Abdaal Akhtar Rank – 35: Preparation Strategy for UPSC CIvil Services Exam

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Preparation Strategy for UPSC CIvil Services Exam

Abdaal Akhtar, Rank – 35, CSE-2014

If there is one person whose answers we were in full of awe, it’s Abdaal Akhtar’s. He used to write top notch answers on this forum. We were shocked when his name didn’t appear in last year’s final list. But, like Raju Mishra, he too worked hard and got all India 35th Rank in his second attempt. You can search for his answers by typing his name – Abdaal Akhtar – in the search box given on top left. We are sure, you will be inspired to follow his suit.

The following article is written by him for you at our request. He has given very useful tips to fellow aspirants to emulate. We thank him for this and wish him all the best for his future. 


When Vinay Sir asked me to write something on CSE that would benefit other aspirants, I readily consented, little realizing what I was getting myself into. It is as difficult to write this exam as it is to write about it.

CSE’s question papers follow no set pattern, what the examiners are looking for is at best a reasoned guess and the syllabus keeps on increasing with, literally, every passing day. What follows is the gist of my own experience with this exam (with expert commentary provided by the benefit of hindsight).

Master your Optional

Bear in mind that the CSE is not a standardized one-size-fits-all exam. Every aspirant is allowed to choose her preferred optional where she can play to her strengths. So this is really where one should make an all out effort to excel.

A word about optional selection-I chose my graduation subject-Law. It isn’t my most favourite subject in the world; the syllabus is larger than many other popular subjects and it is difficult to access notes here. I had two reasons for my choice:

  • I had studied Law for five years
  • It covered a large portion of the GS Polity section

My strategy for Law involved reading only standard text books. I bought no guide books or dukkis. It took a lot of time, probably even more than the time I dedicated to GS. But it had a major advantage. When I was done with the five books I had chosen, I was confident that I had the concepts and case law absolutely clear in my head. No guidebook can ever give you that peace of mind.


In 2013, I thought GS Paper II was going to be a piece of cake. What terror could a Polity dominated paper hold for a lawyer? So when I secured only a 51 in that, it was a rude shock. The mistake I had made was that I forgot I was not writing for a lawyer. The examiner is not a specialist in your subject. The more you bombard her with high funda trivia and specialized gyaan, the more anti-climactic your marks are going to be. Always write in a manner that would make sense to a layman. Points or paragraphs do not matter. I freely used both. Keep jargon to a minimum. NEVER use long sentences when a short one would do. It is tough to hold an examiner’s attention anyway. Don’t make it even more difficult for her by using sentences stretching to a para.

Revise your Strengths

Do not ever take a subject (or topic) for granted or skip it completely under the mistaken notion that you know it inside out. I did that with history and geography (for GS Paper I) in my first attempt. These have been my favourite subjects for a long time and I was extremely confident of my abilities here. The paper went very well but I knew deep inside that I could have done even better. When I missed the final list by four marks, this was the first thing that came back to haunt me. This year, the only reason I could comment on the difference between Taxila and other universities or expound on the importance of Panipat was because I had given a second read to all my history texts.

Attempt Everything

Never buy into the idea that you are better off writing excellent answers for 80% of the questions than writing average answers for all. You HAVE to attempt every single question. It does not matter if you know only a couple of lines on the topic. Write it down. Add in some of your general gyaan and make sure it is about a hundred words long. There is no way you are going to get two extra marks for even the most exquisitely written answer. But you are sure to miss out on the three-four assured marks that even an answer of average quality would fetch. I answered all the questions I had no clue about right at the beginning. With them out of the way, I could take on the rest of the paper in a more relaxed frame of mind.


I cannot possibly overstate the importance of this part. For both my attempts, I did (almost) ALL my GK revision right here from the Insights Daily Answer Writing Challenge. Some I posted on the website. Some I did not. But I know that I atleast had a look at every single question that was ever put up. I attended a Test Series too this year. It did wonders for my writing speed while serving as another useful revision tool. I don’t think I ever bothered with the evaluated sheets. I however made sure that I found out the answer to every question I did not know there, and wrote it down somewhere, that very day.


The CSE is important. But it is not your life. As humans, there is only so much obscure knowledge that we can take in at a time. I took a day off from studying every week right till my Mains. I went out, chilled with my friends and discussed everything except UPSC. It helped put my priorities in order. I have a great love for travelogues and historical non-fiction. I devoted Saturday evenings to this and finished a book every month from May till November.

Lastly, never lose hope. For a process this long drawn out, there is always a strong element of luck involved. I sailed through Prelims and Mains in 2013 without much preparation and while working full time. In 2014, I almost flunked the CSAT even after intensive practice for no particular reason. As long as we know that we haven’t given our best, there is always scope for improvement.

These tips may or may not work for everybody. I make no claim that the UPSC won’t hate you if you follow these. But if they prove to be even remotely useful to a single aspirant, I would be very glad.

All the very best to all of you.

  • KungfuPanda Returns

    Thank you Abdaal sir.
    I followed your comments on ForumIAS with great interest. I knew, you will get good rank. Congrats.

  • abd

    Thank u for ur insights sir

  • FlyingSolo

    All the best for your future endeavours.

  • NeverGiveup

    Thanks for your Insights Sir!!
    Your suggestions(Revision and Practise part), i have thought of but never pursued, now its the right time to implement the same.
    Thanks once again.

  • KK

    Thank u sir and Thank u insights 🙂

  • Palash Gupta

    Thank you Sir for ur guidance. This is really helpful and motivating.

  • kavitha

    thank you sir……..

  • Ayush Raturi

    Thank u sir and congratulations.
    Sir Which books did u referred for law?

  • Subhash Tadala

    It’s worth reading and have to keep his experience to implement in our life..Thanks Insights and abdaal sir.

  • Navya

    Thank You for the lovely article…Will definitely try to implement them.

    All the very best for your future Sir 🙂


    Thanks a lot for this inspiring article
    sir I have completed my graduation last year and now doing my PG in Economics from kashmir university.I had a dream to persue my carrier in civil services.My mind is blank now and I am restless to start preparation for this exam but I am nervious from where to start.What books to read,How much read etc.Please suggest something to kick start. thanx

    • Insights has a lovely book list up. Why not start from there?

      • hari

        congrats sir,
        my optional is also law so can you plz provide me book
        and also are case laws sections articles etc must ??

        • Yes Hari. Sections and Articles matter a law. Case law ranks a bit below them. I will try and post my booklist soon

          • Kt Gaurav

            congrats sir…. please share your book list for law ,material you read for gs.i am opting law as an optional.please throw some light on how to write answer of law… guide for this…

            • Will try to do so soon. Thank you for your wishes 🙂

              • skyhighambition

                can u plz review any of answer n giv ur precious inputs…

          • hari

            thanx sir all the best for ur journey of leadership.

      • Intekhab Hassan

        Abdaal plz give ur valuable inputs abt law paper…i mean the preparation strategy….

      • y.abhishek reddy

        Sir, your article was so inspiring!! I just want to clarify two things!! Does having a very good vocabulary matter in UPSC?(I don’t mean good enough but very excellent vocabulary) and Is it necessary to maintain a book and write the answer? I mean can we ever revise all the answers to vast number of questions written?

  • Mohita

    Congratulations Sir.
    And thank you for the insight.
    May I ask, which book did you refer to for International Law? Also could you please write an article for preparation of law? With practically no guidance available, except one or two classes, it would be really helpful to hear in detail as to what your preparation strategy was!

    • Will surely try to! In the meantime you can probably check out Mr Ashutosh Salil’s old blog for Law tips.

      • chandan kumar

        Congratulations sir…I got two questions for you 🙂
        is this “https://abdaal.wordpress.com” your blog ?

        How did you manage to clear mains in 2013 while working full time ? Crisp suggestion,if possible, would be great..I’m struggling to clear it.

        • In my opinion, it is very difficult to go the full distance when working. Unfair to your prep and to your employer. I managed to clear in 2014 only after resigning.

    • Manish

      I’m also having law as an optional. Will be interested to hear from your side regarding mains.

  • adarsh h m

    congrats sir …………..

  • Padmanabh

    Can Insights post a compilation to their selected people’s answers? The link posted here doesn’t seem to work for me.

  • chandolu manikanta

    Congrats and all the best for your bright future.

  • Sneha Goley

    congratulations 🙂

  • sonam

    Thnku sir and insight team…you are really doing great by helping the urs 🙂 thanks alot insight

  • Vibhu

    Thanks sir

  • rohit r

    congrats sir.

  • Animesh BM Tripathi

    thank you abdaal sir….A big relief to hear from a law graduate…Thanks for your guidance regarding law as an optional…..

  • Thank you so much for your insights..:) a small line separates victory and loss. people used to frame strategy for them, but they postpone it and it goes on. But one who follows it religiously crosses the line and victory falls in his/her side. So think and after you complete your thought process start following it practically. (thought of expressing it)

  • Anwar

    Thanks alot Sir
    I was waiting for this article from the moment I saw your name in the list of successful candidates.All the best for your new role as an IAS officer.

  • Mayuresh Pawar

    Congrats….Thanks for your valuable suggestions…

  • Soumya

    Hi Abdaal, are you from Bhubaneswar? Saw you on Oriya language news.

  • CS Aspirant

    Thank you sir….a great article….congrats and all the best for your future….

  • PranavSontakke

    First of all, Congratulations for your fabulous performance in CSE Exam. U gave very useful tips to all the aspirants. I was waiting for your article on this site since I saw your name in the list. Plz keep posting here..Thank you for the guidance, Abdaal Sir..Thank You INSIGHTS

  • Mohit kant singh

    Congratulations. There are few people writing cse with law optional, thus, there is lack of notes and proper guidance. Will you please guide aspirants with law optional by writing in detail about your strategy for this subject, pointing out strategy, time required to cover syllabus, standard books and such other things? May i request you to write an article and post it here at insights.

    • I wrote something on this on Quora. Will try cross posting it on my blog or here if Insights is cool with it.

      • Mohit kant singh

        Thanks a lot. Can you please send the relevant link?

        • Austin

          Check this: abdaal.wordpress.com

  • Ripon

    thank u sir .. nice to hear from u .,. congrats

  • blufl0

    Sir..could you please tell me about answer writing that did you write answers direct on insights or first write in your notebook than posted on site??? And did you write all questions which insights posted???

    • I did try finding answers to all of Insights Daily Answer Challenges. Wrote answers directly here. Did not make much by way of notes during my preparation.

      • blufl0

        thank you sir for your valuable suggestion.

    • PravinLodhi

      Thanks for ur article….

  • SRG

    fabulous performance… congrats…

  • 10th Jinping

    Thank you insights. Request you to please post the prelims and mains scores of the toppers when they are announced.

  • Puja

    Thanks insights for making us so close to the successful persons of this journey, it motivates us a lot and show the glimpse of that brightness. Thanks for keeping us constantly FOCUSED. ….

  • COOL FIGHT 2015

    thank you sir.

  • Optimist Indian

    Thanks sir…

  • Intekhab Hassan


  • Anandj

    Thanks Abdal for simple workable tips. I have pretty much enjoyed your blogs.

  • Dipin Nair

    One thing I noticed. What a meticulously written article with proper introduction and apt conclusion.Truly if answer writing is an art,then we got to learn a lot from AA. All the best 🙂

  • Santhosh Rao Mennani

    Thank you Abdaal

  • Laksh Menon

    Congratzz sir and thank you for your inspiration

  • Aspirant Thorin

    Congratulations Abdaal sir. Insha Allah! You have secured 786 marks in Mains, for sure Allah’s blessings are always with you. And thanks for this inspiring article sir.

  • wangan

    Hello sir ,
    you said you revised History books again for Taxila and Panipat.
    What books you referred for History?
    I thought these questions fell out of sky and I started dreading history even more.
    Please share your booklist.

    – Wangan

  • Anurag Verma

    Congrat Sir.. I am opting law as optional, Can u please give some tips on answer writing of Law paper and can u provide some sample answer for the same. That would be great help..

    Please reply..

  • yuvi

    So we can still clear this exam while working ? Am i right , Sir ?

  • Ashik Ali


  • bhushan

    I’m going to appear for next years prelims…
    And I don’t want to join any coaching,,,
    is it okay?
    can I clear without joining coaching class.?