I am Rajat Pant, AIR 90 (CSE 2018). As the mains examination is near, I am back with my mains strategy this time. This is the point in the timeline of this examination where all the aspirants can be divided into 2 categories. First, are the ones who could not clear prelims this year (Me in 2017). Second, are the ones who have cleared it (Me in 2018). Trust me; both of you are in an equally good position to crack this examination at most by 2020. I say it because I have been there in both of the above situations during my UPSC journey.
Failure: A blessing in disguise
After my first prelims, I was in the first group of aspirants. Though disappointed at first, facing the failure staring at me with fierce eyes but later I realized that it was a blessing in disguise. Although, I could not clear prelims, but I knew I had learned a lot of polity, geography, economics, history, in the last days of prelims preparation. So knowing that I have a whole year at my disposal, I came to terms with the fact that it would be almost impossible to read more of those subjects that are primarily static in nature and had taken a toll on me. I read many mentors as well as successful candidates say that even if one is not clearing pre, one should prepare for mains as if one is going to appear for mains that year. Personally speaking, I could never fool my mind into preparing for mains, with the required intensity, knowing I am not in the race that year. This understanding of reality, led me to venture into the new realm of practicing answer writing for mains.
At this time, I came across the Insights Secure initiative, of which I had read a lot from previous year’s toppers articles. At the onset of preparation, a new candidate is always perplexed to see the vast ocean of information where one finds himself/herself lost like a small boat without GPS. One doesn’t have any idea on how to make notes, how to understand what is important for Mains etc. I was also one such aspirant who had no idea about the art of making notes. I read many topper’s strategies to get the idea of how to start making notes, but none satisfied me. In an attempt to try a few, I downloaded Evernote (as suggested by many) to make notes. But it didn’t work for me, or putting plainly, I was not able to work on it. So I decided to make hand written notes. For the source, I stuck to Insights Secure and two newspapers that I used to follow consistently. I didn’t touch any magazine like Kurukshetra or Yojana.
How to start answer writing
I started the practice with writing daily answers to the questions being uploaded on Insights website and then compare my answers with the best ones. As I am a person not good with following routines, I could barely continue the practice for a week. Having been fed up with my incompetence and inconsistency to follow the daily targets, I came across the monthly compilation of secure initiative. I went to the nearest shop in Old Rajinder Nagar to purchase January’s secure compilation. Seeing a bulky, more than 300 page notebook was definitely not a love at first sight experience. But its ordered compartmentalization of sections into GS 1/2/3/4 with separate index for each, questions covering various news sources (EPW, The Hindu, Livemint, etc.), the model answers loaded with different recent facts, examples, government schemes and also a lot of basic points on each and every topic, made me slowly fall in love with it.
At first, I acquainted myself with Secure by just, reading the material without writing any of the answers. I simply read it as one reads a simple NCERT book. I underlined the important points in various answers and marked subsequent answer in the index section. Now instead of doing 5-6 questions daily online, I used to read about 20-35 pages of Secure daily. This helped me in giving more time at a stretch to the secure questions. In this way, I could complete my first Secure in about 20-25 days. The reading of secure helps in two ways. Firstly, it gives a type of outline about how to approach an answer. Secondly, you get some basic content on numerous topics to start with.
The Art of Making Notes
Once I finished reading the complete secure for a month, I made notes out of it of the basic fodder material for different topics. These topics include poverty, unemployment, gender inequality, agriculture issues, waste management etc. I made notes on loose sheets of paper that I attached to a file in which I arranged the topics according to the mains syllabus. While writing the basic points about the topic like ‘What is the problem’, ‘Reasons for the problem’, ‘Solutions to the problem’ etc., I would leave a marginal space at the right hand corner for any future addition of information related to the topic, to be picked up from the newspapers. Henceforth, I got printouts of Insights Secure compilation for the next 3 months and started writing answers for few questions in a notebook.
After my first attempt (in which I read only one newspaper), I decided to read two newspapers (The IE and The Hindu), as I had enough time. If one is not able to read newspapers daily, one can definitely read newspapers on alternate days. Because the place where I lived, newspapers used to come once in 2-3 days. So sometime, I used to read four/six or even eight newspapers in a day. Here the only thing that you need to make sure is that you do not skip even a day’s newspaper. I used to underline the important news stuff and kept the underlined newspapers aside for note making later on. These newspapers helped me to make considerable add on to my notes of various current events as well as different concepts like a scholars perspective on secularism, globalization, education, health etc.
Apart from these notes on various topics I also used to make point wise notes of various current Facts & Figures, Examples that could be used in Mains answers. I got these from regular reading of newspapers and answer writing of Secure. The only thing now you need to do with your notes is to just add any current example, facts like government/international organizations report, any government scheme related to the topic which would come in newspapers. For example, once I had made notes on waste management like problem, solution, way forward, Swacchh Bharat, WASH initiative, Waste Management Rules etc., then later I added an example of Alappuzha being declared as one of the 5 ideal cities in the world for decentralized solid waste management by UNEP.
I never posted any answer online. Instead, I relied on self-evaluation by comparing with the model answers. In total, before January I had read and written answers to around 3-4 months of insights secure and made notes out of it. Yes, I did not solve Secure for all the months. In the course of preparation, I realized that the around the year most of the questions are weaved around few basic topics like poverty, unemployment, education, health, development etc. Therefore, once I collected around a page or two of basic info on a particular topic, I usually tried exploring new topics.
In addition to practicing Secure, I also downloaded copies of selected candidates from Vision IAS website, GS Score, write answers and compare it with them. I also noted down any committee name or recommendation, fact, example used by them. This helps one to understand the practical details of answer writing and how to present oneself.
During the last few days from Mains examination, I also made a handy compilation of Committee recommendations, Supreme Courts cases etc., in a single notebook (I have attached the notes below).
Importance of Answer Writing for Mains
If someone asks me which is the most important aspect of Mains preparation. I would always without a doubt say, “Answer Writing practice”. It is often said that this exam is full of unpredictability. By seeing some out of the box questions in recent years, one can imagine Forrest Gump saying, “UPSC Mains exam is like a box of chocolates, you never know which questions you are going to get”. Therefore, to tackle uncertainty of this level, the only thing that can guarantee you certainty of some sort is your competence in writing answers to each and any kind of question that you are going to face in the examination. You cannot leave answer writing on chance. The more you practice, the more you will be familiar with different types of questions that can be asked.
I started writing answers since November 2017 but was not at all regular with it. From January onwards I focused on prelims till June. After clearing the prelims examination in 2018, I made four separate notebooks for each of the GS papers. With the help of one of my school friend, I used to do questions from Secure. He used to send me 7-8 questions daily, with different days allotted to GS 1/2/3/4/case studies. In a span of 1.5 months, we covered Secure for 3 months (Of course, we didn’t write each and every question). We both used to exchange our answers via mail and compare. We also referred Case studies from the test copies of selected candidates that are easily available on the internet. At weekends, I used to go through the model answers given in the secure compilation.
How I used write an answer
I usually preferred writing in points, but also wrote some in para format. In most of the answers, I tried consuming whole of the given space. For this, I enlarged my handwriting a bit to fill the given space completely. As it is very much necessary to complete the paper also, so it becomes an imperative to write points in short, with proper headings to catch the eye of the examiner as well as save time.
For example, rather than writing, ‘India spends less amount of its GDP percentage on education’, one should write, ‘Low spending on education’. The other most important aspect is to substantiate each of your points in an answer with a fact/example/committee recommendation/ARC/NITI Aayog/Law Commission Reports/Economic Survey/Scholar suggestions etc. For example, ‘Low Spending on education (3% of GDP, While Brazil/South Korea=6 %of GDP)’, or for giving solution, ‘Increase spending on education (NITI Aayog 3 year action agenda)’ etc. You need to make sure that none of your stated point is unsubstantiated. Always back your point with an authenticated source. You can develop this habit of writing this way by writing anything or any fact, which may not even be true, while practicing. Suppose you write, ‘Low Spending on education (1.3% of GDP)’. Then when you review your answers, try to find the correct stat from the internet. Then once you get the correct data make it part of your data compilation. This way you will inculcate the habit of writing facts, as well as create a repository of most important facts like spending on various sectors, percentage of farmer suicides, bad loans data, unemployment rate, literacy rate etc.
I collected few basic quotes on various topics. The one thing that helped me immensely is copies of past years toppers available on the internet. I made no notes out of those copies, but just read it whenever I felt bored. It helps in understanding that where, how to use anecdotes, structure of the essay. The essay paper requires no such exclusive preparation. Just by reading various essays on different topics, one can get some idea on tackling vast variety of objective as well as philosophical topics. Writing an essay depends on your comfort level on different topics- argumentative, descriptive, philosophical etc. Thus, it is better to write an essay each from different topics. I wrote in all around 7 essays before writing the final paper.
Essay is the only paper where feedback of others matters the most. Moreover, the best part is that even a person not related to UPSC CSE preparation can give her/his views. So every essay I wrote, I used to send it to my friends and brother for an honest feedback.
Along with GS answer writing, I also carried on with my optional- PSIR. I purchased solved test papers of Shubhra Ranjan ma’am’s last year’s test series. As I had taken classes at Shubhra Ranjan Ma’am, the previous year, I had those notes with me. I used to revise one topic like in Western thinkers if I did Plato, Aristotle, and simultaneously attempt their questions and compare with the given model answers. In this way, I revised as well as wrote answers. The only thing required for PSIR is sticking to your sources (Mine was Shubhra Ranjan Ma’am’s notes) and revising them relentlessly. I also updated my notes in the span of 2 years. The update was only to the part, which I did not understand well. I referred to various online sources like plato.stanford.edu website, Wikipedia, YouTube etc. As it is very important to quote the name of scholar and his/her book, I made short handy notes of scholar names and their books (I have attached the notes below). For IR part, I relied on Shubhra Ranjan Maam’s notes that she gives during the crash course. The static part of international theories and theorist was already in her class notes, which I felt was enough to write a 200-250 words answer.
If there is one thing you need to learn in optional, it is to develop a habit of practicing answer writing. The more you practice the more you will be able to score in the final exam. Sit with a clock and time your answers. Even if you write one answer, just time it. Try to finish your answer within the required time based on the marks and word limit allotted to the question. In an ideal scenario, you should finish a 10 marker in 8 mins, a 15 marker in 10 mins and a 20 marker in 13 mins. I am stressing on time management because I was not able to complete my Paper 1 due to mismanagement of time. Because of it I had to leave two 15 markers (i.e. 30 marks). But clocking my time properly in Paper 2, I could complete it.
Few days before Mains
I stopped giving any tests or write answers, 15 days before the Mains examination. The only thing I did was multiple readings of Vision Mains 365(One can read mains compilation of any coaching) and my notes, which I have shared with you. The only thing that matters in the exam is what you have written that day. The vast amount of knowledge in your head is of no use if you cannot put it in 150/250 words. This requires that various examples, facts, committee recommendations etc. be at the tip of your fingers. This can only happen if they are fresh in your memory. Even during the two-hour break between two GS papers, I went through these handy notes multiple times so I could print the stuff in my brain directly on the paper.
The Clichéd Motivational Ending
At this stage (for the ones who have cleared prelims), one thing that can let you down is the monster of self-doubt. Questions and assertions like ‘Have I done enough preparation to write mains this year?’, ‘Will I be able to compete with people who are more prepared than me?’, ‘I Have not practiced enough answer writing’, ‘I will give my best next year’, etc., will always come to your mind. The answer to all these doubts is what Eminem (in I’m not afraid song) says, ‘Next time, there is no next time’. Give it your best shot today and you will never regret it. You have cleared prelims, so you know you have it in yourself to get your name featured in the final pdf as well. At present, you yourself must be clueless about the amount of hard work you can extract out from your body-mind combination. This mains exam like Jamvant will surely bring out the real Hanumanji- the storehouse of true grit, present inside you.
I tell you, this preparation time is going to be one of the best times in your life. After clearing the exam, this is the time you will cherish the most. Getting a positive result will surely enthrall you with excitement. However, eventually you will surely realize, the real satisfaction lies in the efforts you make while reaching the goal.
So work hard and enjoy this preparation time to the fullest.