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.
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.