Topper’s Preparation Strategy – UPSC Civil Services Preliminary Examination
SWETHA M Rank – 119 UPSC CSE-2017
INSIGHTS OFFLINE STUDENT
I am Swetha M. from Bangalore and I have secured rank 119 in CSE 2017 in my fourth attempt. In this article I would like to share my experience of preparing for this exam as well as the ups and downs that I went through. Although it may be quite a long read, I do hope to inspire at least someone in a similar situation not to give up.
A small introduction about me:
I have completed my graduation in Electronics and Communication Engineering in 2012 from BMS College of Engineering, Bangalore. Subsequently, I worked with an automotive firm Robert Bosch in Bangalore for about 1.5 years, before quitting to pursue my civil services dream.
Pursuing civil services as a career had never been on my mind during childhood. This was largely due to lack of knowledge regarding the exam process as well as the opportunities that the services provide. I became more aware of these intricacies when I saw a few friends preparing for CSE during engineering. The dream of one day getting into the civil services took root in me. Knowing that the exam is a very competitive one, I decided not to get into preparation right away. I went ahead and joined the job that I was offered as a part of campus placements.
My initial days of preparation:
Having worked for about a year, I slowly started my preparations by reading The Hindu newspaper. I enrolled in a weekend batch of a local coaching centre in Bangalore just to gain an insight into what kind of books I need to refer for the exam. At the centre, I received ample guidance from a faculty member Prateek sir. Being a senior aspirant himself, sir had a lot of experience, especially with the changes that had come about in the exam pattern after 2013. I came to know the exact sources required to be referred, especially for prelims stage.
At this juncture, I felt that I needed to devote a lot more time for studies if I wanted to have a good shot at clearing the exam. Also, I felt that I would not be doing justice to my job or my preparation if did not give my 100% to either of them. This was when I made the difficult choice of quitting the job in February 2014. With prelims just 5 months away, I decided to plunge headlong into prelims preparation.
Most of my preparation during this attempt was ad-hoc and immature. I made the mistake of studying exclusively for prelims until August 2014, when the exam was held. I had chosen Geography as my optional subject while filling the application as I felt the subject would be easier for someone who wanted to do self-study. I was hoping that my previous interest in the subject during schooling as well as my decent drawing skills would come in handy.
Although I managed to clear prelims, I failed miserably at Mains, as I had very little idea of what kind of preparation this stage entailed. I feared writing answers and essays as I was insecure of my own knowledge level. Even optional preparation was not on track, as I had assumed that standard books needed to be read cover-to-cover. I ended up scoring in 60s in all GS papers except Ethics, and did not get an interview call.
After my debacle in the first attempt, I was determined to improve my efforts the next time. I joined VisionIAS online mains test series in Jan or Feb 2015, so that I can systematically start covering the mains syllabus and hone my writing skills. I had scored 240 total in my previous attempt in Geography optional, so I grew confident that a little more effort in the same would get me through.
It was during this attempt that I got to know about InsightsonIndia.com and their prelims test series. I enrolled for it through online mode. The sectional tests helped me cover NCERTs and standard books in a systematic manner, which I had not done before. My basics became stronger and I cleared prelims comfortably with a score of 130s in Paper-1.
Just as I was wondering how to gear up for mains, Insights announced an offline mains test series at Bangalore. I applied for the same and was overjoyed to know that I had been accepted to join it as a part of non-core group. Vinay sir stressed on the fact that the act of reading something is only half the job done. Writing practice is the key to clearing this exam. I gave tests regularly at the centre and ended up getting an interview call.
When the final results arrived, I was devastated to know that I hadn’t made it. I had extremely low marks in Geography optional (196 total) and had managed to clear mains cutoff by a margin of just 4 marks. I felt very disappointed that all my efforts of one more year had gone waste.
Having made it to the interview in the previous attempt, I felt I could not give up just yet. One more try, one last push was needed. I cleared prelims again with a good score (144) and immediately began mains preparation.
This time, I decided to focus more on my optional subject as it had been badly hit in the previous attempt. I had to gain a deeper understanding of the subject and make my answers above average in order to even hope for a decent (250+) score. I bought more standard books, looked at coaching notes to identify areas left to be covered and improved my writing skills in Geography. I took up online test series by VisionIAS for Geography and got some feedback for my answers.
For GS, I became a little complacent as I had done good amount of writing practice by then. I decided to opt for Insights online mains test series. I did write all the tests sitting at home and also evaluated the answers myself, by looking at the synopsis. However, I did not take any feedback from anyone. Many of my existing flaws in answer writing therefore remained unrectified.
This probably proved to be a major drawback. I ended up with below average marks in GS (387) in a year in which even a score of 450 wasn’t a big deal. My Geography marks weren’t great either (252). I was way below the Mains cutoff and did not get an interview call.
I hit my lowest point at this stage. I had, to the best of my abilities, put in all the hard work required. Yet, I could not achieve my goal even after 3 years. I was torn between the choice of whether to continue giving attempts, or to start working again. I started blaming my optional subject for my repeated failures. Problem was, I still loved studying Geography and hadn’t lost interest in it. It was just that scoring in the subject had become difficult. I felt so invested in the subject that I could not even think of starting all over again with a new subject.
My frustration grew even stronger once the final results of that year were announced. I saw that more than 60 candidates had made it through from my state alone. I began wondering if I was even a deserving person to attempt this exam yet again, having already given 3 mains by then. I remember talking to Vinay sir sometime during this point. I asked sir if I should skip this attempt and change my optional subject. I believe sir was able to sense my despair and agony. He told me to give prelims if I had prepared, and that I still had scope for improving my GS score and essay. This made me understand that blaming any one subject is not right. After all, the written score comprises of a total of 7 papers. I just had to work harder.
Since I was on track in terms of prelims preparation, I gave the exam and cleared it with a decent score (126.67). I had made up my mind that if no positive result (= finding my name in the list) comes out of this attempt, I wouldn’t write the exam again. As a result, throughout this attempt, I was almost stoic – I would do my best and then resign to my fate. In retrospect, this might have helped me indirectly, because, while I was writing the main exam or giving the interview, all my worries used to vanish.
I joined the offline test series again at Insights for GS as well as Geography optional this time. I met Vinay sir right at the start of mains preparation and identified the papers on which I needed to concentrate (Essay, Ethics, GS1). I gave almost all the tests conducted at the centre, and stayed back and discussed the paper immediately with a peer group. This was a big eye-opener for me. I realized that my average-looking generic answers would stand no chance against such content-rich and example-filled answers of others. Interacting with fellow aspirants made me realize what I had been missing during my isolated preparation in the previous attempts. I made sure that I showed few of my answers and essays to sir and got valuable feedback for the same. One major thing that I learnt was to include examples and anecdotes, especially in the essay and ethics papers, in order to give a personal touch to my answer copy.
For Geography, I came across a very helpful article on ForumIAS blog by Prajit Nair sir (AIR 87 in CSE 2016). I closely emulated sir’s strategy and finally learnt how to work on each topic of the syllabus, to gather content even on miscellaneous topics and how to present answers from a Geographer’s perspective. It was truly a blessing to have come across this article at the right time.
Despite all this, I ended up not being happy with my performance in the mains exam. I had over-spent time on my first essay and ended up writing a not-so-satisfactory second essay. Geography paper-1 had more than expected number of questions from new areas, that too, as a part of compulsory section. I decided to wait for Mains results before beginning any kind of interview preparation, as I had lost hope of clearing Mains.
It was a pleasant surprise to see that I had made it to the interview again. I snapped out of my hibernation and immediately began catching up on current affairs of the past two months. An interview orientation session by Vinay sir proved very useful in identifying expected questions, especially from DAF. Almost every day for the next month or so, interview discussion sessions were held at Insights offline centre. Here, interview-appearing candidates were made to face a bombardment of questions from fellow aspirants on both areas from DAF as well as current affairs. It helped me gain so much confidence and clarity of thought while answering. The enthusiasm and knowledge level of many friends that I made there was such a motivator for me. I took only a couple of formal mock interviews (at Kerala Samajham academy and Shankar IAS in Bangalore). A final one-to-one mock interview session with Vinay sir filled me with positivity and calmness to face the interview with poise.
I eagerly waited for the final results this time, even as I mentally prepared for yet another failure. As a person who was ready to celebrate at the sight of my name even as the last one in the list, I was relieved to have finally ended up with the 119th rank. More than anything, a personal challenge with myself had been successfully met.
On maintaining positivity and self-belief:
My mains mark sheet seems to testify to the fact that no optional subject is either ‘safe/scoring’ or ‘persecuted’. Each subject needs effort and an above average knowledge level. No doubt, there are instances when average scores drop in a particular subject (due to scaling or otherwise). Yet, there is plenty of scope to make oneself immune from such aberrations by scoring well in almost all other papers. One should just let go of one’s ego to realize that there are always shortcomings to be worked on in one area or another. Learn from your failures and mistakes, seek help from others and persist. Reinventing oneself is the key to success in such a competitive exam.
These four years have taught me so much more than what university education does- both in terms of knowledge as well as life lessons. I have learnt to accept failure and setbacks, and yet move on relentlessly. I have started to rely on inner motivation to keep up my spirits in times of despair. I am extremely grateful to my family members, who have stood as pillars of support for me throughout these testing times. They understood all my anxieties and made sure that I felt assured of support, come what may. I am also grateful to my mentors, friends and well-wishers who constantly believed in my abilities and kept reminding me of the same.
Lastly, I would like to impress upon each of you that there are no limits to what one can achieve if one has conviction and a definite goal in mind. Don’t let anyone impose their views or curtail your dreams, for they are yours to be protected and nurtured. Set your target and persevere my friends, because one day, you shall end up living the dream. My best wishes to all of you.