As in any endeavour of significance, success in the Civil Services Examination, conducted by the Union Public Service Commission, requires planning and execution. The test is highly competitive. The cream of educated youth vie for a career in the civil services, and a candidate has to prove his or her superior knowledge, skills and other attributes of suitability over those of the competitors.

It is desirable that the preliminary and the main examinations are taken as a single unit for preparation. In the general studies paper, questions on anything under the sun can be asked. Since no one can master everything, the focus areas should be carefully selected.

Selection implies judicious elimination of ‘unimportant' areas as well. With its inexhaustible content, general studies demands concentration on the more probable areas from the point of view of the examination. Question papers of the previous examinations are the sole guide in the matter. The trend may change, but the previous question papers can still be an anchor to go ahead with the preparations.

Different styles

Keep in mind that the question styles in the preliminary and the mains are different. Usually, candidates select a common optional subject for the preliminary and the main examinations. But the preparation for each of these segments has to be unique. Suppose a long-distance runner who won the gold medal in 10,000 metres is suddenly asked to take part in a sprint event of 100 metres, based on the logic that the distance involved is much shorter. The athlete is most likely to fail miserably in the 100-metre event because of lack of specific practice for the sprint.

Hence, the preparation for the preliminary examination should be in a style that suits objective-type questions and that for the mains should be in tune with essay-writing.

Objective questions

Many will be unfamiliar with question papers exclusively of objective-type questions. The answering style has to be different from that of conventional descriptive papers in a university examination.

There are only two papers in the preliminary examination. The questions are of the multiple-choice objective type. Each question comes with a choice of four answers, out of which the correct answer has to be chosen. If certain answers are right in part, choose the most correct one.

The answer need not be brought forth from memory, but use discrimination in selecting the right answer. All questions are compulsory and carry equal marks.

Every wrong answer carries a penalty — one-third of the marks assigned to that question. If more than one answer is marked for a question, it will be considered a wrong answer even if one of the answers is correct. And the penalty will be applicable.

If no answer is given to a question, there is no penalty. So it is prudent to leave a question unanswered, if unsure of the correctness of the answer. It is advisable not to go for guesswork, and thereby invite penalty.

For example, look at a question that appeared in the 2009 preliminary examination.

Who among the following is the founder of World Economic Forum?

(a) Klaus Schwab

(b) John Kenneth Galbraith

(c) Robert Zoellick

(d) Paul Krugman

If you know that the German economist Klaus Martin Schwab founded the forum, answer the question. Otherwise, leave the answer blank and avert the penalty.

Even the best candidate may not be able to answer all the questions correctly in the allotted time; nor is it necessary to do so to clear the preliminary examinations.

The objective papers are in general a time test, much more than a knowledge test. Usually, the general studies paper has 150 questions and the subject paper, 120.

For many candidates, the examination proves to be a test of nerves, since they take it as a life-and-death struggle. The performance of those who lack in confidence may not reflect their knowledge and capability. So focus on nothing but the questions and answers, and not allow the mind to wander during the test.

Rehearsals

The distinctive characteristics of objective-type tests point to the need for systematic drilling that simulates the environment in the examination hall. Increase answering speed through constant practice using questions of the previous examinations or with those of comparable standard, keeping time using a watch.

During rehearsals and the examination, follow certain styles to get the best results. Do not waste time by reading all the questions from the beginning to the end of the paper. This exercise is of no use, since there is no ‘choice' in the questions. Better read the questions one by one from the beginning and move forward answering the easy ones and skipping the tougher variety.

Special training is essential for maintaining equanimity for logical thinking in an atmosphere charged with tension caused by time constraint. How can we get such training? One method is to sit inside closed doors, free from all distractions, and answer the questions of previous examinations, keeping time using a watch. In other words, simulate the atmosphere in the examination hall. With every such drill, record the number of questions answered in a fixed duration, say 30 minutes. After more and more rehearsals, you gain speed.

It is impossible for anyone to prepare for tests solely based on the declared syllabus. The content of the syllabus is invariably vague. Only questions from the previous examinations can offer a reliable guidance in the matter.

Everyone aspires to answer all the questions correctly in the given time. So it is likely that a candidate waits at a question to find its answer, even if he or she does not have a ready answer. This results in loss of time. The clock needle does not wait for anyone. So when coming across a difficult question, skip it without a second thought. You may get time for a second round to try a hand at the questions that were skipped. Not a moment should be wasted in the examination hall. All movements should be rehearsed repeatedly and things should proceed strictly according to plan. Make the preparation an enjoyable experience. Do not consider it a difficult task that can never be done satisfactorily by us. It is the will that paves the way.