My Time with the UPSC.
The results of the UPSC CSE 2021 are out. I have secured an AIR of 553. In this post, I would like to briefly state my experience with the examination and some pointers I have about the examination.
Coming from an engineering and technology background, I knew precious little about the examination and most areas of study were alien to me. I did have a fruitful schooling period and this indeed helped me greatly, but I had to learn most subjects anew. Since the UPSC preparation was sort of a hiatus from my career and entrepreneurial journeys, I did enjoy the studies. It gave me an opportunity to brush up my understanding of basic geography, read good history, learn the ropes of polity etc. I will write a detailed post on all those subjects later. But in general, it helps to have a keen interest in these subjects and an eye for how these subjects will have applications in real life scenarios.
I took my General Studies coaching at Vajiram and Ravi, Old Rajinder Nagar, Delhi. This was in 2017-18. I haven’t attended any classes elsewhere. The classes were good, and were taught by a diverse pool of faculty. Rather than the quality of teaching, it was this diversity that attracted me. And such diversity in viewpoints suited me well. Since I stayed in Delhi, such differing opinions and the opportunity to learn helped me well. I didn’t take any coaching for my optional subject, Anthropology.
Despite the commendable quality of teaching, the way Vajiram taught me to appear for prelims didn’t really help me. In fact, when I failed to clear the prelims of 2018, I knew that the reason was exactly this. I scored 94.33 against a required cut off of 96. I had attempted only 65 questions. This was a mistake. I recommend that anyone write any question in which they can eliminate two options. 85+ questions may be attempted. Practice is very very important. In my first year of study, I stopped ‘actively’ reading books after 4-5 months and started writing prelims mock papers. I wrote 160+ papers and studied the keys well. I was up for the UPSC game within 9-10 months and it greatly helped me in staying in the race. If I had kept on reading textbooks, I would have taken at least 1.5 years to reach there. Again, this is just an estimate. Actively writing tests honed my ability to think about subjects and connect them with others. I cleared Prelims in 2019 (IFoS too, but I ended up wasting two months on IFoS mains), 2020 & 2021.
Test series that helped me are listed here. Vision IAS test series helped me to cover the subjects, since they had a fairly good key. But I feel that UPSC prelims is an analytical examination more than a ‘know or not’ examination. So, the way we attempt the examination is important. The test series that helped me in this regard are - ClearIAS, Civils360, and a few others that I don’t recall. As a rule of thumb, if any test makes you think about the options and there is scope for very intelligent guessing, it should help you in the long run. Write them more often and try to ‘derive’ answers than learn them right away. Writing 2-3 tests per week and learning the basics have helped me greatly. It was my primary mode of study for the entire examination process.
Since I come from a strong engineering background, I have never prepared for CSAT. No specific comment on that segment.
I read as many Topper’s copies as I could lay my hands on. I downloaded scores of them for each paper and read most of them. I also wrote the Mains test series at Vision IAS, which helped me. In my previous attempts, I have taken a few tests at Enlite IAS. The feedback from Mahesh Sir was relevant and helpful. I feel that incorporating feedback is very important. Plus, it is important that we stick to the 3 hours timeline.
While reading Topper’s copies, try to understand why those answers ‘worked’. After that, try to incorporate them in your tests. I have hardly written any answers outside the mock tests. I kept writing tests and read my papers afterwards to evaluate my performance. The answers I found wanting, I worked upon. Rest, I just read the keys and thought about ways to improve my writing.
I don’t remember any of the answers that I wrote for the mains. I did stick to the general intro->body->conclusion format. But I have written some answers outside this too. Thinking a bit before writing could help us draft answers that actually reflect our understanding. I did try to incorporate points from various disciplines and areas that may add depth to my answer. But I also tried not to overdo it. Initially, I used to miss trivial points and would write answers that looked a lot more technical than they should be. Once I started writing answers that reflected my exact thought process on the subject matter, starting from the basics, their presentation improved greatly.
And I wish I had prepared for the optional paper better. I wish I wrote at least one test series. I am glad I studied the subject by myself, for I am still in love with Anthropology. But writing a good test series and taking worthy feedback and incorporating them in my work was something I should have done. No points for guessing that I haven’t done particularly well in those papers. But the good part is that I love tribal anthropology and I wish to do field work in the hinterlands at some point in my life. I am glad I picked up anthropology. My marks for two papers combined are 228, 237, 248 in the three mains I wrote.
I did attend a few mock interviews at many institutes. I got very workable inputs from Shri. Jojo Mathew and Shabbir Sir of the ALS. One to one session with Shri. Ravidran of Vajiram and Ravi was useful, and I learnt a lot from the inputs from retired bureaucrats in many boards. Inputs from Hon’ble Ex union minister Shri. Alphons Kannanthanam was very helpful as it helped me orient myself during the entire PT process.
I feel that building up a resume is important. Being confident about your viewpoints helps. But all in all, marking is a very subjective process. Getting very different marks within a span of 7 months (between CSEPT 2020 & CSEPT 2021), is a testimony to this fact. So don’t think a lot about this step; just keep studying well for the mains and prelims. Once you have cleared Mains, you’ll know how to do this. If you don’t have anyone to talk to, you can email me.
I feel that it is important to understand the nature of the process rather than focus on individuals who may or may not be able to help us. I have looked at this preparation phase as a means to learn more. I was prepared, even if I didn’t make it to the final list. Even if I had failed, I would have given myself an education that I always wanted. This is the key takeaway for me from the process.
It is important to know that this is an examination that anyone can appear for. It is important that we study, but more important is that we understand the uncertainty and unpredictability that is associated with it. I also feel that knowing more about the nature of the job could be a strong motivating factor. Rather than the authority, prestige and privileges that are attached to the job, I was greatly motivated by the scope of learning that this job offers.
I have worked with many organisations in my life. Both as an active member and as a zealous leader. I was very active in college politics. These experiences have taught me a lot of things. As someone who is interested in the practical aspects of things, these learnings have enriched me greatly. When I look at the huge machine that is the government, I am filled with awe and I always wanted to know more and more about it. And also see what modest contributions I can make in running it.
And here I am, at a point where I could actually try doing it.
Hopefully, I will learn more than I wish to learn. Hopefully, I will end up doing much more than I wish to do. As I publish this article, this is one thing that occupies my mind. The learning. I was not always sure why I wanted to be a civil servant. But the answer is clear now. It was always the curiosity, stupid! I want to know, and I know that knowledge is power. May I get to do all these in the times to come!
PS: I met some very interesting and motivating people on the route. I am wishing to write a detailed list of names, and I am saving it for another day.