My brief profile

  • I graduated in 2017 from IIT Delhi (B.Tech in Electrical Engineering)
  • I decided to prepare for Civil Services Examination in 2016 (i.e. in third year of my engineering).
  • I attended Vajiram and Ravi for GS coaching during 2016-17.
  • I didn't take any coaching for my optional - sociology - as I wanted to appear for 2017 exam, and two coachings along with classes in college would have been next to impossible.
  • In my 2017 and 2018 attempt, I wrote mains and could not make it to the interview stage.
  • In CSE-2019, I got rank 592.

The coaching dilemma

Before starting preparation everyone has questions about coaching - whether we should join coaching or which coaching to join. I had the same questions too. Due to paucity of time, I couldn't dig deep into the question, and I chose to follow what most people do. I joined Vajiram and Ravi for General Studies. Also I had the fear of missing out if I didn't join any coaching as most selected people seemed to have attented some coaching.

I didn't join any coaching for Sociology due to time contraint in my first attempt. After my first attempt, I had already completed a substantial portion of Sociology on my own and I got 249 marks in Sociology in CSE-2017. So I didn't feel the need of coaching after that. So I ended up with a very unusual combination - no coaching for optional, but attended coaching for GS.

Looking back at my preparation after 4 years, here is what I feel -

  • Coaching for General Studies is not necessary (standard books, and the materials on internet should suffice).
  • Coaching, if taken, has only 30-40% contribution in success. The rest is self-study and your own hard work.
  • Coaching helps the most in technical subjects such as Economics, and not in descriptive subjects such as History (for GS).
  • Coaching for Optional is suggested if you have no background of that subject (so that you don't get lost and get basic understanding of all topics in the syllabus).

So, coaching can give you a head start but will not take you far. Take decision accordingly, depending on the stage of preparation you are, and avaiable resources .

Booklist

Almost all selected candidates have similar booklist they followed, if not identical. I am listing mine for completeness.

GS Paper 1

  • Ancient History and Art and Culture: Vajiram and Ravi class notes. (While this is not enough, it gives the highest returns with very less investment. The standard book that is followed by most candidates is Nitin Singhania.)
  • Medieval History: Vajiram and Ravi class notes (Not many questions are asked from this portion of history in Mains, so I didn't invest much resources in it. The standard book to follow is Old NCERT by Satish Chandra).
  • Modern History: Old NCERT by Bipin Chandra, Spectrum's book by Rajiv Ahir.
  • World History: Old NCERT by Arjun Dev, Ojha sir's notes and Vision IAS's value added material. (The returns on this subject have been the lowest in the past few years.)
  • Post independence India: Didn't studied as a seperate subject as this is covered in part in other subjects such as sociology, polity and economics. Pradhan Mantri show by ABP news is very good for understanding major events and timeline. It is highly recommended.
  • Society: Covered in optional. (Sociology NCERTs of Class 12 - Indian society; and Social Change and Development in India - are a must. A very good resource is to study the past 2-3 years test series question by different coachings.)
  • Geography: Class 11 and 12 NCERTs, Vajiram and Ravi class notes, online reading from PMFIAS. (Vajiram's yellow book of Indian Geography is a good book and covers economic geography in more depth than any other book. I read some portions of it.)

GS Paper 2

  • Indian Polity: Laxmikant, and Vajiram and Ravi's class notes.
  • Governance: Current Affairs, and selected topics from ARC reports. (This portion is mostly current affairs.)
  • International Relations: Current Affairs, selected reading from Pavneet Singh's International Relations book. (Pavneet Singh was our teacher of IR in Vajiram and Ravi. I didn't read the book cover to cover, but read the introduction and history of relations of India with different regions.)

GS Paper 3

  • Economy: Vajiram and Ravi class notes, The Yellow books by Vajiram, and Current Affairs.
  • Environment: Shankar IAS Environment book and Current Affairs
  • Science and Technology: Current Affairs
  • Security: Current Affairs
  • Disaster management: Vision IAS's value added material on Disaster management, and Current Affairs.

GS Paper 4

  • Vajiram and Ravi class notes.
  • Lexicon for Ethics (only selected parts like definition).
  • This paper requires practice more than knowledge.
  • Attempt as many mock test as possible.

Sociology Paper 1

  • Haralambos (The small orange one) - Covers most of the topics in paper 1
  • Haralambos (The big blue one) for selected topics.
  • Ritzer for 6 main thinkers.
  • IGNOU MA material
  • Vikas Ranjan for selected topics.
  • Plenty of web resources for Sociology as Science, and Research Methods and Analysis section.
  • Vision IAS and Forum IAS test series.

Sociology Paper 2

  • IGNOU MA material
  • Essential Sociology by Nitin Sangwan
  • Plenty of web resources
  • Vision IAS and Forum IAS test series.

Current Affairs

Current affairs is the core of the CSE preparation. A three pronged approach is suggested for current affairs -

  1. Newspaper - The Hindu or The Indian Express (I followed The Hindu upto 2019. Now I feel the Indian Express is better as the language is simpler, is more balanced, and the Explained section is a must read.).
  2. Daily news summary - Follow any coaching's daily news summary as it gives background and extra information related to the news. (I followed Vajiram and Ravi's student portal for this. Other good options are - Insight IAS, Dhrishti IAS, Rau IAS's DNS videos on youtube, etc.)
  3. Monthly magazine - Follow any coaching's monthly magazine. (I followed Vision IAS's monthly magazine).

It is important to have the knowledge of current affairs of alteast 2-3 years for mains. Major events and news such as new policies, Acts, events such as Uri attack etc should be covered irrespective of the fact that they happened 2-3 years back. While some of them keep getting mentioned in current affairs monthly booklets, it's important to give special attention to such major news of past years.

I suggest that if you are appearing for CSE-20, do Vision IAS's Mains 365 of last year (2019) [this will cover 2018-19], and monthly booklets for 2019-20 current affairs.

Answer writing

Answer writing is an important aspect of the exam. However answer writing for the sake of answer writing will yield poor results. The following things should be taken in account while answer writing -

  • The major components of answer writing are -
    • Content - which you will get by reading books and current affairs.
    • Presentation - which includes structure of the answer. This part requires practice.
  • Time is the contraint under which answer writing is to be done. So speed is important.
  • In order to get good marks in a question - both content and presentation is important. If you fall short on any of it, you will get below average marks. However, due to time contraint it is difficult to give your best in both the components. So we end up compromising either in the content or in the presentation. With practice, we can reach a balance.
  • If you are starting answer writing for the first time, focus on content and presentation without worrying about time.
  • Once you get the content and structure of answer right, practice with time constraint.
  • The first and foremost goal in the exam is to attempt all questions with an average answer. Average answer in all questions will fetch you above average marks.
  • Next goal is to fetch maximum marks in questions that you know well.
  • A word of caution regarding answer writing: Do not practise answer writing on micro topics (such as based on one editorial or news). Focus on macro topics. For example - Q4 of Insight's daily answer writing practice of 18 August 2020 - Critically analyse the discontinuation of the unequal system of contract teachers/Para-teachers at all levels in the NEP 2020. (250 words). Now, it is highly unlikely that UPSC will ask such a specific question on contract teachers. However, questions can be asked on NEP 2020 and issues related to education sector. So there is very little to gain by writing answer to these questions.
  • The best questions for answer writing will be found in mains test series of different coachings. These questions are specifically framed to emulate the UPSC's style of questioning. So if you are attempting for CSE-2020, you can attempt questions of mains test series meant for CSE-2019 (particularly from static portion and generic current affairs).

Role of test series

Test series is a sina qua non for civil services examination. It playes an important role in filling knowledge gaps on different topics.

From prelims perspective

  • Human psychology has a negative bias, where it pays disproportionately higher attention to what negative things than positive things.
  • This means that you will remember you mistakes more vividly, that what you did right.
  • This is what test series in prelims allows you to do - to make mistakes. The more mistakes we make, the more we learn.
  • In prelims, this means attempting as many mock tests as possible.
  • This makes sure that you know the intricacies of a concept, and the gaps in your own understanding of the topic.

From mains perspective

  • Mains test series improve answer writing skills and knowledge.
  • I completed some parts of the syllabus entirely from test series.

So attempting a large number of mock tests is important. However if you are under a severe time contraint, alteast attempt full tests of 2 coachings. Make sure that you add to your notes whatever new you learn from test series.

Note making

Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Note making is the UPSC equivalent of sharpening the axe. Hours could be spent on preparing a single page of notes, so that next time you can revise it within 5 minutes.

In many cases, UPSC preparation may extend to 3-4 years and even more. In that case, it is important that the knowledge that is gained during these years is well organised. During my first year of preparation, I prepared hand written notes of all standard books. However, while attempting test series, I realised a problem. Handwritten notes are not easily updatable. So from my next attempt onwards, I started making notes digitally. Finally I have most of my notes in word files. Along with these notes, I prepared short handwritten notes from these notes, for quicker revision. The handwritten notes ensured that I could revise one subject within hours.

While how we makes notes, and whether we make it digitally or offline is a personal choice, its importance cannot be denied.

My mistakes and tips

  • In my earlier attempts I found it challenging to find the right balance between reading new material and revision. I ended up with a large amount of notes with little time for revision. I also didn't attempt sufficient mock tests which resulted in below average marks.
  • In this attempt, I devoted more time to revision and test series.
  • It is very important to have a revision schedule to ensure that everything is sufficiently revised to enable reproduction in exam.
  • Also, for mains try to attempt as many mock tests as possible for both GS and optional.
  • This exam is more about breadth than depth. So study all topics and do not leave/skip anything.

My notes

General studies

* Current Affairs covers important news since 2017 upto mid-2019. Some of the content, therefore, might be outdated.

# Some pdfs may contain a blank page. This was done so that new topics start on even numbered pages whic are printed on a new sheet rather than at the back of the previous sheet. Additional pages could therefore be added on a topic while maintaining continuity.

Sociology

Other

Note: I had prepared hand written short notes from these notes for revision.