Before I deep dive into this article, I would just like to clarify that it is neither a rant against any particular test series nor an attempt to undermine the feedback I had received through them. I have benefitted a lot from them. Here, I am just trying to document my experience with test series and the ebbs and flows of emotions I had during my Mains preparation.
Since it was my 1st attempt and I was doing self-study in Jaipur, there was a lack of sustained guidance and I did feel a little lost sometimes in between. My rank and GS marks do not reveal the uncertainties and fears I had. I feel aspirants, especially first-timers, need to be a little cautious in their evaluations and dependency on test series. Too much attachment to their feedbacks might affect their self-belief and confidence which I feel is very critical to excel in this examination – as UPSC does test your emotions along with your skills and intelligence.
In this post, I will talk in detail about
- Which test series I appeared in
- My level of preparation post prelims
- My expectations from test series
- My schedule for completing a test series
- How to maximize the value of test series
- My performance and analysis of the evaluations done by the institute.
- Final thoughts
- My evaluated test series copies
Before elaborating on each point, I would just say that what worked for me might not necessarily work for you. Do not take whatever I say on its face value. I took decisions based on factors like the time availability, my focus and dependence on optional, my command over language and general confidence in expressing my thoughts in an answer, etc. With Mathematics optional and less time to cover GS, my expectations and utility of test series was a lot different than any other aspirant.
The article is very long (#tldr) but I have tried to be as exhaustive as possible. Hopefully it would be of some help.
So here we go!
1. Which test series I appeared in…
Vision IAS Test Series:
8 Full-Length Tests (2 for each GS paper) – offline at Jaipur Test Centre.
- Why Vision?
- Almost everyone appears in their test series, so even if the evaluation may not match UPSC standards, you can measure your performance relative to the best performers and it would be similar across both test series and UPSC.
- Why only FLTs?
- I didn’t have enough time (to appear in sectional/topic-wise tests).
I started writing answers only after prelims and mostly focused on my optional until the prelims results came out.
- I downloaded the sectional tests at home and used them for revision and reverse learning (few selected topics) instead of writing the full tests.
- I didn’t have enough time (to appear in sectional/topic-wise tests).
Additionally, I wrote 6 essays (3 tests) with Triumph IAS (by Vikash Ranjan Sir) – online from home. I chose it as my friends had given good feedback.
2. My level of preparation post prelims before appearing in a test series
The Mains examination was scheduled to start from 28th September 2018. I started my focused GS preparation only after 21st July 2018.
- Before that, I only wrote 1-2 answers on the TLP IASBaba platform for 15-20 days to get into Answer writing rhythm.
- I focused more on optional and took a break from GS due to saturation after prelims.
- I finished topics like Disaster Management, Internal Security, Ethics Case Studies in the next 2 months.
- I had covered other topics before prelims (I studied from Mains point of view always) + I was well versed in my class notes having revised them multiple times.
- I was confident about my presentation and the ability to write well if I knew something about a topic. There was no fear of “writing” as such. Because of this I delayed my answer writing a little. I will not recommend this to someone who is not as proficient and also if they have much more dependency on subjective answers. With Mathematics optional, I could afford to focus less on answer writing skills.
3. My expectations from test series
I believe in “Exam Simulations” and felt with test series I can go and write tests with the mindset that I am appearing in Mains. I had developed confidence by writing on the TLP platform but felt I needed to write FULL TESTS, i.e., 20 questions in 3 hours; as completing the paper is the biggest challenge in mains.
Also, I felt with the detailed feedback, I will be able to improve the quality of my answers. But did it actually happen? More on this later…
4. My schedule for completing a test series
Aspirants need to keep in mind that it is hard for institutes to evaluate the copies on time especially with Mains approaching. It will take them as many as 10-12 days to evaluate 1 copy. When less than 25 days are left, you can bet on not seeing your evaluated copies unless you have some backdoor contacts!
Everyone wants to “prepare well” before writing tests and delay it as much as possible. This creates the demand-supply imbalance in the latter stages of Mains preparation. But this does not mean you should write tests 3 months before Mains when your preparation is not as per the required standards. In doing so you will not be able to write good quality answers and end up wasting test series. In short, there is a trade-off between the quality of answers vs getting timely evaluation and feedback.
I did not write sectional tests but believe they are a good source for revision and covering up gaps in your preparation. I wrote 8 FLTs at the Jaipur test center. I considered them as 2 attempts in the Mains.
- Write 1st iteration – 4 tests (one GS each) at least 45 days before Mains.
- You will get the evaluated copies in 10-15 days.
- Learn from the mistakes you have committed and incorporate the feedback given in the next iteration.
- Write the 2nd iteration when 25-30 days are left and not later than that.
- If you delay any more, you will not be able to get your copies evaluated.
My date wise schedule:
- 12th August 2018: Appeared in GS1(1) and GS4(1) tests.
- Started GS preparation on 21st July. 10 days each for GS4 and GS1
- 22nd August 2018: Appeared in GS2(1) and GS3(1) tests
- Completed GS2 and GS3 syllabus as much as I could in 10 days and gave the tests (with full focus despite not finishing the syllabus).
- 31st August 2018: Appeared in GS1(2) and GS3(2) tests
- Finished off remaining topics from GS3 and appeared after incorporating the feedback.
- 4th September 2018: Appeared in GS2(2) and GS4(2) tests
- Revised and gave the last 2 tests.
- Post this I only studied sectional tests at home and had some simulations using other full tests available online.
- 28th September 2018: UPSC Mains start
5. How to maximize the value of test series
One is never fully prepared for all the tests. So you have to go in even without full preparation. But it doesn’t imply that you should go with a relaxed attitude. Test series should be considered as a real exam. It is not for “answer writing practice” – Do that at home! Many people do this rookie mistake.
Follow a strict deadline of 3 hours. Institutes do not provide invigilators and it is up to the students to submit the answer sheets on their own. They take more than 3 hours to finish as they feel they should write good content, time factor they will handle in the actual exam. In this process, they inflate their marks also as the evaluator doesn’t know how much time they took to write the answers. If you do so, you are essentially wasting the 10-15k you paid for the test series. As I mentioned earlier, the real challenge is completing the paper with quality content. There is always a reduction in quality if you aim to write 1 answer in 6-7 minutes.
If you are able to complete only 15 question in 3 hours, do not take 1 extra hour for remaining 5 question and feel happy about finishing the paper. On the other hand, you should feel bad about not being able to complete all 20 questions and make it a goal to improve next time. By doing this, you can measure your progress also. Aim 17 questions 3 hours in next test.
Give multiple exams on a single day just like you will do in UPSC. It has multiple benefits:
- Proper simulation – UPSC is very physical and you have to write for 6 hours in a day
- Reduces the recency bias, which happens if you study for a single paper and write a test on it the next day. You are bound to perform well as you can recall easily from the recent memory. But if you prepare for more topics it is much more difficult to recall – you will observe this as you approach Mains and have prepared all the 4 papers.
- Saves the time of going to the institute again and again
6. My performance and analysis of the evaluations done by the institute.
Although my performance was good in all the papers (barring GS3), I was a little worried. I didn’t feel confident after giving the second iteration of tests and felt my preparation is not as per the required standards.
- In all of them, I found it harder to attempt all the 20 questions. As I had completed the full syllabus once, I wasn’t able to recall in the limited time given the information overload in my brain 🙁 . This was evident in GS1 where I scored
106 in GS1(1) and 83 in GS1(2). But overall evaluation and comments were as per my expectations.
- In GS2, I was quite surprised by my marks –
95 in GS2(1) and 109 in GS2(2). My preparation wasn’t adequate in GS2(1) so 95 seemed a little higher. And in GS2(2), despite not attempting 100% I scored 109! I was confused as to what to make out from that evaluation.
- My performance and evaluation in GS3 and GS4 were even more confusing.
- I scored
79 and 67 in
GS3tests which were way below my expectations. I felt I deserved better marks in a few questions but the evaluation was a little strict. To give you a comparative analysis, I scored 117 in UPSC!
- In GS4, the evaluation was so subjective that I gave up on it! In GS4(1), I did well in case studies but got fewer marks whereas in GS4(2), I didn’t even attempt the case studies fully due to lack of time and yet the marks were higher! In the theoretical section, I felt I did well in GS4(2) but the evaluator had given lesser marks.
This doesn’t mean that the evaluation was completely faulty. The comments at the start were very helpful and in few questions they did point out some possible improvements and also praised some of the good points or answer presentation.
However, in GS3 and GS4 I was in serious need of some sincere to the point advice but couldn’t find any. I felt a little lost as it was my first Mains and I had no idea how UPSC would evaluate my answers. Such was the desperation that I had made up my mind of moving to Delhi for Mains preparation in next attempt!
It was during this time, optimism and self-confidence bailed me out. I didn’t give up. I thought of improving my writing speed and ensuring that all the questions are attempted fully. I had 100% confidence in my answer style and decided to leave it for UPSC to evaluate them instead of some institutes. I knew that if I could rectify the mistakes from my 2nd iteration, where I couldn’t finish the papers, I would do well in Mains. And luckily it was the case!
7. My final thoughts on test series and Mains preparation:
Firstly I would like to make you aware of some realities of test series. Institutes take somewhere around 10k per student for 8 FLTs. If 100 students enrol in their test series , they are making 10 lakh Rs. from it. Now if they hire 2 evaluators (who are themselves UPSC veterans and not real faculties with subject expertise) and pay them 50k each for evaluating 100 copies, you can easily calculate who benefits eventually. (Note: these figures are just estimates). So even if there is a drop in quality of evaluation and few gullible students still join their test series, they will keep making the profits!
Also, the evaluations are highly subjective. It is not necessary that what the evaluator from an institute says is what UPSC demands. It is true that they are highly experienced and much more capable of evaluating answers than any of us, but their evaluation shouldn’t be taken on its face value. Do apply your mind instead of blindly following their feedback. Try to pick up general pointers instead of dwelling into specific comments.
I truly believe that no one – be it any institute, aspirant or evaluator – has cracked the formula for excelling in GS4 paper. No one knows how to write or evaluate it in the manner desired by UPSC. There are mostly speculations. Moreover, the paper itself demands common sense. So stick to it! I could have easily faltered because of the mixed feedback I received but I had self-belief which ultimately paid off and I scored 116 in Mains.
Similarly, in GS3 I was getting worried with less than 80 marks in both the tests. Having seen the 2017 toppers score more than 140 in Mains, I felt that this paper might cause my downfall in UPSC. But I kept confidence in my preparation and thought that the evaluation might have been harsh. My final marks in Mains (117) proves this. Even though the paper was on the tougher side my marks actually increased.
To get a better idea of my performance, I always saw the best copy from each test and analysed what the person did different from me and what aspects I can incorporate in my answers. Aspirants can learn a lot from other answers along with their own marks and feedback they receive!
People talk about quality of answers in Mains. But in my opinion, quantity is equally important. Quality in individual answers and Quantity overall (number of questions attempted) is needed. A person writing 12/20 excellent answers in 3 hours cannot expect to realistically top the exam.
Don’t reverse learn from test series unless you are in extremely tough situation. By doing so, you will get into habit of seeing a question first, reading about that topic and then writing an answer. Whereas in UPSC you will encounter new questions. So get into that habit where you can answer unseen questions as well.
One advice which I would give to the first-timers is that do not get overwhelmed and under-confident if you cannot recall in tests. It is bound to happen in the first attempt and is primarily because of the lack of revision. In the last month before Mains, revise as much as you can. Maintain short notes with keywords and keep on revising them. Trust me, you will be able to do well in the Mains examination.
Ultimately, self-belief is the key in UPSC. You have to be a little arrogant. Instead of depending on institute evaluations and getting demotivated because of them I thought that I will let UPSC evaluate my answers and give the marks. If I do not perform well, I will know which subjects I need to focus on. Fortunately, I wasn’t made to do this task!
I have reiterated the point about self-confidence multiple times because I believe it helped me overcome negative emotions. Please do not let someone else demotivate you easily. Even if you perform badly just remember one quote:
Either I succeed or I learn…
8. My test series answer copies:
It was the 1st time I was attempting any test or essay, thus there is a lot of scope for improving all the answers. You can get a fair understanding of the level of my answers, my general habits while writing plus the quality of evaluation done.
I benefitted a lot from last year toppers’ copies. I analysed their styles and tried to adopt them as per my comfort level. I didn’t believe in reinventing the wheel given the paucity of time I had. If some of you are in a similar situation, you can look at my answer copies and learn from it. If you do not like anything, just discard it. Ultimately, you have to write as per your own style.
I hope this article will help all of you going forward as many of you would have started writing the test series by now.
Best of luck!
Stay healthy and believe that you will crack UPSC! 🙂