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Knowledge Is Power – A Guide To UPSC Exam Preparation By Divya S Iyer, IAS


‘Take a deep breath, pick yourself up, dust yourself off… And start all over again’ – Frank Sinatra

That’s what I told myself when I applied for a year of extraordinary leave from my hectic training schedule of the Indian Revenue Service at the National Academy of Customs, Excise & Narcotics. ‘They don’t call the period extraordinary for nothing…I got to do something extraordinary in this precious one year’, I thought to myself. Today, as I stand in front of the mirror in my room, I see the pin-board behind me with a confetti of pages punched on to them with multi-coloured push-pins. Those tiny note-sheets embody in them— in blue, black and pink ink— the bedrock of my motivation to endure those days of despair and despondency speckling the journey towards civil services. The words ascribed on them come from some of the finest minds in history and lofty leaves of classics, but they all confluence in my tiny enclosure as if in a conspiracy to keep me going and embrace my goal. I re-discovered the magic of words and decided to not just imbibe them but also indulge in them in the form of writing articles and books, in these toilsome years.

divya iyer, divya iyer ias
Divya S Iyer, IAS

 Pathfinder was my debut effort in this direction, and I am gratified with the overwhelming response from students all over the country; that the strategy outlined in the book has been aiding the preparations of many an aspiring civil servant since it was first published in October 2013. Yes, I did give the Civil Services Main Examination in December 2013, which has now borne me fruits in the form of a place in the Indian Administrative Services (Rank 48). Many admonished me on my decision to pen a book to help my fellow competitors, bracing them for an exam that I were to give myself;  at my audacity or stupidity— whatever it was seen to be. But let me now confess; it was burning the midnight oil at the NSS Academy of Civil Services (NACS) to bring out that book that weeded the chaff out of my days of preparation.

Looking back, I can throw a few words together to coin a slogan for success— Smart Study -Systematic, Sustained, and Sincere! It would be terse to contain those unending days, months and years in these few words. Let me warn you that no single formula would prove to be the mythical magic-potion for you to consume and turn civil services examination into a fairy-tale. Even as I attempt to provide some insights into the journey, as you navigate your way through the sea of exams, let me offer a  disclaimer from a wise man: ‘To generalise is to be an idiot.’ ― William Blake

Smart is arguably the commonest jargon in vogue in this era of smart phones. I am sure that you would have heard the term in the numerous ‘how-to-crack-civil services exam’ discourse as one gets to. So here I am, to add my drop into the ocean. The linkage between smart and success has been handed down through generations since time immemorial, if you remember the tale of the hare and the tortoise imparting the ‘moral of the story’: Slow and steady wins the race. It is nothing but smart efforts of the tortoise who acted in accordance with his strengths and weaknesses than the hare that hurried and exhausted himself in haste. Now how does one get down to doing smart study in civil services exam preparation? To sum it up, knowledge is power. But knowledge doesn’t emanate from books alone. Know yourself, know your foes and know UPSC as you get, set, go…

Know Yourself

The first step here also is to analyse and evaluate yourself before anything else, so that you arrive at answers to some of the oft asked queries— from generic ones like ‘Will I be able to work and study at the same time?’, ‘Do I have to go to a coaching institution?’, ‘How many hours of study per day do I need to put in?’ to bizarre ones like ‘Can I be married and still prepare for civil services?’, ‘Do I need to break-up, as I am in a relationship now, in order to crack Civil Services?’ The answers to these are highly customised, as I would like to put it. Once you have decided to take the plunge, ask yourself ‘what are my priorities at this moment?’ Write this down in the order of importance, and put it up on the wall in your room. When in doubt, go back to them and reinforce your decision.

The next question that needs to be answered is ‘what are my constraints in this journey?’ Place them against each of your priority in the first list. They may be financial, familial, logistical, or in any other form and shape. The third question you need to dwell upon requires a bit more thinking before you make your list; ‘Who/what all are going to help me in overcoming these obstacles?’ Carefully put down the names of people and resources from which you gain your strength from. This also includes an analysis of your own strengths and weaknesses. If you have an eidetic memory like some of my topper-friends have, you would not need to read and re-read the stale notes from coaching centres over and over again. Instead you could expand your horizon by reading additional material in the subject. Nothing read with conviction goes waste in this exam. If you have an enviable attention span, you may not have to extend your study-time beyond a respectable hour of the day. If you have a good pre-test knowledge of your subject or are an expert in a subject, you will not have to seek special coaching in that.

Map out your own promises and perils in various facets such as education, special skills, abilities, hobbies, character etc. It will not only prepare you to answer the same question at the Personality Test a few months down the lane, but also help you identify miry areas in your personality to firm up.  Once this exercise is done, mentally or loudly, you are ready to roll. Voila! You have already found your answers to those questions. If civil services exam is your numero uno and only priority at this point, go all out to conquer it. If you have other aspirations on cards or trammels in the offing, plan and divide your time accordingly. An employed mother is no less ready to crack the civil services exam than a novice graduate dedicated to the altar of UPSC preparation is. So take your pick, but the only important thing is that you stay faithful to your decision until you cross the bridge. ‘The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.’— Sylvia Plath

Know Your Foes

By foes, I don’t mean your fellow aspirants, who are your friends and co-passengers in this journey, and lend you a helping hand more often than not. Your greatest enemies stem from your own insecurities. List down the worst things that could happen to you in this journey…unable to clear the prelims, missed the Mains Cut-off by a single point, unexpectedly experienced a verbal-mental-global block at the interview and landed in murky ground, fell ill on the D-day…and the like. This is not to bog you down with a crown of thorns; but to rid yourself of your insecurities. ‘Will I be able to do it?’…ought to be replaced with, ‘I will get back on my feet even if I am knocked down’. For that, you need to know what all might knock you down and where would you fall. Fight your insecurities with all your might. Stay strong on the face of temptations that might lure you into bad company or undesirable vices that might throw you off the tangent. Whether you become a civil servant or not, you will have blossomed into a better human being at the end of it.

 Having gone through three grueling attempts at the Civil Services exam, I definitely know the importance of perseverance and not letting yourself down in this journey. There are bound to be moments of despair, of elation, of humiliation, of jubilation; try to acquire the evenness of mind to accept them all in grace. It is equally important to not fly high masquerading as an eagle when you are only a sparrow. Topping a mock-test series or getting lauded by the mock-interview board should not sweep you off your feet. Stay firm-footed, stay rooted, and stay grounded. Filling your days with positive spirit and positive thoughts will create magic like none other. While some resort to psychological methods like Creative Visualisation, most of us simply re-invent ourselves to infuse positive energy through our own chosen methods.

 Music, meditation, physical exercise, nature walks, a hearty conversation with a loved one, cheering up with pals, treating yourself to your favorite cuisine, or any kind or recreation that would calm you will be welcome to at regular intervals. Whatever it be, don’t let your dreams betray you; don’t let your ambitions tumble down. Stay positive, stay hopeful. Once this exercise is over, you are ready to row. Eureka! You simply got to grip the oars of hard-work and keep wading through the waters; rough or calm they may be depending on the stars that shine on you from heaven above. And always remember, ‘A bend in the road is not the end of the road…Unless you fail to make the turn.’― Helen Keller


The UPSC conducts the Civil Services Examination in a structured fashion comprising of a three-tier mechanism for testing the candidate for recruitment. To align your preparation clock with the UPSC clock is the key to cracking the three levels of the test. Like the second hand, minute hand and hour hand of the clock, you need to schedule your daily plans, level-wise plans, and over-arching strategy. Take into consideration the timing and the volume to be covered at each level.

The preparation for the Main exams can be capacious, and hence may need to start early on in your calendar. Choice of the optional subject could be done right at the beginning so that you can gradually cover the portions, in case you need to learn a fresh subject that you have not graduated in. Consider your affinity to the subject, readability of the text-books, feasibility of acquisition of study materials, availability of expert resource persons, possibility of a peer-group formation for discussion; while you choose your subject, rather than place ‘Scoring or Non-scoring’ stereotypes on the holy grail. A candidate with Mathematics is no less likely to top the exam than the one with Public Administration as her optional subject. It simply depends on your timely show of strength.

The elaborate General Studies paper needs to be tackled with a solid strategy, which I don’t think deserves a retelling here, as Pathfinder reveals exactly that. Wide reading, keen power of observation, an analytical eye, and aptitude for learning…all enveloped in a virtuous attitude is all that you need to do this. The apprehensions regarding Ethics and English are drastically misplaced, as far as I can see. Ethics is a way of life; it doesn’t hurt to read a few classic principles and thesis on ethical living. Try to practice ethics in your daily life than mug it up for a high score in the exam. As they say, if the cat walks in style, the tail will follow. Live an ethical life and you will definitely come out with flying colours in the GS Paper IV.

As for the personality test, if you have done the first two exercises of knowing yourself and your foes, honestly and faithfully, you are ready to reveal your own personality in front of anyone in this world. You don’t have be someone else in front of the board. Just let yourself be present and soak in that wonderful moment, when you are at the cusp of success. Have the modesty to accept your follies, honesty to admit your ignorance, brevity to express yourself, and lucidity to let them comprehend and compliment your brilliant personality. Whatever it takes to be there, just do it being true to yourself; do not ever think of giving up or stepping back. ‘Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.’― Henry David Thoreau was a source that I missed during the core of my preparation, as it had not yet come into existence then. But I have always recommended it to my students ever since I discovered it. It is the same spirit of sharing— smartly in a systematic, sustained and sincere manner that has made this endeavour what it is today. As for me, the journey has been long and lonely at times, yet one of the most fascinating ones I have ever had. This intellectual tour de force has transformed me as a person like none other. I have new goals, new dreams and new paths to tread now. All the very best for a successful and meaningful journey! Seeking your good-will, like always

Dr Divya S Iyer, IAS


Note: I thank her on behalf of all Insights followers for writing this wonderful article for this website. We wish her all the success.