Strategy for success

What kind of a routine helped a student crack the highly competitive UPSC   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

My UPSC preparation strategy relied on several independent decisions — some of them risky but each informed by an honest assessment of my abilities. I knew I wasn’t comfortable sitting for hours at a stretch. I had scarce appetite for making crisp and clear notes. And I had only seven months to prepare, which I was delusional enough to believe was plenty of time.

I began studying in earnest around July 2020 for my first attempt, and plodded along until the Mains. I didn’t join any coaching institute because I felt I could learn better and quicker on my own. Thankfully, I wasn’t in need of external motivation after having spent several months researching and mulling over whether I should take the plunge. I also didn’t stick to any specific timetable, as being flexible can help by making learning less monotonous. However, lack of routine works only when it is accompanied by dollops of motivation to study long hours when you are in the zone.

Doing things differently

Initially, I was most worried about the Prelims — I didn’t even think of the subsequent rounds until I was confident of clearing the first stage. I followed the booklist suggested by Anudeep Durishetty and read each item multiple times. For current affairs, I picked up free monthly compilations and went through them daily. I was scoring in the mid-70s in most of my mock tests (of which I took over 50). Ultimately, a combination of common-sense elimination, intelligent guessing, and luck took me past the first hurdle.

While preparing for the Mains, I would look up each word of the syllabus and speed-read whatever showed up on Google News. Several newspapers have easily navigable online archives, and I used them extensively. I consumed news voraciously and spent most of my time reading articles and op-eds. Here is a shout-out to some excellent free resources I consulted regularly — Live History India, Down to Earth, IndiaSpend, The Diplomat, PRS Legislative Research, and ORF publications.

The idea wasn’t to collect material for preparing notes but to build cognitive maps. After skimming an article, I would pause to reflect on its main ideas, and revisit all the related things I knew. For instance, if I read a piece on how India is being pressed hard in climate change negotiations, I would quickly recap everything I understood about global warming, be it climate change’s impact on the Hindu Kush, or the role of movements like Extinction Rebellion in a democracy. The idea here is to be catholic in one’s reading. Since I didn’t feel the need to remember everything I saw, more time opened to absorb influences on a variety of topics from a variety of sources. For example, if there was a news item about a Guyanese election, I would check the winner’s ideology and mull over its implications for India’s relations with that country.

I followed this strategy because it was convenient and fun. I later realised that it also makes sense. The Civil Services Exams are no longer about things memorised years ago. Instead, examiners are testing the candidate’s knowledge of basic principles related to India’s policy paradigm, so following a rigid syllabus or just one source is unlikely to be useful if time is limited.

Preparing mind maps helps in making connections between distant concepts but not for remembering things verbatim. I delayed doing this until six weeks before Mains, when I finally reconciled to sprinkling facts and figures in my answers to make them more persuasive. I downloaded a flashcards app on my phone and made note of various things I saw in the news.In the last few weeks, I went over the entire deck multiple times a day.

I also enrolled in a General Studies and essay test series 40 days before the Mains and ended up writing over 25 full-length exams. I received good feedback, some of which I incorporated. For instance, some examiners advised me to include diagrams and flowcharts in my answers, but I was more comfortable writing in prose, so I stuck with it.

This strategy worked for me, but it may not for someone else. The idea should be to absorb insights from a variety of sources and use them to arrive at what makes most sense for you.

The writer, a researcher at the World Bank, holds an M.Phil. from the University of Oxford. He tweets at @sarthak13agr

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2021 9:53:50 PM |

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