In this article, I will be delving upon the importance of UPSC CSE Mains and share few tips which might help you perform (score) well in the examination.
Importance of CSE Mains:
UPSC CSE cycle comprises of 3 stages – Prelims, Mains and Personality Test. Out of these 3 stages, Mains is the most critical phase.
On one hand, we have Prelims and Personality Test (PT). Prelims is merely a screening test where you only need to clear the cutoff. Your marks do not affect your final rank. Whereas PT is a 35-40 minute affair that is highly subjective and the marks vary a lot. Also, it’s final weightage is just 14% (275/2025) in the final result.
On the other hand, Mains gives you an appropriate platform to showcase the knowledge you have gained. Even if your answer is not up to the mark, it is still evaluated. You can ask any aspirant, most of them, irrespective of whether they cleared the exam or not, will agree that Mains has some sort of certainty where marks are proportional to the efforts. You are neither rejected merely based on some 100 questions from multiple topics (without any certainty of marks distribution), nor judged by a single conversation with experienced people having individual subjective perceptions. It is the Mains which gets your name into the list (PT is just the rank and service decider).
However, Mains comes with its own set of challenges, be it Mental – preparing for as many as 9 papers, or Physical – writing incessantly for 3 hours, twice a day, 5 times a week. Taming this beast is not that easy. Every aspirant who has cleared Prelims is both capable as well as aware of the wonderful opportunity lying in front of him/her and puts in a tremendous amount of effort to prepare to the best of his/her ability. But preparing well is just half the battle. It is important to translate this preparation into good performance (read “Marks”). This is the stage where the quality of your answers comes into the picture.
Not everyone is blessed with excellent command over language or the ability to convey the thoughts through beautifully presented answers. Many falter at this step. It is akin to running strongly right through a gruelling marathon only to fall short in the last mile. Generally, there is a lack of effective guidance and aspirants feel little lost about how to approach answer writing. I felt the same as it was my first mains and I was writing subjective answers for the first time since 12th Boards in 2010! (Doing graduation in a subject and institute where open-book examinations were conducted and more emphasis put on lab assignments certainly didn’t help either)
As days went by during my Mains prep, I grew more and more restless and started thinking about the next attempt, particularly the need to shift to Delhi to get my answers evaluated by someone. In my hometown, I didn’t have any peer group to share my answers and get some “timely” feedback. That’s when I decided to see previous topper copies and understand by myself the requirements of a good answer and what all needs to be done. I also kept an eye open to any test-series feedback and online answer to pick up important pointers. Anudeep Sir’s blog was also helpful to some extent.
Here, I share some generic insights into writing individual answers as well as attempting the question paper as a whole which I feel might be helpful for aspirants, especially those who lack guidance.
Structuring an Answer:
Content is the king!
Good quality in individual answers helps you fetch those above-average marks that lead you to the rank you desire. It is important to show some form of structure to the answer.
“Introduction, Body, and Conclusion” format is one of the tried-and-tested approach. It also helps create an impression on the evaluator and portrays you as a thoughtful and organised person 😉
It acts as a way into the answer where one builds-up to the main content. It shouldn’t be more than 10% of the answer, else the evaluator may lose the connect to your answer by the time important points are being discussed. Try and stick to 1 or 2 lines at the maximum.
Some common approaches used are:
- Using a quote (try only if you are comfortable; don’t unnecessarily force them into your answers)
- Defining the concept being discussed (pretty useful in Ethics and Geography)
- Quoting stats and figures along with their source (an easy way into answers for GS2 and GS3)
- Mentioning the context in which the question is asked. It shows the examiner that you are aware of the recent developments. For example: If a question talks about fire safety guidelines, you can mention the recent case of the Surat coaching centre.
It is the part where you do the heavy lifting. It has the maximum weightage and needs to be addressed well. Various aspects and subparts of the questions need to be answered.
Some important tips for writing the “body” of your answer:
- Keep in mind the various directives given in the questions such as Elaborate, Discuss, Critically Analyse etc. You will learn about their differences with more practice. For example, in questions with “critically analyse” directive, you need to present both the sides. First criticise and then give the positives. It ends your answer on a good note.
Here is a document explaining such directives.
- Quality of arguments is very crucial to get good marks. It is important to prioritise points and write the best ones at the start. Generalist points should be written later.
For example, if the question talks about unstable coalition government in a parliamentary system and asks for some reforms. Consider two points: A) “Constructive No-confidence Motion” in which along with no confidence, the opposition needs to show confidence as well.
B) “Healthy coalition culture” should be promoted in India.
Here, A should be written before B which is just a generalist point.
- Avoid writing 1-2 word points. Also don’t be too verbose and explain a lot. There has to be a fine balance between writing less and not over-explaining.
- Use “data” smartly. Don’t fret over mentioning them in your answers excessively. Excess of anything looks bad. There needs to be a balance of opinion and facts.
Moreover, it is difficult to remember stats, especially for first-timers. With revision and practice, you will automatically start remembering and recalling them as and when needed.
In my test series copies, I was asked to quote stats but I didn’t remember them at that time. It was only as the Mains approached that I was able to do it. The more you revise, the better you can recall.
The reason why people use data is to provide a rational basis for their arguments. For example: suppose in an answer on Digital India you write A) “digital penetration in India has increased”
B) “digital penetration in India has increased (200mn WhatsApp users – XYZ report)”
Here, statement B looks better than A.
Also, look at how the data is mentioned along with the source in a couple of words. No need to write full sentences like “As the XYZ report recently mentioned there are 200 million WhatsApp users in India”. These are just filler words that eat your time and words without adding too much value.
Prepare a cheat sheet of stats ready for quick revision. You can keep updating it. I am also sharing my Evernote statistics note for reference. For better retention do this exercise yourself and use the latest figures.
- Similarly for reports and committees. Just write a recommendation and in bracket mention the committee name (like ARC).
- Although not necessary, diagrams, flow charts, hub-and-spoke models, etc do help to some extent. If creativity is not your forte, don’t do it. If you can think and present using them, it can certainly provide you some edge. They also help you write more in fewer words. Diagrams are especially needed for geography answers.
- Always split the questions into multiple subparts (if not done in the question already) and write on them sequentially. It will streamline both your thoughts and your answer.
In 250-word limit questions without subparts, please judge by yourself and add one or two aspects to provide closure to the answer (and also fill up the words!). Writing 250-word answer for a topic you don’t know is one of the toughest challenges!
For eg. if the question says:
Q. “What has been the impact of the green revolution in India?” (250 words)
Here you can’t just go on writing on the impact for 250 words! It will be little difficult to do. Provide some sort of structure by also mentioning briefly what is the green revolution and why it was undertaken. But 80% of the answer should talk about its impact which is the central theme of the question.
- Addressing all the subparts and highlighting them is important if the question itself has subparts.
Provide adequate heading, make a box around it or write it in block letter or underline it. But do not forget to highlight and address them. Also, adequate weightage needs to be given to all the subparts in the question with respect to content allocation in the main body.
- Neat presentation is very important. It helps the examiner in evaluating the answer. Generally, examiner evaluates by having a quick glance and then reading the points in depth.
- Try to ensure proper space between words and lines.
- Proper alignment and indentation is also very important.
- Highlighting various subparts helps in easy identification.
- Underline keywords. It helps catch the eye in first look. But desist from underlining whole sentences.
It is a very important aspect of your answer. Do not underestimate its value. It leaves that lasting impression and provides a sense of closure to the answer. It can be just a single line but don’t leave it at any cost.
Try to be optimistic and forward-looking and, if possible, avoid writing qualifiers like So, Therefore, Hence, etc. Do not criticize unless you can provide some solution.
Attempting the Question Paper:
As mentioned in the test series post, quality in individual answers and quantity of questions attempted overall is important. Thus it is imperative that you attempt as many questions as possible. In order to do so, follow these tips:
Imposing self-restraint on word-limits.
Writing full 150/250 words might be a recipe for disaster, especially if your writing speed is slow. It is highly unlikely that you can attempt all 20 questions (write ~4000 words in 180 minutes ) if you try to adhere to these limits religiously.
So, if you have trouble finishing the question paper, try to reduce the number of words and instead focus on better quality points and underlining the keywords.
For a 150-word limit question (10-marker), try to finish the answer in 135 words and for a 250-word limit question (15-marker) try sticking to within 225 words. A harsher self-imposed word-limit will help you save time and force you to come up with better points instead of bland generalist arguments.
Having said this, I would not want you to alter your natural way of approaching an answer. If you can write full 150/250 words, it’s good but it shouldn’t be done at the cost of diluting the quality of your answer.
Prioritise 15-markers (250 word-limit) question.
They are more important than 10-markers. If you write a poor answer in a 15-marker question, you risk losing more in comparison to a poor answer in 10-marker (Clearly, 1 mark out of 15 is much worse than 1 out of 10). Also, in situations of time-crunch, like the last 30 minutes of the test, it is easier to answer 5×10-markers instead of 4×15-markers.
However, firstly build some momentum by answering 2-3 easy 10-markers in the starting 15-20 minutes. After this initial phase, prioritise the 15-markers.
Tackling the easy questions early.
In any paper you will encounter 3 types of questions:
- “Easy“: on topics that you have read and are confident of answering well and scoring above-average marks (>40%)
- “Hard“: on topics that you have no idea about whatsoever and given a choice you will leave them without second thoughts. In such questions, even if you score 1 or 2 marks you will feel lucky! For example, consider the “Bose Einstein Condensate” question in Mains 2018 GS3 paper. Someone from humanities background with no exposure to this domain will have a hard time writing anything relevant in it.
- “Intermediate“: you have some idea about the topic but need time to recall, consolidate and write a good quality answer. You can score somewhere around 30-40% in such questions.
Typically, a paper will have 5-6 easy questions, 2-3 hard questions and rest intermediate questions. The key lies in scoring above-average in easy questions and near-average in intermediate questions along with scarping few marks here and there in the hard ones. The best possible answers should be written for topics you know albeit keeping the time-limit in mind. So attempt the “easy” question initially.
In order to identify the “easy” questions, have a glance in the initial 2-3 minutes and mark questions in which you are confident. Attempt them first rather than answering all the questions serially.
Few benefits of the glancing exercise and leaving the hard questions for the end:
- After 2-2.5 hours of writing you “might” recall few keywords subconsciously (as you had a glance earlier, your brain started thinking about the topics you read). Now you can write a much better answer as compared to just filling the pages had you attempted such a question earlier.
- If you attempted a question at the start without being confident in it and later recall a better point for it, you can’t go back and change it.
- You gain confidence by answering the easy questions at the start. This then reflects into your later answers.
But, one big disadvantage of glancing at the start is that you might lose confidence if you see a lot of hard questions. But, in my opinion, it is a risk worth taking if you want to write the best answers in topics you are proficient in.
For example, suppose the last question (Q20) is a very easy question that you know thoroughly. You were doing all the questions serially. You mismanaged somewhere and now have only 5 minutes left. Even after knowing everything about that topic, now you can’t write the best answer!
For time management, keep a watch in front of your eyes all the time. Ensure that none of the subparts is taking too much time and as the allotted time is about to end, try to quickly conclude and “move on” to the next question. “Move on” implies that you stop thinking about the past (what you have written) and focus on the next question/sub-part. Once you have answered a question, DO NOT THINK about it at all. You can’t change anything in the past. Be memoryless while attempting (Statistics people would understand this term better).
Breaking-down the 3 hours duration.
Sharing something which I learned from Anudeep Sir’s blog (with some small modifications):
Break the time duration into 30-minute windows and aim to cover 40 marks [(4×10-marker) or (1×10 marker + 2×15 marker)] in each window.
In 2 such windows, you have to cover 45 marks (3×15-marker). Try to do this in the 2nd hour as it is the most effective phase.
With this approach, you will be able to cover 80 marks in 1st hour, 90 in 2nd and 80 again in the 3rd hour.
Preferably, keep the last 75 minutes for 10-markers and unknown questions. Attempt the known 15-markers before that.
Please note that this is merely a guideline towards approaching the paper and keeping the time in check. It is too ideal to be practical. You can deviate from it and prepare your own strategy as well. Even I wasn’t able to replicate it fully in the exam!
Such an approach will help you tackle any marks distribution by UPSC. Do keep in mind that UPSC can anytime change marks distribution like it did in 2017. It can go back to 25×10-markers or 20×12.5-markers – so mentally be prepared for anything!
Some other Miscellaneous tips:
- Make it a habit of reading the question twice. Sometimes the smallest mistakes cost you the most.
- Do not rush yourself. Read the question twice and give yourself 15-20 seconds to structure the answer and then start writing.
- Avoid writing loooong sentences. You have to do this consciously, else you may end up writing paragraph-like sentences. Just write as if you are in a primary class. Short to-the-point sentences are the way to go.
- When you start Answer Writing Practice, go for quality content first even if it takes time. Later start reducing the time whilst managing a decent answer quality.
- I am not a stickler for blue vs black or ballpoint vs gel pen. It is all person specific. Do what you like!
If you are still interested, I used a “Hauser” blue gel pen for all my exams.
- On the day of the examination, write for 15-20 minutes before leaving for the test centre. This will get your hands movings and you will not feel rusty when the paper starts – Control whatever you can!
At the end, I would just point out that Perfection is your nemesis. You need to start answer writing as soon as possible. It is important to know what is a poor answer, then only you will be able to improve. With practice and continuous improvement you can easily manage both the aspects of Mains – writing better quality answers along with ensuring maximum attempt.
The issue with clearing the examination in 1st attempt with a Science optional is that one does not know what exactly worked in the answers. Many other aspirants and toppers have a much better understanding of the nuances of answer writing which they developed over a period of time. It wasn’t a weapon I possessed. So I tried to optimise to the best of my ability. Most of the my learning I have already shared above. For more, you can have a look at my individual copies here. You can see the number of mistakes I committed, but I tried to learn from them and “moved on”.
In fact, Life is all about learning from your mistakes and moving on.
All the best and perform well! 🙂