Before I start discussing my preparation ‘strategy’ for the Civil Services Exam (CSE), I believe it would be helpful to discuss my background in brief. I may seem an aimless wanderer as far as my professional life goes. Though it is true on face value, there are various factors associated to it as have been discussed in a previous post. In continuation to this journey of ‘self-discovery’ or in simpler words, ‘my perfect vocation’ or ‘my calling’, I decided to write CSE as well. This decision was taken a week before the submission of forms for prelims was due. Consequently, I had a little over a month and a half to prepare for the prelims. This was to be my first attempt at CSE. I knew that it was a tough nut to crack but I had no clue about the syllabus, standard reference books and the kind of work it requires one to put in. This was both good and bad. Bad, because I had to start from scratch for an exam where millions had been trying for a longer period of time and with much more previous ‘relevant knowledge’; good because I was saved from unnecessary expectations and pressure on self. Since I was already working in a central PSU, there wasn’t a ‘huge’ pressure to get through as soon as possible. I had told myself (and others) that I was writing it this year simple to get an idea of the examination process and structure. Below is a description of how I worked towards this goal, the books and websites I followed and in general, the approach I took. (This is by no means ‘perfect’, I believe everyone has his/her own style of doing anything and the effort I had put in was not adequate. )
- Current events of national and international importance – Read ‘The Hindustan Times’ , followed Mrunal.org, followed ‘The Hindu’ editorials and International Relations columns online on Feedly. If I found any major issue interesting, I used internet resources to learn more about it.
- History of India and Indian National Movement – Old NCERT History books
- Indian and World Geography – Physical, Social, Economic Geography of India and the World – NCERT Geography (my preparation for this portion was inadequate)
- Indian Polity and Governance – Constitution, Political System, Panchayati Raj, Public Policy, Rights, Issues, etc. – Read a book on Constitution by Subhash Kashyap (although later I read M Laxmikanth and I believe the latter is much better from the point of view of examination preparation)
- Economic and Social Development Sustainable Development, Poverty, Inclusion, Demographics, Social Sector initiatives, etc. – Being a sustainable development professional, I did not prepare for that part much but I think online resources (articles on Mrunal in particular) would suffice. As for economics, I have an interest in the subject and had taken a course on managerial economics in my masters. I built up for the exam using Mrunal’s articles and Stiglitz and Walsh. Some of the articles in the magazine ‘Yojana’ were very useful especially for poverty, inclusion and social sector initiatives.
- General issues on Environmental Ecology, Bio-diversity and Climate Change that do not require subject specialization – Again, environmental engineering background came to the rescue. Although Biodiversity part was a zero for me and a mistake at that. There were a lot of questions from this part which could have been easily answered if I hadn’t given up on it.
- General Science – Nothing in particular. The Science and Tech portion of ‘The Hindu’ (had it on Feedly) and notes from Mrunal.
Didn’t prepare for this part. I solved a few mock papers and old UPSC papers and was scoring well in those. I enjoy reading and thus comprehension wasn’t a problem as such.
I installed a few apps for GK and glanced through questions in them. This was helpful in remembering the articles of constitution in particular.
In my opinion, both papers were good and do-able, especially paper II. For those who have taken CAT or other aptitude exams, paper II may not require much preparation. Clearly, paper I left a lot to be desired but that was because of my inadequate preparation and not because of the exam being tough. I found questions from ecology and biodiversity to be tough and many and questions from history, polity and economics to be relatively simpler and interesting.
After coming out of the examination center for prelims, I had a feeling that I would get through. So, I thought of the next big question – the optional. I chose Economics as an optional out of interest. I was told it was not a very wise choice considering I had never had a formal training in economics. However I derived enjoyment from learning economics concepts. Not to say that the economics paper I in mains examination did not make me regret the decision in the examination hall :P. However overall, I am happy with my choice.
I wanted to start right away but somehow couldn’t really do that till the results for prelims were out. Then, I took a print out of the syllabus and tried to figure what I would refer to for a given point in syllabus. I used Mrunal.org and a document in circulation at that time by last batch for this purpose. I have listed the resources I used for each topic below.
For these, I just looked at last few years papers.
Essay – Nothing in particular. I think the fact that I like writing helped me here. But looking at the huge variations in essay marks of successful candidates, I have come to realize that one needs to practice writing a structured essay. Looking up at few topics and trying to write 2500 words on each, at least once every three weeks would be helpful.
I think I wrote a decent essay. The topic I wrote on was GDP and GDH. I prepared a rough outline of what I wanted to write and how I wanted to structure it. I started with a reference to Sachin Tendulkar’s Bharat Ratna as a metric for his performance, so I assume my introduction was different and striking. I wrote in paragraphs describing GDP, GDH, their respective merits and demerits as measures, the reason we need a metric in the first place and then conclusion on which one I think it should be. I must have written close to 2400 words (about 18 pages). I also ended with end notes explaining any terms which I thought might have looked like Jargon. Overall, I was happy with the way my essay had turned out.
General Studies–I (Indian Heritage and Culture, History and Geography of the World and Society)
- Indian culture: The salient aspects of Art Forms, Literature and Architecture from ancient to modern times – Read spectrum culture book, but to be frank I found it very boring and did not retain much. NCERT history books would be a better deal in my opinion.
- Modern Indian history – from ~ 18th century until the present‐ significant events, personalities, issues – Old NCERT books was all I studied and found it to be sufficient.
- The Freedom Struggle ‐ various stages, important contributors /contributions from different parts of country – Same as 2
- Post‐independence consolidation and reorganization within the country – I did not prepare this specifically, but I read ‘India after Gandhi’by Ramachandra Guha after my mains and I would highly recommend this book. It is very well written and interesting to read.
- History of the world: events from 18th century such as Industrial revolution, World wars, Redrawal of national boundaries, Colonization, decolonization, Political philosophies: communism, capitalism, socialism etc.‐ their forms & effect on the society – Old NCERT history books, class IX and X. Mrunal’s notes – wonderfully written, easy to understand and fun to read.
- Salient features of Indian Society, Diversity of India – NCERT books, history and civics class VIII onwards
- Role of women and women’s organization, population and associated issues, poverty and developmental issues, urbanization, their problems and their remedies, Effects of globalization on Indian society, Social empowerment, communalism, regionalism & secularism – Did not prepare, should have, there were direct questions from these in the paper.
- Salient features of world’s physical geography – NCERT geography
- Distribution of key natural resources across the world (including South Asia and the Indian sub‐continent); Factors responsible for the location of primary, secondary, and tertiary sector industries in various parts of the world (including India) – Mrunal’s notes
- Important Geophysical phenomena such as earthquakes, Tsunami, Volcanic activity, cyclone etc.; Geographical features and their location‐ changes in critical geographical features (including water‐bodies and ice‐caps) and in flora and fauna and the effects of such changes – Did not prepare specifically, a friend of mine gave me crack IAS summary notes for geography which proved helpful. Having said that, I believe one can Google these topics and prepare as well.
General Studies –II (Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social Justice and International relations)
M Laxmikanth for Constitution and Polity, India and World IGNOU Booklets, Mrunal’s notes, ARC reports, Yojana
For the polity part, the questions were opinion based. They needed you to analyse what you have read and then present your stance on it. IR was more direct.
General Studies –III (Technology, Economic Development, Bio‐diversity, Environment, Security and Disaster Management)
Mrunal’s notes (The land reform articles were especially helpful), Ramesh Singh, Newspaper Feeds. This paper, I believe, can never be ‘completed’. You can keep adding the snippets of information you find here and there and hope to be able to recall it well in the exam. 3D printing and some polymer question are a testimony to this fact 🙂
General Studies –IV (Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude)
UPSC sample papers, Mrunal’s notes, ARC report on ethics
I scored well in this exam. It might have to do with my approach towards case studies. I analysed them in great detail. I must have presented at least 6-7 different possible outcomes to a given situation. I then chose what ‘I’ would have done and gave its merits and demerits after explaining why I would go a particular route.
Paper‐VI & VII
Could not find proper material for these. Read some standard books but did not find them satisfactory. Got printed material of Brilliant from Delhi but that was utterly useless. I was grossly under prepared for paper I. Just kept fumbling for material online and that was a big mistake. Thank God for scaling! For paper II, I read Ramesh Singh, and some of my Husband’s notes on Indian Economy and Political History from his MBA classes which were helpful.
I think the exams were really interesting. The difficulty level was moderate but the papers were really lengthy.
I just want to add that I thoroughly enjoyed whatever preparation I did for this examination. Hope this helps!
P.S. I just read Gaurav Aggarwal’s blog ‘Khelo India‘ on preparation and he has some sound advice! Also, given that he secured Rank I in this exam, I am sure anybody looking up this post will be benefited by reading him as well!
P.P.S. Here is my mark-sheet in case anyone is interested in relating my performance to strategy –
Prelims – Paper I – 82, Paper II – 175, Total – 257