Strategy for cracking IAS examination for the beginners

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How to begin, where to start?

That’s the million dollar question which everyone asks oneself when one first thinks of becoming a civil servant. How to go about preparation depends on how much time you have at your disposal. And you guys have lots of time in your hands.

Before coming to preparation let’s know our enemy better

It’s basically a 3 stage examination

(i) Civil Services (Preliminary) Examination (Objective type) for the selection of candidates for the Main Examination;

It consists of two papers,

  • Paper 1 deals with general studies and contains 100 questions. Paper 2 is of aptitude test and contains 80 questions. Paper 2 is only of qualifying nature (67 marks for qualifying)
  • Approximately 12 times the total number of vacancies qualify this exam to be eligible to appear in the next stage. Marks obtained in prelims are not counted for final merit.

(ii) Civil Services (Main) Examination (Written and Interview) for the selection of candidates for the various Services and posts noted above. Approximately 2.6 times the total vacancies are qualified to appear in personality test. Marks of written plus interview combined decide the merit list.

Let’s settle a few issues

#1. Is this a sprint or marathon?

Notion of sprint suggests 6 months of super fast study while marathon suggests 5 year planning (Sprinters would claim 6 months proper study and you are done, marathon runners would have you planned for next 5 years).

I don’t know what it is. Nobody used such metaphors when we were preparing for JEE or PMT or CAT or CLAT or even board exams. Civil Services examination is like any other decently competitive examination which demands rigorous preparation, only difference being the subjective pattern, which makes it more unpredictable.

In our view, this exam needs 12 months of decent preparation for already well aware candidates and 18 months,  i.e roughly 12 months before prelims for those who are not so well aware.

#2. Is it a purely luck based exam? A gamble!

Well, luck certainly matters but luck is randomly distributed. So if you are well prepared, chances are, if not in 1st, in 2nd or (3rd or 4th attempt), you will make it to the list.

But one thing is certain, if you are not decently well prepared, there’s no way, you are gonna make it to that sacred list of rank holders.

Like every exam, it has certain demands and certain ways of achieving success. For instance, some people say, that guy scored so well in essay, ethics and optional and he is through. Well, that’s one type of strategy but not without risk. What if for some reason, you are not able to score well in one of the papers, well you are doomed.

Like finance, the best way is to diversify your portfolio, hedge your bets. You should prepare every paper decent enough, so decent that you don’t get butchered in that paper. Say 50 marks in essay or one optional paper. Nobody can save you in that case. It requires spending proportionate time on every subject, not keep on studying culture and world history from every other book or farras available in the karol bagh market.

Well these were some general fundas but we haven’t answered how should you begin your preparation yet.

Prelims still 6 months away for those writing in 2018?

If you are in college and your optional subject is gonna be your graduation subject, download the UPSC syllabus from the official notification- click here and previous year question papers- click here and master the subject with emphasis on UPSC syllabus (both paper 1 and paper 2).

Even otherwise, don’t take college very lightly, college ka kaam sabse pahle.

After that decide, if you are gonna take exam as you complete your studies or you are gonna take a break and prepare full time. Say for instance degree in may and prelims in august (proxy for time you can dedicate for UPSC preparation).

If you are willing to give at least 9 months before prelims to full time UPSC preparation, don’t just start reading core books but cultivate the habit of reading newspapers, Indian express I would suggest.

Follow newscards regularly on the civilsdaily app (click here for the FREE app) and if you feel like reading, read interesting articles on the website, especially back to basics, series on landmark judgments but don’t take much load.

One thing which you all should do immediately is to buy map of India and world and put on your room’s wall. Also buy Orient Blackswan School Atlas. Locate every place you read in the news in the map on your wall and also look sideways to see what’s around these places. Within a few months, your map marking skills would be superb. Learn rivers and valleys and straits you read in the news.

Read these very interesting and enlightening books

  1. An Uncertain Glory: India and it’s contradictions by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreaze
  2. India’s tryst with destiny by Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panghariya (Vice charperosn on NITI Ayog)
  3. Breakout Nations by Ruchir Sharma
  4. 10 judgements that changed India by Zia Mody
  5. Pax indica: India and World of 21st century by Shashi Tharoor
  6. India after Gandhi by Ram Guha
  7. Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ by Daniel Goleman (must read not only for you but your friends, siblings and parents) Please do read it.

Watch some great videos over youtube to get your basics right

  1. Crash course economics
  2. Crash course world history (21st episode onward)
  3. Justice with Michael Sanders (Very important)
  4. Cultivate the habit of watching interesting Rajya Sabha TV (RSTV) and Lok Sabha TV (LSTV) discussions. Give about half an hour to one hour daily for these discussions. I would recommend India’ world (Weekly on RSTV), The Big Picture (Monday to Friday on RSTV)

Catch up on some of the best documentaries around

  1. Heaven on Earth: Rise and Fall of Socialism (3 part pbs documentary total 160 min) It is heavily biased against socialism yet a must watch as public discourse in India is heavily loaded against free enterprise
  2. India Untouched: Documentary on Caste based discrimination
  3. Incurable India by PSBT (it gives you picture of very dismal state of health care in India)
  4. Pradhanmantri series by ABP news
  5. Mandate with destiny by Vir Singhavi: story of historic elections For our friends from southern and north eastern India who don’t understand Hindi,
  6. Guns and Glory by Kabir Bedi on Headlines today (story of all post independence wars)
  7. Samvidhan written by iconic Shyam Benegal for RSTV
  8. Gandhi The Road to Freedom – British Propaganda – BBC Documentary
  9. Nero’s guests by P. Sainath
  10. Planet Earth by BBC
  11. Story of India BBC documentary

Books are very interesting reads. Read them like novels. Don’t start taking notes from them. Enjoy them. These books, videos and documentaries will give you perspective from all sides- Left, right, centre. Embrace the exposure and try to assimilate the gyaan. At the same time major portion of your syllabus will be done.

Simultaneously start reading NCERTs from class 6 to 10. All the books but mathematics. Science background guys can skip science. Old NCERT ancient India, medieval India and modern India (11th std and 12th std), Macroeconomics (12th std), Geography (all 4 books must read).

Prelims 2017 has been a surprise

Solve the paper both paper 1 and 2 with whatever you have just read and calculate how many you get right. If you have done what you have been told so far, you will easily be able to score very decent marks for a beginner who will take exam in 2018.

Scoring less marks-

It’s time to get serious

1st step would be to get syllabus print out and read it thoroughly and keep referring back; download past year question papers or buy compilations available in the market.

You can now join a coaching or a test series if you want

If you haven’t yet read NCERTs upto class 10, very quickly go through NCERTs. Geography, polity and world history part is not to be missed. Polity is very conceptual in NCERT. Please do not leave that (concepts such as social justice democracy etc) are very nicely explained.

You can leave the history part if you are feeling uncomfortable.

Standard 11, 12 NCERTs are to be read very carefully again. Sit tight with paper and pencil and take notes simultaneously. All 4 books of geography, macroeconomics, India’s economic development as well as society is to be read from cover to cover with notes.

Read polity book like a novel. Modern India can be left. For ancient and medieval India old NCERTs will be better.

Medium scores

Join a test series if you haven’t already. Be regular here. Keep looking back at past year question papers to get  a sense of what’s important and what’s not.

Few must read standard books-

  1. Indian Polity – M Laxmikant (read cover to cover)
  2. Certificite Physical and Human Geography – Goh Cheng Leong
  3. A Brief History of Modern India by Rajiv Ahir (cover to cover) plus Old NCERT modern India (1757 to 1947) or Plassey to Partition by Shekhar Bandyopadhyay
  4. Lexicon for Ethics
  5. Economic Survey plus NCERT economics cover to cover- after that you can read Sriram economics
  6. Very selective reading of India since independence (You already know everything having already read India after gandhi and watched pradhanmantri and guns and glory)
  7. Read NCERT biology std 12 ecology part from both old as well as new books for Environment and biodiversity. Good knowledge of maps and geography is essential hence the importance of map marking. If you ample time at your disposal, you can give a look to the Shankar coaching notes n the subject (but only after doing basics right)
  8. Old NCERT std 12, 9th and 10th std books for world history
  9. NCERT fine arts book + CCRT for art and culture, don’t forget to revise ancient India from old NCERT
  10. Challenges to internal security of India by Ashok Kumar
  11. Yojana magazine

For dispersed topics of mains like comparison of Indian constitution with other constitutions, Issues with PDS, SHGs, voluntary organizations etc, various caching notes will help you. As no direct questions are asked you only need to understand the basics and cover current affairs in detail.

Books which are not recommended-

  1. India 2016/ 2017 (popularly known as India Year Book)
  2. Reading India after Gandhi again
  3. Ethics book by SubbaRao (very fat book, you should spend your time analyzing ethical problems, solving more and more case studies rather than doing PHD on theory of ethics

Now,the most important issue of time management

Leave aside the essay paper for the moment (not because it’s not important but rather it’s very very important).

Of the 1500 mains marks, 500 marks are contributed by optional i.e. 1/3rd. Common sense suggests ⅓ time should be devoted to optional i.e. if you read 9 hrs daily, approximately 3 hours daily for optional. But it is often seen that, aspirants don’t give even 20% of their time to the preparation of optional. It’s a very bad strategy. Avoid it all cost. Instead of ⅓ you can allot 30% or 28% if you are comfortable with optional but devoting only 20% time is asking for failure.

Similarly, all four general studies paper should be given more or less proportional time (of course you won’t study GS history, if you have history optional) but what is commonly observed is that aspirants spend majority of their time  especially September and October month immediately after prelims doing PHD on art and culture; world history and; International relations. Avoid this failing. Devote proportional time for all 4 papers and proportional among sub parts in the papers.

Importance of answer writing and solving prelims test papers

You should know something before you start writing. We don’t believe that you should just start writing even if you know nothing. Once you have gained decent enough knowledge (you will gain that by the time you are done with NCERTs and are regular with newspaper), start writing mains answers and solving prelims questions.

For prelims, rule of thumb is appearing in a test every week (available on photo state shops). Take at least 20 high quality tests before appearing in exam beside solving past 10 years question papers.

For mains you need to again prioritize your time. For paper 1, paper 2 and paper 3, 80% of time should be spent on studying and 20% on writing answers (4 hr studying, 1 hr writing), for paper 4, 50% study, 50% writing ( 1 hr studying, 1 hr writing). Take time to evaluate your own answers even if you are writing in paid test series.

For essay, no special preparation is needed as whatever you read for IAS preparation will suffice. Take your time understanding different writing styles. Choose the one you are comfortable with and stick to that. Keep a separate notebook (or evernote) to write good quotes, points you come across.

Important point is to write one essay every week (90 min) and then spending 60 minutes thinking how you could have written it better.

For Optionals -Answer writing depends on the nature of optional but ignore optional and answer writing at your own peril.

What to read further?

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By Dr V

Doctor by Training | AIIMSONIAN | Factually correct, Politically not so much | Opinionated? Yes!

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