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2-8 June, 2018

Strategy to Clear UPSC Civil Services Mains Exam

Sachin Gupta, Rank 3 Holder in UPSC CSE 2017 speaks:

I came from middle class background with my father as farmer and mother as government school teacher. I have seen the difference of schools in which I studied and in which my mother use to teach. Although at that time I was just a child, things changed when I accidently went for teaching children from deprived sections of society, it changed everything. I started relating my childhood observations of difference. It changed the overall thought process from building a career in Engineering towards aspiring for bringing change in society. I always believe there is a supernatural power that somehow helps us out at every situation; we just need to be prudent enough to do the right things.
Tryst with UPSC-CSE
I started preparation after my college while working in Corporate Sector.
Finally, I gave my first attempt in 2015 but missed Mains cut off by 10 marks. I realized may be I am not that good in optional to score high marks. So I changed my optional. My score increased in optional from 175 to 311 in one year (Although I changed my optional as well). That led me to clear Civil Services in my second attempt in 2016 with 575 Rank. But I found that I seriously needed to improve my marks in General Studies and Essay, particularly in answer writing. I believe disciplined answer writing and continuous improvement on it turns out to be a game changer in this journey from Rank 575 to Rank 3.
Mains Strategy:
I believe this is most important stage in terms of scoring maximum marks as personality test may go or not go the way we want it to be. Lots of external factors came into picture at that stage. But trust me if you work really hard especially at Mains Stage, one can score good marks. Here I would be sharing what I did and how I approached Mains Examination, that turned out to be game changer in my final year.
Before moving forward, I would like to highlight that one should try to chalk out one’s own strategy as each one of us is unique. Try to see your own strengths and weaknesses, build your own study plan accordingly. Here, I would be sharing what worked with me and what I feel is important to do at Mains Stage.
This is the stage where you need both, to be persistent in your answer writing and also be smart to know how to study a particular topic in the syllabus that I have learnt during my journey. It changed my approach towards Mains tremendously.
Firstly we will talk about Art of Answer Writing
I believe everybody knows the importance of answer writing at Mains. At the end of the day, one would be evaluated not on how much he knows but on how good he/she wrote an answer and expressed himself/herself best in those 150-200 words.
This is the stage where hard work and being persistent in answer writing matters. I know sometimes we get demotivated, don't feel like writing answers or try to focus on reading more content. It happened with me also but here is what the role of peer group or study environment came into picture. I feel many online websites have come up in recent past like Insight son India, Forum IAS, Iasbaba that provides daily free answer writing practice. Make best use of technology with applications like Whatsapp and Telegram, where one can make groups and write daily answer and can review each other's answer. Peer Group is the key in the preparation strategy. I found it more helpful than test series and classes by the coaching institute. Slowly after 8-10 tests, one is able to find what to do and what not to do, how to write an answer. But actual struggle after that is to internalize the answer writing pattern in your heart & soul and make it a natural way of answer writing. For that one should do intensive answer writing practice. Few things that I learnt in this process are as follows :
*Importance of Reading the Question: Most of the time what happens is that we used to write whatever we know in about 2-3 keywords written in a question, but try to read a question twice or thrice at least. Try to understand what actually the examiner wants to know and write that only. I also used to write whatever I knew about the question in my first two attempts and that probably was the reason behind low marks in GS.
*Introduction: It is one of the most crucial part of answer writing and I believe it left the first impression on the examiner. Try to write in a proper manner. I used to follow mainly 4-5 ways to write it :
*Definition:  It I know the definition or crux of issue let's say Food security I tried to introduce my answer with definition of food security and interlink with the subparts being asked in the question. It will not only give good flow to your answers but also structure your answer properly.
*Recent Events: Let's say a question was asked on simultaneous elections. One can start with Prime Minister or President's Speech where they have supported the idea. Then immediately try to connect with the issue being asked in the question
*Facts/Figures: Third way is to start a question with some important fact or figure. Let's say question is about underemployment in India, one can give the reference of Niti Aayog's Three Year Action plan and quote some facts or figures.
*Location: It is generally helpful while writing history and geography question. For example of a question is asked on decline of Indus Valley civilization , one can start with location of IVC and its timeline , then straight come to answering what is asked in the question.
*Interlinking:  Fourth way could be to interlink all the sub parts asked in a question and write about the crux of your answer in one line and straight forward jump to  subtopics.
Break the Question into subparts:  Generally UPSC asks 2-3 questions in one question itself. Try to break it and address it properly.
Visibility: After breaking the question into subparts asked in the question, try to highlight it while writing, so that an examiner will easily find out where and how you addressed different parts of the questions. It helps in two ways , first one would be answering all the subparts asked and ensure flow in the answers.
Point Format:  Try to write most of answers in point format especially in GS 1,2,3 and while answering any subparts, make subheading in front of every question, so that its easy to make out what one is going to write. And after writing an argument/ statement try to substantiate your statement. Let's say one gave an argument in favour of strengthening of federal structure in recent past , then substantiate with financial independence ensured by 14th Finance Commission and so on.
Smart Answering: While answering a question, just try to think from where this question would have been asked, then answer it accordingly. In 2016 Mains, similar question was asked on Urban floods in GS1 and GS3, but try to think under which topic it would have been asked. In GS1 it relates more with problems of Urbanization, impact on various sections of societies so on. While in GS 3 , it could be from infrastructure or disaster management topic. Just try to include points accordingly. I have done the mistake and I don't know whether this is the right way or not but I believe that questions are made out of syllabus and we should address it accordingly.
Importance of making flowchart/ Diagram / Map:  While writing answers just try to make a flowchart in two or three questions. Somewhere make diagrams or make maps if required (especially in geography and location factors of industries).
Conclusion:  While writing a conclusion, be very clear what you want to communicate and answer all the subparts in 1-2 lines. One may give solutions just before concluding the answer but it depends upon the nature of question asked. I know the paucity of time in actual exam but try to conclude the question at the end. It gives an edge over others.
Here I would also like to caution you. I have seen many copies where sometimes aspirants try to make these things in every question. Please don't overdo it. It makes the answers too mechanical. Try to stick to the basics that is addressing the question properly and convincing examiner you know the things and your opinions are based upon facts.
How to Study a Particular Topic
*UPSC Syllabus: First and foremost have the UPSC syllabus with you always and this should be the ultimate source around which our  preparation should revolve. Read it as many times you can , it helps you in internalize it and connect with topics while reading newspaper or current affairs magazines
*Strategy to prepare
*Definitions:  Make a seperate copy for each paper and find out important keywords like for GS 2: Constitution, Governance, Poverty, Hunger, Accountability, Citizen Charter and so on. And write good definition of each of it. Cram it by heart and understand crux of each of it. Generally question revolves around it only. For instance, question on Poverty was asked again and again in previous year so does is on Secularism. Have clear idea and definition which will help you while writing answers
*Mindmaps/Charts: Try to make mind map or charts on each of the topic and cover particularly various dimensions, important facts, figures, case studies in a concise manner. It will help you a lot at the last moment for revision as well as give you confidence after doing it.
*Collect important Facts and Figures: It is really important while reading a particular topic and make a note of it in a notebook or in a mind map so that you will be able to revise it and remember it during the exam.
*Notes of Important Historic Personalities:  Helps you in covering history portions. UPSC in recent past tends to ask comparison between personalities.
*Important Judgments:  Collect important judgments. It will help you in writing GS 2 answers a lot like on Privacy, Misuse of Ordinance Power, Centre-State Relations, Basic Structure Doctrine, Environmental Justice, Electoral Reforms and so on.
Here again, I would like to say don't overburden yourself. The purpose of this article was not just to share my strategy but express the things that I feel are important for preparation in Mains. Before going through this understand your strengths and weakness, I did all these things because I felt my weakness in this part. And this journey has told me that the recipe of success stories lies in knowing thyself and working over one's weakness & capitalizing on one’s strengths.
(The Author Sachin Gupta, secured Rank 3 in UPSC Civil Services Examination 2017. He had secured Rank 575 in Civil Services Examination 2016 and had got Indian Corporate Law Service (ICLS). He did his schooling from DAV Centenary Public School, Sirsa (Haryana) & graduation in B.E. Mechanical from Thapar University, Patiala.
e-mail: guptasachin 1102@gmail.com)