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Success Stories

Issue No 37, 11 December -17 December 2021

Study Approach For Upsc Civil Services Exam

Utkarsh Kumar decided to prepare for civil services in 2018 while working at Goldman Sachs, Bangalore. Subsequently, he quit his job and moved to Old Rajinder Nagar, New Delhi, to prepare. He gave his first attempt from Delhi, but missed the final list by 15 marks. After the interview, Covid19 lockdown was imposed and he moved to his hometown Hazaribag. He prepared there for the second attempt, in which he secured rank 55 and IAS. Employment News spoke to Utkash Kumar on his strategies for preparations.

Q1. In which paper did you score the most and what were the main reasons behind it?

Utkarsh: General Studies IV (Ethics) and my optional Maths gave me the edge. I scored 121/250 (among top 10) in Ethics, and 322/500 in Maths (highest across all optionals). Unlike other GS papers, Ethics requires high levels of application of studied concepts. 2019 saw Vishakha Yadav ma'am in extraordinary 160s, 2020 sees Divya Mishra at 129, even as 110+ was rare in other GS papers in both years. I practised extensively the Shankar mains test series, Lukmaan Ethics test series and Forum's AWFG answer writing. I also incorporated specific approaches to different types of questions:

·         Ethics sees a lot of values and terminology: integrity, accountability, transparency etc. These should be understood precisely and defined in own words. Examples should also be noted at personal and public levels.

·          Quotes are often asked. A good approach is to explain the quote in simple examples, and then discuss them in today's context. Try to bring in governance examples, but also diverse examples from different spheres.

·         Public administration needs to be studied from ethical perspective: corruption, Citizen’s Charter (accountability), RTI (transparency). Corporate governance is based on understanding of different stakeholders (shareholders, management, board of directors, customers, society, regulators etc).

·         Value addition: Committee reports (Nolan's 7 values, ARC2), examples of personal and public nature, from exemplary leaders (M Visvesaraya on integrity etc), quotes, quoting thinkers (eg: Aquina’s “Just War” on war and peace, Vivekananda's “Cosmopolitanism” on global issues, CSR as Gandhi's trusteeship doctrine), and flowcharts.

·         Thinkers: a PhD isn't needed, but one needs to identify theories and keywords associated with each thinker. Also try linking eminent leaders with values (eg: Nehru: democracy, scientific temper; Ambedkar: courage, justice). Case studies require extensive practice of diverse types, careful issue identification and stakeholder analysis, connection to contemporary issues (eg: Tamil Nadu custodial torture etc), providing both short term and long term solutions (using existing administration mechanisms where possible).

Q2. Do you think focusing more on your strengths bear better results or should you focus more on conquering your weaknesses?

Utkarsh: We need to do both. After one has identified their strengths and weaknesses, working on weaknesses will see tremendous improvement, but strengths need to be continuously honed too. My first attempt marksheet told me my optional and interview were stellar, while my GS was poor. My time allocation in second attempt was accordingly: 30% to optional, 70% to GS. My optional score improved marginally from 303 to 322; while GS jumped from 331/1000 to 385/1000.

Q3. How important is having good command over the language in writing your answers?

Utkarsh: One needs to be able to write crisp and precise answers in simple language. Vocabulary doesn't need to be extensive, but it helps to have relevant keywords ready (Ethics: devotion to duty, courage of conviction, polity: deepening of democracy for local bodies etc). These keywords are picked up in due course of preparation and not through study of language.

Q4. Did you take any mock tests? How helpful are they?

Utkarsh: Mock tests assess our progress: expose weak areas, identify strengths, and compare ourselves against the crowd. For prelims, I recommend solving tests from 3 coachings; while for GS mains, I recommend solving 12-14 test series from any reputed coaching (I used Shankar IAS). Careful analysis of test performance can reap immense dividends. A question on Bentinck's policies prompted me to compile policies and reforms of all Governor General; GS1 2020 had a question on Curzon's policies. Similarly a question on Vijayanagar art and culture prompted me to compile art and culture for major kingdoms. GS1 2020 had a question on Pala kingdom's Buddhism.

Q5. Did you take the help of coaching institutes? What other ways of guidance do you suggest for aspirants who cannot afford coaching?

Utkarsh: I used coaching institutes in different legs of my preparation. In the beginning, I joined the foundation course at Vajiram and Ravi. Joining a coaching saves us from getting lost in the ocean of knowledge and provides access to teachers for asking doubts, and possibly a good peer group. However one needs to consider the financial costs involved, and the large classrooms (300-600 students). Further a coaching can only cover 50-60% of syllabus due to inherent nature of syllabus. I made the course useful by actively studying on my own, extensively revising what was discussed in class; I used to have 5-6 relevant questions in every 2 hour class. I managed to find a good peer in Priyanka Godara, and a mentor in Satvik Bhan sir. Even then, I stopped attending 50% classes by midway. To sum up, while coachings can provide an initial boost to our preparation, they aren't essential. If used well, they can bring an edge to preparation. Today, the strategies of toppers and materials are readily available online (specially monthly current affairs magazines like Vision IAS). So are free and affordable lecture series on YouTube and other platforms. They are worth exploring specifically.

Q6. What were the major impediments you faced during the preparations and how did you overcome them?


·         Transitioning to humanities subjects wasn't easy coming from technical field. Once I got through the initial part, the analytic mind helped me identify patterns and structures in humanities subjects (eg: art and culture can be studied theme wise and kingdom wise). 

·         Time management across so many subjects. While I gave enough time for optional preparation, I couldn't do justice with the numerous GS subjects in 1st attempt. I learnt from this in my 2nd attempt, and balanced GS better.

·         Quest for perfection (and therefore hesitancy) before writing answers. I eventually began writing answers; and even though my initial answers were bad; they were not the worst answers I wrote. Every subsequent answer got better.

·         Presentation: I used to write small font, and long sentences, my headings weren't visible, answers were headings and points. I went through multiple toppers’ answersheets to learn how people write. I wrote in larger font, improved spacing between headings and content and different parts of answer, boxed my headings, and included flowcharts, diagrams and maps to break monotony of answers.

Q7. For aspirants having Maths as optional, what best preparation strategy do you suggest?

 Cover IMS notes religiously. They're enough for 80% questions in the exam. Focus on understanding the concepts and practising in your notebook. There will be some things that you'd need to memorise - reduction of 2nd degree equation to conic, real analysis tests, Charpit's method etc. You can skip proofs that seem complex or not important in first iteration. But try and widen your coverage each time you revise from notes. Note the problems where you get stuck the first time. Both from IMS notes and any book and test series you solve. Ensure you solve PYQs, they're your radar and validation. Also ensure you join a test series after you complete the syllabus. Writing tests in 3 hours is quite different from solving while revising. A good rule of thumb is to have Maths well prepared before the preliminary, and focus only on practising tests and light revision after between the prelims and the main exam. That would free up time for GS prep, often hard to balance for us Maths candidates.

Q8. Which is the most critical period of the preparation?

Utkarsh: Although each period has its own significance, the period between the preliminary and the main exam is extremely important. This is when we have enjoyed a small taste of success (prelims cleared), and 3 month period runs very intense. My typical routine was: newspaper and half test of Maths in morning (9-12.30), GS study/test in afternoon (2-5.30) and revisions during night. Every week, I would write 1-2 GS tests, 1-2 Maths tests, 1 Essay test (all 3 hour tests), 3-4 answer writing tests (1 hour each). This is the period to elevate the quality of our answers, bring value addition and so on.

Q9. Did you apply any specific skill in note-making?

Utkarsh: They are the amalgamation of content from NCERTs, reference books, and current affairs (newspapers and current affairs magazines). Spilling sweat on notemaking reduces blood spilled during exam. It's a game of guessing what dimensions to a topic are relevant from exam perspective. For every GS question, we need to present 2-3 (10 marks) or 3-5 (15 marks) dimensions. Ideally we should have these dimensions in our notes, and our job is to tailor them to the demand of question in the exam hall. Aspirants should also include value addition along with topic notes (statistics, committee reports. quotes, diagrams and mapwork). As we write tests, our understanding of exam improves; our notes then improve leading to improvement in answers. This cycle needs to run 4-5 times ideally. These notes evolve each time we study a book or current affairs magazine, or revise, or analyse after exam. Therefore it is more convenient to make them electronically on MS Word, Evernote, OneNote, Notion etc.

Q10. Do candidates having greater access to technology benefit in any way?

Utkarsh: Technology access helps streamline our preparation. The newspaper is accessible in the morning even if you are away from your house. The study materials (books, current affairs magazines) and tests (prelims and mains) are available online. Mains answersheets can be scanned and uploaded for evaluation. The notes can be made online, and can be updated over multiple iterations. For interview, one can have 1-1 and group discussions over video calls. There are useful channels and discussion groups on telegram; one channel posts prelims PYQs as a quiz, for instance. That said, aspirant needs to be careful about time spent on technology. It's easy to spend hours at a go, or develop a tendency to check notifications every free moment. That can be detrimental to the preparation, and develop tendency for instant gratification. We need to be long term greedy instead. These factors make technology near essential, if not absolutely essential.

Q11. Did the pandemic affect your preparations and results? How do you suggest aspirants to deal with such unforseen circumstances?

Utkarsh: Every crisis offers its challenges and opportunities. When sudden lockdown was imposed, I was in Gurgaon for a family health crisis, and was forced to move to Jharkhand without picking up books from my room in Delhi. Because my notes were electronic, I could continue my preparation for 2 months based on 2-3 books that were with me. The uncertainty and negativity causes stress in minds, like the delay in results for CSE 2019, and postponed prelims for CSE 2020; later postponed interviews for CSE 2020 also affected morale. The intensity of preparation goes down in such cases. However, the postponed timelines gave me time to work on my gaps. Normally a candidate gets hardly a month between interviews and prelims, I got 6 months! I took the time to work on my GS and finish my optional. That helped tremendously in my second attempt.

Q12. In your opinion, is it possible for someone to have a job and yet prepare for the civils? Does having any kind of work experience help the candidate in any way?

Utkarsh: We have seen instances of candidates preparing while having a job – Abhilash Barnwal (AIR 44, CSE 2017) for example. But the preparation is intensive and with a job, it could mean an additional 1-2 years. That is why we see candidates in less preferred services take an EOL and prepare wholeheartedly. If one can afford it financially and mentally, I think it makes sense to quit the job for 1-2 years. After that period, syllabus is more or less covered and requires far fewer hours. Work experience helps. Generally candidates with work experience seem to have better time management and communication skills. They also have a backup opportunity ready for them, which enables them to work harder. They need to continuously justify to themselves why they are preparing instead of earning, right? It also helps guide their interviews in direction of work experience. I was asked questions on Goldman Sachs experience both times. However, that said, one needs to also justify why they wish to enter civil services as a change of field. And with civil services promotions being time dependent, it makes sense to enter as soon as possible.

Q13. What is the best approach to choosing a career path? Should a civil service aspirant choose an easy graduation degree and focus attention on preparing for the civils or should one opt for a high employability degree course and keep options open?

Utkarsh: In my opinion, undergraduate should be motivated by individual's interests. If one enjoys humanities subjects, they should opt for a BA. If Maths and Science are one's interests, they should pursue a professional B.Sc/B.Tech. Doing well in college academics opens windows for good career opportunities; a humanities optional student has option for higher studies and research, while professional students have direct jobs. These are good backup even if civil services are the goal (consistency rewards you). Further, as an engineer, my Maths optional gave me a significant edge.

Interviewed by EN Team

(Utkarsh Kumar has secured All India Rank 55 in Civil Services Examination 2020. He can be reached at telegram channel @utkarsh5_55 on which he shares detailed strategy, notes, problem sheets etc to aspirants free of cost).

Views expressed are personal