At the outset, it would be my responsibility to point out that there is no one way to clear this exam and one needs to find her own way to clear this exam. Also, please take note that a lot of what I write below is just based on my experiences and beliefs developed while preparing for this exam.Hence, what I say should be taken with a pinch of salt since I ,myself, cleared this exam in my last attempt after a grind of 5 years.
Common doubts that a candidate may have while approaching this exam-
1. Content acquisition vs Answer writing-
Often candidates prioritize content acquisition over answer-writing and delay the process of writing tests/daily answer writing till they “feel ready” . This would be the gravest mistake one can commit while preparing for this exam. In my opinion , this exam is about acquiring a basic threshold of knowledge level , which any candidate would be able to do if she is serious about reading newspapers and monthly magazines. Beyond this threshold, it all boils down to one’s ability to utilize the knowledge base. And, this happens only through answer-writing practise.
2. Newspapers vs Current affairs monthly magazines-
Newspaper reading lay at the core of my GS and Essay preparation strategy. While, relying solely on monthly magazines does work for a few candidates, it’s a strategy best avoided.
3. Whether or not to prepare self-notes from newspapers/magazines-
I personally made self-notes and would like to believe that it helped me immensely. But, important here would be how to prepare such notes. I never prepared notes passively by just copying the content from the newspaper into my notebook, rather after having read the newspaper, I would actively recall the points from the article in the framework of Problems , Steps taken till now, Way forward and Facts.
4. Whether to prioritise prelims preparation or mains preparation-
Prelims and mains are not water-tight mutually exclusive entities. Prelims preparation gives you the knowledge of basics and also factual knowledge that can be leveraged in the mains exam. While, Mains preparation widens your ability to think conceptually on issues which helps in weeding out wrong options in prelims paper and thus help clear prelims.
5. Whether to write answers in points or paragraph format-
There is no specific answer to this question. Write in the style that suits you. I personally wrote in points format in GS and para format in optional(PSIR). Advantage of point format in GS is that it allows you to think quickly and along diverse domains and not get caught up in a single point. While, the advantage of writing in paras is that one can weave a narrative and a flow which , according to me, is required in answers from optionals.
6. Number of hours to study to be able to clear this exam-
Depends on one’s comfort levels and there is no standard answer to this. However, I sincerely believe that first attempt requires 7-9 hours of dedicated study per day and beyond that 6-8 hours should suffice.
7. New content acquisition vs Revision-
Have certain number of daily hours for revision. Also, reserve 1 day in the week for revision. Apart from these, have a cut-off date before the exam when you would stop reading new content altogether and only revise from thereon. This cut-off date for me used to be 15 days before both Prelims and Mains.
Having said all of the above, there is a lot about this exam that still remains a mystery to me. However the one thing that I do know about this exam is that “Mains is all about Answer-writing” and I would want to specifically focus on this aspect of the exam.
Different candidates are blessed with different abilities and willingness to do answer-writing. Whichever end of the spectrum you fall upon, this aspect of the exam can’t be ignored at any cost.
Important things to consider while writing answers-
1. Sticking to the demand of the question-
It’s important to just stick to the demands of the question and the qualifying word(“Discuss”/ ”Critically comment” etc) attached to the question. It’s better to write a non-appealing answer sticking to the demand of the question than one with fancy terms, facts or diagrams but one which misses the demand of the question.
2. Importance of conclusions-
Another mistake that one may commit is to miss out on conclusions. This according to me is the most important part of the answer and it is important to give a sense of closure to the answer.
3. Don’t miss out on any question-
One can’t miss out on any of the questions. It’s imperative to attempt each and every question of all the papers irrespective of whether one knows the answer or not.
4. Are diagrams/figures important?-
While it would be unwise to downplay the importance of diagrams and figures in the answer, they shouldn’t be put in forcefully or at the expense of content catering to the demand of the question. Think of such diagrams and figures as toppings on a cake, without the base such toppings would be out of place.
5. One Standout point per answer
If possible, try inserting one “Aha!!” point per answer. This is all it takes to differentiate your answer from the rest. This “Aha!!” point could be any fact, example, case study or any quotation. The purpose being to get the examiner excited while checking your answers.
6. Importance of sub-headings for each point of the GS answers-
Make the job of the examiner easy. Allow him to just glance through your answers and be able to understand what you want to say. Save her time and efforts and she would reward you for the same. Have a look at this article as a sample of what I am trying to point out.
In conclusion, I would like to point out-
- Be a little detached, don’t glorify the importance of this exam and don’t expect too much in terms of the result. Enjoy the process and let the results take care of themselves. I know this is easier said than done, but when the dust settles on this phase of your life, irrespective of the result, you would remember these days as the best days of your life.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of your social circle. Your friends can pull you out of the lowest of lows. I would like to thank Aviroop Sinha, Daya Prasad, Ankit Rawat and Kunal Suraj in this regard. This journey wouldn’t have been possible without their support.
I also want to thank INSIGHTS IAS and Vinay sir for their tireless efforts towards the student community.
All the best to each one of you . May all your dreams come true.