Certain myths have to be erased before we discuss the strategy for the UPSC Civil Services Exam. First, one must not be academically brilliant to appear for the exam. Even UPSC has not put that condition. They want people who can analyse the situation and take quick and effective decisions. This is what they check in the exam too.
Secondly, one need not be from humanities background to have an edge in the exam. Your academic background does not affect your performance in Civil Services exam much. This is so because the approach for Civil Services Exam is very different from our usual university exams.
Candidates must not that the Civil Services Examination (CSE) is held by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) only once every year. At present, its three levels span over a year. It recruits young talent for two all India Services i. e.
As well as for 22 other Central Government Services mentioned below
- Indian Foreign Service.
- Indian P & T Accounts & Finance Service, Group 'A'.
- Indian Audit and Accounts Service, Group 'A'.
- Indian Revenue Service (Customs and Central Excise), Group 'A'.
- Indian Defence Accounts Service, Group 'A'.
- Indian Revenue Service (I.T.), Group 'A'.
- Indian Ordnance Factories Service, Group 'A' (Assistant Works Manager, Administration).
- Indian Postal Service, Group 'A'.
- Indian Civil Accounts Service, Group 'A'.
- Indian Railway Traffic Service, Group 'A'.
- Indian Railway Accounts Service, Group 'A'.
- Indian Railway Personnel Service, Group 'A'.
- Post of Assistant Security Commissioner in Railway Protection Force, Group 'A'
- Indian Defence Estates Service, Group 'A'.
- Indian Information Service (Junior Grade), Group 'A'.
- Indian Trade Service, Group 'A' (Gr. III).
- Indian Corporate Law Service, Group "A".
- Armed Forces Headquarters Civil Service, Group 'B' (Section Officer's Grade).
- Delhi, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep, Daman & Diu and Dadra & Nagar Haveli Civil Service, Group 'B'.
- Delhi, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep, Daman & Diu and Dadra & Nagar Haveli Police Service, Group 'B'.
- Pondicherry Civil Service, Group 'B'.
- Pondicherry Police Service, Group 'B'.
The exam for Indian Forest Service is held separately.
The Civil Service aspirants have to adopt an 'integrated approach' while preparing for this toughest exam in the country. It means that while one is preparing for one level of the exam, one should think as to how the same content can be utilized for the other two levels of this exam. This not only broadens the thinking of the candidates but also saves time and improves their conceptual foundation.
Here we would be discussing the study techniques for each of the three levels separately. However, one must keep in mind that the suggestions given here are based on the personal experience of the successful candidates of C D Deshmukh Institute. The suggestions mentioned below must be altered to devise a customized study method to suit the needs of each individual and that of the exam.
How to prepare for Civil Services Preliminary Exam
The Civil Services Prelim, commonly known as Prelim, is the first of the three stages of the Civil Services Examination. Unless one passes the Prelim, one can not appear for the Main Exam and subsequently for the Interview.
The Prelim is only a qualifying exam. The Prelim score is not added to the scores while deciding the final merit list. However, the studies for Prelim are the foundations of the preparation for the Main Exam and the Interview. Also, of the lakhs of students appearing for the Prelim in the country, only 10-15% candidates qualify for the Main Exam. Hence the Prelim is of utmost importance.
UPSC has changed the syllabus for the Prelim. The optional subject paper is now replaced by a paper of aptitude test. Now the Prelim consists of following two papers:
- 1) General Studies - 200 marks – 2 Hours
- 2) Paper II (commonly known as CSAT) – 200 marks – 2 hours
Since both the papers have equal weightage, one must pay equal attention to both of them.
Preparation for General Studies
Candidates must take into consideration following things about the Prelim:
- 1) The syllabus prescribed by UPSC is very broad-based. Candidates must think for themselves which all things may fall under these topics. For instance, the syllabus mentions only 'physical geography'. One must be able to relate and note events like volcano eruption in Iceland and Chile, oil spill, Tsunami, environmental concerns in mineral-rich tribal areas of Orissa, etc to this and study the subject accordingly.
- 2) Question papers in the Prelim will be only in Hindi and English. Especially the comprehension part in Paper II will be in English only. Hence those who opt for writing their Main Exam papers in regional language must prepare themselves to understand questions in Hindi or English.
- 3) Candidates must analyse the question papers repeatedly and regularly. This way they can familiarize themselves with UPSC's style of questions and the focus areas.
UPSC declares neither the cut off nor the scores of candidates in the Prelim. According to the observation so far, one must secure at least 65-70% marks in each paper to pass the Prelim.
Negative marking is the biggest deciding factor in the Prelim. For every wrong answer, we lose 0.33 marks. For every 3 mistakes 1 mark is deducted. Hence one must be very careful while choosing which questions to attempt and which ones to skip. Due to the time constraints, one must learn to manage to solve maximum questions correct while attempting least number of questions wrong.
For effective time management, one must solve maximum number of questions and comprehensive question papers regularly. Since we have to minimize the number of wrong answers in the exam, following strategy may be useful:
- A – Go through the entire question paper in first 50 minutes. Mark the answers which you are 100% sure of.
- B - In the next 50 minutes, mark the answers to those questions which you can solve by applying some logic.
- C – In the last 20 minutes, mark the answers to those questions for which you can make an educated guess that is most likely to be correct.
All the questions in the Prelim are multiple choice questions (MCQs). To choose the correct alternative of the four options given, we must be able to eliminate the options which are definitely wrong. This helps save time and increase accuracy.
One must also cultivate the habit of checking the answer sheet. Since we may skip answers to some questions, we must make sure that we have marked the answers to the corresponding question numbers properly.
How to choose from and use the available study material?
It is of utmost important to remember that the Civil Services exam requires an analytical, comprehensive, multi-disciplined, solution-based and concise approach of answer writing. It is very different from how we study at college or university level. Hence, instead of using too many books, one must read few selected books repeatedly and carefully. It is advisable to first use the books written specially for UPSC exam. One must refer to BA/MA books only if and when additional reference is required.
Before reading books for any topic, go through all the questions that have been asked on that particular topic in the UPSC exam before. Use the scanner or strategist for it has the assorted questions on all topics from previous UPSC papers. Always follow this 'reverse engineering' method to yield better results in less time.
Analyse questions regularly and try finding out the 'themes' and 'focus areas' for all the topics in the syllabus. For instance, in Indian history, art, architecture, literature, important rulers, scholars, social reformers, revolutionaries, Congress sessions, women leaders, etc are some of the important and recurring themes.
You must learn to read quickly. You must know what is to be picked up from the text that you are reading. Otherwise you may be misguiding yourself.
Similarly, in geography, important geographic features like rivers, mountain ranges, power projects, biosphere reserves, etc are some of the important themes. In Indian polity, important articles in the Constitution of India, prominent constitutional and non-constitutional bodies, boards, commissions and their chairpersons, chronology of Presidents, Prime Ministers of India, etc. are some prominent focus areas.
One must work smart while preparing for the Prelim. It is advisable to chart out a schedule based on the time available, the study topics and material to cover and our own capacity to study. Even if one manages to cover 50% of the target, a lot is achieved.
How to prepare for Civil Services Main Exam:
The Main Exam is the second and most exhausting level of the Civil Services Exam. You get barely four months after the Prelim to study for it. The marks of the Main Exam decide where you will stand in the final merit list. Even though UPSC adds the marks of the Main Exam to your Interview score, Interview marks are unpredictable. One can have a better estimate of what will possibly be asked in the Main Exam and hence can prepare well for it. That is why it becomes even more important to devise an effective strategy for the Main Exam. It consists of following papers at present:
- 1) General Studies I
- 2) General Studies II
- 3) Compulsory English
- 4) Compulsory Indian Regional Language
- 5) Essay
- 6) Optional I – Paper I
- 7) Optional I – Paper II
- 8) Optional II – Paper I
- 9) Optional II – Paper II
Each paper carries 300 marks and has the duration of 3 hours. Essay carries 200 marks but is to be written in 3 hours.
The Compulsory papers of English and regional language are qualifying papers. Their marks are not counted while making the final score. However, UPSC checks these papers first. If one does not secure adequate marks in these papers, then his/her remaining papers are not evaluated at all. Hence one must pay attention to preparation of these papers too, if one is weak in English or the chosen regional language.
Choosing the optional subjects
Candidates must choose their optional subjects carefully. There have been cases when candidates could not score well in a particular optional subject and switched to another optional subject after one or more attempts. To prevent this wastage of time, money and efforts, following steps are suggested to help the candidates select optional subjects:
- 1) Browse through the list of all optional subjects provided in the UPSC notification.
- 2) Shortlist a few subjects that you find interesting.
- 3) Go through the syllabus and previous UPSC question papers of these subjects and decide which ones you find more interesting and easy to understand.
- 4) Find out if good study material is readily available for these subjects or if you can gather it on your own.
- 5) Find out if good guidance is available so that you can clarify conceptual doubts through discussions and get your answers evaluated.
When you have selected your optional subjects, begin with the following method of study:
- a) Go through the syllabus of the optional subjects daily and gather the study material for all the topics in the syllabi. It is possible that ready material is not available for many of the topics/subtopics. Sometimes the available material is not updated, hence less useful. In such cases, we must be able to use Internet, magazines, newspapers, resource persons, etc to produce our own study material. In some cases, a particular book/notes is useful for only one/two topics. Hence think before you buy any material. Piled up study material increases your tension.
The process of gathering study material must start when we start preparing for the Prelim. However, we must also wait for some updated materials and latest editions that arrive only in the month of June and after.
- b) Next step is to use the strategist to find out the focus areas from every topic. Make a list of the focus areas from each topic.
- c) Gather points under each subtopic from various sources. However, use one book as your base book. You will revise this book frequently. Points from other sources will be merely an addition to the content of this book. You may choose any book as your base book that you find easier to read and that comprehensively covers most part of your syllabus.
- d) After you have read the material for a topic once, start making micro-notes i.e. try to fit all the content under one topic on one A4 sheet. Use short forms, diagrams, charts, etc so that you can revise maximum information at one glance later. This shapes your thinking, helps you write concise and focused.
- e) When you revise, revise only your micro-notes instead of going back to the multiple hefty books.
- f) Writing practice is the key to score high in the Main Exam. Every day, write one long and short answer from each paper. The more you write daily, the faster you improve. Get these answers evaluated only from someone who has good judgment of the requirements of UPSC exam or has scored well in the Main Exam before. Work on the suggestions given by them.
- g) After you have developed enough understanding of the topics in the syllabus, start discussing with your fellow aspirants about different aspects of the topics. Brainstorm to get more points for topics for which material is scarcely available. It helps you clarify your doubts and develop originality.
- h) Do not exceed the word limit. They cut marks as penalty for extra writing. Also, if you write too much in one answer, you will fall short of time to complete the paper. In any case, try to complete the paper.
Usually UPSC prescribes word limit in GS papers. When not specified, write 10 words for every 1 mark. Practice writing the stipulated words in 1/3 time of the total number of marks. (e.g. 60 marks answer in 35 minutes)
- i) The syllabus for the Main Exam is too vast. It is impossible to cover all the topic properly. Hence read all the topics at least once but prepare some of them better than others. Study at least 85% of the syllabus properly.
- j) Develop a balanced approach in answer writing. Do not take a radical stand for a social or political issue. Try catagorising all the points to write a well-structured answer. For instance, divide the causes of tribal underdevelopment in social, political, economic, technological, legal etc.
- k) Make your answers multidisciplinary. Substantiate your arguments by giving relevant examples from current affairs. In essay, examples from several subjects, quotes and anecdotes of famous personalities, etc would enhance it.
- l) Wherever necessary, use diagrams. Underline important points. Do not use colour pens or underline each and every line.
- m) Have confidence and know that the answer to any difficult question can be written with the help of the theories and concepts you have already learned.
How to prepare for Civil Services Interview
Interview is the last and the most unpredictable stage in the Civil Services Examination. It is a test of your personality. You are evaluated by a panel of 5 people who are eminent personalities in their respective fields. You have hardly 20-30 minutes to prove to these complete strangers that you are 'officer-like-material'. A careful and planned approach is required to ensure a good score (180 and above out of 300) in the Interview.
Following are some useful suggestions to prepare for the Civil Services Interview:
- a) Be yourself in front of the panel. They can detect if you are trying to show yourself as a different person to just to impress them.
- b) Being yourself is not easy especially when you are under so much pressure. Being yourself requires you to identify your strengths and weaknesses. You should be able to highlight your strengths and cover your weaknesses during the Interview.
- c) Interview preparation requires shaping yourself intellectually. This is done by forming your own opinions about issues of personal, local, national and international importance.
- d) Questions in the Interview are either fact-based or opinion-based. For this you need to work on four grounds:
- i. Your personal information mentioned in your Main Exam form like your place and date of birth, educational qualification, parents' occupation, work experience, address, etc.
- ii. Your hobbies, interests and achievements
- iii. Your optional subjects
- iv. Current affairs and other things from the exam syllabus.
- e) Thorough understanding of all the fundamental concepts related to your optional subjects is required. The theoretical basis of current affairs must be studied. For instance, while studying the calamity of Tsunami in Japan, one must learn the geographical causes of earthquake, which plate is related to India, etc. This way, you can give technical explanation to substantiate your answer to the question as to why Indian nuclear plants are less prone to the danger of Tsunami than Japanese nuclear plants. Revise all the details related to your optional subjects and General Studies syllabi at least twice after the Main Exam and before the Interview.
- f) Your opinions must be balanced. The solutions you suggest must be practical. Talk to Top-rung officers, scholars, administrators to know their viewpoint and how they handle the work. This may give you some insight into the actual working of the schemes and plans of the government. Never give radical opinions like 'we should attack our enemies'. Include sustainable development, cooperative coexistence and economic diplomacy in all your answers.
- g) Discussions are of utmost importance while preparing for the Interview. You may observe yourself while arguing with your friends, countering their arguments and while disagreeing with them. See if you are polite enough while differing from others.
- h) Read a lot of books, magazines, etc which you did not read for your Prelim and Main Exam. It will freshen up your mind. Also, it will widen your thinking. Watch television debates to gather new points on old issues (preferably on BBC and Lok Sabha TV where they discuss more and fight less).
- i) In your actual Interview, it is helpful to be honest when you don't know something. DO not pretend to know things.
- j) Your posture, pitch of voice, speed of talking and continuity in talking is very important. Practice maintaining eye contact with all five members by looking at everyone while answering. You must not only look at the person who asked you the question but at everyone. Retain a smile on your face.
- k) Work on all aspects and come up with all probable questions related to the first three aspects mentioned in the list above. Group work is very helpful for this. Also appear for at least three mock Interviews with a time gap of at least one week.
- l) Remember that in the Interview, it is like an 'oral Main Exam'. Hence structure your answer and catagorise your points. Use short sentences but give maximum points. This requires a lot of thinking and talking practice.
- m) Learn to be at peace with yourself. Listen to the question carefully. Do not cut the panel members when they are asking you something. Take a pause after the question and before you start talking. It really helps you organize your thoughts and to avoid the harmful impulsive talk.
- n) Be comfortable with the dress that you are wearing. Wear it at least once or twice before the Interview and try walking and sitting in it. Wear light coloured clothes but they must look fresh and not dull. Do not wear too many accessories. Also, when you get your photograph clecked to be pasted on the Interview form, wear light coloured formal clothes and wear spectacles if you are going to wear spectacles for the Interview.
- o) Have faith in yourself. They will be impressed without any extra deliberate efforts from you.