ALERT: This is a long post. So take your breaks and naps while reading it 🙂
Civil Services Examination (CSE) is like a marathon run where one has to run with different pace at different stages and therefore preparation has to be done accordingly assessing his/her strengths and weaknesses. One’s strengths need to be sharpened to be used advantage and weaknesses have to be purged off.
This marathon run of 3 stages (Prelims, Mains and Personality Test) which takes almost a whole year to complete is not only an academic examination but also a test of various abilities like endurance, perseverance, determination, wisdom, courage, hard work, never say die attitude. It might be more strenuous mentally than most of the challenges one would have faced beforehand. Whoever undergoes this process, whether they fail or succeed, all of them come out as a different personality just like me. In the last post, I wrote about why I decided to pursue Civil Services as a career. This post would focus on general overview of Civil Services Examination highlighting the importance of Prelims exam for preparation, role of some of the subjects in getting good ranks, manner of preparation at each stage, tips and tricks mentioning my experience and finally the motivation part. It would also cover different questions which come to aspirants’ minds before diving in actual preparation mode or during preparation for this exam. For example – When one should start preparing? How Civil Services Exam (CSE) is different from other exams? How one should prepare considering unpredictability of this exam?
WHEN ONE SHOULD START PREPARING FOR CSE?
I would start by clarifying the educational level at which one should start preparing for CSE. I have come across toppers who have started preparing right from Class XI and they have also taken their graduation subjects according to the optional subjects they would choose for CSE. I feel that this approach of studying for CSE since high school days is not appropriate. At this time of life, most of the people are not aware about their interests, what they want to do in their lives, what is their passion, which career path would bring them ultimate satisfaction. College environment provides the right exposure to develop interests, makes them aware of different career paths, imparts with knowledge of merits and demerits of each career path, helps choose most appropriate career path which matches with their personality. This college experience might even let one choose a career path different from CSE though earlier (before college) he/she was thinking of preparing for CSE. It is advisable to all the youths not to be so serious so early in their lives and enjoy their college days and decide judiciously afterwards.
Having said this, one could be wise to choose their optional subject early on. But that is not a certain guarantee for his/her success in CSE. This is because success in CSE depends upon many other factors even in the optional subject. There might be a case that the graduation subject which one decides to take as his/her optional subject is not faring well in CSE exams. The question pattern which is coming in CSE might not match with the reading style and syllabus of that subject in college. Many optional subjects in CSE also test the contemporary relevance / current affairs portion which aspirants have to read it afresh anyways after passing out from the college.
Above things give an idea that it is sane to start one’s CSE preparation only from 3rd or 4th year of college when he/she becomes certain about it.
HOW CSE IS DIFFERENT FROM OTHER COMPETITIVE EXAMS?
This is in the context of many aspirants feel under confident during preparation as they didn’t get good percentage in 10th or 12th board exams or have not read from renowned colleges like IITs, IIMs etc.
I want to bust this wrong perception of aspirants that they are at a disadvantage if they don’t belong to good colleges or if they have got less marks in board examinations. The most recent example of this case is Junaid Ahmed, rank 3 in CSE 2018 Exam who scored around 42% in 11th Class, 60% in 12th Board Exam and completed his graduation from Sharda University. It should be very clear to every aspirant that CSE process is very fair and unbiased. Aspirants should not have such false perceptions in their minds and should prepare for this exam with their free minds. Removing these perceptions from mind also boosts confidence. Even in Personality Test, those aspirants who are not good in educational background or financially deprived either are at par with others or have a leverage over others. They can never be at disadvantageous position.
CSE is also different from other competitive exams in a way that clearing it requires different skill sets than rest of them. What I have learnt in my preparation journey is that this exam requires the following things:
- Consistency in studies: meaning that one has to clock around 8-10 hours of study on a daily basis consistently. You can’t study 13 hours today and not study at all tomorrow.
- Finding the right strategy: Since UPSC is not so transparent about the examination process as it doesn’t show the Mains Examination answer sheets, one has to work the other way round. You can ask various selected candidates what their strategy was and how they wrote Mains Answers and you imitate one of them that suits your strength of writing style. Same goes for Personality test also as you have to interact with selected candidates and read transcripts of people who have appeared in Personality Test to get an idea how interview generally proceeds and preparation has to be done accordingly.
After doing these things, one needs a bit of luck too. But luck only favours those who have done hard work, are consistent and have found the right strategy. Patience and perseverance are also needed to clear this exam as one needs just one shot to crack it. This one direct shot may not come in the initial attempts but might come towards the last attempts. Example of this is Rank 27 of CSE 2018, Saloni Khemka, who got Rank 27 in her last attempt (6th one).
IS THIS EXAM UNPREDICTABLE? IS IT OBJECTIVE/SUBJECTIVE?
It’s a request to the aspirants not to have such wrong perception. Having such belief deprives one’s tendency to give 100% effort from his/her side. This feeling also deteriorates the confidence. And if one has confidence, half the battle of cracking CSE is already won as he/she is mentally clear about his/her strategy for preparation. I have also come across some aspirants who are in their last or 2nd last attempts and they blame their fate for their failure. No doubt, there is luck involved in this exam process in some stages but there is also an objectivity involved in it. I want to clarify this through an example.
In Mains Exam 2017, I had got 453 marks in General studies (GS) with a certain answer writing style and preparation strategy. I repeated the same things for Mains Exam 2018 too. This year I got 435 marks in GS which is at par with last year’s marks in GS as this year GS has been rewarded with lesser marks. Similar is the experience in Personality Test (PT). People who go with the same strategy or same practice in PT get the same marks in different attempts even though their Interview Boards are different. This proves that the examination process is objective to some extent. Subjectivity lies in finding the appropriate strategy to clear this exam. Once that strategy is found and strictly followed, one is awarded similar marks in different years of CSE.
This advises one not to sulk about his/her failure. In failure, one shouldn’t point the reason to be their bad luck only. Failures should be faced head on, mistakes should be accepted and proper strategy of correcting them should be put in place. Generally, people feel that whatever they are doing is correct (despite their failures) and they have an attitude of resistant to change. This attitude lets them down in each attempt they fail in and they start pointing the reason of their failure to be bad luck. It is suggested that aspirants who failed take feedback from different people like selected candidates or group of candidates who are preparing seriously for CSE. There would be different types of feedbacks which you would be receiving after talking to them. Here I would suggest that you follow the approach of “Suno sabki karo apni”. Out of all the feedbacks which you get, incorporate only those which you feel to be important and which suits your strategy of preparation. Incorporating them will certainly help as they have done for me.
I was stuck in 2017 Mains Test Series for GS in range of 70-80 marks for first 6 tests. I then circulated my answer copies to my friends who were either selected or preparing with me. They gave the feedback that I was not appropriately addressing the question, explaining a single point in 3-4 lines, giving unequal weightage to different parts of the question, wasn’t making proper structures for answers including headings and sub-headings, had poor presentation like alignment of points. I found first 3 points very relevant to improve my GS marks in Test Series in subsequent tests. My marks jumped from 70s-80s to 100s as I made notes which had keywords for a point (which helped reduce those 3-4 lines to 1 liner). Note making also helped me in addressing the questions in right manner as I wrote only those things which were asked and didn’t write whatever I knew about the topic of the question.
After addressing the basic questions, I would now like to share with you the important things which I learnt during examination process and it will be useful to all those who are reading this. Things which would be discussed are:
- How important is clearing Prelims to continue your study for rest of the year?
- Are all stages (Prelims, Mains and Personality Test) to be prepared in sequence or simultaneously?
- Contribution of Essay, Optional and Personality Test in final rank
Finally, I would end this article on a positive note highlighting my failures and motivation which is required to clear this exam.
WHY PRELIMS EXAM IS IMPORTANT STAGE IN CSE?
Prelims is an important stage in this whole process. It has also become most uncertain considering the pattern of questions coming in Paper I (General Studies) for the past few years. This paper has become all the more relevant since CSAT paper (Prelims Paper II) has been made qualifying. It has become a make or break situation for all the aspirants. Qualification in Prelims becomes important else the motivation to study for next stages declines and one works with very little efficiency as one has to wait for an entire year for the next Prelims. Hence, Prelims should be given equal weightage as given to other stages as it could get one out of the race in the initial stage of marathon run itself. It could deprive one from running 2nd and 3rd stages of the race where different strategy is needed to be framed to complete the race successfully.
I personally used to be very afraid from Prelims as I hadn’t cleared Prelims in my 1st attempt. In the second attempt, I started reading exclusively for Prelims 4 months beforehand and cleared it with enough margin. Again in 3rd attempt, since I had less time for Prelims due to interview in 2nd attempt, I could clear Prelims only by a little margin. If one is scoring well in Prelims, there is an added advantage. One could start preparation for Mains examination with full zeal and vigor without any hesitation in mind after taking 7-10 days break once Prelims examination gets over.
ESSAY, ETHICS, OPTIONAL SUBJECT, PERSONALITY TEST CAN GET YOU GOOD RANKS
I would like to focus on highlighting the importance of some of the subjects. Essay, Ethics, Optional Subject and Personality Test play a pivotal role in getting good ranks. Remember everybody scores almost similarly in first three General Studies papers. It is these 4 papers which all the difference. They played a great role in my success too. I increased my interview marks from previous attempt in CSE Mains 2017 (in which I had got rank 493) from 140 to 179 in CSE Mains 2018 which was the main reason to pull my rank under 100.
Essay marks also increased this time by 4 marks from 130 to 134. Observing that essay has been given lesser marks this time compared to 2017 Mains, this increase effectively amounts to around 10-12 marks which is good surge in one paper of 250 marks. Everyone should also choose an optional with rationality and sensibility. Choosing a good optional, which should also be of interest gives leverage of around 30-40 marks which can pull the rank from 400s to under 100. In CSE 2018, highest marks for Anthropology Optional is 362 while for Sociology Optional it’s around 330.
MY JOURNEY CLARIFYING IF ALL STAGES (PRELIMS, MAINS AND PERSONALITY TEST) ARE TO BE PREPARED IN SEQUENCE OR SIMULTANEOUSLY
I feel that there should be an integrated approach of preparation for all 3 stages. Preparation of Prelims and Mains exams should go hand in hand. Preparation of Personality Test too starts from the day we start preparing for CSE. If anyone fails at any stage, he/she should ensure that complete cycle of preparation for all three stages are being completed. This strategy has an advantage which I would share with my experience.
In the 1st attempt, I couldn’t qualify Prelims. After Prelims result, I gave focus on Mains immediately and prepared for Prelims in 2nd attempt only 4 months prior to it. During this time i.e., from Prelims result in 1st attempt till 4 months prior to Prelims exam in 2nd attempt, I prepared for Optional and GS Mains. Once, I qualified Prelims in 2nd attempt in 2017, Mains exam became comparatively easy for me to study as it was the revision I was doing and giving the final touch to my Mains strategy by working upon Answer Writing.
After Mains Exam in 2nd attempt, I started preparing for Personality Test immediately after taking around 10-days break and worked upon DAF. The idea was that even when I don’t get call for Personality Test, I would be in a safe position if I get the call next year. Luckily, I got personality test call in 2nd attempt only and my preparation came in handy. Thus the idea to complete one cycle of entire 3-stage Civil Services exam process helps a lot.
In my 3rd attempt, Prelims and Mains papers preparation were already done. I had to only improve upon Personality Test (PT) which I did evident by the jump of 39 marks (from 140 to 179) in this attempt. I improved my PT marks by working upon the demerits of last year’s PT, through thorough analysis of my transcript. I also realized that to make the conversation in PT interesting, my points has to be substantiated with examples. Examples could be personal or of bureaucrats, public servants, civil society who have worked for public welfare and have made an impact on the society.
THE MOTIVATION FACTOR
I would like to finally touch upon the motivation part which is needed to clear this exam. CSE is not an examination but a process where one learns and imbibe various qualities. One’s personality is groomed. It also teaches him/her how to get up after failures. Many people might not have handled failures beforehand and they would have been successful in every endeavor they undertook. But let me tell you, it is okay to fail in this process. This process teaches you how to get up after failure, correct your mistakes and then succeed by working on those mistakes.
Trust me, you get immense satisfaction after conquering your failures and experiencing the taste of success. Experiencing both sides of the coin, failure and success, helps you a lot in the future too. You become resilient, patient, perseverant, acquire strong will power, good temperament and start to approach everything with never say die attitude. You tend to understand your strengths and weaknesses.
It is important that you strategize according to your strengths and weakness in this exam. Strengths need to sharpened like a blade and weaknesses need to be purged off. Remember, “Toppers don’t do different things, they do things differently”. Always be receptive to feedback and accept your mistakes. Feedback provides with avenues to correct your mistakes. Having said this, it is important to do your work without thinking about the results. Remember the central theme of Bhagavad Gita which is Nishakama Karma which means that Karm karte raho, fal ki chinta mat karo. Safalta apne aap tumhe milegi.
It is important to remain confident in this process. Remember the battle is half won when you have confidence. This process is such that everyone gets frustrated when he/she doesn’t find his/her name in final list. After this, it is a painful exercise to repeat the whole cycle again. It looks like a never ending cycle when one is not able to taste success. At this time, faith plays a very important role. Have faith that if you didn’t succeed this time, something better is in store for you next time. The nature of this exam is such that no topper is even sure of getting selected, leave alone getting top ranks. Same was the case with me. Trust me, there is a very fine line between non-selection and selection in top ranks just like there is a fine line between a cricket shot going over the boundary for a six and getting out just before the boundary. Believe in yourself that you can do it and you will certainly do it.
Thanks for your patience for reading it out. Next post would cover specific strategy for General Studies Mains. Stay in tune for it!