PRELIMS STRATEGY – How to make Use of InsightsIAS Prelims Test Series?
Dhananjay Singh Yadav, RANK 95 CSE-2018
Prelims Marks in CSE-2018 GS-112.6, CSAT-144.18
READ Dhananjay’s Mains Strategy HERE
Hi, I am Dhananjay Singh Yadav. I got Rank 95 in UPSC CSE 2018. This was my first attempt and my optional was Political Science and International Relations.
I graduated from Shri Ram College of Commerce with a Bachelor of Commerce (Hons.) in 2014. I worked for 3 years with Reckitt Benckiser, a British consumer goods company, in sales and marketing. I worked there till June 2017 and quit to prepare for Civil Services Exam 2018. I decided to prepare from home, utilising the abundant resources available online. In this journey, blogs and articles of people who took this exam before me were immensely helpful. Hence, here I am giving back what I had once gleaned, and hoping someone finds it of some use.
With 2% selection rate, prelims is rightly considered the most dreaded stage of this examination. I, personally, consider prelims to be a different exam altogether; it’s a mere coincidence the syllabus for prelims and mains is the same. The approach for reading anything from prelims perspective is a sea change when reading it from mains/interview perspective. This is not a feeling I have developed after clearing this exam, I have always considered prelims to be the final boss of this game which is ironically the first one we have to battle.
Note: DO NOT feel underprepared or over-prepared if you have done things differently. Some people clear without taking a single mock for prelims or never having made any notes. All you need is dollops of confidence: continue with your strategy and be confident when you walk into the exam hall. Everyone has their own approach towards this examination, this was my method in this madness.
Let me divide the prelims prep largely under three pillars: current affairs, static, mocks. I’ll additionally cover what I did 3 months before prelims and CSAT.
After a bit of trial and error lasting over a month, I settled on the following routine every morning:
- The Hindu (July 2017 onwards)
- Insights daily current affairs (covered from January 2017 onwards)
- Daily quiz on Insights and ForumIAS (July 2017 onwards)
I did these three things every day until mid-April 2018. This ensured I was on top of current affairs the entire time, had concise notes topic wise, and had developed a strong knack for informed guessing.
Since I had become a daily visitor to Insights for topper articles, I saw their schedule for prelims test series that they were starting in mid-July 2017. It was complete with weekly targets from July 2017 to the prelims day 3rd June 2018. I subscribed to it as I felt it was a better plan than I had made on my own. Additionally, I would be taking a mock almost every Sunday, revising the syllabus along the way (twice, as there would be a revision test after 3-4 mocks) till I complete it.
I didn’t follow the timetable to the T and made adjustments wherever necessary:
- I covered the following NCERTs (all as per Insights book list) – class 6-12 (history, geography, but not all in civics), class 11 (art & culture) + selective NIOS, class 6-8 + couple of chapters from class 11-12 (science). Also, TN state board history (class 11 & class 12, till medieval) to get a linear timeline, which is missing in new history NCERTs. I also googled and added notes wherever I felt the need.
- I skipped certain books that were part of the reading list (such as GC Leong, World History NCERTs; I did Arjun Dev after prelims) as I was determined to keep my sources few and revisions many (tl;dr I followed only 4 additional books – Ramesh Singh for Economy, Spectrum for Modern History, Laxmikant, Shankar).
- I made short notes of all the NCERTs I mentioned in (1) when I did the first reading so I don’t have to keep going back to them. This meant my subsequent revisions were faster. I kept all the information that I felt could be asked in prelims.
Like most aspirants, I maintained maps for some crucial information such as rivers, endangered species, Ramsar sites, mountain ranges etc. Here’s how mine looked liked for National Parks and Tiger Reserves. Make your own by spending some hours on it. I took almost half a day, googling each of these sites individually. Two revisions of two hours each, and there’s little chance of getting a Pakhui/Pakke tiger reserve type of question wrong.
Since I skipped certain books that InsightsIAS had prescribed, it allowed me to get ahead of Insights’ schedule and finish the syllabus by late February itself, giving me almost 3 months of revisions before prelims. This meant I was not 100% punctual with the Sunday mocks but I caught up with all of them by mid-April (I must have taken 11-12 mocks on consecutive days).
However, know this: no amount of reading and revising will help you if you do not play this game by UPSC’s rule. And UPSC has but one rule for prelims: unpredictability. To counter the unpredictability, I decide to focus on these three aspects:
- Getting good at informed guessing
- Improving my number of attempts (if 1 and 2 work together, then accuracy automatically improves)
- Handling pressure/weird or difficult papers
Mocks were the backbone of my preparation for the D-day. I would not have been able to realise the sweet spot of the number of attempts I need, to consistently cross a 105+ threshold, without the help of mocks. Over the course of 30+ tests (and daily quizzes), I also got significantly better at informed guessing. I would eventually make a tactical mistake and go for overkill at actual prelims instead of what I had internalised, but was still confident of a 110 after the exam.
I was never active on the discussion forum of Insights prelims test series portal (heck I made a Disqus account only after clearing; I can easily be lured into comment wars and hence decided to not give myself that option) but read the comments with great interest. I would agree with the majority view there:
- Questions are sometimes marked wrong or an explanation is incorrect
- Unnecessarily high difficulty levels/very weird questions sometimes
- Often Insights does not stick with the syllabus, which frustrates the test takers
Of these, I usually got frustrated with the first point, especially when it would drag down my score below my tolerance levels. I would, however, begrudgingly agree with Insights’ test making strategy partially on the second point, and completely on the third point. UPSC is not going to stick with the syllabus nor it is going to ask easy questions. The sooner you get used to it, despite seeing some low scores, the better. I saw scores as low as 68 in the first few months but never went below 105 or top 10-12% of test takers (my thresholds) after I had completed the syllabus by February end.
I tried being as punctual with mocks as possible. I must have been on track about 80% of times until I decided to go deviate from their schedule to finish the syllabus by February end (this meant I was maybe two months behind mocks). I ended up catching up with the test series in April when I took a mock every single day for 11-12 days. This also meant by revision and test syllabus were not in sync. However, I didn’t let that bother me much because I would face something similar on 3rd June 2018. I was not in the habit of revising my mocks (which is otherwise recommended) and had deferred them to a pre-prelims revision blitz.
Note on mock scores: people with a consistent 120+ in mocks may not clear. People with consistent 80s may clear. Do not have unrealistic expectations from any test series. Its purpose is to prepare you for the D-day and not guarantee the score you will get or x number of questions. Try to achieve a level of consistency (number of attempts/accuracy) and work upwards.
3 months plan before prelims
I wrapped up my syllabus for the first time by late February. I had completed all the basic books and followed current affairs till this point. I was doing alright in mocks but was behind 2 months (from what I remember).
I aimed to finish two rounds of revision and catch up with mocks by mid-April. I largely succeeded in this by speed reading areas where I was comfortable (geography, economy, current affairs), and reading every line where I was weak (culture, environment).
For the last 45 days, I wanted an in-depth reading without rushing through any area and still finish the revision a week before prelims. I had stopped reading the newspaper by now. This is what my day usually looked like:
- IASBaba 60-day static quiz (I didn’t do the Insights one as I felt the need to diversify, and in the last month I was doing 2 days’ quiz in one to cover up). I used to write answers in a notebook and add any worthwhile points on the same page. This is what it looked like. I revised it a couple of days before prelims and on the way to the centre.
- Revising my own current affairs notes (I would aim for 3-4 days for one broad topic I had created)
- Revising static portion (I aimed to finish, say, Laxmikant in 6-7 days, Shankar in 6 days, Spectrum in 5 days, Geography NCERT in 5, and so on)
- Revise Insights mocks I had taken so far. I started from the very first one, I would end up spending ~3 hours every night before sleeping. I added any information that I felt I needed to retain in another page I had created (ended up creating at least 1000 points, still got Sthanakvasi question wrong <facepalm>). I had revised these points in the last week.
- By end of April, we had reached full syllabus tests (FLT). I do not remember now if Insights had kept a CSAT test along with every FLT but I did a CSAT mock along with every FLT (I took 3 past years’ UPSC CSAT). Every Sunday, I would take FLT at 10 am to noon and CSAT from 3-5 pm. I would generally not schedule anything else on that and have a relaxed evening. I also took printouts of OMR sheets and did the FLT+CSAT by filling up the bubbles along with marking on the computer. Filling in wrong bubbles is a reality.
I had taken a couple of half-hearted attempts at CAT right out of college. Quant is my Achilles’ Heel; otherwise, I am reasonably good at verbal and reasoning. I scored 85-95 in all of the mocks at Insights.
Initially, I was not concerned as I was crossing 70 but closer to prelims I got worried. Hence, I took out past 3 years’ UPSC prelims CSAT and solved them on FLT days. I easily touched 150 as quant was so much easier than in the mocks. I stopped worrying about it after that.
Before you panic due to marks in mocks, do past years’ CSAT. Then zero in on your weak area. Read more and practice more (I am sure there’s some great CSAT material out there), there’s no other way here.
Things you already know, but a reminder
- Do not read anything new in last month. Understand things you already know better. You are not going to know most questions in the paper, internalise that feeling.
- You’re going to need nerves of steel on the day of the exam. All your hard work is for naught if you panic in the exam hall.
- Do not make wild guesses in the exam (or even in the mocks).
- Revise, revise, revise, revise, and when you’re about to quit, one last revision.
Gentle reminder: DO NOT feel underprepared/over-prepared if you have done things differently. Some people clear without taking a single mock for prelims or never having made any notes. All you need is dollops of confidence: continue with your strategy and be confident when you walk into the exam hall.
Trust yourself. Godspeed to you!
My prelims mark sheet: