Hello everyone, this is Prakhar Singh. I scored AIR 242 in CSE 2019 examination and have been allotted IAS. My optional was Anthropology. Apologies for delay in writing this strategy article.


A quick background

I hail from Madhya Pradesh and completed my schooling there till 12th. Then I went to IIT Kharagpur for graduation. I majored in Mechanical Engineering. After graduating in 2016, I went to work as an Equity Research Analyst at J.P. Morgan India posted in Mumbai. This is just a fancy name for people who study movement of stock market.

After working for 2 years, I decided to leave the job for UPSC preparation. In June 2018, I came home and began preparation in full steam. This gave me a full 1 year before prelims next year.

Enough about me, lets get on with “strategy”.

Basic strategy at the beginning of preparation

The first thing I did when I started out was to see lots (read it again, but slowly this time) of topper videos on Youtube. This gave me a feel of what this exam is and what it entails. It also gave me a list of books, dos and don’ts.

After having done this, I started out like any other candidate, by reading the syllabus and sorting previous year questions according to syllabus. I did this exercise for all 7 papers. By doing this, I now had a clear idea of what is the depth and breadth of knowledge required. This then became the base of my preparation.

Next came the booklist. For this I chose the most basic and limited books in order to complete the syllabus as well as reduce book hoarding syndrome. It was fairly simple like NCERTs for history, geography, economics, arts, society. And few bibles namely Lakshmikant and Spectrum. For the topics which were not in the books, I took help of internet (mrunal, insightsias, iasbaba etc) depending on time and amount of content I needed.

Booklist

  1. History
    1. Modern History: Spectrum
    2. Post Independence India: New NCERT
    3. Medieval: New NCERT
    4. Ancient: New NCERT
    5. Art and Culture: New NCERT, Nitin Singhania (read selectively from prelims perspective)
    6. World History: World History: Patterns of Interaction by McDougal Littell (Download link)
  2. Economy: NCERT (9th to 12th) except the Micro economics NCERT
    1. Ramesh Singh for very few topics that too from mains point of view
    2. Make notes of technical terms from news daily
  3. Polity: You know (in case you are still wondering: Lakshmikant)
    1. Governance: Internet, ARC reports
  4. Environment: Shankar IAS book & Roman Saini's lectures on youtube
  5. Geography: NCERT (6th to 12th), GC Leong, Atlas
  6. Ethics: Mrunal videos and notes, self notes and examples
  7. Society: Internet, Current Affairs
  8. Disaster: National Policy of Disaster Management document
  9. International Relations: Current Affairs, The Diplomat website
  10. Government policies: Current Affairs
  11. Internal security: Internet, Current Affairs
  12. Science and Technology: Current Affairs, PT 365, Mains 365

Next, I made a detailed timetable for the months ahead of me right until prelims. I allocated rough time for each subject based on books, my own knowledge or lack thereof of the subject and time constraint. For example, I started out with geography as I didn’t know anything about the subject and allotted 1full month to it. Smaller subjects like Ethics and Environment were allotted 15 or even 10 days.

After having done these initial exercises, I had clarity and a structure for the preparation ahead. I was sure that if I followed this structure, I would be sure to perform to the best of my ability.

Coaching

The next big question which has divided aspirants for decades, to take the coaching or not. I am just kidding :P. Its pretty simple actually. I didn't want to take a classroom program because I had been to Kota for JEE preparation and somehow a fear of coaching institutes was deep within my nerves. So I decided that I would prepare from home and take whatever help I needed for my preparation over the internet.

I did take the Byjus tablet course, but didn't listen to a single lecture on that. This was because after having seen the poor quality of books which they sent over, I didn't want to risk my hours on subpar content. Thus, I went with the basics, which meant NCERTs.

Even for optional, I didn't take coaching and studied on my own from books, internet, toppers notes etc and compiled my own notes. It helped me save time and invest that time in practice answer writing.

I did take test series of institutes though for all subjects. And they helped me a lot, as I will explain later. So, the crux of the matter is that you can take coaching for subjects which you feel you are weak in. Or you can go all the way like Kanishka sir and use coaching time to its utmost. It all depends on how you want to increase the Return on Investment (ROI) of our time and money.

Mains + Prelims or compartmentalization?

So, once I got into preparation mode, I had to choose on whether to compartmentalize my prep into prelims and mains or do both simultaneously. I decided to do the latter, as advised by many previous year toppers.

Whenever I started a subject or read newspaper (more on this later), I kept an eye on mains syllabus and prelims questions. I took note of smaller details in geography NCERT and made notes of it for prelims. Simultaneously, I made explanatory notes of geographical phenomenon like El Nina from mains perspective.

This ensured that I covered mains syllabus before starting prelims specific preparation from Feb 2019. Also, it made me easy to revise minute points of a topic from prelims point of view. Double benefit.

Current Affairs

This is the most random portion of the exam. But I did what all of us aspirants do: I read The Hindu. I didn’t have trouble reading it at the start of my prep because I had been reading it from college days to improve my vocabulary. I read The Hindu daily morning for 1hr 30mins or so and made notes out of it.

I made online notes of The Hindu on Evernote. I copied whatever quote, story, data, indices, pros/cons of policies, and categorized them accordingly in Evernote. This made sure that I had a long catalogue of examples to pick from for Essay and Ethics paper. Moreover, if you read The Hindu closely, you can pick up some unique statistics which you can quote in mains answers.

I also used to read InsightsonIndia daily current affairs at night before sleeping. I also made notes out of this, because I didn’t want to read the big monthly magazine.

Another important resource for current affairs which I followed was “The Big Debate” on Rajya Sabha TV youtube channel. It has many advantages. First, it tells you which topics are important. Then it gives you expert opinion on these topics. More importantly, it gives you government’s point of view which is rarely available on newspapers or coaching institute notes.

In short, I had made notes for all current affairs which I deemed important from current affairs. I added notes from test series (prelims and mains) also into this. I also never did daily quizzes on various websites nor did I read Yojana, Kurukshetra, Pratiyogita darpan or other myriad of magazines in the market.

Test series

This is probably the most important part of any competitive entrance examination. Mock tests help us gauge our preparation and improve over time. It allows us to commit mistakes beforehand and correct them. Hence, its advisable to give as many tests as possible. But don’t do it at the cost of reading.

I basically depended on Insights Ias and IASBaba for my mock practice. I subscribed to Insights Ias prelims test series, ethics & essay test series and full length mains test series (post prelims). And used Think Learn Perform (TLP) platform of IASbaba for daily mains answer writing practice.

Though I had subscribed to Prelims test series right around July or august 2018, I didn’t attend a single test till Feb 2019. After Feb 19, I used to give subject wise test from Insightias, previous year upsc questions and vision test series (downloaded from internet). After revising all subjects and giving subject wise test series, I went to full length mocks of prelims.

Simultaneously, for prelims, I used to give daily 25 MCQs on Insight and IASBaba which come just 2 or 3 months before prelims. This kept me in practice of solving MCQs.

For mains, the first good thing I did luckily was start writing 5 daily answers on TLP IASBABA from around August 2018. Even though I had not completed preparation of all subjects, I used to write whatever answers I could and post on the website. After getting a few best daily answers, it was inertia alone which carried me to write for 3 months. This gave me great practice of writing answers to questions which I did not know answers to. Also, TLP is framed in a way that it covers the whole syllabus, hence I had written atleast one answer to each part of the syllabus.

After writing TLP and getting many best daily answers, I was confident in my answer writing speed, content and format. Then I subscribed to Ethics and Essay test series of Insights. This is because I focused on getting more marks in optional, ethics and essay papers and good enough marks in other GS papers. I got good feedback in Ethics and Essay tests also, so I was set for mains before Feb 2019.

After Prelims exam was over, I rested for a few days and then subscribed to Insights full length test series for GS and L2A test series for Anthropology.

Both these test series were good. Insights has a way to give off beat questions to throw us off balance. This helps in the actual exam when many questions come which are new. I could only write 15 tests out of 25 or so tests in this test series due to paucity of time. But even these 15 tests improved my ability to write on time, prioritize questions, make diagrams and most importantly deal with hand pain due to writing so many answers :P.  

L2A test series for anthropology was also good, though the reviews for the first few tests were a bit late. But the questions in it were more or less on exam line (not too tough, not too easy). I wrote almost all the tests in L2A test series with the exception of last few tests which were few days before actual exam. Few questions in Mains were similar to the ones in test series and I didn’t have to spend time on recalling them.  So yes, it helped in the actual exam.

Apart from L2A, I didn’t know any test series for anthropology so I can’t comment on them. But my advice would be to subscribe any test series which gives timely feedback.

How to make use of test series?

Taking a test series is important, but what’s more important is how to make best use of it. For me, it consisted of the following steps:

First, actually taking the tests. Most of us get lazy or think that we will give these tests when we are a 100% prepared. But that time never comes. So download the test and get on with writing.

Second, solve the test on the same date as given on coaching schedule. Some tests may be postponed, but try to give them on the same day. Also, give them in either 9 to 12 or 2 to 5 time slots to simulate the actual examination.

Third, don’t bluff yourself by taking more than 3hrs (2hrs for prelims) to write the test. Take an alarm clock or mobile clock and write the whole test in given time. This ensures that you know how you perform in pressure.

Fourth, after getting the test feedback/review, try to analyse what you did wrong/right. But don’t take the feedback given by coaching as god’s truth because sometime they can be disappointing or simply wrong. But reviewing your own performance in test and trying to improve upon it in the next test will make sure you actually improve by each test. This will make you remove all, almost all, your mistakes and fears before actual prelims/mains.

Fifth, don’t overdo it, especially for first attempters. I remember between prelims and mains 2019, I had very less time to revise and give tests. So after giving 15 GS tests and 10 Anthropology tests, I decided that it would be better now to revise the tests already given and notes than giving more tests due to paucity of time.

Sixth, for prelims, revise the notes you make out of test series. Because this is the stuff you didn’t know. So make short notes out of new knowledge from test series and revise it like everything else in the syllabus.

Note making

I am all for making notes as I feel they make my work easier. It made it easy for me to revise quickly before prelims and mains. But it is also true that you can’t make notes for everything. Like I didn’t make notes for Lakshmikant or Spectrum or History NCERTs as I knew I would have to read them full every time.

For the things I did make notes of, it was a combination of both hard and soft copy. I made hard copy notes of static subjects: Geography, Economy, World History, and Post Independence India. For the rest of topics in syllabus and current affairs I made notes on Evernote.

Making notes on evernote made it easier to add and delete things as and when needed. I actually used to make notes more concise after each revision. Even for Anthropology I made notes online barring a few topics which I read from a previous year’s topper’s notes.

I also made prelims specific notes of each subject which contained snippets from test series, current affairs and static knowledge. It contained all the information which I couldn’t remember easily or which was totally new information.  

I have already written about how I made notes of the current affairs in current affairs section. For someone whose typing speed is half decent, making notes online is an easier and efficient task. Plus, it saves paper :P.

Optional strategy

How to choose an optional?

We all know that we should choose the optional which we are interested in reading from toppers again and again. And let me tell you, its true :P. But there are some other factors which come into play while choosing optional. These include: availability of notes, availability of coaching (if you end up needing it), amount of syllabus and time required to cover it, looking at past year papers to gauge your interest.

After going through all these factors, you need to choose your optional. I chose mine as Anthropology. At first, I wanted to choose Economics, inspired by Gaurav Agarwal sir. He was also working in finance and chose Economics as optional. Thinking I could do the same, I ordered all its required books. But after going through previous year papers and seeing the number of books, I came to an understanding that I could not complete this within 3 months (which I had allotted in my timetable for optional).

Then I chose anthropology as that year Anudeep sir had taken Anthropology by switching from his other optional and scored pretty good marks. So I took all the factors I listed above into consideration and chose anthropology. Though, marks are not yet out, but from my performance in test series I think I have done decently well in optional.

Booklist

For booklist I read only those books which Anudeep sir and Sachin Gupta sir read. Whenever I started a topic, I went through their blogs and referred only those books. So instead of linking my book list here, I would advise you to click on hyperlinks and read both their booklists.

Just one sidenote: I didn’t read Ember and Ember.

Strategy

For the most part, I followed Anudeep sir’s strategy and booklist. For Paper I, I read the basic books (P. Nath, NK Vaid, Anthropology Simplified) and combined this with Brain Tree booklets to make comprehensive notes on each topic.

Now here again, for the socio-cultural part most of the knowledge of syllabus was there in these books listed above. But for physical anthropology part, I had to google, youtube, read online resources to understand DNA, genetics, anatomy etc and then only I was able to make notes. Also, for physical anthropology part I had to learn to draw diagrams a lot and fast. So I made notes for this second part in hard copy, while I made socio-cultural part notes on Evernote.

Most interesting and dreaded part of socio-cultural anthropology is the Theories. For this I referred to the link (https://anthropology.ua.edu/anthropological-theories/) and Brain Tree. For further value addition, I researched about the theories on internet to find a few unique points. Like for contributions of Geertz question this year, I had read his contribution in linguistics and wrote it.

In this year’s paper (CSE-2019), there was only 1 big question from physical part which involved anatomy diagrams which fetch more marks. So, it is better to not put all the eggs in one basket, and read the socio-cultural part also thoroughly with good value addition to get good marks.

Also, don’t leave any part of the syllabus completely, because I had left a small topic “contribution of anthropology to communalism”, and that same question came this year. So I had to leave it blank. Therefore, prepare atleast some notes for each part of the syllabus so that you can score atleast 1 or 2 marks in that question instead of zero.  

For Paper II, I downloaded notes of Bhuvanish Patil sir which are very detailed. First I went through his whole notes one time. This made me cover the syllabus one time and also know what was missing in his notes or atleast what I felt was missing. Then, I went through Nadeem Hasnain for only those topics which I felt were undercovered in the notes. Even after this, I scoured notes of Sachin Gupta sir and internet to find case studies on each topic for value addition.

Further, I made notes out of discussion videos by L2A test series. I must say, L2A discussion videos were very effective in giving me examples to quote directly. Sometimes sir would just tell the name of the anthropologist for that particular topic. Then I went on the internet and found the specific example. By doing this exercise, I had a long list of examples to quote in the exam.

Specially in the tribal part, a single comprehensive case study can be quoted in many type of questions. So do prepare a few good, and if possible unique, case studies for this part.

For Archaeology part (in both papers), I referred to Bhuvanish Patil sir’s notes as is.

If I have left anything here, please refer to Anudeep sir’s or Sachin Gupta sir’s strategy because I have taken almost all my strategy from these two toppers.

Revision

Revision is probably the most important part of Anthropology because one tends to forget this quite easily. Hence I made sure that I revised this atleast once before starting preparation of prelims specifically. I completed the whole syllabus in November 2018 and December 2018, then revised and value added in January 2019.

Please keep in mind that the above time (2 months) for completing the syllabus doesn’t mean I was ready to give the exam. Infact, I added a lot to my notes after prelims was over. I added case studies, diagrams, flowcharts to my notes during this time.

Back to revision. After prelims was over, at once I subscribed to Anthro test series. Therefore, I revised the syllabus once again while giving the test series. After tests were over, I revised it once again. Then after GS papers were over, we had 5 days to revise optional. Hence, I revised it again.

Additional resources (apart from books)

  1. https://anthropology.ua.edu/anthropological-theories/
  2. https://www2.palomar.edu/anthro/tutorials/
  3. https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/natural-selection-genetic-drift-and-gene-flow-15186648/
    1. Click on the topics below to understand genetics/evolution
  4. http://sumananthromaterials.blogspot.com/
  5. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCleRib5aYbcP_ee56jbyPCQ/videos

Personality test: the last leg

For the 2020 batch, every result except Prelims was delayed. We had to wait till Feb 2020 to get mains result. This led to delay in interview preparation, delay in coaching conducting mock tests etc. For my part, I took one-month rest after giving mains and then started slowly preparing for interview.

When I started preparing in November 2019, I hadn’t yet filled up the Detailed Application Form (DAF) for the interview, which only comes up after mains result. The only thing I had to go with was DAF I, which was filled after prelims and had details like job, college, address etc.

Still, I had an idea about what DAF II consists from previous year’s samples. So I started making questions on hobbies (reading non-fiction books, writing), job, college, extra-curriculars and current affairs. Apart from this basic questions like why civil service, why optional, why did you leave the job, etc were to be prepared.

I started out by just writing a bunch of questions on each possible thing from DAF. I spend around 10 days just doing this. Then I started framing rough answers for these questions. Rest of the time till mains result was spent improving answers, framing more questions and writing answers for those. I went deep into framing questions, anticipating what could follow from one question to another. I did this for each topic in my DAF, from my name to the history of company I used to work in.

Once results were out, I revised my notes and went to Delhi for 10 days for giving mocks. I had already scheduled mocks at various coachings before leaving. All in all, I gave 8 mocks at Byjus, Vajirao and Reddy, Rau Ias, Samkalp, ForumIAS and Unique Siksha. Though I had registered for Vision, Vajiram, IASBABA also, I didn’t go to them as I had already given enough mocks and had confidence.

The first mock I gave was horrible. I could not recall things literally at my fingertips and looked a lot tense. The feedback they gave, however, helped me improve in subsequent mocks. In subsequent mocks, I had only one mantra: be confident even if you don’t know anything and don’t lie.

Feedback from subsequent mocks, after the first one, was that I knew about all the questions in quite depth, but my face reflected the look that I wanted to get out of the room as quick as possible. Then I gave the Vajirao and Reddy mock, and I tried to be confident, tried to smile (though ultimately failed), but most of all I tried to be myself. The feedback was amazing, they asked me how many previous interviews I had given at UPSC. When I told them this was to be my first, they all said that “ladka nikal lega pahli baar me, bas aise hi rahna actual interview me” (translation: he will clear the interview this time, just remain just like you are now in the actual interview).

This mock became my guiding light, and I tried to emulate this in the actual interview. Since my interview was on 16th March, I went back home after 10 days in Delhi and revised on current affairs and my notes. Then came the D-Day.

D-Day

I came to Delhi 2 days before the interview. The day before the interview, I went to see the distance of UPSC Bhavan from my place of stay and asked the guard (who was very cordial) about the process of reporting.

I had the afternoon slot. So I went in at around 12 noon to the center and waited till the guards called us to form a line. Around 1pm we entered the building, our documents were verified for another hour. Then at sharp 2pm, my name was called for interview. I was scared, excited and relieved (because no discussion and fear of waiting for your turn) to go. As soon as I came near the room door (BB Vyas sir board), it was already open. I straight went into the room and tried to greet the members, though I don’t think I greeted the lady in the room. I sat down, Chairman sir explained the process and asked me to be calm. I was relaxed.

Here is a list of questions they asked me:

Transcript

Chairman

1. What is the meaning of your name and difference with Mukhar?

2. Why do you want to join civil service?

3. Who is your role model?

4. Why is indore top in cleanliness ranking?

5. Do you think we can have more landfills in India?

6. What is the issue if logistics in India?

7. Tell me the specific issue?

8. What is the target to which we want to reduce the cost of logistics?

9. Since you are from anthropology, What is the difference between you and me through which we can identify each other?

10. What about dentition?

11. When does president address joint sessions of Parliament.


M1

1. Which job did you work in?

2. Do you think equity markets truly reflect the economy?

3. What is make in India?

4. What is its focus?

5. What are the issues in it?

6. You talked about logistics. Why do we have so much logistics cost?

7. You missed cross-subsidy?


M2

1. Do you think air India should be privatized?

2. Do you mean to say that govt companies are in efficient?

3. Then what about bsnl?

4. Why are some psu better than others?


M3

1. What is this attitude about chalta hai about government sector?

2. How can we advertise about the government services to convey that they are efficient?

3. Do you think we should open too many IITs?

4. Why do we have too many unskilled people in India?

5. What do you write about?


M4

1. Which book have you read?

2. Which was the book you read before that?

3. Tell me the summary of that book?

4. Do you know about OBOR and what issue India has with it?

5. There is some issue in Eastern India also due to OBOR?


Chairman

1. Tell me about Rule of Law

As you can see, most of the questions were from my profile linked with current affairs. So prepare accordingly. I was able to answer all questions except two or three, all of which were asked by Chairman sir in the beginning. Even though I said no 3 times, I didn’t loose confidence and basically forgot that I had not answered these questions correctly.

The key to interview then is: read DAF, decode DAF, prepare questions on it, practice by giving mock interviews, be confident, have a smile on face (if possible), don’t be afraid to say no to questions, and lastly be thoroughly prepared on your optional, job and to some extent graduation.  

End of journey

It took me 2 full years from start of preparation to declaration of rank. It was a sea saw ride from excitement of results to tension of results/syllabus. But in the end, it was worthwhile. I have shared my strategy as a guide to what I did. This is not foolproof, and needs to be followed by amending it according to your own situations and needs.