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Get, set, go...

Hear it from the toppers who cracked the civil services main examinations and master the art of handling the acid test with elan

education Updated: Jul 20, 2011 10:49 IST
Rahat Bano

The civil services mains examinations are just a couple of months away, starting on October 29, 2011. With the countdown beginning for the announcement of the preliminary test results, we asked those who had cracked the final examinations and will soon start their training as civil servants for hot tips on learning strategies.

Optional papers
Karthik Gurunathan Iyer, all-India rank (AIR) 7 in the civil services examination, 2010, says he followed an integrated approach while preparing for the exams. He was tackling the mains (political science and history) even while studying for the preliminary exams (for which his optional was political science). Early groundwork can help as the anxiety before the declaration of the prelims can cloud your mind in those last few precious months.

“You should have a good grasp of core topics, instead of starting new ones by this time,” says Iyer, 22, a BSc (physics) from Pune’s Fergusson College, now pursuing his MA in political science (previous) from the Indira Gandhi National Open University (he used the study material from his current course for the prelim preparation).

Another finalist, Arindam Dakua, rank 32, suggests, “Put equal stress on GS, first optional as well as second optional.” However, he emphasises that by August (when just a few months are left for the mains), candidates should get a good grip on the optional subject if they are not too familiar with it.

“Concentrate on the second optional if you have not studied it at the bachelor’s level. You should be thorough with it by the time the preliminary result is out, says Dakua, who is working towards his PhD in political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi. Dakua chose political science and philosophy as his optionals. In previous attempts he had political science with geography, the latter not on his subject combination after Class 10. He changed the optional pair and successfully changed the outcome too. Incidentally, the political thought aspect of his BA and MA programmes covered 30-40% of the UPSC’s philosophy optional syllabus, he says.

For her optional papers, Shuchita Kishore, AIR 39 and a PhD (English candidate at JNU), took a cue from previous years’ papers to zero in on frequently asked questions. Kishore, who had political science as an optional in the prelims and political science and English literature in the mains, advises candidates to make a chart and write down ‘Paper I, Section A’ in the left column. Against it, make columns for the previous 10 years (2001, 2002 and so on). In each year’s column, check from which topics the questions were asked in Section A in the exam and put it down on the chart. “This gives you a fair idea of the important topics. Study these thoroughly and do this exercise for all sections of all the papers. This chart should be with you when you study,” she advises.

“Also, in English, finish all recommended texts. Read book critiques by Indian critics in journals like Biblio. Be very clear about post-colonial writing in the syllabus and about issues like feminism,” Kishore adds.

Maximise marks
How to ace the GD and essay papers

The essay — 200 marks
The essay requires practice, keep writing logically-constructed essays with relevant details, keeping in mind the word and time limits.

“People get too focused on the optional papers and ignore the essay,” Iyer says of the 200-marks paper. “It’s important to prepare for the essay and gather enough resources to write it.” Iyer says he used to pen one essay every 15 days in the run-up to the main exam. Dakua’s advice is to write at least two essays a week and get these corrected by a teacher or friend. In the first half-hour of the exam, says Kishore, make a rough outline of the essay. Think about the given topic and jot down points. The piece should “proceed logically from one point to another. You should not seem confused. The language should be simple. You can use quotations and idioms. Give lots of practical examples,” she adds. And provide a balanced view.

General studies — two papers, 300 marks
“People think the general studies (GS) papers are unpredictable and try to perfect their optionals,” says Iyer.
Concentrate on the GS after you are thorough with the second optional paper, says Dakua. For GS, you should be up-to-date with the news. Also, practice writing the answers in exam conditions — keep an eye on the clock. “Attempt each 100-mark question in an hour. Leave out what you don’t know. Write concisely and to the point,” says Kishore.

Go for the questions you are sure about. “Pick and choose according to your strengths and plan out priority areas you know well,” says Iyer. You can also form a group for peer-learning and discuss what you have studied. “Group study helps bust stress, too,” adds Dakua.

Before going for the exam, again go back to the second optional, he says.

Another important tip is to study as per the exam timings so that your brain gets used to being active during the hours when you will actually write the exam. Says Iyer, “Three weeks before the exam, I synchronised my body (clock) with the exam timings and studied for three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon.”