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How do I crack UPSC CSE in the first attempt while being under any circumstances?

I will share my story and the strategy that I followed to clear the coveted Civil Services Exam in the first attempt.

First of all, let me tell you a bit about myself. Civil services was never childhood dream. I did not start preparing from my school days and if anyone tells you that you need to start preparing from 8th standard, it is a myth and do not take them at face value.

I did my B.Tech from College of Engineering, Trivandrum in Kerala. After graduating in 2015 I was working with ITC Limited, as a mechanical engineer. It was during my stint at ITC that I decided to prepare. So, I put in my papers in the June of 2016 and started preparing from July 2016.

Term of preparation:- I started my preps from July 2016 and wrote Prelims in June 2017. So that is a total of 11 months of focused preparation before appearing for CSE 2011.

So let me now come to the topic of how to crack civil services in the first attempt.

These are some prerequisites that anyone should have before starting their preparation.

1. Unflinching self belief:- No one in the world is going to believe in you and your capabilities. And every tom, dick and harry will not miss any oppertunity to question your abilities and to blame you for every decision. So you of all people should believe in you, without that kind of confidence in yourself, seeing through this exam would become a Herculian task.

2. Having an original plan/strategy:- Before I started my preparation for civil services, I had gone through strategies of many toppers. What I found out was that no two people had cleared this exam with the same strategy, but the common factor that runs through all those toppers were that they had their own strategies. Now that is rule number one. Do not blindly follow the strategy shown to you by a coaching institute or any topper, you need to have your own plan which magnifies your strong points and diminishes your weaknesses.

3. Be tougher than the exam:- The civil services exam is dubiously dubbed as the toughest exam in the world. So to master the exam you need to tougher than it. You need to be prepared to face failures and get up and fight back stronger.

4. Know your syllabus:- The most common mistake that most aspirants make is that they fail to go through the syllabus for the exam. Knowing what the syllabus demands and not demands is absolutely necessary fpr clearing this exam. Only then will we be able to target our efforts for quick results. Merely pouring through volumes and volumes of history and geography is not what the exam demands. there is a very highly defined syllabus and our effort should be to cover as much of the syllabus with as much clarity as possible.

5. It is breadth that matters and not depth:- The Civil Services Exam is an examination to recruit generalist bureaucrats who would be able to handle any department under the government. The exam, therefore, demands the exact same thing, your vastness and breadth of understanding matters and not depth of understanding in any subject. A common mistake that I have seen aspirants make is that they try to cover a subject from cover to cover and in the end amassing as much knowledge in the subject as a PhD holder in that subject would have. Whereas the exam demands a mere fraction of that knowledge.

Should one attend a coaching class to clear Civil Service Exam?

This is perhaps the first decision any civil service aspirant will have to make before starting your preparation. Now this is highly subjective. Given the huge amount of online content that is available now-a-days it is perfectly possible to clear the CSE without joining any coaching institute.

But I had enrolled at a coaching centre in Kerala. I did so because, at the start of my preparation I had absolutely no idea about the exam or how to prepare for the same. So for me some amount of guidance and handholding was necessary for me.

Now I should add a word of caution here. Even if a candidate decides to join some coaching class there is only so much classes can do (at best say 20–30% of the work might get done in a classroom), it will entirely depend on how much effort that you put in that will decide your result.

What books should I read?

This is again a very subjective topic and there is not a single comprehensive book list that will help you clear this exam.

NCERT Text books of history, geography, economics and polity from class Vi to XII are a must read in my opinion. Reading these books will help you cover and basics and create a strong foundation which you can supplement with your further reading. Personally almost 60% of my knowledge base for the static subjects come from NCERT text books.

Below is a list of books that I followed for my preparation.

SUBJECTSBOOKS
Modern Indian HistorySpectrum, Bipan Chandra
PolityLakshmikant
GeographyNCERT 6-12, Goh Cheng Leong
EconomicsFortune Class Notes, Sankar Ganesh
Ancient HistoryNCERT, Tamilnadu SCERT
Medieval Indian HistoryFortune Class Notes
Art and CultureFortune Class Notes
Science and TechnologyNewspaper, Class 9, 10 NCERT
EnvironmentShanker IAS Material

The key here is to select the books you are comfortable with and to stick with them. Reading all the material that comes out daily is both impractical and unfruitful. Reading the same texts multiple times will be much more beneficial.

How important is newspaper reading?
Newspapers are vital for any preparation strategy. I used to spend atleast 2–3 hours daily reading the newspaper. It helps one cement the concepts and helps you evolve opinions and will help you analyse a given situation from multiple perspectives. This will come in handy especially during mains and interview stages.
I used to prepare notes from The Hindu daily on the evernote app. This helped me stay organised. During the last 2 months of prelims preparation, I further reduced my one year worth of newspaper notes into crisp notes that filled one 100 page notebook. I read this condensed version multiple times and was the major source for current affairs preparation for prelims as well as mains.

How important is mock exams?
Mocks tests are very very very very very important in all the three stages of the exam. I cannot stress the importance of mock tests any more.
For Prelims, giving lot of mock tests will help you refine your strategy to maximise your scoring. For some answering only those questions which they are absolutely sure of will do the trick. Whereas for someone else (like me) maximizing the number of attempts may help clear the cut off. And there is only one way to find out the strategy that will work for you, do umpteen number of mock exams.
Perhaps, mock tests for mains are the most important. In mains it is not how much you know that matters, but how well you can articulate the things that you know in the limited time that is available. Mains answer writing is a skill, which can be mastered only with practice.

Choosing the right optional subject

The optional paper can make or break your career. So be very careful in choosing your optional. Your criteria while choosing the optional should be
1. Do you like the subject, enough to spend thousands of hours pouring over it.
2. Is there good guidance available for the subject. Especially are there good mock tests with good feedback available for the chosen subject.
3. Also check the trend of past few years and check the scoring trend. However this should be the last consideration and the primary consideration should be for your passion for the subject.

Pacing your preparation:-
It is of utmost importance to rightly pace your preparation so that you never run out of steam. One must start slowly, but steadily build up momentum so that he/she can give the final push close to the examination.
But the most important aspect to clearing this exam is to enjoy the journey and not just the destination. One must thoroughly enjoy the preparation phase to be able to bear with the stress that this exam puts on an aspirant. Take it one day at a time, enjoying the learning process and you are sure to succeed.
All the very best!!


Author

Anand Mohan
Rank 472, First Attempt