Strategy:Geetanjali, AIR 32 (CSE2019)

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Namaste _/|\_

A brief introduction - I'm Geetanjali Sharma. (But enough about me.)

Throughout my preparation I've benefited immensely from reading "topper strategies". So, my endeavour with this page is to give back to the community. Hopefully a few of you will benefit from the gyan I will be imparting here and pay it forward. It's usually a good idea to learn from other's mistakes, and god knows I've made enough. This article may just end up being a huge list of DO NOTs.

This is going to be a long read, so here's a table for your convenience:

Some basic information

-This was my third attempt- 2016 (did not clear Prelims), 2018 (gave the interview but did not obtain a rank) and 2019 (rank 32).

-I'll be mentioning what all coaching and/or test series I've taken with short reviews at relevant places.

-I've been running a telegram channel for Anthropology optional ( I've basically shared a few things on how to prepare/how to make notes etc. Most of the anthropology pointers I'll be adding here will be a copy-paste of my posts from the channel.

-My optional is Anthropology.

- I completed my graduation in Zoology from Hindu College in 2014. I took two years off to figure out what I wanted to do in life. Then I halfheartedly began my UPSC journey with (and probably because of) ample doses of motivation and blackmail from my parents. (More on this later.)

-I won't be able to complete this page in one sitting. This page is a work in progress. As and when I update this page, I'll make sure to notify people on my channel (on telegram).

-What people generally call a strategy, is more often a highly-customised, loosely-held patchwork of hit-and-trials that ultimately worked out. I may be exaggerating a bit.

What I'm trying to say is this - It's not as though I didn't know what I was doing AT ALL and somehow stumbled into the rank list. But it is true that I wasn't ever a 100% certain about the way I had chosen to prepare. Choosing to write an essay test on a particular day would mean not being able to do my optional, or ethics, or GS, or Hindi. Choosing to do one thing, meant choosing not to do other things. During the time between prelims and mains, everyday would feel like I'm doing something wrong. Ultimately, I didn't spend a lot of time finding the perfect strategy. My philosophy was more like - if I did something, I'd do it well. That's it. Find what works for YOU.

-I've done a few interviews. Here are the links:

The UPSC Journey

I was a reluctant and awfully arrogant candidate in my first attempt. As hinted earlier, the decision to take the exam wasn't really my own. I didn't have an inherent passion to be a civil servant and fix all of my country's problems. At least not initially. As with most people, I was very clear on what I did not want to do in life. I did not have a clear idea on what being a civil servant would mean or what they did day in and day out as part of their jobs. So my first attempt can be encompassed in these words - "Try kar lete hai. Kya jata hai?" (Let me try. What's there to lose?)

I had also assumed that having had a decent academic record up until then, this would be another one of those exams which I'd study for for just a few days before and sail through. To give you a clear picture of what my preparation level was at the time

    • Didn't know Laxmikanth and Spectrum existed
    • Didn't know revision was a thing
    • Didn't know current affairs magazines existed
    • Didn't know mock tests existed

I did read the NCERTs though, I wasn't a complete idiot.

With regard to my marks in the Prelims that year - I don't know. (Because I didn't know that marks are released after the exam cycle ends).

I still have that 2016 prelims question paper, though I can't really open it even now. Although, if I had a chance to redo this process all over again, I don't think I'd change a thing. What my first academic failure (and even the attempt in 2018) taught me about the exam, about this career and most importantly - about myself - is simply immeasurable.

The 2016 prelims fiasco set a lot of things right for me. My illusions were taken down, I was more cognisant of the scale of things to come, I also became a more willing participant in the process although not yet entirely. I took the entire year off after prelims 2016. I couldn't study much (I was beginning to realise that isolated self-study wasn't my thing). I also had other stuff going on in life beyond UPSC that year, so I wasnt keen on the exam. In 2017 I had decided not to give the prelims owing to the lack of preparation (again).

Luckily during this period I was able to meet an acquaintance who had cleared the exam in 2016 (Anurag Chander sir). It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that he put me on the right path. On his advice, I enrolled in the GS one-year-long coaching classes at Vajiram and Ravi and was introduced to novel concepts (for me) such as - 'mains', 'test series', 'optional preparation', 'Laxmikanth' and 'essay'. It was a great day. One thing clearly changed for me on that day and it was because of something that he had said in a very offhand matter-of-fact manner. He said that everything that I wanted to work on (public issues that I cared about), I would be able to achieve much more, on a much bigger scale, by being in the IAS. The IAS would allow me to do everything I wanted, and then some. Of course.

Now that I was mentally 'there', all that was needed was hard work and the right direction. It's not as easy as it sounds, obviously. I put in the time and effort, I did my revisions, I gave my mock tests, I made the necessary sacrifices and honestly worked harder than I had in life until then. All of this took me to the interview in 2018. The reason I didn't get a rank in 2018 is because of a few, very boring technical/logistical/time management/schedule-related mistakes that I had made. It was more about the plan itself, rather than the effort and intent. I'll be elaborating on this in the next few sections.

The 2019 attempt involved mainly two things:

    • More of what I'd done right in 2018 - sincere studies, constant critical analysis and recalibration whenever required, sticking with people who gave me good advice etc.
    • Covering up my gaps in 2018 - studying subjects that I hadn't even once, better time management, much better prelims preparation, focusing on my optional, finding the right peer group and finally - revision, revision and revision (and one more revision.)

Overall pointers

These are a few standard practices/ideas/techniques that I've found are applicable throughout the preparation cycle. I took my time to understand and incorporate them into my daily study practice, but I've found that they made my preparation much much more effective.

1. Don't underestimate the power of revision and recall.

Incorporate revision as a daily practice. Here was my general revision strategy -

Day Revision Number To do
1 1 Read topic/subtopic/book for the first time. Revised immediately after finishing every small subtopic by recalling what I had read without referring to the books/notes.
2 2 Revise Day 1 topics using recall method.
14/21 3 Usually on a weekend, two weeks after Day 1, would recall/revise the topic again. Depending on how much I was able to retain by this third revision, I'd chose when to schedule the next revision. Oftentimes I'd be unable to recall factual information and key terms even after the third revision. I would then note down all those points from a subject and make 'summary sheets'. This is what I'd revise in the subsequent revisions and before the exam.

What I mean by revision is not just reading/skimming through your notes/underlined areas etc. Revision is not passive, it has to be active. You need to practice retrieving information from the inner recesses of your mind. That's the only way you'll be able to remember your notes even in a stressful exam environment.

2. Limited resource does not necessarily mean one book/magazine/website.

Your limited resources has to be adequate. This could mean referring to various sites, books etc to find the best information for the subject/topic and then consolidating them into one place by making notes. Those notes then become your limited resource. This is exactly what I did for anthropology.

3. Note making is not essential for everything.

Post Independence

Sometimes I underlined in books and revised from them itself. Sometimes (especially for my optional) I made notes. Even when I made notes, they were only in the nature of summary sheets - where I'd write the most important points and the information I wasn't able to recall after my third revision.

While writing down information in your own handwriting is going to help you remember things better, making notes takes time.

I personally did not make notes of

  • Newspaper/current affairs for Prelims
  • Subjects like - Modern History, Ancient and Medieval History, Polity, Environment, Science and Technology, Geography, Post Independence. (See image)
  • From solutions of mock tests (Prelims or Mains)

Summary sheet

I did make notes for

  • Most topics in optional. A lot of my optional notes were actually in the format of questions and answers.
  • GS 2, GS 3 current affairs (mainly because I took Dipin sir's CA classes at ForumIAS and had made a register for that)
  • Subjects like - Indian society, World history, Disaster Management and Ethics. These were only in nature of single sheets/half a sheet per topic with the purpose of being able to revise these sheets before the exam - see image.
  • Random topics that were left out at the last minute. I picked up these topics by scanning the VisionIAS Mains365 magazine index. Again, these were in the nature of summary sheets that could be revised just before the exam.


4. Time the number of hours you study in a day.

Not by vaguely guessing and overestimating your hours. Keep a notebook beside you and write down the time when you sit down, and when you get up. Even if it's just for a five minute break, note that down.

You'll get an accurate reading of how many hours you actually put in during a day. The point here is not to hit a golden number of hours but to know exactly how much we overestimate our efforts and to track what we're doing on daily basis.

5. Be honest, to yourself at the very least.

You can lie to the world and make up fake marks, and brag about how much you've studied, how easy you find the process, how you've cleared prelims with flying colours, how many times you've cleared mains and how many hours you study in a day. You can whine about how competition is increasing, how the number of seats are decreasing, how reservation impacted your chances, how you fell ill just before the exam, how the invigilator handed your tests five minutes late, how the prelims mock tests have so many errors in them and how COVID-19 has messed up your studies. Go ahead. Say what you want to others (no judgement at all) but do not lie to yourself.

The way I see it, if you're unable to improve in the exam year after year, it's probably you and not the exam itself. This applied to my journey as well. I've seen people who have been dealt a bad hand in life. And this point is not for them. But most of us are not so unfortunate.

So the next time you score less in a mock test, maybe stop blaming those 2 questions that were incorrectly framed, and focus on the 25 that you got wrong. When you can't complete a test on time, know that it was not because of some cosmic conspiracy to see you fail, you simply did not write fast enough.

6. Find the right guidance.

Don't take advice from people who are stuck in the same place as you. Don't take advice from that person who's repeatedly flunking mains/prelims. Don't take advice from that person who's cleared prelims by a whisker. Don't take advice from someone who's not given the exam. Don't take advice from people who tell you not to go to anyone else for advice. Don't take advice from people who haven't learnt from their mistakes and only find fault in external factors.

I gave my first test for mains in 2018, as part of my test series at ForumIAS. Anupam Sir who was a mentor there at the time (he's left since then, running Smartwork Labs currently), gave me a lot of tips on how to improve my answers. After all that, I asked him why he didn't clear the exam if he knew so much about how to improve. He told me that this is what he didn't apply in his own answers.

As insulting as my question may have been at the time, he made me believe that this is a person who knows what mistakes students make and what mistakes he may have made, and is perceptive and humble enough to identify them. There was also no hesitation in the way he owned up to what was lacking in his preparation. Over the course of two years thereafter, I repeatedly sought his guidance in my preparation and benefited from it.

The other person who guided me was Asif Sir. He was a mentor at ForumIAS as well (he's left as well, in ShankarIAS currently). He's probably one of the best people to go to for the purposes of mains preparation. He gives precise pointers on how to improve answers and has a wealth of experience because of the sheer number of students he's helped out over the years.

6. There is no mystery to this exam.

If you work hard, be disciplined, analytical and find the right direction you will clear it.

Anthropology Preparation

1. On selecting Anthropology as my optional subject

My graduation was in Zoology, which is also available as a choice for optional purposes. For my 2016 attempt, I had chosen Zoology by default mainly because you can't leave that portion blank in the application form. I didn't study for it at all though. Didn't know what books there were, didn't even know the syllabus.

Fast forward two years and I had to fill up the form again for the 2018 cycle. This time, I gave it a considered thought.

I went through the previous years' papers of zoology and realised that I didn't want to study the life cycle of Ascaris for the purposes of an exam. (Fun fact: I clearly remember it was the Ascaris life cycle question that completely put me off. I was never comfortable with that topic even in college.)

There's nothing wrong with Zoology optional of course. I had just lost interest in the subject. And I wanted to read something new, yet familiar.

So then I looked at a bunch of optionals like Sociology, Philosophy, Economics, Anthropology, Agriculture etc. I went through their syllabi and questions from the previous years' exams. Physical anthropology overlapped a lot with what I had studied and liked in college and school - mainly genetics and evolution. The portions of socio-cultural anthropology and tribal anthropology, I felt a genuine curiosity towards.

Another factor that I took into account was the availability of resources. Anthropology, I felt, had an adequate number of resources available, both online and offline - books, topper blogs, videos etc.

Ultimately, I think main factor to take into account to choose an optional is whether you can stick with it and retain your interest in the subject over the course 3-4 years and 6-7 readings. I for one haven't lost interest in Anthropology even after it's utility for me, in context of the exam, is lost.

2. Some advice for absolute beginners

Your main aim should be first to chart out a plan and a timeline for how you're going to complete the syllabus. For that:

    • You need to gather information about the optional, its syllabus, its various sub-parts
    • You need to have a compilation of previous year questions, in chapter wise format
    • You need to know what books to refer to for what topics
    • How to make notes
    • What are the common mistakes that people make in anthropology i.e. what not to do.

For all of these, refer to:

    • Topper blogs (Anudeep Durishetty, Sachin Gupta and the topper blogs from 2018 and 2019)
    • Topper videos on youtube
    • Various telegram channels -
      • 'Team Anthro' (has a PDF on how to prepare anthropology for beginners, active admin who has scored above 300 herself, and a repository of all the popular books in PDF format)
      • Yogesh Patil's and Mandar Patki's telegram channels (search in telegram by their names)

Id suggest you spend good time in hashing out your strategy before you start studying. Have a timeline in mind. And then once that is done, just start. It really doesn't matter from where. Pick up your favourite or least favourite topic and start reading.

3. Coaching in Anthropology

I paid upwards of Rs. 40k to Vajiram and Ravi for their anthropology optional classes in 2017. I attended a few classes (mainly socio-cultural anthropology) intermittently and did not find them beneficial.

These are a few things that were lacking, as per me:

    • The topics weren't covered in depth. After each topic was explained and dictated, the teacher would mention that the content was adequate enough to write a 250 word answer - which it was only in terms of the number of words but not in terms of quality. Even though I had stopped attending, I did get the notes of the class photocopied but even those weren't up to the 300 marks standard.
    • Chapter 6 (Thinkers and theories) of Paper 1, in my opinion, was not explained well enough. I personally found it very difficult to wrap my brain around the theories of Structuralism, Post modernism, Cognitive Anthropology, Symbolic and Interpretive theories based on what was explained and dictated in class. In fact, I was probably more confused after the class.
    • It was repeatedly mentioned in class how the classes and the books given would allow us to 'attempt' 80% of the paper. It was also repeatedly mentioned that one would not need to refer to any content from outside the classes. Keep in mind, most of the people who joined these classes, including me, were studying anthropology for the very first time. So there wasn't any way for me to know whether it was true or not at the time. In hindsight I found both of these claims to be untrue. In my opinion, if these claims were actually true, one wouldn't have to say it again and again. The results would inherently show.
    • The books were handed out to students after about 2 - 2.5 months into the course. The reason given was - the books had to be updated and the later we would get them, the better it would be because they'll be up-to-date. I made it a point to go collect the books. I flipped through them once, in 2018 after prelims, and I haven't opened them since. A lot of the content was a copy paste job from various sources.
    • There was just one teacher who taught everything. I had friends in the anthropology batch previous to mine. Apparently, they did have two teachers, but due to unfavourable reviews from students, V&R tried to get someone better. I don't suppose they found someone good because my course had just the one teacher, who was teaching the entire syllabus including portions that probably wasn't their particular area of expertise. (This is my deduction)
    • Doubts were ignored. Sometimes it was on the pretext of completing the topics scheduled for the day. Sometimes students would be suggested to come after class. Sometimes I'd just be sitting there with my hand raised and would be ignored. I don't know if there was some other process of asking doubts, but I didn't happen to have any of mine cleared.
    • The topics were taught in a haphazard manner. Sometimes, half the class would be allocated for Physical Anthro, the other half for Social Anthro. There wasn't a timetable to inform students what topics would be taught on what day. Basically the option to skip classes for topics one already knew well wasn't available. As a result, I chose to stop attending entirely.

Some things that were good:

    • I don't think there was any mal-intent on their part. The teacher seemed like a nice person, but I didn't find her to be a good teacher for ME.
    • There was some focus of quizzing during class and revision of concepts.
    • Going to classes itself sets a daily rhythm.
    • Portions of Physical Anthropology were taught better

I would also like to mention, that some students genuinely liked the classes and say that they benefited from them. I was simply not one of those students. Do not take this to be an objective review of the V&R classes. Everyone has different expectations and all I can say categorically is that they did not meet mine.

I honestly don't think coaching is even needed for anthropology. The concepts and theories aren't very difficult to understand and there are ample topper strategies, online resources, answer copies and coaching notes to refer to. I haven't heard excellent reviews about any other coaching institute as well. From the looks of it, they'll teach few portions very well but not the others. Even if you want to enroll in some classes, my advice would be to make sure you read the chapters at least once (simultaneously or beforehand) to be able to judge better.

4. Topic-wise book/source list

Few things to note:

    • I've added the various pdfs and resources I had referred to for Anthropology on my google drive. Click HERE.
    • I used the internet exhaustively, even where i haven't mentioned it as a source
    • After studying each topic, I'd refer to topper answer copies/notes on the same topic to check whether the content is adequate
    • I'd also refer to the Previous Years Questions after every chapter to understand the boundaries within which a topic was to be read.
    • I had read Braintree (almost exclusively for Paper 1) in my 2018 attempt. I do NOT recommend the book as a standalone source. On its own, it will fetch you only average marks. So you need to cover the same topic from more than one source, especially if that one source you're following is Braintree notes.
Physical Anthropology (Paper 1)
Topic No. Title Primary source Additional sources Comments
1.4 Human evolution and emergence of man Internet P.Nath, Braintree
1.5 Characteristics of primates Internet P.Nath, Braintree Primate taxonomy is outdated in most books. Find the latest version online.
1.6 Phylogenetic status, characteristics and geographical distribution of hominins Internet P.Nath Loads of outdated information in books, refer to the internet to gather latest information and theories.
1.7 Biological basis of life Khan Academy videos Biology NCERT class 11th/12th No question has been asked from this portion. I prepared the topic enough to be able to address 10 markers.
9.1 Human genetics P.Nath Internet, IGNOU pdfs Googled every sub-topic
9.2 Mendelian genetics in man-family study etc P.Nath Internet, IGNOU pdf Referred the internet for good human-based examples
9.3 Concept of genetic polymorphism etc P.Nath Internet, IGNOU pdfs Googled every sub-topic for more depth of information
9.4 Chromosomes and chromosomal aberrations in man P.Nath Internet, IGNOU pdfs Googled every sub-topic like genetic imprinting, gene mapping, DNA profiling etc
9.5 Race and Racism IGNOU pdf P.Nath, Internet Information on the race/racism discourse is outdated in books, refer to the internet for latest ideas/concepts on race.
9.6 Age, sex and population variation as genetic marker - - Was not able to find much information on the sub-topics. Googled about variations in Rh, ABO, HLA, Hp, Gm in human groups
9.7 Concepts and methods of Ecological Anthropology IGNOU pdf Kerala SCERT, P.Nath, Internet Kerala SCERT has information on the theoretical development of Ecological Anthropology
9.8 Epidemiological Anthropology Internet
10 Concept of human growth and development P.Nath Internet, IGNOU pdf IGNOU pdf for growth studies and somatotypes
11 Relevance of menarche, menopause etc IGNOU pdf Internet
12 Applications of anthropology IGNOU pdfs P.Nath, Kerala SCERT Googled every sub-topic
Socio-Cultural Anthropology (Paper 1)
Topic No. Title Primary Source Additional Sources Comments
1.1 Meaning, scope and development of Anthropology IGNOU pdf Studied last after completing rest of the syllabus
1.2 Relationship with other disciplines Braintree Studied last after completing rest of the syllabus
1.3 Main branches of anthropology and relevance IGNOU pdf Studied last after completing rest of the syllabus
2.1 Nature of culture Muniratnam notes Braintree, Internet Ethnocentricism and cultural relativism is covered in Anthropological theories
2.2 Nature of society Sociology IGNOU pdf Sociology NCERT
2.3 Marriage Muniratnam notes IGNOU pdf, Kerala SCERT
2.4 Family Muniratnam notes IGNOU pdf, Kerala SCERT
2.5 Kinship Muniratnam notes IGNOU pdf, Kerala SCERT
3 Economic Organisation Muniratnam notes IGNOU pdf, Kerala SCERT
4 Political organisation and social control Muniratnam notes IGNOU pdf (also Sociology pdfs)
5 Religion Muniratnam notes IGNOU pdf, Internet, Kerala SCERT
6 Anthropological theories Internet and IGNOU pdfs Himanshu Jain notes on theories - basic internet source for theories
7 Culture, Language and Communication Ember and Ember Internet
8 Research methods in Anthropology IGNOU pdf Kerala SCERT
Archaeological Anthropology (Paper 1 and Paper 2)
Topic No. Title Primary Source Additional Sources Comments
1.8, (a) (Paper 1) Principles of Prehistoric Archaeology IGNOU pdf Internet
1.8, (b) (Paper 1) Cultural Evolution IGNOU pdf Internet, Muniratnam Notes Took diagrams of tools etc from the internet
1.1 (Paper 2) Evolution of Indian Culture and Civilization Muniratnam Notes Sachin Gupta sir notes, IGNOU pdf, Internet Took diagrams of tools etc from the internet
1.2 (Paper 2) Palaeo Anthropological evidences from India IGNOU pdf Internet Information on Sivapithecus and Ramapithecus is outdated in books. Refer to the internet for latest findings/conclusions.
1.3 (Paper 2) Ethno-archaeology in India Internet (check google drive link given above for pdfs) Topper test copies for more examples
Indian Anthropology (Paper 2)
Topic No, Title Primary Source Additional Sources Comments
2 Demographic profile of Inida Nadeem Hasnain Braintree, IGNOU pdf
3.1 Structure and nature of traditional Indian social system Braintree Muniratnam notes
3.2 Caste System in India IGNOU pdf Muniratnam notes, Braintree, IGNOU Sociology pdfs, Internet, Topper answer copies, Nadeem Hasnain Pdfs are in google drive.
3.3 Sacred Complex and Nature-Man-Spirit complex IGNOU pdf Internet, Muniratnam notes, Nadeem Hasnain
3.4 Impact of Buddhism etc on Indian society Muniratnam notes Nadeem Hasnain
4 Emergence, growth and development in India IGNOU pdf Kerala SCERT, Various pdfs Pdfs in google drive
5.1 Indian Village IGNOU pdf Internet
5.2 Linguistic and religious minorities and their status Internet
5.3 Indigenous and exogenous processes of socio-cultural change in Indian society IGNOU pdf Nadeem Hasnain, Internet
Tribal Anthropology (Paper 2)
Topic No. Title Primary Source Additional Sources Comments
6.1 Tribal situation in India IGNOU pdf Nadeem Hasnain, Xaxa Committee report
6.2 Problems of tribal communities Xaxa Committee report Nadeem Hasnain, IGNOU pdf, Internet Tried to find latest examples from the net
6.3 Developmental projects and their impact Xaxa Committee report Nadeem Hasnain, IGNOU pdf, Internet Tried to find latest examples from the net
7.1 Problems of exploitation and deprivation Xaxa Committee report Nadeem Hasnain, IGNOU pdf, Internet Tried to find latest examples from the net
7.2 Social change and contemporary tribal societies Xaxa Committee report Nadeem Hasnain, IGNOU pdf, Internet
7.3 Concept of Ethnicity IGNOU sociology pdfs Various pdfs (google drive link)
8.1 Impact of Hinduism, Buddhism etc on tribal societies Nadeem Hasnain Internet
8.2 Tribe and nation state IGNOU pdf
9.1 History of administration of tribal areas Xaxa Committee report Internet
9.1 Concept of PVTGs Xaxa Committee report Internet
9.1 Role of NGOs in tribal development Internet Latest examples from the internet
9.2 Role of anthropology in tribal and rural development - - Common knowledge from everything studied in Anthropology, both paper 1 and 2
9.3 Contributions of anthropology to understanding regionalism etc IGNOU pdf on ethnicity and ethnic movements Internet, Xaxa committee Was not able to find a source for communalism