“There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win.’
— Match Point (2005, written and directed by Woody Allen)
Well, this exam can be weird. One may work towards it with a lot of focus and clarity, yet it can throw up so many curveballs that you’re left wondering what it all meant. As with mice and men, best laid plans here often go awry as well. However, being focused is possibly the best response you can adopt to face this uncertainty. Discipline did not come naturally to me, so the biennium I dedicated to this was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. It comes at tremendous personal cost, especially in terms of our mental well-being. Since this website is largely patronised not by those contemplating the civil service as a potential career, but by those that have already made that decision and are now looking to harmonise their time and efforts to that end, I can try to lay out my path. With the caveat that this may not be the only path, nor the most optimal; but it worked for me after all was said and done.
Having missed the bus by miles as far as Prelims 2018 was concerned, I set myself a clear goal. To ensure I get just as much was needed to cross the threshold, no more, no less. That meant reading a handful of sources multiple times over, practicing a mock test every week, reviewing the answer keys and further related reading. That did not mean chasing down arcane minutiae or reading for pleasure. As a result, my reading habit took an intentional and indiscriminate turn towards a full daily newspaper (and not ‘interesting’ articles or essays across multiple newspapers or magazines). By May 2019, I had done multiple revisions of the standard books either on their own, or through a regular process of mock test review. This helped, in that, the days post Prelims 2019 were not uncertain – I had a reasonable sense of confidence at clearing, which meant that I could freely shift my focus towards the next phase. On a related note, I did not take CSAT for granted. I wrote the past 5 years’ CSAT question papers, set to time, and ensured that I was comfortably clearing that paper.
Having studied for prelims, much of the information required to answer the mains papers would have already been covered. Further reading would be needed to fill in some gaps that may remain, or to revise particularly challenging topics. This brings me to the more fundamental issue of how to approach a question – we may have all relevant information on that issue, but merely restating them may not be enough.
Looking at a question
I found breaking questions down to their “first principles” to be a helpful framework. Every controversy, issue, or predicament be they social, economic, political and so on would often be merely an articulation of specific aspects which are all based on some core clash of ideas – more government (ie intervention) or less government (ie laissez-faire), social justice or efficiency, positive or normative motivations, et al. The faster one can break a question down to these foundational clashes, the facts that we know (from preparation or otherwise) can be marshaled to justify these first principles that we are advocating. For example, a question on sedition law isn’t really just about the controversy in our popular discourse, but a question of legitimate national security interests and individual freedoms (including, to dissent). This is the principled clash at play. Whether section 124A of the IPC is the optimal way to pursue this (efficacy, safeguards and so on) is only incidental to the principled clash, regardless of how the questions seems phrased, on first reading. Having this mental framework helped me save time, since I didn’t have to worry about finding enough content to fill 3 pages. The issues would form the sub-headings, whereas recent controversies, relevant statutory provisions, jurisprudence, and constructive suggestions can revolve around these heads. Topped with an introduction that sets the context, and a forward-looking and reflective conclusion would mean that the answer might be somewhat holistic – both in being argumentative and adequately descriptive. Of course, much easier said than done – the challenge lies in doing this 20 times over in 3 hours.
For this stage, I narrowed myself down to a rule of thumb – if ever in need of a trade-off, I would never pick ‘seeking out more information’ over more ‘writing practice’. The bulk of my preparation for mains revolved around writing answers in a timed setting(In my case I used the Insights mains test series). In the beginning, I’d aim to write 7 questions (15 marks, 250 words) in 1 hour. Once that aim was met, I set my sights on 3-hour full syllabus mock tests. With time and practice, I was able to complete those papers without leaving any questions. Then began a process of reflection and improvement. Even if the marginal gain from spending time on reviewing those papers was low, I would make sure to look through them and seek out ways to improve presentation, articulation, and justification. The team at Insights, led by Messers Vinay Kumar and Sudeep, was incredibly patient – I would harass them relentlessly to read and review my answers. I tried to incorporate their suggestions into the next mock test that I attempted. My suggestion would be to have someone read the mock answers – not really for the substantive content (which may be inferred from key answers, research and so on), but for perspective and visualization of the impact of what we write on possible readers.
Another rule of thumb that I tried to internalise was this – “It is not what you know, it is what you can show”. I had to disabuse myself of the notion that whatever I think I know is automatically conveyed to the examiner, and that all I had to do was indiscriminately throw it all at the paper. This exam drowns in the scale of the competition, so our aim has to be to stand out, rather than wishfully expect an evaluator who would spend inordinate amounts of time seeking out some hidden brilliance in our answers. As cynical as this might seem, I think this is a reality check that would do us all well. Rather, it might be better to aim to present whatever we know in the most attractive, penetrable form so that we may score marks that are above the average on most questions. In my reading, the exam rewards this sort of consistency more than any flashes of genius.
For the Essay paper, it was also a case of practice over all else. This helped me break down a given topic, word-by-word, so that I would not miss a specific dimension that the examiner might expect. I tried to make my essays anecdotal (from the annals of history and culture), focused, and with a clear point of view (a thesis) that was unambiguously conveyed in the early pages.
For the Optional subject, I relied mostly on my university education, notes, and some extent of gap-filling. Please put in the requisite effort so that the compulsory language papers do not pose a threat (a la CSAT) – here too, the past papers are a fair indicator, and being comfortable with them should suffice.
My interview was a relatively low-pressure experience. It felt like an intelligent conversation on some of my interests, ideas, and opinions. I was not asked technical questions, nor were there discussions on current affairs. I came out of the hall with a sense of satisfaction at having held a good conversation for 30-40 minutes. But I did practice multiple times prior to the final interview (including several occasions with Mr Vinay Kumar, who offered pointed feedback on demeanor, tone, and impression), to hone my skills of perception, inculcate a sense of reverence, and remove any traits of irony or flippancy that I may have picked up over the years.
At this point, I have only this to repeat: this exam can be very unpredictable. So aiming to hedge against the worst might be a more effective strategy than to aim to outperform the curve. That might mean trying to do just about enough under each head, rather than aiming for perfection or even spikes in some areas. Playing to the average might help us mitigate the harm caused by some (inevitable) troughs. For instance, I felt that my GS III paper had gone quite well, only for the result to show that it was my lowest scoring paper; in fact, I did much better on some other papers than my own post-exam analysis indicated.
Given all this, ‘tis best to temper our expectations. As with the twelve-step programme, here too, the first step should be ‘acceptance’ – of what this exam is, and equally, of what it isn’t. Once that realisation sets in, we might be better placed to work to meet the demands of each stage. To this end, both perspective and sincerity in our sense of purpose would be most welcome.