Hey!

I am Nikhil Kamble and if you are here then you are probably looking for some guidance, you're probably trying to figure out where you went wrong in your attempt. I can tell you what I did wrong, I can tell you what I did right. What I cannot tell you is what path to follow, for your path to CSE is one you have to make and walk by yourself.

Nikhil Kamble is B.Tech Graduate from College of Engineering Pune. He cleared UPSC CSE in 2019 with rank 744. He is also an avid fan of DC Universe and Batman.

His official accounts on various Social Media are:

He has no Facebook or Quora account.

So here's what I did.

The one with the stairway to the Holy Pdf

  • I graduated in 2015 from College of Engineering Pune (B.Tech in Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering)
  • Started preparing for UPSC CSE in 2015 after attending placement seminars in college and realizing that my actions will have a better impact on society as an Administrative Officer than as an Engineer.
  • I couldn't clear Prelims in 2016, 2017, 2018 attempts.
  • In 2019 I joined a class, joined a study room and spent 8 to 10 hours a day studying in the said study room and finally got AIR 744 in this attempt.

The one with the book list

Basic Reading and stuff that helps everywhere:

  • PT and Mains 365 of all subjects from Vision IAS for Current Affairs and answer writing.
  • Vision IAS Value Addition Materials for peculiar topics from GS syllabus.
  • IAS4Sure Value addition material helps make answers stand out.
  • Class 6th to 12th NCERT for all subjects except science 6th to 10th and selective reading from 11th and 12th.
  • Model Answers of Test series both prelims and main that you write and refer, make notes out of them (refer multiple test series).
  • Collecting quotes, statistics and real life examples from newspapers especially OPEDs and Editorials and websites of UN bodies, NGOs etc.
GS Paper 1
Art and Culture
  • Fine Arts Class 11th NCERT
  • Mrunal Videos on YouTube
  • Nitin Singhania (Too exhaustive, use chapters as needed)
Modern India & Freedom struggle
  • History of Modern India: Bipin Chandra
  • Mrunal Website.
Post Independence
  • Vision IAS Value Addition Materials
  • Pradhanmantri Series.
World History
  • Mrunal Website has old ncert based content
  • Arjun Dev Old NCERT
Indian SocietyNCERT Class 11th and 12th Sociology
Concepts like Globalization,

Urbanization, Role of Women,     

NGOs, Poverty, Secularism etc:   

Current Affairs + Reading for Political Science helped.
Geography India and World
  • 11th and 12th NCERT
  • GC Leong book.
  • Practice mapping for important locations.
  • Geography Made Easy by National IAS Academy
  • Mrunal geography video series.
GS Paper 2
Polity + Governance
  • M Laxmikant Book
  • Reports of NITI Aayog
  • ARC reports
  • PRS India Website
International RelationsCurrent Affairs
Knowledge from studying for Political Science helped here a lot!
GS Paper 3
Indian Economy
  • 11th and 12th NCERT on Economics
  • Sriram IAS notes for clearing concepts
  • Selective reading from Ramesh Singh's book on Indian Economy
  • Economic Survey
  • Budget Documents and Notes released on the PIB website
  • Class Notes by Dhirendra Kumar Sir (Unique Academy).
Indian AgricultureSearching concepts individually online like crop pattern etc
Environment
  • Shankar IAS Notes
  • PMF IAS Notes
  • Reports like Living Planet report, State of the Forests report etc
Science and Tech
  • Class Notes by Amit Ahire Sir (Unique Academy)
  • Current Affairs
Disaster Management and Internal SecurityClass Notes from Unique and Vision

 

GS Paper 4
Theory
  • Class Notes by Sushruth Ravish Sir and Aparna Dixit Madam(Unique Academy)
  • Lexicon book for particular terms
Case Studies
  • Practice and feedback from Mocks
  • Model Answers
Political Science Paper 1: Section A
Political Theories and Individual conceptsOP Gauba
Political IdeologiesAndrew Heywood
Indian and western political thoughtsIGNOU Notes
Unique Academy Notes and Shubra Ranjan Madam Notes help in all concepts
Political Science Paper 1: Section B
Polity based PartM Laxmikant
Political Economy, Political Sociology, Party System, Social Groups etc partUnique Academy Notes
Political Strategies of India's freedom struggle part
  • Bipin Chandra India's Struggle for Independence
  • Unique Academy notes
Unique Academy Notes and Shubra Ranjan Madam Notes help in all concepts
Political Science Paper 2: Section A
Comparative Politics partUnique Academy Notes
Theories of International relations partAndrew Heywood- Global Politics
Unique Academy Notes and Shubra Ranjan Madam Notes help in all concepts
Political Science Paper 2: Section B
India and The World
  • World News section and OPEDs of The Hindu and Indian Express
  • Unique Academy Notes
Different organisations
  • Reading on their websites for details.
  • Unique Academy Notes
Unique Academy Notes and Shubra Ranjan Madam Notes help in all concepts

The one with the current affairs

Current Affairs are the most important part of the CSE exam. They are needed not just for prelims and mains but are also helpful in writing your essays.

  1. For reading newspapers, I'd recommend The Hindu and The Indian express for balancing out the narratives and getting a broader scope
  2. The Explained page of the Indian Express is probably my favorite page in any newspaper ever, I've written multiple answers in mock test series based on the reading of that page alone.
  3. Once a month get a magazine, like Vision or Insights or any one you like and study them as we miss out on a lot of small but important topics which get covered in them.
  4. Start with the Editorial and OPED pages while reading the paper and make notes out of them, multiple answers in Mains especially in Political Science can be answered based on study of the articles written by prominent political analysts like C Raja Mohan, Suhasini Haider, Jacob Happymon etc
  5. Multiple newspapers release a budget special edition you might want to grab one of those. Having a detailed analysis of Budget and Economic survey helps in writing better answers for GS3 and brighten up your answers in other GS papers.
  6. Lastly multiple classes release compilations like Vision, Insights, Raus, you can study and revise from them for both pre and mains. These contain analysis of a news item across months making it easier to get a complete view of them.
  7. Current Affairs for Interview are a bit different, you might want to read about regional news for this. Questions vary based on panels but should you get a panel which has a member from your region s/he will ask you questions about your region and will try to ask about current affairs. So don't reading the newspapers till the interview is over.

The one with the strategy

Prelims

General Studies

I started preparing in August 2018. Started with the NCERTs and then moved on to recommended books for each subject. And this reading was done under a time table. The time table I followed was synchronized with the test series time table of my class. Weekly tests for each subject meant I got to split the subjects in two or three parts depending on the number of tests for the subject and study accordingly. This pattern allowed me to get a grasp over syllabus and minimized wastage of time.

A mistake I made during my unsuccessful attempts was not practicing enough tests. So this time I made sure that I gave the weekly regular test series. Once March arrived I had a good enough grasp over the syllabus so I started solving tests once every couple of days and as the exam got closer it became daily tests.

Recommendation

Try to attempt at least 80 to 85 questions while accounting for your hit rate, anything less and you are reducing your maximum score in the exam.

The important thing here was not just getting used to the pattern of tests but to make micro notes of the model answers. This will certainly help you catch the things that fall through those cracks and cost you a couple of marks. These micro notes with the micro notes of the syllabus written over the year made revision before the exam really easy.

Another thing you have to do while solving the tests is get an estimate of you hit rate i.e how many questions do you usually get right while solving tests. Once you've done like 50 to 60 tests you start getting an estimate of it. After that you will be able to calculate how many questions you get right and how many risky questions you can attempt to cross the threshold.

CSAT

Even though I have an engineering background, CSAT needs a lot of practice. Its not just about solving them, its about solving the tricky questions correctly and in time. CSAT is split in two parts the English comprehension and the Math. Math might need you learn some formula but English comprehension is purely understanding the passage and answering the questions below it. I started with past years question papers and then moved on to R S Aggarwal book with class notes. The time allocation in GS and CSAT for me was 80:20.

Mains

Once you have cleared prelims you have data and now you have to turn it into knowledge.

Two important things while preparing for mains are:

  1. Finishing your paper in time
  2. Focusing on the remarks than the marks once you get it checked

I had joined 2 test series and spent 3 months writing them as a result even though I didn't have enough writing practice by the time d-day approached I could finish my papers in time (with bad handwriting of course).

Essay

For Essays you have to split time slots in two for each essay and spend first 20 minutes of each time slot drawing a chart or tree diagram encapsulating all your ideas, so when you start writing you get an uninterrupted thought process. There are multiple types of essays and you want to choose your essays from different kinds so as not to make the paper boring for the checker.

An Essay is not a long GS answer, while you should include facts and figures it should also include quotes, real life examples and if possible poem lines. This harmony is achieved via practice and feedback over a period of time.

General Studies

GS 1 is pretty static, try to include multiple diagrams and tables as and when necessary. Geography questions fetch extra marks if maps and diagrams are included. Same with art and culture based questions. With questions based on regionalism, society, nationalism, secularism try to quote data from census or any recent surveys done like National Health Survey, NITI Aayog surveys. Geography answers should be started with defining the particular term asked in the question.

GS 2 though kind of static benefits from writing about the current affair that lead to origin of the question. Mentioning names of articles of constitution and Important cases judgements of Supreme Court and High courts is bolsters your answers. If you have political science background sprinkling some analysis from PSIR Paper 1 Section B adds a shine to your papers.

GS 3 is extremely dynamic. Every answer has to have data from either the economic survey or the budget or some government guidelines in the intro and ending. Questions about environment and economy could start with definition of the concepts asked as well.

General advisory for GS 1, 2, 3:
  1. Split the question in parts and answer those parts.
  2. Writing answer in points helps if you are answering a technical question.
  3. Almost always end on an positive tone.

GS 4 is very different as compared to other 3 papers. The theory part should have examples from real life which are verifiable. Here start with the syllabus copy and note down the keywords like honesty, integrity, equity and make sure you have 2 to 3 examples for each keyword. Examples from lives of civil servants are more effective. For the case studies don't be afraid to think outside the box. If you have a chance come up with an innovative solution to the case mentioned. There are different ways of dealing with case studies as well.

You can start your analysis by making a

  1. Strength weakness opportunity threat chart
  2. Fact premise and value promised table
  3. Stakeholders and Interests table.
  4. Stakeholders and Issues table

Make sure you analyze all options and justify the one you think is best.

Optional

My preliminary exam was on June 2nd of 2019 and I had started preparing in August 2018 so I started by studying for my optional first. And completed reading of the recommended materials by December of 2019. It was important because finishing the optional early gave me the time to read more for prelims and knowledge of PSIR helped me in GS1 and 2.

Most of my answer writing strategy came from Trupti Dhodmise Madam's (AIR 16, UPSC CSE 2018) strategy she had written on Demystify CSE website and from the session she had on our class in Unique Academy.

You can find it here ->Trupti Dhodmise (AIR 16, UPSC CSE 2018)

Interview

The most important thing for your interview is your Detailed Application Form (DAF). This will have all the keywords which will lead to questions asked in the interview. So its your job to find out the keywords and make questions on them. You can do that like I with a group of friends. Or you can just wait till coaching classes start their interview programs and mail them your DAF and they'll send you back like 10 pages worth of question based on it. And then you can make answers for these questions.

Tip :

Do not make up hobbies 3 months before the interview, it will be very hard to answer questions based on them.

About preparing to answer those questions, for beginners you can practice in front of a mirror and practice giving mocks to your friends after that give multiple mocks in multiple classes and try and implement their feedback. Just make sure not to attend too many mocks or you will end being confused as classes also give contradictory feedback at times.

About actual interview, just relax, read the 10 newspapers kept on the table there while you wait for your turn and answer with the presence of your mind.

The one which talks about effective use of internet

Internet as we know has democratized preparation of UPSC CSE. While the earlier aspirants were bound by the geographical limitations internet has crushed down those limitations and ushered in a new era. The precious notes and information which was just available to urban candidates is now available to everyone through the miracle of internet. But with this came the side effect of information overload. And now there are 1000s of websites hosting data with little to no utility from the exam perspective. So here's something that might help.

Analytical Use:

Important sources:

  1. csewiki.org
  2. upsc.gov.in
  3. Mrunal.org

Rutger Bregman in his "Humankind - A Hopeful History" states that the only way Humans have survived, outwitted Neanderthals and every species on this planet is not just because we are more intelligent than they are/were but because humans learn from each other while they don’t. So what you can do in this journey of CSE is study and compare the strategies of different toppers. Yes you need to make your own strategy and do what is right for you. But reading strategies of different toppers will certainly help you in making your own. You get find out what they did right and what you did wrong and act accordingly to improve.

Another thing you should use the internet for is identifying patterns in the last few years in terms of:

  1. Which optional get selected more?
  2. Which optional gets more marks?
  3. What types of questions are asked?

You can get last year question papers on upsc website, detailed analysis of question papers on mrunal website and the other detailed analysis of candidates their marks etc on csewiki once the marks are released.

Materials:

There is no shortage of websites claiming to have data for CSE prep. While some are useful, most are just copy pastes. So here are some sources that might help.

Current Affairs:

Current affairs form an important part of CSE preparation. While reading from newspaper is the best source there are limitations to it. We cannot read 4 to 5 newspapers a day and even then we might miss out on important articles. Reading daily and monthly compilations helps here. You can furthermore follow authors and blogs of your choice to augment your answers in mains.

  1. Indian Express (PDF)
  2. Indian Express Explained
  3. Insights daily current affairs
  4. RAU IAS Daily News Analysis (DNA)
  5. Vision IAS Monthly booklets

Books:

NCERTs are the basic building blocks of an cse aspirant and you can download them for freely on the website or on the app. Once done with NCERT you can download subject specific books for optional subjects from NIOS and IGNOU. NIOS books are particularly helpful in art and culture among other GS subjects.

  1. ncert.nic.in – To Download NCERTs
  2. nios.ac.in – To Download NIOS Online Materials.
  3. egyankosh.ac.in – To Download IGNOU Books.

Trusted News Sources:

In the Post Truth era where facts have little value and some media outlets make up their own facts these government websites will make sure you get facts and not fiction.

  1. pib.nic.in – Press Information Bureau Website, for government updates.
  2. ptinews.com – Press Trust of India.

For Polity and International Relations:

GS2 is an extremely dynamic paper and needs crisp analysis of bills and international events for writing.

  1. prsindia.org – PRS Website for tracking bills in Parliament.
  2. gatewayhouse.in – Indian Council for Global relations.
  3. idsa.in – IDSA website for Defense and Foreign relations.
  4. mea.gov.in – Ministry of External Affairs website for information on relationship with particular countries.

Data and Analysis from these websites can be directly quoted into your answers be it GS 2 paper of Political Science optional paper.

How to keep track of them?

With such a vast list of websites comes another burden of tracking them all, here you can visit regularly till you have what you need. You can visit them for individual topics make your own notes after that you can use the RSS Feeds (RDF Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication) links to keep track of them. Almost every website has an rss feed link which you can add to a feed reader like Feedly and whenever that website posts a new article, you'll get an notification. This way you don't get lost in the 100s of previously uploaded articles and waste your time.

Furthermore you need to recognize important information:  Instead of reading the complete article and waste time, you should find the relevancy of article by skimming through it. Give a cursory look at the sub headings and save/bookmark it for future if you find it relevant.

Note making:

Here comes the most important part: Once you've marked the important parts from the articles you can copy them into your digital notes. Making notes on individual papers and then filing them is great but digital notes are very easily updated and easier to access over time.

You can use

  1. Evernote (You can pretty much log in from anywhere and access them but needs you to pay for more storage)
  2. Onenote (Virtually has unlimited storage but not as user friendly as evernote)

Test series:

One of the biggest benefits on internet for cse prep is the online test series facility. For prelims multiple coaching classes offer daily and weekly quizzes based on both current affairs and static part. Furthermore most of the reputed coaching classes also offer prelims test series online (for a price ofcourse). But this accessibility is certainly useful.

For mains you can practice answer writing by writing on the Insights Secure Initiative. Here you can practice daily answer writing and those answers reviewed by peers. At the same time you can join test series of any class you desire for GS and Mains where questions, Answer copies and even corrected answer copies are exchanged via email.

Social Media Conundrum:

It depends on person to person. Some aspirants deactivate social media apps during their preparations because it can be distracting for 2 reasons:

  1. The online dramas about issues which may or may not be issues.
  2. You have to watch your colleagues and friends move on with their lives while you feel like you are stuck in time.

One of my friend’s Anshuman Yadav AIR 372 recently wrote an on social media conundrum where he states that his first 2 attempts he had deactivated all of social media. And one of the reasons for his failure was that he felt alone. See Anshuman is a social person who needs to stay in touch with his friends and family and once he reactivated all his social media handles he got AIR 372 in his 3rd attempt. What I am trying to say is, there is no rule that you need to cut yourself off from rest of the world. You need to do what is right by you. If you need a disciplined approach you can shut it all down, but if that’s not what you need, don’t.    

Entertainment

NO doubt a CSE aspirant should devote maximum time for study, but one cannot study continuously. You can and should take out sufficient time to keep yourself entertained and happy. You can listen to music, watch TV series or anything that entertains you.

The one with the list of coaching classes attended

ClassPurpose
Chanakya Mandal PariwarGS only in 2015 and Mains Test Series & Interview Guidance in 2019
The Unique AcademyGS + Optional with Prelims, Mains Test series and Interview Guidance in 2019
Khan AcademyMock Only
Samkalp IASMock + DAF Discussion
iAnugrahaMock + Interview Guidance
Maharashtra SadanIts not really a class but they do offer excellent mocks.

The one with a teensy bit of advice

Just because you have to walk the path alone doesn't mean you have to be lonely, "Enjoy the little things". Yes once you clear CSE all the sacrifices made will be worth it, you will be praised and you get your dream job to serve the beautiful country and its people but in order to make it till the end of this very exhaustive journey of CSE exam, you have to take care of your mental health. And that means having a little fun once in a while. Make time to go out with your friends, make time to watch that TV show you've been putting off. Celebrating those small victories while you prepare to get the big one. For all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.