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Issue No 36, 04 December -10 December 2021

Civil Services (Main) Examination Strategies To Conquer The Syllabus

S B Singh

Anyone familiar with the Civil Services Examination should know that this examination is a multi-level test comprising three stages: the preliminary exam, the main exam, and finally, the interview. The preliminary exam aims to screen candidates and weed out lakhs of non-serious and underprepared candidates. The main exam comprising four General Study papers, one optional subject (comprising two papers), one essay, and two language papers, constitutes the bulk of the entire testing process. All these papers are compulsory, and every candidate has to attempt these. The main exam accounts for 1750 marks (language papers are qualifying in nature, hence not taken into account while calculating the merit). Each of the four GS papers carries 250 marks. The essay paper carries 250 marks, and the two papers for the optional subject also carry 250 marks each. The interview/ personality test carries 275 marks. The marks obtained in the interview add to the candidate's total score in the main exam and accordingly indicate the candidate's overall ranking.

 The best way to understand the rationale of the main exam is to decipher what UPSC has stated in its notification. As per the notification, the following points are to be considered carefully:

 1. Objective: The main exam intends to assess the candidate's overall intellectual traits and depth of understanding rather than merely the range of their information.

 2. Nature of GS papers: The nature and standard of questions in GS papers will be such that a well-educated person will answer them without any specialized study. The questions will test a candidate's general awareness of various subjects relevant to a career in civil services. The questions test the candidate's basic understanding of the relevant issues and ability to analyze and make decisions on conflicting socio-economic goals, objectives, and demands. The candidates must give relevant, meaningful, and succinct answers.

 3. Nature of optional papers: The scope of syllabus for optional papers is broadly of the honours degree level, i.e., a level higher than the bachelor's degree and a level lower than the master's degree.

 4. Qualifying papers on Indian languages and English: The papers test a candidate's ability to read and understand serious discursive prose and express ideas clearly and correctly in English and the concerned Indian languages.

 Interview/ Personality test

There is a gap of three months between the main written exam and the interview. The interview is an integral part of the main exam and should be viewed from this perspective. Ideally, while preparing for the mains, the candidate should also keep the interview in mind because many questions in the interview will arise from the topics of the main syllabus. A clever candidate understands this linkage between the mains preparation and the interview test and always keeps the interview preparation at the back of his mind. There is nothing like a different preparation for the interview. It is part of a daily quest for knowledge on various topics. In the original words of UPSC, "the object of the interview test is to assess the personal suitability of the candidates for a career in public service by a board of competent, unbiased observers. The interview test is intended to judge the mental calibre of a candidate. Some of the qualities to be judged are: mental alertness, critical power of assimilation, clear and logical exposition, balance of judgement, ability for social cohesion and leadership, intellectual and moral integrity."

Deciphering  the GS syllabus for the mains:  There are four GS papers in the main exam. They are both multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. For example, GS paper one combines disciplines like history, culture, geography, society, population, etc. Each syllabus component needs to be prepared, not just history and geography. In GS paper two, the syllabus comprises polity, governance, international relations, social issues, civil society, NGOs etc. Just reading polity and international relations would be half the preparation. By interdisciplinary, it is implied that your knowledge should be across various domains. For example, poverty cannot be understood without reference to economics, social discrimination, unequal international economic structures etc.

Strategy for the mains: For any competitive examination, the safest approach is to stay close to the prescribed syllabus, understand the objectives spelled out by the examination conducting body, and prepare accordingly. This applies most to the civil services main exam, which is all about precision and accuracy. The main components of this strategy are:

  • Finishing the syllabus well in advance: Since the mains exam is conducted within three months of the preliminary exam, the time gap between the preliminary and main exam is insufficient to cover the entire syllabus. It will require at least six to eight months of hard, committed study to cover all the mains papers. So, ideally, you must acquire good command over the mains syllabus at least six months before you start preparing for the prelims.
  • Prioritising your preparation: You should never get on with preparations without a detailed plan. For efficient, output-based preparation, you need to know what to do first and what to do next. So, prepare a road map for an entire year of preparation and adhere to it no matter what. 
  • Giving top priority to the optional subject: It is wise to acquire command over the optional subject in advance, given its large syllabus. It would be wise to refer to various sources and jot down notes in a systematic manner. This exercise is timeconsuming, and it will not be possible at the last moment. Most importantly, the optional subject is very decisive in your ranking because it carries a total 500 marks (250 marks each for paper I and II). Another advantage of relying on the optional subject is its reliability. This implies that the syllabus of the optional paper is very clearly given; the books are readily available on all optional subjects compared to the GS papers, which do not have a clearly laid down syllabus, and quality source materials are scattered.
  • Give extra emphasis on the optional subject together with ethics and the essay paper. It is next to impossible to gain an equal command over all the mains subjects. Even toppers cannot claim that kind of complete command. Therefore, it makes better sense to excel in some subjects and score high marks in those. The optional subject, together with the ethics and essay paper, provides an excellent opportunity to score. This is so because ethics and essay papers can fetch more marks if studied from the right perspectives than other GS papers. Secondly, these two papers are more about developing normative skills, thought processes, and daily experiences than following a traditional syllabus like polity, history, geography etc.
  • Balanced preparation: One must strike a balance between all the mains papers. It would help if you did not overspend your time on a particular paper to neglect other papers. Unless you perform well in all the mains papers, getting high marks will be impossible.
  • Analysis of previous five years questions: On each topic of your choice, first develop a good understanding, and then look for questions asked by the UPSC in the last five years. Doing so would give you a more precise idea of the topic and its various dimensions. Not only this, give a good thought as to what kind of additional questions can be framed by the UPSC on the topic and how you are going to answer them.
  • Answer writing style: Do not make unnecessary charts and diagrams. UPSC answers are best written in essay form except where a diagram is relevant to highlight your argument.
  • Role of correct terminology: Remember to use the right terminology for the paper you are attempting. For example, if you are writing on international relations, judicious use of terms like strategic autonomy, geopolitics, geoeconomics, multilaeralism, multipolar world, etc. will serve you better. Similarly, in ethics, terms like compassion, kindness, generosity, benevolence, virtue, values, norms etc. should be appropriately used.
  • Know your sources: Unless you derive your study material from authentic sources, you will not develop a good understanding of the subject. There is a general tendency for candidates to rely on compiled material provided by commercial institutes, or online lectures freely available on YouTube. I am not suggesting that they are useless. My point is that when better, reliable, original sources are available, why go for other sources? Remember, those who set questions for the main exam will not pick questions from market sources. They will always rely on standard sources like books, journals, government reports.
  • Maintain speed in writing: Writing more than twenty questions in each GS paper is a stupendous task that requires enormous practice. Many candidates are not able to finish the paper in three hours though they would know the answer. The best way to overcome this challenge is by practicing in advance.

 Putting the right strategy in practice is a challenge in itself, and it requires discipline, hard work, and perseverance.

 (The author is an academician and Civil Services mentor. He can be reached at sb_singh 2003@yahoo.com.)

Views expressed are personal