.
With below-mentioned strategy, I could prepare for Prelims in 2016 alongside my full-time job, quitting the job just one month before the exam date. In the 2017 & 2018 Prelims, I had a conventional amount of time to prepare.
||6th-12th Old and New NCERTs + India’s Struggle for Independence (Bipan Chandra) + A Brief History of Modern India (Spectrum) + Class 11 History Tamil Nadu Board Book
||6th-12th NCERTs + Mrunal Lectures (by Ms. Rajtanil Solanki)
|Art & Culture
||Select chapters from Class 11 & 12 Fine Arts NCERTs + Relevant NIOS Indian Culture & Heritage material + Mrunal Lectures (by Ms. Ishani Pandya) + Nitin Singhania’s Art & Culture Book
||Laxmikant + Current Affairs
||Select Chapters of Ramesh Singh (Economy) Class 11 & 12 NCERT + Mrunal Lectures and PPTs + Economic Survey and Budget + Current Affairs
||Shankar IAS environment material + NCERTs + Current Affairs
|Science and Technology
||6th to 10th NCERTs (cursory reading) + Current Affairs
||The Hindu(only) + Civilsdaily Newscards App + Vision IAS current affairs booklets + Insights initiatives + Yojana
- Finish the booklist stated above in a planned manner, with weekends dedicated to tests based on the syllabus completed.
- Keep revising syllabus completed at the end of every 2 weeks. Finish at least 2 readings of the complete Prelims syllabus.
- Finish two Prelims test series (approx. 6000 questions), with at least one revision before the exam date.
- The examination is such that even after so much study you will need to develop the ability to get to the right answer. So practice hard. Try to attempt more than 90 questions in the test series and at least more than 85 questions in the Prelims Exam.
- Rest well on the night before exam and be positive.
STEP 5: HANDLING MAINS PREPARATION
Do not waste precious time after Prelims and post rest of a day or two, immediately embark upon revision for Mains preparation. In my first attempt, I started optional preparation post Prelims, so had to complete GS & optional syllabus by highly optimizing available time and resources. At the same time this crunch helped me develop shortcuts for finishing the Mains syllabus, which I used extensively in my second attempt. I went through multiple toppers’ interviews and articles in first 3-4 days after Prelims to zero in upon a “common minimum programme” for completing the Mains syllabus.
I first picked up topics, I had skipped or read only once during Prelims preparation and particularly relevant for Mains like World History, Post-Independence India, Ethics, Sociology topics and static topics of GS-2 & GS-3.
In addition to the booklist stated above for Prelims, sources particularly relevant for Mains followed by me were:
General Studies–1 (GS-1):
||2 booklets of Vision IAS + Select Chapters of Mastering Modern World History (Norman Lowe) + CrashCourse World History videos on Youtube + Unacademy Videos
||Select Chapters of India Since Independence (Bipan Chandra) + Class 12 NCERT + Vision IAS booklet
||NCERTs Class 11 & 12 + Current Affairs (as stated for Prelims)
General Studies-2 (GS-2):
|For Individual topics mentioned in the syllabus
||Vision IAS booklets for static topics + 2nd ARC + Current Affairs (as stated for Prelims)+ PIB + PRS + op-ed snap at Civilsdaily
General Studies-3 (GS-3):
|For Individual topics mentioned in the syllabus
||Vision IAS booklets for static topics + Economic Survey & Budget + Current Affairs (as stated for Prelims)+ PIB + PRS + op-ed snap at Civilsdaily
General Studies-4 (GS-4):
|For Individual topics mentioned in the syllabus
||Vision IAS booklets for static topics + Moral Lexicon by Chronicle + Mrunal Lectures + Google Search + ARC
- Keep your sources to bare minimum and keep revising them multiple times.
- Static topics of Mains to be read only once or twice maximum. Majority time should be dedicated to current affairs.
- Subscribe to any test series, attempt tests in dedicated 3 hour time limit, and revise all the solutions multiple times.
- Structure in answers should be simple and straightforward –> Introduction-Body-Conclusion. Underline keywords necessarily (need to practice it), it makes a huge difference to the overall appeal of the answer. Make extensive use of headings and sub-headings. I personally never used flowcharts in answers and drew diagrams only in Geography questions of GS-1 paper, simply because I found them to be time taking.
- Take feedback on evaluation seriously only with regard to your answer structure and presentation. Your content will become richer towards the end of your preparation. Don’t get disheartened by low marks in test series. Remember that Mains too like Prelims is a game of confidence. Your effort should be completely towards giving your best and in completing the paper.
- 60% of time to optional and 40% to GS.
- Read some essays by toppers available online to get an idea about UPSC’s expectations
- Weekend practice for writing essays
- Brainstorm to narrow down on around 5-7 topics that might be asked in essay and prepare a framework for them
- Keep some stock quotes on major topics like women empowerment, education, happiness, science, etc handy to begin or end your essays with
- Be sure to do a thorough temporal, multi-sectoral (social, political, economic, environmental, family, etc), multi-segmental (individual, state, national, international, women, LGBT, children, etc) and perspective based (legal, constitutional, ethical, etc.) analysis of your essay topic. Choose your topic accordingly and give equal time to both essays.
- Garnish your essay well with multiple examples and statistics to present an informed understanding to the examiner. Avoid any personal biases in views and opinions.
- You can get your essays evaluated by your friends, seniors (given they have idea about UPSC’s requirements) or opt for a test series. Both methods are at par with each other in my opinion.
My optional was Political Science and International Relations. I will deal in detail with my preparation strategy for the subject in a subsequent article.
STEP 6: INTERVIEW – THE FINAL STEP
- Remember it is a personality test, not knowledge test. Present your best self as a truthful, cheerful, motivated and diligent individual who has prepared hard for this exam, but at the same time does not get bogged down under criticism or due to lack of knowledge pertaining to a subject.
- Be thorough with your DAF.
- Develop your own balanced opinions on major topics in current affairs. Follow The Hindu and Times of India/Hindustan Times along with keeping slated time for debates on The Big Picture on RSTV. Morning News & Analysis on All India Radio too can be followed, it helps build articulation on topics in current affairs. I also followed “Samachar Manthan” initiative from Civilsdaily during my interview preparation.
- Practice speaking before the mirror, record your voice and listen to your own answers, make your own family members or friends as interview panelists and take advice on your articulation from seniors, who have scored well in the interview. The “Samanvaya for Interview” telegram group by Civilsdaily (mentored by Vipin Garg Sir and Virendra Pratap Singh Sir) was crucial for me to get a hang of the crispness, objectivity, balance and poise expected in our answers by UPSC board members.
Before we part ways, I would like to point out some of my learnings from this two year long process:
- “Persistence with self-awareness on weaknesses and strengths”, is in my opinion the ultimate testing parameter of UPSC. All stages of this exam test this quality in a candidate. So keep digging smartly you never know how close you are to the goldmine.
- I also believe and have experienced that hard work with sincerity always pays off at some or the other point in life.
- Being realistic with the role luck plays in this exam will help one stay grounded. At the same time, as the old saying goes, the harder you work, the luckier you get.
- Moods and situations will vary, what should remain constant is belief in one’s efforts and capabilities.
- Parents are the only pillar of support who stay with you through your success as well as failures, no matter what.
- One needs to have a balanced life during preparation with time for oneself, family and friends. New perspectives from them will enrich your answers greatly.
- Lastly, this exam is such that there are more defeats than victories. While defeats will be temporary, be assured that victory will be permanent. To quote one of my favorite authors, Maya Angelou –
“You may encounter many defeats but you must not be defeated”
– Shreyash Pratap Singh, AIR 266, CSE 2017
Need more help in fine-tuning your strategy –