All the hard work that civil service aspirants have put in the past months or years will culminate on August 7 when the preliminary examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) will be held.
Here are a few important tips for taking the prelims this year:
Take mock or simulated tests:
They help you practise time management and handle pressure. They also help you realise the mistakes you will possibly make while taking the real exam. You can learn from your mistakes and do not repeat them in the real exam.
Mock tests give you clues about easy questions on which you can make silly mistakes or questions which you could not understand during the mock test but could be easily cracked later with a fresh mind.
The reason could be that you are either not concentrating enough or you need to develop the stamina to use your brain for two continuous hours. You can study for longer periods of time without much-needed breaks. It is a marathon, prepare accordingly.
However, do not take the results of your mock tests to be an absolute indicator of how you may fare at the real exam. Basically, do not get discouraged by a low score in your mock/practise tests. Most of the mock tests available in the market are deliberately made difficult (more technical than required from a generalist standpoint) and fail to capture the real essence of the prelims.
Do solve the previous years’ tests to get a more accurate feedback on your score and a clear idea about your comparative preparation of various topics as well as the nature of questions asked in the real exam.
However, your score on the prelims will depend not only on your knowledge, intelligence and attitude but also on certain requirements that become clear only when you take mock tests. You cannot afford to make mistakes in the real exam.
Mocks are a valuable tool to understand what is missing in your preparation, and, later, to realise the changes you still need to make in the way you handle yourself during the real exam to get an optimum score.
A clear idea about your comparative preparation of the various topics and the delicate balance in your preparation between static and dynamic topics is a must.
Some mock tests, as well as previous years’ tests, will also give cues about the relative weightage of straight-forward questions that can be solved with conceptual clarity in conventional topics like history, geography, polity and economy vis-à-vis analytical questions based on current affairs from both static and dynamic sections of the syllabus.
Divide the revision time before the exam into two halves. Spend the first half in revising the core knowledge across all traditional topics of the syllabus and the other in revising topics like science and technology, environment, ecology and biodiversity and current affairs in all syllabus topics. Study of current affairs is also prompt for what core knowledge may be tested in the exam.
For revision of conventional topics, refer to your class notes and study material or a book you have used earlier. Do not venture out to read from multiple or alternative sources.
Science and technology, environment, ecology and biodiversity and culture have shared maximum weightage in the past few years. These sections cannot be neglected; rather, good knowledge in these can make the difference between selection and rejection. Read on the lines of previous years’ questions.
Work hard and smart
Nothing beats hard work but towards the later stage of your preparation, you need the edge of smart work to rise above the others. Revise and master the concepts and rules taught in study material and classes. Attempt practice exercises and mock tests according to stipulated time and have the attitude – How can I get even a single question wrong?
The practice material that you have is not to be covered for the sake of being covered. It is not a formality – You have to learn from your mistakes. If you get a single question wrong on a practice exercise/test, then this question has something that evaded you.
Analyse the question to figure out how does the right answer compare with your wrong choice and why did you get attracted to the wrong answer.
1) Is there a certain rule / concept that I did not know?
2) Is there a rule/concept that I knew but I could not apply as I did not get the hint or keyword?
3) Did the question just evade me and I just do not know how to crack the question?
The solution for all three is to research the question, learn or revise the concept.
Even though you have spent the last several months preparing for the exam, you are probably feeling slightly anxious about the prelims. In addition to developing an approach to every section of the exam, you need to be mentally prepared for the challenges presented by the exam. Most test takers feel some anxiety, and the most prepared are those who have worked hard and learnt to manage that anxiety. Having a plan to manage stress is essential for achieving your optimal score.
If you encounter a situation expecting to be successful, you are much more likely to be successful than if you expect to fail. Consider the following two statements by two students:
1) I am never going to get this. If I mess the prelims, I will be a failure in life.
2) I am well prepared and deserve to do my best. I know what to expect and I am ready to succeed.
You will take no time to figure out which student is going to do better. Whether it is looking in a mirror and saying affirming statements or writing a positive thought on your rough paper on test day, it is very important to go into the actual exam expecting to be successful. If you expect to fail why would you be at the test in the first place?
This can be a difficult exercise at first, but you must get yourself in a frame of mind to succeed. When you dwell on negative thoughts, your mind is not free to work on the test. Trust that you are well prepared. If you have attended all the classes, done self-study and put the requisite hard work, you are better prepared than most of the population. Have the confidence that you are going to be great!
Know the test
When you take an aptitude test such as the civil services prelims, you have a lot of work to complete in a limited amount of time. Mastering the huge quantum of the syllabus, by its very design, makes the civil service exams a stressful experience. However, you have worked hard and learned how it works, and you know what to expect.
To keep in mind:
• Handle the easy question with extreme caution. Most of the aspirants will get an easy question right. Even you will get it right, but even on an easy question, there is a chance of you making a silly mistake. So, if a question seems easy to you, take a moment extra to double check on the answer, before you finalise and choose the answer.
• A hard question on the test is a good sign, not a bad one. A bulk of students would not have prepared properly for the exam and such students will not be able to handle a difficult question. Remember that you have to “earn” the hard questions on this test. The hard questions are the differentiating factor as they separate the grains from the chaff. By getting difficult questions right, you ensure your selection to the next stage.
• If a question looks really strange or too difficult for you, take a breath and remain calm. Try to figure out what is it testing, and apply the appropriate technique. If you are absolutely stumped, just move on. Maintain the pacing and approach you have learned from your mock/practice tests. Do not let a horrible question shake your confidence.
• Accuracy vs attempts: Your selection does not depend on attempting more questions, but on getting more questions right. The sword of Negative Marking also hangs on your head.
• As much as mock tests serve as “dress rehearsals’, practice tests are not quite the same as the “real” tests. This is where visualisation techniques come into play. If possible, visit the test centre a day your actual exam. Get a feel of the centre’s layout. At most test centres, you will be able to see the testing room through a window in the lobby. This will help you simulate the actual exam in your mind in your last few days of preparation. There are two important keys to visualisation: See yourself succeeding and imagine yourself overcoming every obstacle. You are unstoppable. You have prepared hard to be successful and you deserve to be successful.
Control physiological responses to anxiety
It’s normal to feel a little nervous on the day of a big event. Your breathing gets shallow, and you may even feel a little sick in your stomach. Take a deep breath to overcome these symptoms. Close your eyes and imagine that your torso is an empty cylinder. Take a deep breath, filling the cylinder. Slowly release all the air from the top of the cylinder to the bottom. You will feel that you have started to relax within the first few breaths. Your breathing should be deep and regular.
This exercise will generally take about half a minute. It is time well spent because folks who are highly stressed are not going to give their best performance. Once you have given your brain that little extra oxygen and focused on the task at hand rather than on your stress, get back to the test and start cracking the questions.
Take care of yourself
In the days leading up to the test, try to get regular exercise and adequate sleep. Exercise, even a short walk, helps you manage your stress. You may have a little trouble sleeping the night before the test, so you want to be well rested in the days leading up to the test. To be at your best, your body must be conditioned to be awake and ready to work at the time that your test paper is given.
Become accustomed to waking up at the proper time for the entire week leading up to the test. It is also important not to go to bed at a ridiculously early hour the night before the exam. Fourteen hours of sleep the night before the test is not necessary, and any deviation from the sleep schedule you have established in the final week is a dangerous idea.
Continue with visualisation techniques
The final week leading up to the prelims can inspire all kinds of negative thinking. Being excited about the test is normal, even helpful. Letting the importance of the prelims inspire feeling of dread is not. Use your stress management techniques to keep yourself in focus through the end of the exam: Now is not the time to start thinking that you are going to fail.
Night before the test
Do not over study the evening before your test. Your performance depends on your work over the last several months, not in the last few hours before the exam. Have a light dinner or watch a movie. Do not do any more practice work because you are as ready as you are going to be.
It is important that you chase success in the exam with the single-mindedness of a cricketer who wants to win at least the man of the match award, if not the man of the series award. What is most important is just to retain your cool and take the exam with the attitude of a winner. You can be the master of your destiny if your attitude is right.
(Gupta is the director of Rau’s IAS Study Circle. The views expressed here are personal)