I got rank 21 in CSE this year, and I’ll tell you how I did it.
As I write this, I can’t help but be reminded of The Merchant of Venice.
Portia’s father gives her suitors three caskets. The first, of gold, bears the inscription: “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire”. Most suitors went for the glittering gold, not thinking that everyone before them must have made the same choice and failed, for Portia would have found a spouse long before if it was so easy.
I’ve kept a separate page on my website dedicated solely to what I’m about to say. I’m doing my best to tell you: This is the lead casket, the casket that can make your preparation much easier, faster and effective.
If you pick this casket of lead, you’ll have to give much more thought, though I’ve done all I can to make it as easy for you as possible.
That golden casket is not without value – I narrowed down to those resources after a lot of effort. I’ve also detailed quite a lot of specific tips for this exam – I’d recommend reading this only after you’ve gone through that if you’re preparing for UPSC.
But it is as nothing compared to what I think you can get from what I am about to share with you. There are hundreds, thousands of book lists, strategies on the internet, and frankly speaking, you don’t really need mine to succeed, nor is mine the “best” list of books you can use for UPSC. You can clear this exam without my help; I just think that you’ll find the process a lot easier if you read on with an open mind.
Before you read further, I’ll let you know what you can get out from this lead casket. This is an approach I conceived of – a way to see this exam for what I think it really is. A way I could make it far easier than it’s made out to be. A way to read much less material, write more points and better answers, to get more marks, while spending less time. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s because the effort is still there, you just don’t see it because the bulk of that effort is in finding the right way, and not in making the journey.
To really understand any of this, I’ll need to explain to you how I viewed this exam. My time, and I’m sure your time too, are precious. I’ll try to keep it as short as I can, so bear with me.
A Chessboard and a Trip
I think analogies help make things easier to understand. I’ll use not one, but two.
If you’ve already appeared, or are appearing, I’m sure you’ll agree that only a fraction of what you’ve studied is really used in your paper. The rest goes to “waste” in the sense that you’re only going to be judged on what you wrote in your paper, not how much you knew but didn’t write.
Think of it as a chess board. There are 64 squares on the board – this is what you studied. What was actually of value, what did you really write in the paper? I’d say, if you did a decent job of focusing on the right resources, 1 cube. Probably 80-90% of the cube was something you’d studied, and the remaining 10-20% were things that weren’t even on your chessboard – meaning you didn’t cover them in your notes, but they came in the exam.
I’ll change tack and go to my second analogy. Many say this exam is a journey, so think of it as a 1000 mile trip you’re making. There are many ways to make a trip – some might walk, or even crawl. Others would use a car. Not everyone has a successful trip though – only ~900 or so every year do.
Now, I’ll use these analogies to explain the different approaches to this exam.
This is the most basic level of the exam. At level one, you’re still chasing all the books you can lay your hands on, you’re still reading all the reports you come across, you’re making huge, detailed notes which you probably don’t read. And you’re asking toppers to tell you what optional to take, what “strategy” to follow (that means nothing, really – it’s the most overused word in B-school and anywhere else).
Frankly, if you are serious about this exam, you should not be at level one. If you are still at level one, it means you haven’t done a basic Google search to read even a few blogs. But if you are, then realize this and change.
At level one, you’re chessboard is the entire 64 squares. If you really have not done even a basic research of what the exam you’re appearing for really is, you might even have 6400 squares on your board. And less than 1 of them will come in handy in the paper – that’s a lot of unnecessary labour, and the odds of success are almost nil.
At level one, you’re crawling through the 1000 mile journey. You might lose a few years of your life learning the ropes, and eventually succeed as you figure out your mistakes over repeated attempts. It’s good if you do, but don’t be blinded by success stories: far more people remain at level one throughout their journey and lose precious years with little to show for it.
I know I sound pessimistic, not what you’d want to hear from someone who gets a rank. But I don’t believe in sugarcoating things. I’ve realized a lot of business models run on hope – false hope. In the fitness industry, it’s the hope of those who believe they’ll achieve their dream physique effortlessly in a month without putting any effort. In the book publishing industry, it’s the hope of authors that they’ll be the next bestseller – it’s just a handful who do, the rest in fact lose money publishing their book.
And you’ll realize that in the coaching industry, there’s no dearth of those who’ll sell you hope. Most (not all, obviously) just want your money, or your views/follows on social media. They’ll promise you that if you just do what they’ll tell you, you’ll make it. I don’t believe that – no one can make it for you. You are setting yourself up to fail if you want to be spoon-fed.
“Speak only if it improves upon the silence.”
I don’t believe in saying something if everyone else is saying the same thing. There’s no value I’m adding, there’s literally no need for me to repeat it yet another time. If there are 5000 book-lists on the internet, giving book-list number 5001 is of no benefit. That’s why I don’t believe you should ask me to hand pick for you book lists. I’ve still shared mine, follow any of them if they help you, and if you feel they’re no good, don’t doubt yourself just because I got a good rank. Honestly, if you just wanted a list of books, why would you even wait for me to tell you my list? Every year toppers provide their book lists for those who request them – you should have already seen them if you just wanted a ready-made list.
Let’s go to level 2 now.
This is where you should be.
At level 2, you realize that it’s about covering the minimum number of resources. Reading the same material multiple times rather than new resources once is a better approach.
You’d know that prelims is, to a large extent, a game of guessing intelligently – either focusing on accuracy or more attempts, depending on you. And perhaps you also see that prelims will not get you a rank – it’s only a hurdle you need to clear. You must clear it, and preferably with a margin, but you don’t want to devote all your energy to that. And you shouldn’t think of it as an achievement – let’s be honest, you don’t get anything by clearing prelims alone.
You probably also know that you need to attempt all the questions in the mains exam, or at the very least, as close to all as you can get. Answering 12 questions beautifully is far, far worse than answering 17 of them normally.
At level 2, you’ve narrowed your chessboard. It’s no longer 64 squares wide. The better you get, the smaller your chessboard is. If you’re preparing smartly, you might bring it down to 1/4th of the size it was before.
At level 2, you’re not crawling, and you’re not even walking. You’ve got a vehicle now. It might be a bicycle, it might be a bus, if you’ve understood this exam pretty well, it could be a car.
If you’re very good at this, you can clear the exam in a much shorter time frame than it would usually take. I’d read a couple of answers online, which I’m attaching here, of those who’d done it. If you read them, you’ll see how they maximized their efficiency, ruthlessly focusing on narrowing down the material they used and rejecting anything with a poor return on the time invested. They didn’t just use a car; they had a nitro boost.
I’ll digress for a few minutes here.
I recall coming across these answers. And I recall how some people were focused more on proving them liars, more on trying to pick holes in their story. While others just wrote it off as “intelligence” or “brilliance”.
Don’t be like that, if you want to clear this exam, or achieve anything. Ideas matter far more than people. It shouldn’t even make a difference to you whether what you read about them was true – ask yourself, how will their ideas help you? Can you use their methods?
I believe a person’s worth is measured by what they devote their time to. I’m sure there are better ways to use your time than commenting on people who are unaware of your existence – especially if you’re studying for this exam.
Anyways, now I’ll come to what I began this with. This is an approach I thought of that helped me clear this exam in a far more fun way and in far less time than what I think it would otherwise have taken. Once you do the hard thinking, you then need much less effort and you’ll find your answers will improve.
This is level 3.
Level 3 is where you toss out the chessboard. It’s where you make the 1000 mile trip in an aircraft.
If what I tell you is of any help to you, then the credit goes to both Gaurav Agarwal (AIR-1, 2013) and to IIMA.
I’d advise you to read the above link if you’re appearing for UPSC (I shared it in the previous article – but it’s well worth reading again). I believe it’s the most underrated resource for this exam. I myself have shared it with my friends; I don’t think anyone appreciated the significance of it. It took me a lot of time to understand it myself, and even more thinking now to articulate all this. I believe the essence of the exam is in that blog.
I’m going to paste a few paragraphs directly from that blog below. I’ll explain them then. This is what you need to know before I share the approach I followed.
– GS and optionals answers are completely different. In optionals, one can write a PhD types answer and be confident of getting good marks – because the examiner who is checking an economics paper would be an economist herself. But in GS this will not work. The examiner who is checking the economics answer in a GS paper in more likelihood would not be an economist. She would be a generalist with limited knowledge and interest in the subject.
– So if you write some specialized answer or use some specific terms or models from your optional while writing a GS answer, good luck! Most probably the examiner would not understand/appreciate it. And she would not spend additional time or effort in going back and study the term/model you wrote. She would simply give a zero.
– Similarly, if you write any unconventional answers like say Aadhar cash transfers are not going to increase inflation and even give a logic based proof from basic economics, the examiner will not give any marks. Because she would have read mainstream media where everybody is saying Aadhar transfers would increase inflation. And she has no interest in taking the pain to understand a contrarian view point in your answer. Her life would be much simpler if she just gives a zero.
– So the bottom line is, our answer should be such that they make the life easier for the examiner. She would be happy while reading them and would give us more marks. So no PhD types stuff… just stick to basic points and present them in a way which is easy to read.
If you’ve read that, you’ll understand what this exam is about. I spoke of it in a talk at ForumIAS, I essentially said the same thing as what’s written above. There’s nothing new frankly; every year the toppers change but the ideas remain the same.
This is a generalist exam, not a specialist one. You don’t need detailed points. When you deal with humans, it comes down to selling. No one’s checking your answers for fun; you’ve got to make them want to. You’ve got to sell.
It’s easier for me to interest you in this article, because of many reasons. I’m not selling you anything – you’re probably reading because you’re appearing for UPSC and you believe you’ll learn something of value here; I’m not trying to get anything from you.
But you need to make the examiner like your answers to give you marks, and for that you need to make the life of the examiner painless. If someone has to strain and exert themselves to make sense of your answers, they likely won’t be happy about it, especially since they have hundreds of other copies to check.
I’ll copy a few more paragraphs from Gaurav’s blog below.
– Next, this exam is not a science exam. This is a generalist exam, a humanities exam. Its like a BA or MA exam. In a science exam, if there are 5 points in an answer but point number 1 is the most important point and rest are insignificant as compared to point 1, so if you cover point 1 only in your answer in great detail showing good understanding, you would get good marks. But in a BA, MA exam this doesn’t work. You have to not only write those 5 points, but also invent 2 more points and write. Only then the examiner would feel that you have covered all ‘relevant’ points. So one cannot ignore the trivial points and has to blindly write everything.
– Going further, in BA MA exams, if the question asks something say what is RBI doing to contain inflation and you answer all the points (including the trivial points) on what is RBI doing to contain inflation, you still won’t get good marks. Your answer still won’t be considered complete. In BA MA exams, an answer would be complete if we also write a bit about what preceded the question and what succeeded it. For example, in this RBI question, if I also write 1 para in the beginning on what is causing this high inflation and 1 para in the end on the effect of high inflation if RBI is not able to control, my answer would be considered better (even though a science student would find all this utter stupidity).
– Now the question arises, how to think of so many points in the exam hall? Well, because this is a BA MA exam and doesn’t require any specialist knowledge, the good thing is, if we just pause and think for 1-2 minutes before writing an answer in the exam hall, we would be able to recollect 70-80% of the points.
– Another thing which helps is to beforehand prepare a list of points for few broad topics. For example, one can remember 10 points on how to improve citizen charter, 10 points on how to remove corruption, 8 points on how to contain inflation, 7 on small states or not, 10 on problems of panchayats and so on… The good thing is these broad topics are limited and most questions in the GS exam come only as a subset of these broad topics or ask a particular aspect of these broad topics. Once you remember this block of points on any broad topic and a question comes asking you to look at the topic from a particular angle, you can easily and very quickly modify your existing points to meet the demands of the question. Then you just have to write 1 para each on what came before the question and what happens after the question, and your answer is complete.
– Finally on presentation style. Many coachings tell many things. Don’t believe in any of them. Just use common sense. The examiner is a human being who is checking your copies not because of any interest but because its her job. She would like to get over with it as soon and with as little mental pain as possible and attend to rest of her life. So just present your answers in a way which you think makes her life easier. Personally, I preferred writing point and section wise answers this time with proper section and sub sectional headings. It gives an impression that I have covered all aspects, given a thought to the answer before writing and created a structure. But the choice is yours.
These above paragraphs are the most useful thing you will find about this exam anywhere. I can’t describe how simple it became when I understood this.
You don’t have to write great answers and you don’t have to write all great points either. You invent trivial points too (see the blog again).
I realized there are three words that summarize the essence of this whole process: Breadth over Depth
You go wide, wide, wide and very low depth. See the blog once more. This is what he means by writing what preceded the question and what comes after it.
I’m going off on a slight tangent once more. You will find the relevance of this digression when you finish reading this section.
I’m no consultant, but if you’ve ever done case prep for consulting interviews, you’ll know that frameworks are a powerful tool to solve problems systematically.
You break a problem into smaller and smaller bits, going deeper and deeper to find the roots of the problem. Take a very simple example. Your firm’s profits aren’t up to your expectations.
Profits = Revenue – Cost
Revenue = Units sold * Revenue per unit
Cost = Fixed cost (like administrative costs, land) + Variable cost (Cost to produce a unit multiplied by units sold (Cost/unit * units)
We don’t need to go too much deeper. At every stage, you can narrow the problem:
- Are my revenues too low? Is it because
- Am i not selling enough units?
- Am I selling at a very low price per unit?
- Are my costs too high? Is it because
- Are my fixed costs very large?
- Is my variable cost high – meaning do I produce inefficiently?
We can keep drilling further, this is a very simplistic example but it will suffice. This is a very rigorous approach in the sense you break down to the lowest level you can get to.
If you’ve read till here, you’ll probably feel that I spent a lot of time, probably more than what you’d consider necessary, thinking about this stuff.
You would not be too far wrong. I think I spent as much time figuring this exam out and on writing answers as I did in actually reading the material.
I didn’t get much uninterrupted time in college, and didn’t have (nor believe in) blindly following a guide. There’s a reason for that. It’s the same principal-agent problem from economics (everything you’ll study is useful in your life, I learnt). When you want something, you’re the principal. The person you hire is the agent. The incentives of the principal and the agent are never the same. Shareholders (the principal) want higher returns; managers (their agents) care about their career – many take short term decisions, make a promotion and leave the firm – and then the shares tank in the long run. In the same way, your lawyer may want your case to drag longer so he makes more money, your doctor may prescribe unnecessary tests because it’s profitable for him. So when I go to a doctor, I’ve already read everything I can on the internet, and question her – because I know no doctor cares as much about my health as I do, and it helps me ensure she knows what she’s talking about (obviously, you wouldn’t self-treat yourself – just don’t blindly follow anyone).
You might find this irrelevant too, but I couldn’t help mentioning it, because I’ve seen so many people blindly rely on their coaching centres to make a timetable/book-list for them, and it never fails to bring a pall of gloom upon me. You are the principal in your life, your coaching centre is only an agent. You are just one of thousands of aspirants for them – you cannot rely on them only to clear this exam. Some of them can definitely help you, but you still need to use your own mind. I don’t think I can stress this enough.
That’s why the time that I did have went into reading blogs and learning about the approaches people had used. Those who’ve prepared on their own will know what a deluge of information is out there, and most of it of little use. But I figured enough to learn about the whole process – when I left Ahmedabad, I was at level 2, though I still didn’t know much.
I recall telling some friends before I left that this was going to take more effort than the MBA, which was honestly the most fun I’ve had and not at all a grind.
I was wrong about this exam though. There’s always a smart way, you just have to find it. I hope this will make things clear.
Let’s use a consulting framework to break this process down.
So what is the lowest level of the whole process really?
There are 3 stages, Prelims, Mains, Interview.
I’ve mentioned a few things already in my previous post. Prelims is only qualifying, but you must qualify to proceed. Yet, you can’t just give all your attention to it – that’s the red dotted line in the figure above. You won’t get anything if you qualify prelims and fail at mains or even in the interview.
You need to make sure you’re not neglecting mains – you need to jump to clear prelims with sufficient margin while making sure you don’t fall before mains. You can neglect the interview for now, it’s the easiest part of the whole process and you get more than adequate time, so don’t make the other mistake of focusing on the interview and ignoring prelims/mains.
Prelims is a game of two things – ROI and guessing. ROI is return on investment – how much benefit are you getting for the time you invest? I’ve always thought of everything in life that way, so it was natural for me to apply the same framework to this exam.
You should also know about the law of diminishing marginal utility in economics (something else you can apply in your life). If you have 10 rupees and someone gives you 1 rupee, that rupee will have a lot of value for you. If you have 1000 rupees and you get 1 rupee, that additional rupee will have less value. And if you have a billion rupees, you won’t even care about the extra 1 rupee you get. Similarly, I’ve noticed I enjoy it when I spend up to two hours in the gym; beyond that I feel I’d rather do something else with my time. If you always keep sight of this, you won’t while away your time gossiping for hours – there’s always something you want more, a better way to spend your time.
The reason I’ve explained this is: If you’re very good at medieval history, the additional benefit you’ll get from studying it will be much less – you already know most of the material that’s of use (don’t bother studying for the outlier questions or you’ll drown in material – questions like the one on Tansen are meant to be guessed, not learnt). So for you, it makes much more sense to spend more time on another subject where the return on your time will be greater. That’s why you shouldn’t ever follow someone else’s timetable – no one other than you knows what you need to focus on.
Now, look at the chart I posted above.
- You should to focus and spend your time on the two green quadrants at the top, where the reward is high. You should be able to identify this if you see the previous year papers.
- Topics like Environment, Modern History, Science and Tech always come heavily – these are high reward. Art and Culture – especially Buddhism, Jainism are especially so. Personally, I’ve found Ancient History, and even largely Medieval, to be simply an extension of Art and Culture – there’s a much greater emphasis on Buddhism, Jainism, Literary works, folk arts than on dynasties and politics, which I neglected. The world map is also slightly rewarding – 1 question usually comes, and I found it interesting – though I only remembered the countries, not mountains/currents and so on, which I saw were rarely asked. In economics, there’s almost always a question on monetary policy, usually conceptual, so it’s worth learning that if you don’t know it.
- I don’t know what you like reading, so I can’t say precisely which is your high cost area. But whatever it is, focus on the high reward zone even if it has a high cost (meaning you find it hard/boring). I found state dances/festivals, wildlife sanctuaries etc not particularly interesting, but still had some reward, so I made an effort (I’ve attached a link in my earlier post to the maps I used which someone had made, these made it much easier). Don’t only focus on low cost and high reward, unless you’re confident it’ll get you through.
Next, go to the lower reward areas. You focus on the lower reward, lower cost next. The high cost, low reward area is something you probably might not even want to touch at all unless you’re uncertain of clearing prelims and think you’ve done everything else. After all, prelims is only qualifying – you can use that time for mains or even hobbies.
Some examples of low reward topics:
- Very specific details of obscure government schemes and UN conventions were lower reward – I didn’t make a special effort for them, but tried to cover them through the news compilations as well as the mock tests I did.
- When I looked at recent previous papers, I didn’t see much value in Geography NCERTs/GC Leong type books. Reading about dykes/sills isn’t particularly fascinating for me and I think those sort of facts came years ago, not in the recent past. I only read the disaster management, details of earthquakes/cyclones etc from them, though even that you can find anywhere else so it’s not essential either.
You need to find which topics you’re doing well in, which topics you struggle in, which topics you find uninteresting, and optimize your time for yourself. You can use these ideas, but it’d be pointless for me to tell you what you should study – I’ve no idea how your preparation is.
The point is – you take the low hanging fruit first, and briefly glance at the remainder. You’re not really studying for 200 marks. I felt studying for 150-180 marks well is far more beneficial than studying for 200 – but if you feel this isn’t for you, then ignore it. Though keeping in mind these ideas will probably help you optimize your time. I never focused solely on prelims because I was confident I’d make it, and because simply clearing prelims was pointless on its own.
Guessing is a big part here; prelims is a game of guessing as well. You must learn to guess through your mock tests – the link I attached on my earlier post has some helpful techniques to improve your guessing.
Attempting more is generally beneficial – as I said before, you only need 1 guess in 4 to break even for zero marks, and if you can eliminate options, you stand to get more than zero. The other reason to attempt more would be that the right guesses can outweigh the wrong ones – my guesses were usually decent enough to get to 120+, and although on the day of the exam I’d made more mistakes than I normally did, even then I cleared it since I attempted around 95 questions – usually I’d attempt all 100.
Let’s go to the next stage of the exam, following our framework.
“Mains” isn’t just one exam, so don’t think of it that way.
If you break down Mains, it’s a collection of 7 papers. GS1-4, Essay, Optionals (and 2 language papers). These are the hoops you jump through; one good jump doesn’t mean you’re in, one bad jump doesn’t mean you’re out. You can make up a slightly bad paper by doing better in another one. But you can’t fall, you have to clear the hoops. So don’t neglect one completely and don’t try to make a “perfect” jump in one paper at the cost of others – even if you have a scoring optional like mathematics, you still need a decent score in GS.
But we can go even deeper than this. Break down each paper and you have 20 hoops to jump through, 20 hoops in a paper and four papers. These are the questions you need to answer. 7.2 minutes for a 10 marker and 10.8 for a 15 marker (take it as 7, 11 if you’re in the habit of marking time in the paper). Essay has two bigger hoops – two separate essays.
These hoops are the same. You ideally need to jump all the hoops, but you don’t need to make perfect jumps. Frankly, there were many questions I didn’t know well, some I didn’t know at all – I’d never heard of a CyberDome project and didn’t know what was the issue with CAT – questions which came in exam. Other questions were the size of a paragraph and made little sense, especially in the middle of the exam. But I still answered everything – I’ll explain how soon.
Now let’s go even further. Break down this hoop, one single answer. When you break it down, remember this is a generalist exam. I’ve taken you through this entire process of a framework to get you back to the points in Gaurav’s blog. You go wide, answer more dimensions and never go deep, never write detailed points.
It requires a little thinking to understand, and even more to put into practice. This is why I enrolled for test series (No coaching because I didn’t feel the need but you should decide that for yourself). I would recommend studying – when I say studying, I mean spending some hours – the 2017 topper Anudeep Durishetty’s answer sheets available on his blog.
You’ll notice the extremely short, tight sentences – never full sentences but only important keywords. That’s what you need to do to write more points in less space and time.
You should also notice that many of his points aren’t that great. They’re often generic and repetitive. There’s usually a couple of points that are good, and the rest are average, sometimes below average. If you see mine you’ll feel the same, though I think his papers might help you more. This is again what I read in Gaurav’s blog – inventing points, not even great ones.
No, I’m not saying you write lots of points of no value to get marks. That’s a good way to go wrong. And it’s very hard to think of so many points. There’s an easier way that needs less effort for better answers.
Try eating a roti in one bite and see how hard it is. Break it into five pieces and it’s simple.
In the same way, I can’t remember 15 points for an answer, and didn’t even try. But I found it effortless to recall just two or three points – usually you can “invent” more and end up with five or six per dimension.
This is the last point in that blog – creating subheadings for more dimensions. This is what makes your answer better – when you go wide, you cover more dimensions, you get completeness and a great structure.
This doesn’t need “intelligence”, only a little creativity. Sometimes the question will give you your structure ready-made, sometimes you’ll think of one pretty easily, and sometimes you’ll have a little more difficulty.
How does this help you?
After going all the way down to the structure of a single answer, go back once more right to the beginning.
There’s no need to spend hours mugging a truckload of information to write great answers. On the contrary, too many points on a single topic will make your answer very one-dimensional – something you don’t really want.
You won’t understand how much easier this can make your preparation until you try it.
I know that a lot of this might not make sense without actually seeing how to put it in practice. Without examples, this is just talk in the air.
In Gaurav’s blog, he used this example: What is the RBI doing to contain inflation?
If you tried to actually answer the question, you’d find it very tough to fill 150/250 words – especially if you answer in short, concise sentences as you should. You don’t write “The MPC meets every two months and takes a decision on whether to raise the repo rate”. You just write “MPC raised repo rates”. As short as possible – the goal is to get maximum content in the space and time you have.
Economics was one of my favourite subjects, and but I’d struggle to answer this question if I had to fill it with so many points on what RBI is doing to contain inflation. And I’d have to mug up all these points, and keep revising it to ensure I didn’t forget anything. And all this for just one question – and don’t forget, there are infinitely many such questions that can come, you can’t possibly predict everything and keep so much information in mind.
You don’t even need to. Break it down into sub-dimensions, and it becomes so simple. Take this question.
I’d start with a one line intro on what inflation is – nothing fancy, just a definition that makes sense to me. Its a general studies paper, you can be general. Inflation is basically the rate of increase in prices.
Now it depends. For 250 words (15 markers), you have to fill more space. I’d need more sub-dimensions. Maybe put the next sub-dimension as “Causes of High Inflation”. Here too, write a few simple points (whichever apply) – weak monsoon & crop failure, excessive money printing, hoarding, credit bubbles, seasonal fluctuation in prices, high logistics costs, high fuel prices and so on. These are easy to come up with on the spur of the moment.
Now I’d move to Why inflation must be contained – a subheading like Challenges due to Inflation. You’ll notice the question doesn’t even ask for this, but you should write it anyway – this is what comes before the question. Again, it’s very easy to write 3/4 points on this even if you haven’t prepared any ready-made points – Hardship to consumers, Lower real value of wages, Reduced consumption and growth, Lower sales for businesses.. anything else you remember.
Now, you come to the real demand of the question. What’s RBI doing about it? Probably MPC raised rates, maybe CRR/SLR requirements were raised, sale of bonds.
Then you can end with a Way Forward – what else should be done? Benchmarking bank lending rates to repo rates is one idea. Or if you can’t think of what RBI can do, write what the administration can – it’s better than nothing. Cracking down on hoarding, reducing import tariffs, subsidies to set up new units. If it’s a 150 word answer, you probably don’t need to write this – just a one line conclusion would do.
The most important takeaway is: This is not just a method to write answers. It’s a whole way of learning.
I’ll show you with a couple of more examples of my own.
I recently spoke to a friend after I got my results. He asked me, “How can I mug up so many points to write in the exam? If they ask, “Why did the Mughal dynasty decline?” how do you remember everything? I haven’t touched my books since a year, but I rattled off what I think would be a good answer instantly. You can do it easily too, if you just apply the framework method we discussed, as though you were doing a consulting case.
Question: Why did the Mughal dynasty decline?
One way to approach the answer (you can make whatever framework suits you, this is just one of the many possibilities).
- Intro: A line about the Mughals – began with Babur in 1526, declined after Aurangzeb in early 18th century, and ended in 1857 with Bahadur Shah Zafar. Just an example – if you have a better one, use it. I’d recommend making maps wherever you can, it fills space and adds value – here you could draw a map showing the extent of the empire at Aurangzeb’s death and subsequent shrinking.
- Next: Go to the causes of the decline. This is where you’ll find the framework approach invaluable. I couldn’t tell you 10-15 points for this answer if I tried in one go. But If I break the causes into different categories, I can easily recall one or two or three points in each. Use any framework that appeals to you – social/political/economic is usually the easiest.
I might answer it this way.
- External causes: (relate to Europeans)
- superior military organization,
- advanced weapons and technology,
- control over overseas trade,
- interference in internal affairs
- Internal Causes – break this down further
- Social causes –
- imposition of jizya ,
- destruction of temples,
- growing orthodoxy and stagnation
- Economic causes
- financial burden of expanding mansabdari system
- ,profligacy during Shah Jahan’s reign
- dastaks -trade permits, concessions to Europeans
- Lack of investment in S&T, agriculture
- Wealth inequality, mass poverty, low standard of living
- Burden of prolonged wars under Aurangzeb’s reign
- Political causes
- Over-centralization of power
- Timurid legacy of partitioning empire – Political conflict among heirs
- Growth of regional power centres – Hyderabad, Maharashtra
- Political instability caused by “king-maker” nobles
- Loss of prestige due to prolonged guerrilla warfare with Marathas
- Social causes –
These are more than enough points for an answer, especially if you add a map. You can end with a conclusion – anything you think of in the little time you have in the exam – maybe something like, “Thus, a multitude of causes, both internal and external, were behind the decline of the Mughal dynasty.”
If you ask me for a strategy, this is it in a nutshell: You need to memorize very little for this exam if you break every answer down into a framework.
If you see my answers (or Anudeep Durishetty, AIR-1 2017 whose answers I found invaluable), you’ll see a lot of points, and very short points. This is breadth over depth.
You can’t understand how powerful this approach was until you try it. I needed to “memorize” very few things for this exam (some facts, some articles of the Constitution, some statistics, and only a few details of all the acts/issues going on).
You can read everything like a story. It’s extremely simple to recall everything, if you proceed in a systematic manner – and a framework is that systematic manner. I never understood why consultants were so glorified when I was in Ahmedabad; only when I developed these insights did I appreciate how useful such a framework can be.
You don’t need to mug hundreds of points from obscure reports, or every single detail of a scheme. Prelims requires slightly more memorization, but even there you should be trying to eliminate options. For Mains, you can write excellent answers with very little real “content” in your head, if you use a good framework.
When you realize this, you’ll be able to cover the syllabus reading a fraction of the material. I could answer a 250 word question with 40-50 words of direct content. For example, there was a question on the advantages of biotechnology. I didn’t start rattling off the advantages.
Instead, I defined biotechnology – just a loose definition I made up, such as “Biotechnology refers to technologies harnessing biology” or some such thing – you don’t need exact definitions in a generalist exam. Then I went into the advantages of biotechnology – my first sub-dimension.
Since the question actually asked about this only, the sub-dimension on “Advantages” should be the biggest. You can make a circle/square with little arrows at the 3/4 ends if you like such diagrams, or just create more sub-dimensions within this in the form of a list. This is how mine looked like.
- Advantages to farmers
- Improve agricultural yields
- Longer shelf-life
- Shorter crop cycle
- Increased resistance to disease, pests
- Reduced expenses on fertilizer, pesticide
- Help double farmer incomes (Dalwai committee) – I put the example of Bt cotton
- Boost exports (MS Swaminathan committee)
- Encourage investment, job creation in agri-processing
- Boost R&D, innovation in India
- Women empowerment, employment in agri-related industries
- Improve nutrition profile, eradicate malnourishment (throw in a statistic if you know one – 1/5 children are wasted, 2/5 stunted in India as per UNDP or another source)
- Drug discovery, disease treatment
- Reduces need for agricultural land and hence deforestation
- Steps Taken (If you know any specific step you can write it, otherwise these are similar steps for basically any answer:
- Encouraging Investment,
- R&DSkill development,
- educating farmers
- International collaboration
- Streamlining regulatory procedures
- Challenges (250 words is hard to fill up, I had to create more dimensions – again, the challenges are more or less the same whether it’s biotechnology or any scientific domain)
- Danger of unintended effects
- Limited studies on long term impact of biotechnology
- Low skill development, R&D in India
- Limited private participation
- Social opposition – example of Bt Brinjal came to mind
- Monopoly of private companies, high prices – eg Monsanto
- A way forward (to end your answer) – again, you can write the basic points that apply to anything
- Seed funding to start-ups,Incubator support,
- industry-academia collaboration
- Spreading knowledge through farmers – such as through Kisan TV, Krishi Vigyan Kendra.
You’ll notice I hadn’t really “prepared” any ready-made answer. When you break your answer into frameworks, you don’t need to mug answers. In school, many of us didn’t really “learn”, except for mathematics, it was simply knowing how to solve similar types of questions. In IIT and IIM, I’ve seen so many people continue with that approach, and that makes everything much harder. It was in IIT Kanpur that I learned to really learn; everything became effortless after that. If you mug so many points, you’ll always have your head crammed with facts and worry you forgot something.
If you incorporate what I’ve tried to explain, the whole process will become so much easier. I would go into an exam with a blank mind, completely at ease, read each question in a similar state, and the words would flow when you put a framework.
If you understand this and make it a part of your approach, you can write a great answer by just reading a editorial quickly. If you’ve appeared for mains, you’ll know that there are plenty of questions you don’t really “know” the answer to. When you use frameworks, you can still write good answers if you’re a little creative. I’d never heard of CyberDome project which came in the paper – I just wrote about a definition of cyber-threats, the threats to cyber-security (need for CyberDome), 3 or 4 lines on what I imagined CyberDome must be, and the steps to be taken in the future. I’d prepared nothing directly on over-ground workers, and many other questions – you’ll always need to innovate and think on your feet, and frameworks will help you with that.
I’ll give you yet another example to show you how fast and simple your preparation can become if you internalize what I am telling you.
If you just read this article once on the draft EIA, you could well answer 150/250 words on it if you’re asked to. Obviously, this article covers only one side of the issue – you can’t do that. Here’s a simple framework.
- Intro: EIA under the Environment Protection Act 1986 is a tool to assess and mitigate the potential environmental damages of a project. You can make a line to show the EIA: Scoping->Screening->Assessment->Public Consultation->Monitoring
- Changes Proposed:
- Simplification of applications for certain projects
- Appraisal period changed from 60 to 45 days.
- Allows ex-post facto clearance
- Reduces regulatory bottleneck
- Increases ease of doing business
- Job creation, boost GDP growth
- Shorter period for public consultation
- Ex-post facto clearance can encourage violations
- Reduces access of Non-affected persons to consultations
- A way forward – any suggestions you have
- Collaboration with top institutes, IITs, IIMs for EIA
- satellite monitoring of progress- example of e-Green watch (this is where you integrate Prelims and Mains, I used the facts i remembered of prelims to fill my answers with specific points in mains)International collaboration – again, the example of Bonn Challenge came to mind if I recall correctly (specific examples like Bonn Challenge, e-Green watch make your answer less generic)
If you’ve followed me so far, you’ll see that you can answer a question of 250 words well even if you just read an editorial once quickly. The points will flow once you start writing and you’ll get better with practice, you’ll be able to think of more points faster in each dimension.
You’ll be amazed how much faster your preparation can become with this approach. You can read your material like a story, actually enjoy it, really appreciate the ideas and understand them rather than make little bullet-points out of them, and then write great answers.
You’re not going to get great marks if you write 3 or 4 great points in your answer only – you need content probably even more than quality. I always went for as many points as I could – and frameworks made it simple, simpler than you might imagine, for I just could not remember so many points any other way.
Some questions will hand you your framework, you don’t have to create one. For example, the first question in GS-1 was around “The Greco-Bactrian and Central Asian elements of Gandhara”. Here’s how i answered it.
- Introduction: Something like “Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Buddha was depicted in human form for the first time in Gandhara art”. I didn’t have much content, so I drew a map with India and Pakistan and made a little circle where I roughly knew Gandhara was – a map adds value and fills space both.
- Next subdimension was :Greco-Bactrian elements – the same points everyone knows –
- he was modelled on Apollo
- calm, sombre expression
- lean, muscular figure
- moustache, beard, curly hair etc
- Then came the next subdimension: Central Asian elements – I didn’t know this, just wrote whatever came to mind-
- Green colour material,
- motifs borrowed from Achaemenian pillars,
- Then ended with a conclusion – something of how Gandhara art was a synthesis of multiple cultures etc.
This was harder because the framework came from the question, and I didn’t have much content for the Central Asian elements of Gandhara. But you can still give a decent answer – just make the sub-dimension you’re more confident of longer and the other one smaller – so I wrote more on Greco-Bactrian and less on Central Asian.
This is why I believe in Lincoln’s words: Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
This might seem like a lot of over-thinking, but I don’t believe in spending more hours than is necessary. You might not be able to chop down a tree, or it might even take you sixty hours if you rush blindly at the job. Whereas, four hours of sharpening your axe could get it done in two hours.
After sharing with this some friends, I got a few questions, which I’ll address.
- Can you break this down into parts?
- Prelims and Mains are to a large extent separate. Prelims is about ROI and guessing – I don’t know which subjects you’re good at and where you need to give time, so I can’t tell you what to study for how long. But you can integrate prelims and mains, I’ll show you how.
- Will answer writing help in prelims? Not directly but-
- It can make Mains much easier
- If you struggle with prelims, you can give it more time, if you have understood that Mains can be done in a much simpler way.
- How do I know which framework to use? I can’t tell you always. There are 3 basic questions I’d seen in GS 1-3
- The question gives you your framework (like the Gandhara example – usually a question like history.
- You create a standard framework – social/political/economic/environmental or definition/challenges or causes/ Specific Act (like EIA) or else Advantages (like biotechnology) / Steps Taken / Challenges / Way Forward (depends on if it’s a 10/15 marker). Put a map wherever relevant – history, international affairs especially.
- You don’t understand the question (some are just too complicated) -If I don’t know the question, I write even faster. Why spend more time on what you don’t know and less on what you know? Or you can come back to it at the end, I preferred attempting the thing in serial order.
- ‘In the context of neo-liberal paradigm of developmental planning, multi-level planning is expected to make operations cost-effective and remove many implementation blockages’- Discuss (15 marks)
- You don’t have much time to think. I have a vague recollection of what I wrote.
- Intro: defined the neo-liberal paradigm of developmental planning,
- Then made a circle with some features (PPP, less regulation, EODB, privatization, encouraging FDI, reducing trade barriers)
- Then defined multi-level planning – something like planning with participation of all 3 levels of government, maybe some features or example such as Kerala model
- Then wrote how it would become cost effective (digitization, reduce discretion and corruption, transparency, eliminate redundancies)
- Then how it removes implementation blockages (improve coordination between departments, encourage decentralization, increase people’s participation, accountability
- If you have space left (and time), put in some challenges – low skill development, reluctance to delegate responsibility, lack of people’s participation, social hurdles faced by women, lower castes .
- Then a Way Forward: Making devolution of funds, powers mandatory under 73rd amendment, leverage support of NGOs/ Private sector, Vernacular language interfaces for greater participation
- if you break it down, even a hard question becomes simpler.
- You’ll have to practice, simply reading this won’t help. It’ll become easier then.
- Essay is also about frameworks – you can’t have one dimension in an essay if you want to get a good score
- Temporal frameworks: Definition/Past/Present/Future and solution
- Stakeholders: Women/Children/Marginalized (SC/ST/LGBTQ/Poor/Elderly)/Future generations Personal/ Society/ Nation/International
- Usually, I combined more than 1 of these.
- Also, the questions in Essay force you to think of frameworks that you haven’t prepared for – I wrote one on Rise of AI threatening or creating jobs (I’d recommend reading Homo Deus, AI is a hot topic and my essay was full of examples from it)
- Began with a story of AI threatening jobs (stories or facts, be interesting – read Anudeep’s blog, I can’t improve on it).
- First major dimension: Yes, AI will take our jobs .
- Within this, first sub-dimension was blue collar,
- then white collar jobs,
- and finally creative work like art/music (all from Homo Deus)
- Then the Opposite: No, AI will not take jobs –
- We’ve heard it before (Captain Swing, Luddites)
- AI is creating new jobs (McKinsey, UN reports said some figures)
- Better opportunities – rising middle class
- Reskilling – continuous learning on job (question mentioned reskilling, upskilling and better opportunities)
- Upskilling – moving to better jobs, better job satisfaction, freedom to work as per your timings like Uber
- Then the Steps Taken: National AI mission, Niti Aayog report to make India AI garage of the world
- Then the Road Ahead: International Collaboration, PPP etc
- Abstract essay is harder: Courage to accept and dedication to improve are two keys to success (you need to think on your feet)
- Any story I thought of – I wrote of Churchill, who had a stutter but through sheer determination became a powerful orator guiding Britain to victory in WW2
- Courage to accept: Those afraid to admit their weakness will never improve on it, only the brave can (basic idea)
- Dedication to improve: If you think you’re perfect you won’t improve (basic idea)
- Success – what is success? Achieving one’s goals, whatever they may be, never resting on one’s laurels but continually moving forward (you can make any definition you want). A quote I recalled : Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts (by Churchill incidentally)
- Courage, dedication go together: Only accepting your weakness is not enough – courage is not enough. Dedication to improve is not enough either, you need to know what you are weak in. Courage, dedication go hand in hand – two keys to success.
One more question. An important one.
- So what’s the difference between an average answer and a good one?
- One difference is the framework you use. If you talk about the cultural legacy of Gandhara today when the question asks the Central Asia/ Greco-Bactrian features of Gandhara, you won’t get great marks. Keep it as relevant as you can.
- Challenges/steps taken/way forward is fine for biotechnology, not Gandhara.
- If you write 250 words only on the drawbacks of EIA changes, it’s a very deep answer but not at all wide.
- Features, Changes, Advantages/Disadvantages/ Way Forward is much wider. More dimensions are better in general – if you don’t sacrifice relevance.
- Specificity: This is where I integrated prelims and mains.
- If you’re reading about an international convention or a specific act for prelims, use that in mains. Beijing declaration for questions on women empowerment, Yogakarta principles for LGBTQ, Brasilia declaration for the Motor Vehicle Act.
- Anudeep’s blog describes how you can use Directive Principles/ Fundamental Rights/ Constitution Articles in your answers. A question on EC -beginning with Article 324 adds value, a question on AG came – I began with Article 76. You can end with Directive principles/ Sustainable Development Goals in many answers.
- Write more points, and keep the specific points first. Then “invent” the remaining generic points to get enough substance in your answer.
- Mention reports wherever you can – 2nd ARC, NCRWC, MS Swaminathan Commission on Farmers, Punchhi Commission, Sarkaria commission etc and SC verdicts – Bommai, Kilhoto Hollohan, Kesavananda Bharti etc.
- I didn’t spend hours reading reports. 2nd ARC and NCRWC cover almost everything under the sun – we don’t really write anything that isn’t there. So I saw a few points that were interesting and easy to remember, and wrote the remaining generic ones.Plus, when you cover current affairs – the SC verdicts/reports are already there in the monthly compilation.
- For some specific topics you might google and find the suggestions of 2nd ARC or another committee – such as the issue of CDS (Kargil review committee).
- For very few topics, you need to know what the committee said – such as Sevottam model, Citizen Charter (still, googling is easier than reading the report).This is perhaps the only part you really need to memorize, but you can still do it smartly.
This answer has become long, too long, and I’ll bring it to an end now.
Before I do, I’ll just mention a few final things.
Don’t think that I am “belittling” the exam or those who haven’t made it by describing it as simple if you follow this approach.
There’s a difference between “Simple” and “Easy”.
I’m using simple as straightforward. If you wanted to walk a thousand miles in one direction, it’s simple in the sense you know how to do it.
It’s not easy – something is easy if it requires little effort. This exam won’t ever be easy, because there are thousands of people trying for very few seats – there will always be more of those who won’t make it.
I’ve tried to do my best to make it simpler and easier for you. I’ve always believed in finding the best way to tackle a problem, not the way that everyone takes. It still took a lot of effort to think this through, though you might not see that here. I simply did my best to convert as much of the physical effort this exam requires into intellectual effort, to find the best way to get through, for time was always a constraint.
Frankly, I don’t believe UPSC ever intended or wanted that a huge mass of youth dedicate their lives to rote-learning random facts and long past reports. I never saw the value in that.
I think that, far from belittling this exam, I gave it the respect it deserved. It’s a generalist exam, an exam that a well read person should be able to clear. If you understand a wide variety of topics, you should be able to clear; it’s not a test of learning chunks of notes by heart.
I’ll quote Gaurav Agarwal’s blog one last time.
Through this article, I just hope to help some others who may be finding themselves in the same small, rudderless boat in the middle of the Pacific as I found myself after the result last year – and may be again will find after this year’s results.
Anyways, I understand that merely reading the above words is not sufficient in improving answer writing. One has to practice. I didn’t have any systematic guidance and practiced in near darkness. May be I am still in dark. But I want to try my best to make life easier for other deserving students.
In March 2014, someone threw a life-jacket in the middle of a vast, vast ocean chock full of harmful misinformation. I picked up that life-jacket, still lying there after five years, and now I’m passing it on.
Or to use my own analogy, I’d say Gaurav built an aircraft engine and now, years later, I’ve written this article, hoping that I’ve developed the whole aircraft for you, to take you to level 3 of this exam. You will still need to use your mind – you might need to make a few tweaks to the aircraft to make yourself comfortable; you can’t just blindly jump into it.
There’s something interesting I can’t help mention. I used the examples of Tanmay Vashistha Sharma and Tushar Gupta to illustrate how if you’re very good at level 2, you can clear UPSC in a short time without reading any of what I’ve told you. They’re both engineers, and I’ve always felt engineering is, to some extent, about maximizing efficiency – minimum input for maximum output – which is what they’ve done. They followed the same process everyone uses but made it hyper-efficient to succeed so quickly.
I came out of an institute of management, and Gaurav Agarwal did too, and I think that has something to do with this approach. Management is more about effectiveness – you know the problem you want to solve, but you’re not following anyone’s approach – you create a new approach to solve the same problem in a much better way.
I know this post has gone on too long, and I can’t help wonder if I’ve been too abstract, if anyone will understand the points I’m trying to convey, though the reason it’s reached this size is that I took you through the entire thought process I followed, hoping it would be easier to understand.
It took me very long, too long, just to get started with my preparation. I didn’t have any guidance either, and there was so much content on the internet about this exam that figuring things out was a pain, and I made several mistakes along the way. It didn’t help that I couldn’t get uninterrupted hours in college to read through the hundreds of answers and blogs I came across – and every interruption throws you completely off track once more, you need to start almost afresh.
In that long process, I read several answers by those preparing for UPSC, and I never understood how people could begin so fast, just hop into this exam like they were going to the mall. Everyone seemed to already “know” what had to be done, they never had any questions, never doubted themselves, everything was just crystal clear, and here I was stuck simply trying to get started.
I read so many answers and had so many questions.
- Most people moved to Delhi to prepare. Why? What was wrong with wherever you were before? And why Delhi, why not say Hyderabad?
- Most people enrolled for some coaching, say institute X. Why did you feel the need for coaching? What told you you couldn’t clear the exam without it? Why did you join X, and not Y?
- Most people had notes, either some toppers or some institutes. How did you know those notes were any good? Why use the notes of X topper and not Y topper?
- Most people joined a test series. Why that test series only? How did you know it was good? Who told you, and what made you believe them?
Maybe I always overthink these things, but I think there are two answers to nearly every question. One is the short, simple ready-made answer – the answer that we have when we don’t want to think. It’s an answer like “Diversity” when we’re asked “Why IAS?”. The other is the longer, harder answer that we can come up with by ourselves if we spend hours thinking, and if we admit we don’t really have an answer already. It’s an answer that sounds weird to the world but it makes complete sense to us.
Don’t do anything without a reason. Don’t follow anything I’ve said in this page if it doesn’t make sense to you. Follow it because it’s reasonable, not because of my rank or academic background.
One last word. Something that has helped me, that I’ll share, for I’ve seen too many people bogged down by this fallacy.
“Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.”
Get beyond personalities. Ideas are far more beneficial and exciting.
I gave a talk at ForumIAS where I had enrolled for a test series. Later, when I saw some of the comments, it was as I had expected. Some said it was self-promotion, some that it was arrogance, others that it was a “waste” of an IIT/IIM seat and so on. It makes no difference, truth be told, for they’re just words of people I don’t know and who don’t know me; if I cared for every such opinion I would never have a moments peace. I don’t base my life choices on what other people would think of them.
I was more disappointed to see some people I knew feeling the need to try to defend me or eulogize me. It’s irrelevant, as irrelevant as the comments trying to bring me down . There are far better things you can do with your time.
So I’d say, focus on the ideas, not the personality behind it; that’s of no significance. It doesn’t matter whether you think I’m brilliant or I’m promoting myself or any damn thing about me. Ask yourself if there’s anything in this long, long tome that I’ve written that’s of any use to you, any idea that has some worth. Make the most of it. And if you think there’s nothing, then don’t waste any more time on this page – there surely must be something more beneficial to you than commenting about someone you don’t know and who doesn’t know you.
You’re setting yourself up for mediocrity if you remain fixated on personalities, and can’t go beyond them to get to ideas.
Now, I’m done, and I’ll end this monologue. If you have any questions, put them here, I’m currently working and slightly busy, but I will come back.
I think this will make more sense to those who’ve either appeared or have genuinely made an attempt to understand what the exam they’re getting into is. If you’re completely new, you might not comprehend much – you’ll have to make an effort on your own if you want to clear UPSC.
Somebody once dropped me an aircraft engine; I’ve done my best to make the whole aircraft as close to complete as I can for you, and I’m sure in a few years someone will come along, turn this aircraft into a rocket and find an even better way of clearing this exam.
This is the casket for your Portia. I’m telling you again. This is it, not the book-list I or anyone else can give you.