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Issue no 19, 06-12 August 2022

Civil Services Main Examination The Right Approach

S B Singh

Each year, UPSC conducts the coveted civil services examination in three phase, viz; preliminary, mains, and interview tests.Each one of these is designed to test certain traits in the aspiring candidates which is briefly explained in the notification issued by UPSC itself. The primary objective of conducting the prelims exam is to test the basic, fundamental knowledge of the candidates in subjects of general interest like history, geography, polity, economy, current issues etc. Alongwith this, a candidate's aptitude is also sought to be tested by the CSAT paper in the prelims exam. The underlying idea behind introducing preliminary exam is to weedout non-serious, nondeserving candidates in the first round itself so that only those, who have shown some potential by qualifying in prelims exam, get eligible for the mains exam. Over the years, prelims has become a highly unpredictable exam due to constant experimentation done by UPSC to surprise the students with unexpected questions. It has emerged as an exam where not only knowledge is tested, but your strategy to score enough marks in the face of several unknown questions to get past the cut-off limit is also put on test. However, the main exam is quite different from the prelims exam in so many ways. You know the areas fairly well from where questions are going to be asked in the mains, This is so because the mains syllabus is far more clearly given by UPSC than the prelims syllabus. There is no mystery about the question papers of the main exam and there is no surprise element involved here unlike the prelims exam. In the main exam, apart from four GS Papers, i.e., GS-I, GS-II, GS-III, and GS-IV, there is a separate essay paper also. Thus, four GS papers and the essay paper account for 1250 marks. Then, there is a compulsory language test comprising English and any Indian language included in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution. These language papers are of qualifying nature and one needs just to obtain the qualifying percentage in these language papers (i.e., 35% marks). It should be noted that the marks obtained in the language papers are not counted along with other papers. Finally, there is an optional paper that a candidate has to select out of the choices of various science and art subjects offered by UPSC. Almost all popular subjects taught in Indian universities are available out of which you can choose one you like.

Thus, the scheme of the main examination includes four GS papers, one essay paper, two language test papers and one optional paper. A total of 1750, marks are allotted to these papers .No doubt, mains exam is the decisive exam in the civil services as it carries maximum number of marks. In the final stage, which is called the personality test, those who qualify in the main exam have to appear before an interview board at UPSC. The IAS interview carries 275 marks. The final results are declared on the basis of marks obtained in the main exam and the personality test. The grand total of marks thus is 1750+275=2025. In order to get selected, a candidate is required to obtain at least 40-45 percent marks of this total. To get the top jobs of IAS, IPS, and IFS, you need to secure 45% and above marks.

Preparing for the Optional Paper:

Optional paper is key to success in the main exam and without a good score in this paper, one can not hope to secure a good rank in the civil services examination. This is so because, it is very difficult to score high in the GS papers as well as the essay paper because commanding all of them is a tremendous exercise. In contrast, an optional paper is easier to command because its syllabus is well defined, good text books are available and good guidance is also available by subject experts. It can be observed from previous years' questions of optional papers that questions can be prepared strictly by following the given syllabus which makes the task easy. Therefore, as regards the optional paper, the first important thing is to select the right subject. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Many candidates choose a subject not because they like it, but because of a circulated belief that a particular subject is a scoring optional paper, or it is one with limited syllabus. This is nothing but a myth. No optional paper is more or less scoring by itself. It is your command over it that will make it scoring for you and a lack of command over it that will make it less scoring for others. The right way of choosing an optional paper, thus, is not to follow the myths around it ,but by applying this criteria: whether you like to study the subject, whether authentic sources to study it are available to you, and finally, whether you can get good guidance by a true expert if and when you require to clear certain concepts. It is always advisable that you follow authentic text books on the subject rather than unverified materials flooding the market. You should cover the syllabus line by line without leaving even a small part of it. Making brief notes is essential to revise it just before the exam. Always keep in mind what kind of questions have been asked on the given syllabus in last ten years and include those questions in your notes. Finally, solve at least five questions asked by UPSC in the last ten years on each aspect of the syllabus. This will enhance your familiarity with the subject. Link your preparation with current developments on the dynamic part of the subject, e.g., if you are studying cold war for international relations in the optional paper of political science, also cover the new cold war unfolding currently.

Preparing for the GS Papers:

GS I Paper-It comprises geography, history ( i.e., modern India, post-modern India, and world history), and social issues like population, poverty etc.Each part of GS I syllabus needs to be covered judiciously.

History: In history, more questions are asked on modern India com-pared to world history and post -modern Indian history. There-fore, a thorough preparation is needed on modern India. The major topics to be covered on modern India are: freedom movement (1885-1947), including 1857 revolt, main leaders like Gandhi, Gokhale, Tilak, Ambedkar, Syed Ahmed Khan, and their contributions, British adminis-trative structure with special reference to civil service, revenue administration, structure of government as established under various acts like Govt of India Act 1919, and 1935, British economic policies like drain of wealth, agriculture and industrial policies and their effects, social policies of the colonial govt, important acts passed by British Parliament,viz; Indian Councils Act,1909, Govt. of India Act, 1919 and 1935, and the Indian Independence Act,1947. In addition , one must read about the major socioreligious movements like Brahmo Samaj, Prarthna Samaj, Theosophy, Aligarh movement etc. For world history, one should read French and Russian revolutions and their wide ranging impacts, World War I and II, and decolonization process in Asia and Africa. On post-modern India, India's developement trajectory in science, agriculture, culture, space etc., since independence should be followed.

Geography: Apart from revising the basic concepts in geography that one has already read for the prelims exam, one needs to prepare on the dynamic aspects, viz; climate change, heatwaves in Europe and its linkage with global warning, factors affecting monsoons, ocean pollution, major achievements and shortfalls of Glasgow COP 26 summit, Indian stand and policies on climate issues.

Social issues: Population is a major area in this section. A lot is happening on the world population front as reported by UN recently. Its various dimensions must be covered following the newspaper reports. Also, India is poised to become the most populous country in the world very soon. Its implications must be studied thoroughly. Besides, social issues like increasing gender gap in India , its major factors and remedies must be covered. On poverty, its new measurement criteria set by NITI AAYOG must be prepared and various schemes of poverty alleviation must be understood.

Answer writing practice for main exam: Without discussing the writing skill, it is just half the story told about the main exam. Honing writing skill is as important as covering the syllabus .It is important because you have to cover each part of the question under a prescribed word limit. For this, regular writing practice under a very simple, clear structure is needed. One must keep in mind to stay relevant to the question while answering them. Writing things not required by the question should be avoided. Then, each part of the question must be covered. If the question asks you to critically examine an issue, you should present all views on the topic and at the end, give your own views. If there are adjectives like comment, discuss, or elucidate, they carry almost the same meaning, therefore, don't go into their nuances. In the end, what counts is a good answer and not these nuances. If the question needs to be supported with facts, write a small introduction and then enumerate facts pointwise. Remember, it is always better to explain a question in essay format, rather than just putting it pointwise, unless there is a scope for it. Just writing facts does not make much sense, its analysis does. Keep away from such advices floating in the market. Secondly, don't refrain from making a constructive criticism of govt policies, judiciary, parliament etc. It is a myth that you are not supposed to criticize govt's policies. You can highlight their deficiencies and suggest measures for further improvement. However, one need not take an extreme stand on an issue in the manner of a newspaper article written by a critic or activist. What is needed is a balanced approach to the answer by avoiding extremes. Another related issue in answer writing is that of timing. You have to really struggle against time as the number of questions are 20 in each GS paper and about the same in the optional paper. Writing answers to all question is thus a stupendous task and many students end up writing only some questions before the exam time is over. Continuous practice is the only solution to master your timing. Finally, when you practice answer writing, you should constantly evolve in terms of quality. In other words, your next answer should be way better than your last answer . For this, you need to detect the shortcomings, lacuna in your answers and improve upon them. Also, it is judicious to practice those questions which are likely to come in the exam, rather than just practicing any kind of question available in market. Attempting irrelevant, or low quality questions is a sheer wastage of time. If you practice likely questions, it will help you directly in the exam as they may be asked. You can closely read last years' questions and gaining insight from those questions, you can frame likely questions yourself.

Suggested readings

Modern India;

1. Bipan Chandra; India's Struggle for Independence

2. R.C.Pradhan: Raj to Swaraj

3. Ishita Dubey Bannerji: Modern India

4. A R Desai: Social Background of Indian Nationalism

Post-Modern India:

1. NCERT: Politics in India since Independence

 2. NCERT: Social Movements in India

3. Paul R Brass: Politics in India since Independence

World History:

1. NCERT: World History

2. ArjunDev: A History of the World

3. L P Mukherji:

- A History of the World

- A History of Europe

Social Issues:

1. Annual Reports of Ministry of Women and Child Development, Tribal Welfare Ministry, Social Justice Ministry, Panchayati Raj Ministry

 2. Vinita Pandey:Indian Society and Culture (The list is indicative only)

(The author is an academician and IAS mentor. He can be reached at: sb_singh2003@yahoo.com)

Views expressed are personal.