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How to prepare IAS and other Civil Service Exams

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Govind Jaiswal, 22 /48th rank, Civil Services Exam, 2006
His father used to pull rickshaws, now he rents them out.

Achieving the impossible


A carefully thought-out plan and proper guidance can enable a focussed person to clear the tough UPSC examinations.

"THE hardest thing to learn in life," goes the saying, "is which bridge to cross and which to burn." With a plethora of choices ranging from Physics to Pali, aspirants to the Indian Civil Services may be forgiven for thinking that choosing the right optionals for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) selection examination is more than half the battle won.

Given that optional papers in both the preliminary and main examinations determine a candidate's scoring pattern, and that questions in the final interview are also usually based on the choice of optionals, the decision seems an extremely difficult one to make.                                            More.......

  1. Be very particular about the subject you choose for prelims, as you will be appearing for an objective type of paper. History, maths, geography may prove to be very scoring. Choose subjects which have availability of books, reading material and guidance. In recent years engineering subjects like civil and electrical can be chosen, giving BEs and IITians an edge (yes! even here they are giving the BAs and BScs a tough fight!)

2. G.K. will definitely pay in your prelims. Reading newspapers, watching TV news and of course quiz shows like KBC is a must.

3. If you have been lucky enough to reach the interview stage book knowledge may not be the only thing you need. Your mental alertness will count as they ask you questions like “How many steps did you walk up to reach here?” or “ What is the colour of the wall behind you ?” - So be prepared.

4. Enhance your personality because it will definitely be one of the criteria for selection. For IPS physical wellbeing is of great importance, you should be medically fit.

5. Improve your communication skills. IFS aspirants must be proficient in at least one foreign language. So go ahead, have your say in this political mess of our country and try to make it a better place.

Related articles

TIPS on IAS From Mr. Vaid of Vaid's ICS Coaching Center

It was in 1981 when I had my first encounters with UPSC through the aspirants (for IAS etc.) who sought my help to prepare for certain specific topics in GS and my parent discipline, i.e. Anthropology. Today, 13 years later, through regular interaction with the UPSC experts and students all over India, particularly at Delhi, Lucknow, Patna, Chandigarh and Hyderabad, I find myself in a favourable position to pen down my experiences and suggestions to the young aspirants. In the early eighties, there were three (Delhi, Allahabad and Patna) major centre of UPSC related activities, while Hyderabad was coming up fast. There used to be 40 to 60 thousand contenders for the coveted posts. Today, while the number of aspirants has risen by over 200 percent, many new centres have come up in almost every state capital and many other major cities. In those days professionals did not see any merit in contention for these jobs, but recent years have witnessed a flood of such aspirants, at times sweeping the top positions in the merit list. In those days History, Sociology, Political Science etc. used to be the most popular optionals while today, many hitherto less known subjects have taken over. Besides, many states have changed their pattern of PCS examination in line with UPSC examination. This change in the scenario, resultant of a number of factors, demands that the serious contenders to the job must adopt a more rational, more systematic strategy and approach, right from the moment they think of preparing for the civil services examination.

On the first thought of appearing in the Civil Services Examination (C.S.E.), the first issue is the selection of optionals. In a way, selection of right optionals is the most crucial step. Post-graduates in any discipline, generally prefer taking up their parent subject for Prelims. Though such selection is quite logical, aspirants with any science discipline as their base subject must ponder over the issue more seriously. Maths, Physics, Geology etc., optionals for Prelims must be opted for, only if one is out and out thorough with the subject. As UPSC ensures that 'some' candidates from every discipline must qualify for the Mains, aspirants with a science subject must judge themselves correctly regarding their own capability to be included in these 'some'. Some of the social sciences (e.g. History, Sociology and Public Administration) opted by quite a significant majority can, however, be a much safer bet, particularly for those (ordinary science graduates) who do not have any specific parent subject or for those who are not able to develop confidence in their parental subject. In either case, the formal preparation must start from the basic fundamentals, even if a person is already a post-graduate in that subject.

General Studies (GS) has to be prepared on quite a different plane because the content of this paper is too spread out and because any issue, major or minor, can be asked objectively. Traditionally, 10 + 2 level books of NCERT or any state education board had been covering a major part of the content but, these days, the items in news during the last one year or so, are being asked quite frequently. Problems are generally faced in everyday science (by the candidates with social sciences background) or in mental ability or in the fundamentals of economics. The most important aspect for the preparation of GS Prelims, therefore, is to identify the loop-holes and plug them urgently.

Many of you prepare a subject in terms of "reading" (once, twice, thrice etc.) with or without underlining the important facts. It results not only in longer time of preparation, but also many important points may skip. Also, even if you underline the highlighting points, most of you have the tendency to read the text in full while going for the subsequent readings. It is, therefore, advisable that texts must be read once and all important points (likely to be forgotten) recorded separately so that you need not study volumious texts again. This would save on your time and should result in greater efficiency. The Mains: For right approach, the preparation of Mains should start before or at least concurrent with Prelims. Just because you have to prepare for Essay, GS and the two optionals (English and a regional language, the one/two other compulsory, do not require a separate preparation) you never get enough time (to prepare for all these) after the declaration of Prelims' results. Further, while Prelims is only a screening test, it is on the basis of your performance in Mains, on which mainly depends the final outcome of your efforts. Strategically, therefore, the preparation for the examination should start about one year in advance and you should think about appearing in the Prelims only when you have had a strong grip over the Mains' subject matter.

( Courtesy: )

The Mains:

For right approach, the preparation of Mains should start before or at least concurrent with Prelims. Just because you have to prepare for Essay, GS and the two optionals (English and a regional language, the one/two other compulsory, do not require a separate preparation) you never get enough time (to prepare for all these) after the declaration of Prelims' results. Further, while Prelims is only a screening test, it is on the basis of your performance in Mains, on which mainly depends the final outcome of your efforts. Strategically, therefore, the preparation for the examination should start about one year in advance and you should think about appearing in the Prelims only when you have had a strong grip over the Mains' subject matter.

Many of you, particularly those with a professional degree in science, tend to ignore the preparation of GS and concentrate mainly on their optional subjects. This attitude is more like a bad gamble because you are not aware about the level of preparation of other aspirants. Economy (for the science background aspirants), Science & Technology (for the social science background aspirants) and Statistical Analysis are the only three areas that can pose problems in scoring. If you have prepared economy for your Prelims, doing it for the mains must not be difficult. Statistical analysis has to be practised with the help of previous years' solved questions given in all the guides as also the NCERT's Statistical Analysis. One year regular reading of a good national daily, India Yearbook (Publication Division) relevant NCERT books and a good magazine for the purpose are the basic necessities that you must go through. Scoring in GS is mathematical and any additional score gained through serious preparations should be welcome.

Essay paper, re-introduced in 1993, created a sort of storm among the aspirants. A rumour was spread that the step has been taken to neutralize the scoring pattern which is highly skewed in favour of some subjects. Though there is no denying the fact that many subjects (like Maths, Physics, Commerce etc.) do not encourage the development of language skill, those of you with such an academic background but a natural flair for writing developed during school or college days, should be definitely at an advantage. Writing an essay is an art and if you are not naturally inclined to write that way, you will have to spend at least some time in practising; more so because many of the issues asked in the form of essay are the ones that you generally prepare for your GS where you limit your preparation upto about 250 words. Stretching this content to form an essay is really an uphill task. Candidates are, therefore, advised to keep a thorough eye on all the happenings (in terms of broad areas) of the last one year with critical evaluation of those which could be asked in the form of an essay.

Regarding the compulsory language paper(s) which is (are) of qualifying nature only, I should just say that if you are apprehensive about the language papers too, better forget about the civil services.

The two optionals, that form a major part of your score, have to be decided judiciously. Candidates living in the major centres of Civil Services related activities, generally do not face much problem in finalizing their optionals but others, living in smaller towns or where there is no such environment, do faulter. For those of you post-graduate in any subject or having a professional degree, the first optional is the one that you have pursued for the last few years. But, for ordinary graduates the choice of first optional too, is equally problematic . Most of the candidates undecided about the optionals, are strongly influenced by the interviews (given by the previous years' successful candidates) that appear in various magazines. Decisions made on this basis, can, at times, land you in the no man's land.

While selecting an optional I would suggest that you care for the following :

(a)   The Syllabus : Whether it looks comprehensible at the first glance.
(b)   Content : Find out whether the relevant books/study-material are easily available.
(c)   Interest : After going through some of the literature, find out whether it has been able to    generate interest in you.
(d)   Expertise : Whether any specialist of the subject is available or approachable, the one that  You can solve your problems and satisfy your queries.                    
(e)   Success rate : What has been the scoring pattern and the success-rate of the subject—this            you can know from any coaching institute of repute or from some of the magazines too.
(f)   Friends' advise : Particularly of those who have not made into the list of successful aspirants of
the previous years. The steps need not be followed in this sequence.
The last decade has seen a catastrophic change of the sort, regarding the preference of the  candidates for traditional subjects as also regarding the scoring pattern. The last five years in particular have seen the emergence of Physics-Maths combination opted by the IITians, as the most successful one. Mid-Eighties saw the upsurge of Anthropology, a subject which is taught in the least number of Universities in India, followed by creation of Public Administration as a separate subject and its instant success in terms of candidates attracted as also in the scoring pattern. Geography has been making silent strides and the literatures of various regional languages have proved their credibility time and again. These subjects affected the popularity of History and Psychology that went out of favour because of revision and substantial increase in the syllabus undertaken during that period. Sociology suffered at the hands of Anthropology because the two can not be opted together and the wind favoured Anthropology.

During the last three years, however, Psychology and Sociology gained some ground while Public Administration has declined slightly in popularity. Regional languages have shown a spectacular rise while Anthropology has stagnated at the top. Philosophy, another fascinating optional, is restricted in popularity and there is not much to write about it. Change in the syllabi of many popular optionals along with bringing parity in the papers of various optionals is bound to bring many significant changes that should be reflected in the results of IAS ’2000. Maths is not going to be a popular subject any more. Engineering subjects, too are likely to lose in popularity. Anthropology, Geography and Litt. (despite revision of syllabi) should emerge as major successful optionals. Psychology too may improve is tally. Sociology and Public Administration should attract larger chunk of aspirants but in terms of results, both these optionals may prove disastrous.

If you ask me to rate various optionals and to opt for which one of them, my suggestions should be as follows:

If you are looking for the smallest syllabus, the obvious choice should fall on Anthropology, but wait, preparing this subject through self-study may not be that easy because the subject combines biological and sociological aspects. If you intend to choose a subject with scientific orientation, your choice should fall on Geography, Psychology or Anthropology. If you have a good command on the language, any subject can be chosen provided you can develop interest in that subject. Otherwise, those of you who do not have good writing skill, then please for your sake do not opt for History, Sociology, Philosophy or Political Science. Candidates with a command on any regional language or Hindi can taste success by opting for a literature as an optional paper. With a strong base in Economics or Commerce, Geography can be a good second optional.

There is no standard formula for success in the competition. The only rule is that you realise your real capacities and capabilities and chalk out your own strategy. How to perform well in Mains and Personality Test are the issues that should be dealt at length and I shall discuss these issue with you at the appropriate time.

Your basic quarries and their Solution

Q. 1. I Want to appear in IAS (ICS Exam). How Should I prepare for it to get through?
Ans. There is no standard yardstick to be followed. It all depends on your capacity and capability, irrespective of your performance/score in basic/higher degree exam. To get through the ICSE, however, two basic qualities must be there.
First, you should be mentally fully prepared to bear the strain of this one-year-long exam; and second, you should have (or develop) a sound expression (written as well as verbal) in the medium (language) you want to appear with. Once you have obtained these two qualifications, other issues regarding preparation for the exam can be handled better and easily.

Q. 2. With simple graduation (BA)/post-graduation (MA) as my background what should be my strategy for Prelims?

Ans. It may sound absurd but the best way to prepare for Prelims is to prepare for Mains first. Generally, for Prelims, the questions asked can be grouped into two broad categories : factual & conceptual. Conceptual questions can be handled more effectively only if Mains is prepared first. Besides, objective facts can be related and remembered easily only when a sound conceptual base is pre-existing.
Therefore, your strategy for preparation of Prelims should be such that you are thorough in your first optional (that you take in Prelims as well as in Mains) as also in G.S. This is important because you do not get enough time after Prelims to prepare for the Mains.

Q. 3. What optionals should be more suitable optionals for me?

Ans. It is a highly sensitive issue, and the most crucial too, because choice of optionals goes a long way in deciding your prospects. However, the answer to your question can not be as straight-forward.
It you have command on language, you can achieve your goal by keeping any optional. My suggestion, however, would be as follows:
If you are a post-graduate in any discipline, that should be your first and obvious choice; the same would be true if you have done honours in a social science. Selection of first optional for IIT/Medical graduates too has become difficult. The puzzle, therefore relates to graduates in arts and literature who do feel confused.
These days, at Mains level, some literature subjects, Anthro, Geography and Public Administration have been doing very well. Of these, the first two are only second optionals, and hence, your choice could fall on either Geography or Public Admn. However, History and Sociology have been counted as safe subjects for Prelims. So, if you intend to take Anthropology and any literature for Mains, you can, for Prelims, rely either on Sociology (most of which is covered in the Anthro syllabus and hence you get rid of the agony of reading a third subject) or History (that covers quite a significant part of GS).

( Courtesy:



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