TOPPER’S STRATEGY: Utpal Sannyashi, RANK – 76 (CSE-2017), Insights Online Student, Bottom-Up Approach, Second Attempt

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Utpal Sannyashi, RANK – 76 (CSE-2017)

Insights Online Student, Bottom-Up Approach, Second Attempt


Utpal Sannyashi IAS
Hello friends!

I am Utpal Sannyashi and I have secured Rank 76 in UPSC CSE 2017 in my second attempt. CSE 2016 was my first. I was able to clear Prelims in 2016 but couldn’t get through Mains. It has been a reasonably long journey for me and I would like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned in this process.

My mark sheet:


  1. Art and Culture – Nitin Singhania book or Nitin Sangwan pdf (Any one)
  2. Ancient History – Tamil Nadu 11th Standard Textbook
  3. Medieval History – Didn’t prepare considering the high cost/benefit ratio. Would have prepared from NCERTs this time
  4. Modern History – Spectrum
  5. Post-Independence History – VisionIAS pdf
  6. World History – Norman Lowe
  7. Social issues – Newspapers
  8. Geography – (website aptly named in my opinion) and Mrunal
  9. Polity – Laxmikanth and Bare Act
  10. Governance – 2nd ARC Report on Citizen Centric Governance (Selective reading)
  11. International Relations – Newspapers (I would often screenshot lead articles on IR from The Hindu)
  12. Economy – Mrunal and Economic Survey
  13. Science and Technology – Google upcoming technologies (e.g. IoT, Blockchain, Augmented Reality) which are often in news. However for topics like nanotechnology, biotechnology, supercomputing, space and nuclear research etc. one needs to be aware of government initiatives as well
  14. Environment – and Orient Longman Atlas for location of Biosphere reserves, National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries
  15. Ethics – 2nd ARC Report on Ethics in Governance, Lexicon (the cover page which contains the list of values is probably the most important page in the entire book) and Justice Harvard


  • Before Prelims I depended mostly on Test Series and Current Affairs magazine to prepare. I didn’t read newspapers regularly. However, this strategy would not have worked this year.
  • After Prelims, I started reading newspapers everyday. Now I’d like to point out that here I followed a bottom-up approach. I would read articles and try to frame questions from them myself. For instance, last year there were a series of CAG reports in which the low preparedness levels of the armed forces was pointed out. I would frame questions like –
  1. Why is military modernization slow in India?
  2. What are the different challenges faced by the military at the top as well as the ground level?
  3. How the western theatre differs from the eastern theatre and how maritime threats are different from land threats?
  4. What are the various schemes related to the military?
  5. What can be done to improve the situation? (Here the recommendations of certain committees like the Dhirendra Singh Committee were very helpful)

I prepared 5 points on all these dimensions. And followed a similar approach for almost every topic which was in news like GST, Right to Privacy, Triple Talaq etc.

  • I would look into 6-8 topics everyday for about a month. Since many of these issues would build up over time, I was able to revise pre-Prelims current affairs as well e.g. all issues related to Aadhar (happened before Pre) which ultimately led to the Justice Puttaswamy Case (was passed after Pre).
  • At this point I was confident that I had sufficient content and that I need to learn to interlink these topics. So I would formulate my own questions and try to come up with some logical points. This is probably the most important part of my prep. Some examples of the questions I came up with –
  1. How can implementation of GST help in improving socio-economic indicators in rural areas?
  2. How can supercomputing help in improving agricultural productivity?
  3. How can protecting the privacy of people help in promoting economic growth?
  4. How can defence deal with US help in improving the per capita income of Indians?
  5. How can Digital India help in preventing communal riots in the country?
  • To solve these questions I had to toss and mix various points on different topics I had prepared in the first 30 days. These questions may seem weird, but I assure you that when you start thinking this way no question in the actual Mains paper will seem alien to you.
  • I started following the same framework for topics from History and Culture as well. Some examples of the questions I came up with –
  1. Differences and similarities in the ideologies of Pdt Nehru and Netaji Bose.
  2. How Simon Commission played a role in the growth of communism in India.
  3. Similarities and differences between Ashoka’s Dhamma and Akbar’s Sul-i-kul.
  4. How did art and the Indian National Movement influence each other?

and so on…

  • For most of these questions I would try and come up with or find 5-6 points and some data and jot them down in a notebook. I revised this notebook multiple times before giving Mains.
  • For Ethics I didn’t have much time. So I just solved Vision papers and revised them multiple times. As my optional was Political Science, I didn’t have issues with thinkers.


  • In my first attempt I adopted a top-down approach. Instead of limiting my sources and developing the habit of finding interlinkages, I focused on reading from multiple sources and then coming up with points for the question being asked.
  • This approach can be very effective as well, provided one knows how to compartmentalize everything they’ve read and have the ability to access the data quickly in exam-like scenarios.

Also, the change in strategy was not a conscious decision on my part. I was forced to adopt it. Chemistry was my optional in my first attempt. Here I experienced first-hand something known as the Dunning-Kruger effect [overestimation of one’s abilities due to lack of awareness and inaccurate assessment of one’s capabilities]. I was good at Chemistry in my school days and used to score high in the engineering entrance exams. Hence, I believed that I wouldn’t have to work very hard for this optional. But by the time I realized my mistake it was too late.

Naturally, it didn’t go well for me so I decided to switch to Political Science as my confidence in clearing the exam with Chemistry was shaken. However, I hardly got any time to study Pol Sc before Pre. I knew that if I wanted to complete Pol Sc syllabus and develop a reasonable amount of competence in my optional I would have to sacrifice some amount of time I would have ideally devoted for GS Prep.

But I also knew that I couldn’t sacrifice the quality of GS prep too much. So this is a sort of Middle Path approach I came up with. I am lucky that it worked out very well.


  • Two crucial aspects of the preparation phase which decides how well an aspirant performs eventually are time and energy. Everyone can understand how time affects our prep. One has an idea about the number of days left till the exams or how many hours are needed to revise a topic etc. Time can be quantified and the preparation can be modified accordingly.

However, we often seem to underestimate the amount of energy we are capable of expending in the preparation phase. This is one of the reasons why many people suffer from fatigue when the examination is near. I have been a regular follower of Insights Secure and before Mains in 2016, I had written about 500 answers on the portal. However, this really took a heavy toll on me and I could hardly practice 10 question 2 weeks before Mains.

In my second attempt, I started answer writing (insights secure) about a month after Prelims and paced it in such a way that I was able to achieve my peak during Mains. The bottom-up approach helped to ensure that I am in touch with answer writing. It also reduced the drudgery of the preparation as preparation was more like solving puzzles to learn rather than merely absorbing information.

  • This approach also helped me to protect myself from information overload. I cannot stress how difficult the exam has become purely due to the vast ocean of material one can have access to at the click of a button. Peer pressure further fuels this problem.

Since I had to devote time for thinking about the questions which I came up with, I was forced to reduce my sources drastically. In my 2nd attempt I didn’t go through any of the Current Affairs booklet for my Mains while in my first attempt I had referred the Current Affairs materials of at least two institutes.

  • I understood what needs to be focused upon. The issue with Current Affairs material prepared by institutes is that they have dedicated content-creators. So in a sense the job becomes specialized and often the content creators tend to go overboard which in turn leads to the information overload I mentioned above. So when I had to create my own questions, the paucity of time and energy prevented me from devoting too much attention to any topic. This helped to me to study in a detached manner which in turn helped me to develop a general understanding of all topics.


  • Physical fitness –

In Raja-Yoga, Swami Vivekananda says –

“The vast mass of humanity is very little removed from the animals. Not only so, but in many instances, the power of control in them is little higher than that of the lower animals. We have very little command of our minds. Therefore to bring that command about, to get that control over body and mind, we must take certain physical helps. When the body is sufficiently controlled, we can attempt the manipulation of the mind. By manipulating the mind, we shall be able to bring it under our control, make it work as we like, and compel it to concentrate its powers as we desire.”

The entire exam process is long and it takes a toll on both the body and mind. To ensure that the mind is receptive and flexible one needs to ensure that the body is fit. I used to jog during my preparation days to fulfil this purpose. I didn’t stop even during the Mains exam. I would return from the centre and would jog for about an hour before revising a little for the next exam. Not only did it help in reducing the stress but also allowed me to get a good night’s sleep before the next exam.

  • Following the Middle Path –

We all know that our answers should not tilt towards any extreme and we are supposed to follow the middle path. However, this philosophy is much more powerful. I tried to incorporate it in all aspects of my life. For instance, after Pre I realized that if I jog for an hour everyday, it’ll reduce the amount of time I have for studying. But I knew that stopping completely would also be counter-productive. So I would go every alternate day. Later, when just one month was left, I reduced the time to half an hour on alternate days.

Another instance – I got my Political Science notes about a month before Prelims. I would often wonder if I would be able to complete the huge syllabus after Pre. The anxiety was affecting my Prelims prep. So I decided to study Pol Sc for an hour everyday, purely to keep my anxiety at bay. It didn’t help much with my Pol Sc prep, but it ensured that I would have peace of mind whenever I would be studying for Prelims.

  • Staying detached – During the preparation phase one faces a number of distractions. In such scenarios it is important to stay detached. So, even if you indulge in them for a while, you’ll never become dependent.

So this is more or less the strategy I followed. The core of my strategy was ‘active learning’. In one of the Justice Harvard episode, Michael Sandel says that one cannot learn how to cook just by watching online tutorials. A hands-on approach is necessary to learn the subtle nuances of cooking. We need to adopt this strategy for CSE prep as well, especially considering how 2018 Prelims has been. Now just reading books passively or watching videos mechanically will not suffice, I believe. An aspirant has to devote time to thinking, interlinking and correlating as well. UPSC has upped its game and aspirants need to do the same.

I know all of this is a bit abstract and many of you may not be able to understand fully what I am trying to convey. I believe those who have been preparing for CSE for a while (8 to 10 months) or have given at least one attempt, will probably find this more helpful than absolute beginners. In any case, if anyone has any doubt, they can contact me on [email protected]

Finally, I would like to share this quote. [I have a screenshot of this quote lying on my desktop. I don’t know where I found it but it has always been an inspiration for me and hopefully it can inspire you as well]

“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds, your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great, and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive and you discover yourself to be a greater person, by far, than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”

Good luck and All the Best 🙂