‘My journey is my reward’
- Name: Rajarshi Raj Varma
- UPSC rank(s): AIR 120 (CSE 2016); AIR 295 (CSE2014); AIR 351 (CSE 2013)
- Optional Subject: Public Administration
I spent my formative years in Patna and Ranchi and thereafter joined Economics (H) in Kirorimal College in Delhi University. Subsequently, I pursued Rural Management programme of XIM, Bhubaneswar and worked in the development sector for a year before leaving the job for full time CSE preparation. I qualified CSE 2013 in my first attempt and was allotted Indian Audit and Accounts Service. I again qualified CSE 2014 but could not get the rank I desired. I decided to continue my UPSC journey and was able to secure AIR 120 this year.
I am sharing my strategy and what I have learned in the past few years during the course of preparation for CSE.
Getting in the right frame of mind
The first and the most important thing for this exam is to get in the right frame of mind. This exam is more a test of your attitude, mental strength, patience and consistency than pure knowledge/intelligence (this is true for life as well!). I have seen much more intelligent people than me not qualifying this exam because of their attitude. I have seen people (especially working professionals) who start preparing for the exam but lose steam after few months.
What distinguishes this exam from others is the gruelling and time consuming process that a candidate has to go through for every attempt. The exam cycle consumes one entire year. To remain motivated throughout this period, one needs to have an inner drive and a clear reason as to why she wants to be a part of the civil services (for everyone, the reason could be different). During the course of preparation, one has to make umpteen number of small and big sacrifices. Until and unless, one is internally motivated, it will be very difficult to make these sacrifices and maintain consistency. Of course, there will be days/times when you will feel low. You need to have a clear unwinding strategy to rejuvenate/motivate yourself. Watch movies/TV series, read/watch toppers’ interviews, play or run. Just decide what suits you best. But the most important thing is to move forward everyday with a positive mindset. The speed might vary from day to day but move forward you must.
This exam is very unpredictable. So, one should not think too much about the results. Just do your best and leave the rest! If one is honest and sincere in her efforts, results will come inevitably. Even in the worst case, if you don’t qualify for this exam, you will evolve into a knowledgeable, wiser and stronger individual and would do well for yourself in whichever field you work. So, this exam needs to be treated as a learning experience. Enjoy the journey without thinking too much about the destination. I genuinely believed in the saying, ‘My journey is my reward’.
My philosophy during preparation was simple – we have just one life which we should live without regrets. If one wants to be a civil servant, she should give her best shot. If things don’t work out, fine. But one should not have regrets in the future. This is especially relevant for working professionals. Many people ask me if they should leave their job to prepare. My take is that if one is confident of managing both, work and preparation, then it’s fine (it is possible and many working professionals qualify now a days). But if one is finding it difficult to get time to prepare, it is always better to leave the job for at least one year and prepare full throttle instead of giving half hearted attempts and regretting in future (this is of course possible if one can financially afford to remain unemployed for one year. That is a decision that one has to make).
Prelims and mains
I would not delve too much into booklist and sources for preparation. I guess, the standard books and various other online/offline/coaching institutes’ material, are known to every serious aspirant. Some general suggestions from my side:
- The preparation for prelims should not be a standalone process. Prelims and mains preparation needs to be done simultaneously in an integrated manner. To begin with, it is important to build a strong foundation by preparing the fundamentals of static portion such as History, Culture, Geography, Polity etc. These fundamentals would be common for both, prelims as well as mains. The static part should be prepared thoroughly before prelims so that one does not have to spend too much time on these in the period between prelims and mains.
- In recent times, the pattern of prelims of changed with a lot of focus on current affairs. May be one month before the prelims, one can focus exclusively on prelims by going through relevant current affairs, govt. policies and programmes etc.
- In prelims, it is important to master the art of eliminating wrong options (since you won’t know the exact answer for majority of questions) which can be done by practicing test series on your own. For instance, one technique that I followed was to eliminate strong worded options which used words like ‘completely’, ‘all’ etc. This worked for me even for those questions where I knew very little. This can be mastered only with practice.
- This is the most important part of the entire preparation. Here, the focus has to be on revision and answer writing. Your mains performance depends not on what you know but what you are able to reproduce in the examination hall in 7-8 minutes. And you will be able to reproduce only what you have revised several times and internalized.
- You need to do UPSC specific preparation and not try to do research on a topic. For every topic, try to prepare your own notes (preferably in bullet points) covering the context, the pros-cons/different dimensions of the topic (historical, constitutional, social, economic, political, international, environmental, moral etc), current examples, statistics, your opinion and solutions. One needs to study on a topic as much as can be reproduced in 7-8 minutes (in 200-300 words) during the exam. So, intellectual satisfaction, conceptual clarity and holistic knowledge needs to be balanced with the requirements of the exam and time constraint. The kind of pattern that we have now for mains, the breadth of your knowledge is more important than depth. Insights mindmaps is a good example of how a topic should be dealt with.
- Time management is extremely important. Try to attempt as many questions as you can. Do not try to write earth shaking answers for every question. While quality of answers is very important, but not at the cost of leaving questions. It is better to write average/decent answers for 19 questions than good quality answers for 10 questions and poor quality answers for remaining ones.
- For ethics (paper 4), it is advisable not to write too much of theory/jargons (teleological, deontological etc) which would make the answer look mechanical. Instead, for Part A of the paper, I prepared a list of examples from my own life as well as from the lives of great leaders, pertaining to words mentioned in the syllabus such as honesty, integrity, leadership, compassion, empathy etc, which can be quoted in different answers. For Part B (case studies), practice is the key. I prepared 2-3 standard templates, which can be used in different case studies.
- Do not get disheartened if one paper in GS does not go well. One can always bounce back by scoring high in other papers/essay/interview. I generally see people getting worked up if they are not able to perform well in one of the papers. This affects their performance in other papers as well. For instance, this year in essay, which was on the first day of mains, I wrote on the topic, ‘If development is not engendered, it is endangered.’ I did not write on the gender dimension as was indicated in the Hindi translation. I interpreted the literal meaning of the word ‘engendered’ (which has nothing to do with gender!). After I came out, most of the people told me that we were supposed to write on gender empowerment/justice etc. I initially felt dejected. I felt that if my essay goes wrong, I won’t be able to get the rank I wanted. Anyway, I decided not to think about the essay and focus on the next paper. In the end, it all worked out well and I scored decent in essay (thanks to Shashi Tharoor who wrote a letter to UPSC highlighting the issue!). The key is not to lose heart at any stage of the exam and focusing on the next step rather than wasting time thinking about what has happened or what could have happened.
I did not prepare specifically for essay as such. The content for the essay has to come from GS knowledge. However, the presentation is something which we can work on. Essay basically has 3 parts – introduction, body and conclusion. The introduction is extremely important and the objective should be to catch the attention of the examiner. One can start with an anecdote, quotes, newspaper items, current examples etc. The body has to be multi-dimensional, covering different facets such as historical, social, political, economic etc. The conclusion should be balanced, optimistic and futuristic. It is important to give solutions than just explaining problems.
Personality test/interview is both, extremely critical as well as unpredictable. Few marks here and there in the interview can determine if your name is in the merit list or not or whether you get the desired rank or not. There are umpteen number of examples every year wherein candidates have scored extremely well in mains but do not qualify/get the desired rank due to interview marks. Similarly, there are many candidates who do not perform that well in mains but are able to compensate that by performing well in interview.
Notwithstanding the unpredictable nature of interview (wherein the same candidate gets drastically different marks in different years), it is possible to prepare for interview and preparation should start right from the beginning. Some general suggestions include:
- In the interview, the board basically tries to assess your personality and your personality cannot change overnight. So, one should use the preparation phase to develop a balanced and optimistic personality. We should not have extreme opinions on any issue. One thing that I have realized during the course of preparation is that nothing is black or white. There are shades of grey, in fact an entire spectrum of colours, in every issue. The board wants to see if you are at least aware of these nuances.
- Fill your DAF very carefully. If you do this meticulously, you can guide the course of the interview to a large extent. One technique that I used was to have a running theme in my DAF which was reflected in what I wrote in prizes/medals, hobby/interests, position of leadership etc. Have a running theme and prepare thoroughly on these themes.
- In the interview, it is extremely important to be humble and respectful towards the board. One thing that puts them off is arrogance. If you have to err, err on the side of diffidence than overconfidence. By diffidence, I do not mean not to be confident. But ensure that you do not come across as overconfident/arrogant/opinionated.
Role of insights
I started following insights in the last one year. I would admit that I wasn’t a regular on insights. I wanted to write answers in secure programme but I could not due to paucity of time (since I was already in service). But I must say that I benefitted by going through different posts, mindmaps, toppers’ strategy etc on insights. The secure programme, in particular, is extremely useful for mains preparation and for practicing answer writing. Keep up the good work and let me know if I could be of any help.
I guess it is not possible to write everything about this exam in one article. But I hope that whatever I have written is of some use for future aspirants. I would be happy to answer questions in the comments section.