I have received numerous mails asking me to share my strategy for the Civil Services Examination since the results were declared. This is especially true of my fellow law graduates, many of whom are unsure about the rather risky optional that Law is. Since I received a lot of help from Riju Bafna (IAS, 2014) and Ashutosh Salil (IAS, 2010) blogs while preparing, I hope to continue the chain here. This is easier said than done. While there is plenty that I have learnt from my two shots at this exam, a foolproof strategy to successfully tackle it is not one of them. So I will do my best to make this post factual and only dish out “expert” gyaan that has worked in my case. Please notice the use of “MY”. Truth be told, this exam is about as random as it can get. Your chances depend not only on how you perform, but how your fellow aspirants do, what sort of frame of mind you were in while attempting it, the mood of the examiner while correcting your papers and (most importantly) how your half an hour long interview goes! So take this post with a large teaspoon of salt and do not treat it as anything more than a rough guide.
I did not prepare for Prelims GS and Mains separately. I used the same books for both. The book list here is comprehensive. You can, of course, choose portions out of it if you want to concentrate exclusively on Prelims GS for now. With CSAT becoming only a qualifying paper now, I don’t think it needs any specific tips. Practising plenty of mock papers should do the trick there.
ESSAY (Marks 151/250)
There is no specific preparation exclusive to Essay. A reading habit is a useful tool for this paper but is not an absolute must. What is actually important is to choose the right topic. This year was the first time UPSC wanted us to attempt two essays of about a thousand words each. The first set of essay topics was rather philosophical, while the second set was mostly factual. I prefer to write on topics where there is a factual basis on which I can build my essay. So I was in a bit of a quandary regarding the first set. Two of the options (Great power..greater responsibility, Words are sharper than two edged sword) were immediately ruled out as I could do nothing but make obtuse philosophical points here. I had absolutely no way to choose between the remaining two topics. I finally chose the Competition topic after jotting down possible points for each. There were some twelve separate sub headings that I could think of for it as opposed to only eight for the other. The second essay was on improving India’s performance in Olympics as I had, rather serendipitously, read an article on the topic barely a couple of days ago. This exercise of choosing the right essay took atleast 15 mins-time very well spent, in my opinion.
How you structure your essay is entirely upto you. For my first essay, I decided to look at how a skewed perception of the job market was leading parents to push children into already saturated professions. This harmed their intellectual growth and also made them susceptible to various social evils. Reference was made to coaching factories, the progressive deterioration in the Arts syllabus, a tendency to view achievement solely in terms of money earned etc. The second essay was relatively straight forward and needs no explanation. I ended both my essays by proposing solutions-the second essay was a completely solution oriented one. I am not too sure of exactly how much weightage the UPSC gives to the conclusion part, but it surely leaves a positive impression on the examiner if you don’t end on a note that is completely negative.
GS PAPER I (Marks: 111/250)
This was the paper I was most comfortable with. History and Geography are subjects that have been my favourites for a long time and for the most part all I did here was revise concepts that I was already comfortable with.
- Indian Art and Architecture- Wikipedia
- Modern Indian History- Satish Chandra for the Decline of the Mughal Empire, An Advanced History of India (Majumdar etc) is the best for a comprehensive look at early modern Indian history (Warning: It is very detailed), Bipan Chandra/Sumit Sarkar for the Freedom Struggle (Alternatively, S Bandopadhyay’s Plassey to Partition-though I found the book rather shallow), India After Gandhi and India: The Siege Within for post Independence. (Needless to say, these are all books that I had read long before I started preparing for the exam as such. I cannot think of a short book that can sufficiently explain this very important portion of the syllabus in the requisite detail. NCERT textbooks (old ones) are good for the basics)
- World History- Revised from Wikipedia alone. Using the NCERT book as a base, started from the Seven Years War and ended with the current mess in the Middle East. This is a very time consuming part and if some prior familiarity with the topic helps a great deal. Vajiram’s printed module on this is good if you are pressed for time.
- Indian Society- Did not specifically prepare for this. All of us have some idea about these issues anyway.
- Role of Women, Poverty, Development etc- Vajiram’s printed modules were handy. Many of these topics were covered while preparing Economics for GS Paper III
- Effects of Globalisation- Again general gyaan that does not require intensive preparation. Linked this with rural to urban migration. Googled up a few articles online
- Social Empowerment, Communalism etc- The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani is an excellent primer to the notion of the Indian Nation-State. Also presents a robust defence of Nehruvian Secularism. If pressed for time, Vajiram’s notes are handy.
- Geography- I referred to GC Leong, though NCERT is equally good. Looked up Wikipedia for information on Natural phenomena. Used to watch Geography related PBS NOVA documentaries on YouTube in my spare time. These are extremely interesting and are worth your time. The key to doing well in Geography is to know what to study. A subject that comprises barely a third of one paper can end up consuming a lot of time if you are not careful with your Leong. Basic fundae about permanent winds, climatic zones, pressure belts etc are a must. But do not spend your time reading up on types of wind erosion, the subtle differences between an anticline and a syncline or the predominant rock in lava. Do read up on specific terms that relate to common phenomena-for eg, temperature inversion, microburst, El Nino/La Nina and so. Be thorough with the Atlas as far as South Asia is concerned-both for economic geography as well as to answer questions related to climatic patterns(like reasons for belt of low rainfall around Vidarbha). This means studying the Atlas in such detail that you would be able to mark out all the physical features on an unmarked physical map of India. Increasingly, UPSC looks to be asking questions from historical geography too (like why so many battles at Panipat?). It wouldn’t be a bad idea to get your Atlas out when important names in history like Panipat, Buxar, Plassey, Assaye or Seringapatnam crop up. Try to relate their physical location to their strategic importance. The Atlas is also a very useful tool to understand cropping pattern in India. Some of them actually carry small maps listing the growing areas of major crops.
GS PAPER II (Marks: 104/250)
For somebody with an optional like Law, GS Paper II should be a piece of cake. Much of its syllabus is covered under Paper I of Law. I believe the same may be said of optionals like Pub Ad as well or GS Paper III and those with Economics as an optional. Yet this familiarity with the syllabus can be a major drawback if we lose sight of the fact that GS papers, by their very definition, are not meant for specialised gyaan. In 2013, I doled out a lot of law specific gyaan in what I thought was an easy GS Paper II. My final marks were a pathetic 51. So the major lesson I drew from that underwhelming performance was to ensure that I write for an examiner whose familiarity with the subject is of a different nature than mine. I avoided jargon completely and stuck to simply sentences.
This is a relatively easy paper to prepare as far as sources are concerned. Laxmikanth on Indian Polity is indispensable. Since I was anyway doing most of the polity part for my Law Paper I, I used this book very sparingly. For those who need help with concepts that are not adequately explained here, VN Shukla’s Constitution of India (edited by Prof MP Singh) is a great book to invest in. It is a standard law textbook but is thankfully free of all jargon. You can ignore the unimportant case laws and read it as one would read any other book. Do remember that it is a rather bulky book and doesn’t come cheap. However, as a guide to the Constitution, I would recommend it anyday.
The second must have for this paper is the Report of the 2nd ARC. There is no need to read (nor is it possible to) all of it. Just scroll down to the last part of all individual reports and you would find a succinct summary of the recommendations made that should do for your needs. Do look up the full text if you wish to understand the context of a particularly important recommendation. A large number of my answers drew from this Report.
I did India’s foreign policy entirely from the Internet. There are a number of excellent sources online that should suffice. For a quick summary, Wikipedia is often enough. Considering the dynamic nature of this part, it is best if you do not rely on some outdated textbook. I only looked up static concepts like Panchsheel, NAM etc from Vajiram’s Study Modules.
The Internet should also do for International bodies and salient features of the RoPA. I did not study the latter though.
GS PAPER III (Marks: 73/250)
This was the paper where I, excuse my language, screwed up. While I have no clue where I actually bungled up, I think it must be to do with my horrible memory for facts and figures. I do not remember quoting a single figure anywhere, for the simple reason that I cannot remember dry statistics. This was also a paper where I had to hurry up as I spent a lot of time on a couple of difficult questions and had to really push towards the end.
I used two different books for this paper. In 2013, I had used Dutt and Sundaram’s bulky classic. It took up a lot of time but provided me with a strong base in the subject. In 2014, I used Ramesh Singh. I, however, daresay that it would have been rather difficult for me had I not read Dutt and Sundaram the previous year. Agriculture especially is best done from Dutt and Sundaram. Newspaper reading is extremely important here. I frequently read the Indian Express and kept an eye out for economic developments. I used Vajiram Module for topics like Infrastructure development that were covered in a bit too much detail in the standard books.
There is no book as such for Sci and Tech. Coaching material that you can pick up from ORN or Ber Sarai can at best cover only a portion of the syllabus. You need to be up to date with recent developments in this field. I dedicated a whole day in November to this part and read up everything I could find on the Internet about recent scientific developments.
Disaster Management was from the ARC Report. Security challenges was done from Vajiram module and the Internet. The South Asia Terrorism Portal has a great amount of info on terrorist activities in this region that you can sift through. The remaining outlying topics were again done from the Internet.
GS PAPER IV (Marks: 83/250)
Again a performance not quite upto the mark. It was a rather similar story in 2013 as I secured only 78 in this paper. Maybe my distaste for purely opinion based philosophical papers is the reason.
I used the material recommended by Gaurav Agrawal (IAS, 2014) on his blog. Read up 2nd ARC Report on this as well as the Vajiram module. Used the Internet for views of thinkers and philosophers-mostly Greek and Indian. All my answers in the Case Study portion were usually overly idealistic and included some reference to the Indian scenario. Referred to Roy Choudhury and Subba Rao’s book and found it pretty helpful.
I will write about preparing for the Law optional in my next post. Feel free to add in your comments, corrections and suggestions here!