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In-Depth Jobs

Issue no 23, 03-09 September 2022

Civil Services (Main) Exam

How to Write A Good Essay


S B Singh

The Union Public Service Commission Civil Services (Main) Examination comprises four papers on General Studies (GS), a Compulsory Indian language, English, two optional papers and essay. This makes the main examination truly formidable as commanding so much of knowledge and information on extremely diverse topics becomes a herculean task. Without substantial preparation for all the papers, it is impossible to crack this exam. The essay paper plays a crucial role in determining the success of the candidate as there lies a huge potential to score high marks in the essay paper as compared to the GS papers. The score trend of last several years shows that most of the successful candidates got higher marks in their essay papers compared to their score in the GS papers. This can be attributed to the fact that while all GS papers are information oriented, the essay paper is more opinion oriented. In other words, the essay is a test of how you can delve into an issue and form your opinion on it after considering its different aspects. Thus, essay writing requires different skills. The purpose of introducing the essay paper in the exam was to assess the working of the thought process of a candidate and ways of articulating his thoughts in a coherent, cogent way. The problem with most candidates is that they fail to understand the role played by the essay paper in their success. It is taken for granted and prepared at the last moment. This kind of uniformed preparation is inadequate and insufficient to write good essays. Another problem the candidates face about the essay paper is that in the absence of a definite syllabus, they have no clue about how to prepare. In other words, they do not know how to go about it. Thirdly, essay writing requires rigorous practice. It just cannot be prepared at the last moment. One must have written at least 100-150 essays on different topics before sitting in the exam hall. This enriches the quality of essay writing among the candidates. Linguistic skills are put to test in the essay writing. A forceful essay is one that conveys the message, argument and the thoughts of the essayist in an interesting manner that makes it readable. This is possible only if the command over writing is of a desirable level. In order to command anything, practice is the key.

What is an Essay?

An essay is a short literary composition on a particular topic. The term 'essay' was popularized by the 16th century French writer, Michel de Montaigne, who described his works as essays. For him, an essay was his attempt to put his thoughts in writing. Aldous Huxley, a 19th century British essayist defines essay thus; "The essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything." Further, he also noted that by definition, an essay is a short piece of writing. Huxley classified all essays into the following three categories.

·         Personal essays: It is a reflective biography in which the essayist looks at the world from his own prism.

·         The objective, factual, and concrete essays: Here, the authors do not speak directly of themselves, but turn to some theme. In this type of essay, the art of writing consists of setting forth, passing judgment upon and drawing general conclusions from relevant data

·         The abstract-universal type of essays: These are neither personal nor objective type, they are abstractions tilting towards philosophy.


UPSC Notification on Essay Paper: Each year, UPSC brings out a detailed notification on the plan of the civil services examination. As per UPSC notification, the expectations in the essay paper are put forward in the following words. "Candidates may be required to write essays on multiple topics. They will be expected to keep closely to the subject of the essay, to arrange their ideas in orderly fashion, and to write concisely. Credit will be given for effective and exact expressions." To decode what UPSC says in its notification, let us turn to each of its instructions. First, it conveys that there will be multiple essay topics. This means that there will be diverse topics for essays. It will include philosophical essays, socio-economic theme based essays, essays on contemporary international relations, and political essays. The candidates will have to choose any one essay topic from each section given in the question paper, and thus, write two separate essays in the exam. Second, there is a clear directive issued by UPSC on keeping your essay close to the topic. It means that one should not deflect from the central idea of the topic and include unrelated, irrelevant details and arguments to the given topic. Third, it is suggested by UPSC that the ideas should be arranged in an orderly fashion, i.e., one needs to make a structure of the essay and present his views in a systematic fashion. It cannot be a disjointed piece of writing. Finally, expression is crucial in essay writing as indicated in the UPSC notification. It must be effective as well as exact. Hence, presentation of facts alone is not sufficient, rather, it must be argued effectively and in a convincing manner. This calls for literary skills. For effective writing, one needs to know how to use proverbs, idioms, anecdotes, and quotes of important persons.


How to Build the Structure of Essay: Though no word limit is prescribed by the UPSC to write an essay, it is usually assumed that it should be consisting of 900-1000 words. The first paragraph of introduction should consist of around 200 words. In the introduction, the essence of the topic must be highlighted by capturing the theme, and revealing the position of the writer. Thus, introduction is very important to convey to the examiner the understanding of the issue in the essay topic by the candidate. After introduction, one should plan to write five to six paragraphs of equal size, i.e, each paragraph consisting of 150 words or so. Each paragraph should be connected with each other in an organic manner. That is to say, there should be a link between each paragraph in the sense of a developing story. In these paragraphs, various dimensions of the issue should be taken up. Each paragraph should carry an independent dimension and not a mixture of ideas. Finally, the conclusion should summarize the entire writing and also offer the way forward. The conclusion should always be shorter than the introduction and should ideally comprise not more than 150 words.


Attempting Various Themes

·         Philosophical essay: The recent emphasis in the essay paper is on philosophical essays. At least three to four essay topics belong to this category. To attempt a philosophical essay, one must be fairly well aware of the thoughts, quotes of various philosophers, writers, and preachers. For example, one must be familiar with the works of Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Gandhi, Buddha, Ambedkar etc. One must also know the terms used in ethics, viz; compassion, kindness, empathy, generosity, harmony, etc and use them judiciously wherever they are found to be contextual and relevant.

·         Essays on socio-economic topics: These require a good understanding of the contemporary social and economic issues and only a careful study of the issues relating to women, lower caste problems, social evils like dowry, corruption, patriarchy, etc., can facilitate essay writing on these topics.

·         Essays on international relations: The contemporary issues in international relations, say, the refugee crisis, climate negotiations, wars, Cold War 2.0 , etc., make up the topics in this category of the essay paper. It is obvious that one needs to have a very good grasp over these international issues by extensive reading of newspapers, journals etc.

·         Essays on political topics: There is always one essay topic on current political issues. It can be on panchayati raj, federalism, and state of Indian democracy, role of opposition or other related issues. Again, a close look at the developments on the political front will help to write such essays.


A Word of Caution: There are some misconceptions about the essay paper prevalent among the aspirants. The first is to underline some of their sentences to attract the attention of the examiner. Let it be clear that no such thing is required. The examiner will himself know what is important and what is not in your writing rather than you forcing his attention on your sentence by underlining it. You may think a particular sentence of yours is very attractive, but this may not appear to be so with the examiner. Secondly, do not include diagrams and charts in your essay paper. It goes against the principle of essay writing. An essay is a literary piece which requires flow of ideas in a written form, not in a chart/diagram form.


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

Views expressed are personal.