Strategy:Neha Bhosle, AIR 15 (CSE 2019)

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Hello ! This is Neha Bhosle, Rank 15, UPSC CSE 2019. I have done BE from Mumbai University and PGDM from IIM Lucknow. I have worked for about three years in an Indian conglomerate. This was my second attempt at the UPSC CSE and my Optional was Sociology.

A Few Pointers and a Disclaimer

If you cannot find the PDFs of any of the material, that I have mentioned below, on the official websites of those institutes, you can almost certainly find them, free of cost, on the Websites – https://freeupscmaterials.org/ or https://upscpdf.com/ or the Telegram Channels – https://t.me/UpscMaterials or https://t.me/UPSC_PDF or https://t.me/sociology_optional

The books and the materials that I have read and revised are neither the most perfect nor the most exhaustive sources to study for the UPSC CSE. Also, the approach I used is neither the most perfect nor the most exhaustive one to get a good rank in the UPSC CSE. Do please use your own discretion, and if necessary, do please refer to some other sources and strategies as well.

Also, please figure out what type of notes-making strategy suits you and proceed with the same.

I already had my Class Notebooks for GS, so I did not make detailed notes from the NCERTs and the Standard GS Books. I preferred highlighting in the PDFs. I only made some quick revision notes for the GS Static portion.

Similarly, for the Current Affairs, I preferred highlighting in the PDFs. I only made some quick revision notes from the Mains perspective, where I focussed on facts, statistics, government schemes and their outcomes, government reports and their recommendations, committee recommendations, details of judgements and other such data.

However, I made detailed notes for the Sociology Optional.

All my notes were made online, on One Note.

And every year, new institutes and sources are going to crop up, but please do not run after every new material. Sticking to limited sources and renowned brands is the safest option in my opinion.

All the Best !

My Marksheets

My Prelims Marksheet
My Prelims Marksheet
My Mains Marksheet
My Mains Marksheet

My Notes and Test Papers

I have shared all my Class Notebooks, Own Notes and checked Test Series Papers on:

My Telegram Channel - https://t.me/All_About_UPSC_CSE and

My Google Drive - https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1dNQwXCJWWMvOD9NmZ6fs_yn9LF4-33Hk?usp=sharing

You can also check out:

My Blog - https://nehabhosleblog.wordpress.com/

My Twitter Account - https://www.twitter.com/Neha_Bhosle

My Instagram Account - https://www.instagram.com/i_neha_bhosle

Not on any other Social Media Platforms.

My Booklist and Strategy for General Studies

By General Studies (GS), I am referring here to the static portion mentioned in the UPSC CSE Syllabus for the Prelims as well as the Mains.

The Booklist is more or less similar to what every aspirant knows, but writing it nonetheless.

First step before reading any book should be to read and understand the Syllabus. And the second step should be to go through the Question Papers, of at least the past five years, of both Prelims and Mains. These two activities will provide a rough idea of what to focus on.

The GS preparation should be an integrated one, focussing on both the Prelims and the Mains simultaneously. However, about 2.5 months before the Prelims, one should get into the ‘Pre-Mode’ – which means exclusively focus on the Prelims only.

I had joined the Vision Foundation Course (Prelims + Mains) and the Lecture Notes I wrote, along with the PPTs and Handouts that some Teachers provided, were my base material for all GS areas.

Besides these, I kept my sources as limited as possible. I did not make much notes, and instead preferred to highlight in the PDFs (usually on the second reading), and then revise only the highlighted portion multiple times. I also noted down the important page numbers from the PDFs, and revised them later. History was the only area where I made somewhat detailed notes, from the Prelims perspective.

Here is my Booklist:

Ancient History – India’s Ancient Past by R S Sharma. This is a more detailed version of the Old NCERT by the same author. After reading this book twice, I read the Class 6 NCERT – Our Pasts I and the Class 12 NCERT – Themes in Indian History I once to note down any Prelims-specific facts that the book did not have. Once this was done, the book and the notes from those two NCERTs were revised several times. Later I also made some notes from the book for quick revision before Prelims.

Medieval History – History of Medieval India by Satish Chandra. This is a more detailed version of the Old NCERT by the same author. After reading this book twice, I read the Class 7 NCERT – Our Pasts II and the Class 12 NCERT – Themes in Indian History II once to note down any Prelims-specific facts that the book did not have. Once this was done, the book and the notes from those two NCERTs were revised several times. Later I also made some notes from the book for quick revision before Prelims.

Modern India History – This was one area I focussed a lot on. I made Prelims-specific notes from the Old Class 12 NCERT – Modern India by Bipan Chandra and India’s Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra. The Old NCERT can be skipped if you have paucity of time, but I would very strongly recommend the book because it is also helpful from the Mains perspective. After reading these two twice, and making notes from them, I read the Class 8 NCERT – Our Pasts III and the Class 12 NCERT – Themes in Indian History III once to note down any Prelims-specific facts that those two did not have. Once this was done, I only revised the notes made from all the four books. I only read and revised the Chapter Summaries and Appendices from A Brief History of Modern India by Rajiv Ahir (Spectrum).

Art and Culture – Class 11 NCERT – An Introduction to Indian Art and Indian Art and Culture by Nitin Singhania. Did not make any notes from these two but highlighted in the PDFs instead.

Polity – Indian Polity by M Laxmikanth. Noted down some important topics and page numbers for quick revision.

Economy – Class 11 NCERT – Indian Economic Development and Class 12 NCERT – Introductory Macroeconomics. Did not make any notes from these two but highlighted in the PDFs instead. Noted down some important topics and page numbers from Indian Economy by Ramesh Singh for quick revision. Later I also read the Class 9 NCERT – Economics and the Class 10 NCERT – Understanding Economic Development once and noted down some Prelims-specific facts. Before the Prelims, I also went through the Economy Handouts by Mrunal Patel Sir once.

Plus, I read the Summary of the Economic Surveys by Vision (full summary for the latest year, mainly for Prelims and the summary of only the Volume 1 for the past three years, specifically for Mains). I also read the Summary of the latest Union Budget by GS Score.

Science – Nothing.

Ecology and Environment – Environment by Shankar IAS Academy. Did not make any notes from this but highlighted in the PDF instead.

Geography – Class 11 NCERTs – Fundamentals of Physical Geography and India – Physical Environment and Class 12 NCERTS – Fundamentals of Human Geography and India – People and Economy. Did not make any notes from these four but highlighted in the PDFs instead. Later I also read the Class 6 NCERT – The Earth – Our Habitat, the Class 7 NCERT – Our Environment, the Class 8 NCERT – Resources and Development, the Class 9 NCERT – Contemporary India I and the Class 10 NCERT – Contemporary India II once and noted down some Prelims-specific facts. For Maps, I used the Oxford School Atlas.

All these books are relevant for both Prelims and Mains.

Also, two very good sources for quick revision of Static GS portion are La Excellence Ready Reckoners (can be downloaded free of cost from their Telegram Channel – https://t.me/CivilsPrepLaEx) and Summary and Crux Notes of some NCERTs and Standard Books by Desire IAS (can be downloaded free of cost from their Website – https://www.desireias.com/).

For solved previous years’ Prelims papers, I referred to the book by Disha Publications.

Now, coming to Mains-specific areas:

Post-Independence History – Vision VAM

World History – Vision VAM

Society and Social Justice – Got covered with Sociology Optional.

Geography – PMF IAS Notes for topics not covered in the four NCERTS.

Polity and Governance – Vision VAMs

International Relations – Vision VAMs

Economy – Vision VAMs

Disaster Management – Vision VAM

Security – Vision VAMs

For GS 1, GS 2 and GS 3, Vision VAMs are available for almost every topic in the Mains syllabus, and I read and revised them all. For some topics related to these three papers, I also referred to the notes by IAS4Sure (can be downloaded free of cost from their website – http://www.ias4sure.com/ under ‘Project WikiIAS’).

I read the GS Score Gists of all the 2nd ARC Reports (can be downloaded from their website – https://iasscore.in/free-study-material-downloads/gist-of-2nd-arc-report)

I also read the Summary of the NITI Aayog – Action Agenda 2017-18 to 2019-20 by Drishti IAS (can be downloaded from their website – https://www.drishtiias.com/summary-of-important-reports/3-year-action-agenda-niti-aayog) and the Summary of the NITI Aayog – Strategy for New India @ 75 by Next IAS. For some areas, I referred to the Gist of the latest India Year Book by GS Score.

I referred to the solved previous years’ Mains papers by GS Score for the questions and answers from History and Geography.

For GS 4, apart from the Lectures in the Vision Foundation Course, I had also joined the Lukmaan Ethics Course, and the Lecture Notes I wrote from both these courses and the Vision VAMs were my base material.

I did not read any Textbook, and instead my focus was on studying Ethics through questions and answers. For this, I read Lukmaan Practice Workbooks (for both Theory and Case Studies), GS Score Answer Writing Workbooks (for both Theory and Case Studies), Test Series Model Answers of past three years by Vision and solved previous years’ GS 4 papers by Atul Garg Sir.

Three sources I used for quick revision of Ethics were – ‘Ethics Basic Terminology’ by GS Score, ‘Moral Thinkers and Leaders’ by GS Score and ‘Mains Compass – Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude’ by Rau’s.

I did not make any notes related to GS from the Mains perspective, and instead preferred to highlight in the PDFs (usually on the second reading), and then revise only the highlighted portion multiple times.

I have already shared all my Class Notebooks on my Telegram Channel and my Google Drive. Some notes that I made for the GS Static portion have also been shared on both.

Covering Current Affairs

Questions related to the current affairs have a very good weightage in both the Prelims and the Mains of the UPSC CSE.

While beginning, the first step should be to read and understand the Syllabus. And the second step should be to go through the Question Papers, of at least the past five years, of both Prelims and Mains. These two activities will provide a rough idea of what to focus on while covering the current affairs.

Here is how I covered the current affairs, from both the Prelims and the Mains perspective:

I read ‘The Hindu’, but I did not make much notes from it. I just noted down some facts or statistics if they looked relevant, or copied some extracts from the Editorials if they seemed useful for Mains answer writing. I think the coaching institutes do a far better job than any student when it comes to making current affairs notes.

About two months before the Personality Test, I also started reading ‘The Indian Express’ and ‘Mint’ apart from ‘The Hindu’.

From the Vision IAS website’s AIR News section, I listened to all the news bulletins marked as ‘High Importance’, and made some notes from them. Again, they are not much, but I noted down whatever sounded interesting.

From the Rajya Sabha TV YouTube Channel, depending on the topic of discussion, I watched The Big Picture, Policy Watch, India’s World, Security Scan and sometimes also the Science Monitor. The videos were watched 2-3 days after the date of uploading, and by that time, some diligent student would have already written the important points from the discussion in the comments section, which I then copy-pasted in my notes. Apart from that, I also noted down whatever sounded interesting.

The notes I made from the above three sources were read twice before the Mains.

Every month, I read the Vision Monthly Magazine and this was the base material for my current affairs preparation. I highlighted the important points in the PDFs and revised them multiple times for Prelims. These Magazines were from 15 months prior to the month of the Prelims. And I also read the latest Vision PT 365 twice before Prelims.

I did not make any current affairs notes from the Prelims perspective.

For Mains, I made quick revision notes from the Vision Monthly Magazines and the Vision Mains 365. I focussed on statistics, committee recommendations, judgements and other such data which could add value to the Mains answers. Because Mains 365 comes only after the Prelims, I made these notes from the Mains 365 of the previous year. After Prelims, I highlighted the important points in the latest Mains 365, and revised them multiple times. I also updated my quick revision notes with any statistics that changed in the latest year. I did not revise the Monthly Magazines for Mains.

A one-time exercise I had done was to go through the index pages of the Vision Monthly Magazines and the Vision Mains 365 of the past few years. I noted down the page numbers of topics that were still in news, and read only those pages before Mains.

Every month, after reading the Vision Monthly Magazine, I read Insights Secure of GS 1, GS 2 and GS 3 once. The Secure material only looks big, but it is actually quite easy to complete if you know what to look for. I would skip any question that was based on the static portion, anything that was covered by Vision, any question that seemed too outlandish and any question whose reference article was not from a neutral source. From what remained, I made notes from the Mains perspective and only revised those notes.

For Prelims, I read the Rau’s Prelims Compass once. And for Mains, I read MK Yadav Sir’s QEP PDFs once. These were done only after multiple revisions of the Vision materials and my notes as mentioned above.

For Prelims, I also read the latest ‘Reports and Indices’ and ‘International Organizations’ by Shankar IAS, and ‘Places in News’ by GK Today.

For Mains, I also read the latest ‘Supreme Court Landmark Judgements’, ‘Important Committee Reports’ and ‘Policies’ by La Excellence (can be downloaded free of cost from their Telegram Channel – https://t.me/CivilsPrepLaEx)

Plus, I read the Summary of the Economic Surveys by Vision (full summary for the latest year, mainly for Prelims and the summary of only the Volume 1 for the past three years, specifically for Mains). For Prelims, I read the Summary of the latest Union Budget by GS Score. And for some areas, I referred to the Gist of the latest India Year Book by GS Score.

I have already shared my Current Affairs Notes on my Telegram Channel and my Google Drive. The links to my One Note Notebooks where I made notes from 'The Hindu', 'AIR News' and 'Rajya Sabha TV' have also been shared on both.

My Approach to the Preliminary Examination

From the three stages of the UPSC CSE, the only stage that scared me was the Prelims. And I am sure this holds true for a lot of students.

I am not very good when it comes to Prelims. I got 98 marks last year (exactly same as the cutoff) and this year, I was getting 105-107 marks from various keys.

Above, I have already written in detail about how I covered GS and Current Affairs from both the Prelims and the Mains perspective.

The exam preparation should be an integrated one, focussing on both the Prelims and the Mains simultaneously. However, about 2.5 months before the Prelims, one should get into the ‘Pre-Mode’ – which means exclusively focus on the Prelims only.

Now I am going to elaborate about this ‘Pre-Mode’.

First, the Static GS portion should be revised well. If you have made notes from the NCERTs and the Standard Books, do please revise them multiple times. I did not make much notes, and instead preferred to highlight in the PDFs (usually on the second reading). And in the ‘Pre-Mode’, I read only the highlighted portion multiple times. I had also noted down the important page numbers from the PDFs, and revised them before Prelims. And I had also marked some important points in my Class Notebooks, and read and revised them before Prelims. History was the only area where I made somewhat detailed notes, from the Prelims perspective.

If you have not made notes, two very good sources for quick revision of Static GS portion are La Excellence Ready Reckoners (can be downloaded free of cost from their Telegram Channel – https://t.me/CivilsPrepLaEx) and Summary and Crux Notes of some NCERTs and Standard Books by Desire IAS (can be downloaded free of cost from their Website – https://www.desireias.com/).

Second, the Current Affairs should be revised well. I did not make any current affairs notes from the Prelims perspective. I think the coaching institutes do a far better job than any student when it comes to making current affairs notes. Every month, I read the Vision Monthly Magazine and highlighted the important points in the PDFs. In the ‘Pre-Mode’, I only revised this highlighted portion multiple times. These Magazines were from 15 months prior to the month of the Prelims.

I also read the latest Vision PT 365 twice before Prelims. And I also read the Rau’s Prelims Compass once.

Some other quick reference documents I read for Prelims are – the latest ‘Reports and Indices’ and ‘International Organizations’ by Shankar IAS, ‘Places in News’ by GK Today, the Summary of the latest Economic Survey by Vision, the Summary of the latest Union Budget by GS Score, and for some areas, I also referred to the Gist of the latest India Year Book by GS Score.

Third, MCQs should be practiced. More than any test series, previous years’ papers are the best source for practicing MCQs. For solved previous years’ Prelims papers, I referred to the book by Disha Publications. This helped in understanding the type of questions and options framed by the UPSC, and thus helped in improving guesswork and option elimination. In case of paucity of time, I would suggest skipping test series and instead going through the solved previous years’ papers only.

I solved all the tests of the Vision Test Series. I highlighted the questions I got wrong or could not attempt, and revised only those questions twice before the Prelims. I also solved the Insights sectional tests for History and Environment, and twice revised the questions I got wrong.

There are some tricks available for improving guesswork and option elimination. I read them, and used some of them in the actual exam. But this was done only after sufficiently practicing them on the previous years’ papers as well as the test series. I did find them helpful and would recommend them too. But please use them cautiously and only for few questions, and that too after practicing them well before the actual exam. Following are the links for the same:

By Civils Daily (Currently this is the latest video on Tikdams) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5UJm1G1wDA

By the IAS Mocks Telegram Channel – https://t.me/iasmocks_channel/1402 – if this link does not work, please go to – https://t.me/iasmocks_channel and in the ‘Files’ section, please search for a PDF named ‘IASmocks – Trends in Prelims 2011-2018’.

By Insights on India – https://www.insightsonindia.com/2018/05/16/intelligent-guessing-upsc-civil-services-prelims/

By Mrunal Patel Sir – https://mrunal.org/gm

Also, for Prelims, tie the static portion with the current affairs, as even for static areas, questions are being asked from those topics which have been in news in the recent times. For example – important events from history which have completed 50 years or 100 years or other such landmark years, important birth anniversaries or death anniversaries of prominent personalities, constitutional provisions related to topics in news, core economic concepts which have been in news, geographical phenomenon or environmental organizations and treaties which have been in news, scientific concepts which have been in news.

For topics like places in news, rivers and their tributaries, IUCN statuses of different species, national parks and sanctuaries, handicrafts, art forms, festivals, GI tags and other such factual questions, apart from current affairs, pay special attention to South and North-East India, because maximum questions come from these two regions only.

Finally, remember that the UPSC CSE Prelims paper is set in such a way that, even with the best possible preparation, there will not be more than 35-40 questions which one can be 100% sure of answering accurately. Thus, there is no alternative to guesswork and option elimination. While accuracy is important, one should also take calculated risk in order to maximize the number of attempted questions.

There is no optimal number, but I think attempting anything lesser than 75 questions could prove to be risky. However, if you have a very high accuracy (say >90%), you can sail through the Prelims even with lesser number of attempted questions. While solving the Test Series, I had noted that my accuracy was about ~70%, so I had to attempt a greater number of questions to compensate for the poor accuracy.

Now coming to the actual day of the Prelims.

First, be confident. You have studied and revised enough. And no, even the would-be Prelims topper has not studied everything. Prelims involves a lot of rote learning, and no matter how many times you revise it, you just cannot retain it all. Everyone has missed something or the other, so do not fret over topics that you could not cover.

Second, DO NOT PANIC. In the recent years, the questions are getting longer and hence the size of the question paper booklet is increasing. But do not get bogged down by it. A calm mind will automatically add 5-6 marks to your Prelims score, so please remember to stay calm. Only then will you be able to carefully read every question and its options, and avoid any silly mistakes. Also, avoid over-thinking while reading the options. Sometimes, the correct answer is also the simplest one, and over-thinking may lead one to unnecessarily look for a more complex option.

Third, please carry a watch and keep a strict eye on the time.

I would suggest using sketch-pens for marking on the question paper, as they have better visibility and you can quickly see the questions that you have not yet solved. I used sketch-pens of different colours for different paper-solving rounds.

This is how I proceeded – In the first one hour, I finished Round 1 – where I went through the entire paper and marked the answers for all those questions which I knew. And for the other questions, wherever possible, I eliminated as many wrong options as I could. Both these activities were done only on the question paper. There is no time to recheck the answers marked in this round, so I marked only and only those answers where I was almost 100% sure, and did not do any guess work.

Then, in the next 30-35 minutes, I finished Round 2 – here I went through those questions where I had managed to eliminate two wrong options, and tried to arrive at the correct answer wherever possible. Some guesswork was used in this round, but I avoided taking too much risk. This was also done only on the question paper.

At the end of these two rounds, I marked the answer bubbles on the OMR Sheet. I personally think this takes lesser time compared to marking each bubble after solving that question. But I would suggest practicing some mock tests on pen and paper, and then deciding which method suits you. Also, if you think you may panic while marking all the bubbles towards the end, do please mark them after each round, instead of after Round 2.

Also, I counted the number of filled bubbles to know how many questions I have attempted. At the end of this, about 12-15 minutes would be left. Now was the time to maximize attempts. This year, I had marked some 77-78 answers after Round 2, and I felt that I needed to attempt at least 7-8 questions more. This was purely based on hunch and I honestly don’t know how to decide what should be the optimum number of attempted questions.

For Round 3, I went back to those questions where I had managed to eliminate only one wrong option. This round was nothing but ‘pure guesswork’. I will not even call it intelligent guesswork, because there was nothing intelligent about it. It was simply – “this looks good, I should mark this”. Here, I marked each bubble immediately after finalizing the answer, and by the time the examiner came to collect my answer sheet, I think I had attempted about 85 questions. I do not recommend doing this at all, and I am sure there exists some better method to maximize the number of attempted questions, but I really don’t know about it.

There are some students who clear the Prelims with a margin of 15 or more marks every year. I would suggest referring to the strategy of someone who has cleared Prelims with a very comfortable margin, and especially those who have cleared the IFoS cutoff, for a better understanding of how to approach the Prelims.

I did not study anything for the CSAT, so I cannot comment on the Booklist or the Strategy for that paper. Do please refer to some good sources, if you think you may face difficulty in clearing the CSAT cutoff.

Lastly, do please remember that the gap between the Prelims and the Mains is reducing every year. Also, because you have just studied for the Prelims, you would not be interested in studying for the same again. Hence, irrespective of whether or not you are clearing the Prelims cutoff, as predicted by the various Coaching Institutes and their Keys, please start preparing for the Mains. Take no more than 4 or 5 days off, and begin your full-fledged Mains preparation.

I have already shared the notes I made for selective areas of the General Studies static portion, mainly from the Prelims perspective, on my Telegram Channel and my Google Drive.

My Approach to Answer Writing for the GS Papers

From the three stages of the UPSC CSE, the stage with the least uncertainty is the Mains. The four General Studies papers are an important part of the Mains, and while score maximization scope is less in these papers, one needs to achieve at least a par score in them to ensure a good rank.

My target was to score at least 420 marks in these four papers. Last year I had scored around 380 marks in these four papers, with very little knowledge about at least 2-3 questions per paper. This had been mainly due to less revision of the GS static portion, owing to paucity of time. So, I knew that with good coverage of both the static and the current affairs related topics of GS, 420 marks were well within the reach.

Once the Prelims are over, irrespective of whether or not you are clearing the Prelims cutoff, as predicted by the various Coaching Institutes and their Keys, please start preparing for the Mains. Take no more than 4 or 5 days off, and begin your full-fledged Mains preparation.

In the time period between the Prelims and the Mains, I divided my study time in a 60:40 ratio, with 60% of the time devoted to the Optional and the remaining 40% to GS. Essay preparation was not done separately, as it more or less got covered within the GS preparation itself.

I had been writing at least one GS answer every day from June 2017. This was thanks to the Vision IAS Foundation Course that I had joined. We had three stages of answer writing for any subject area – Assignments having the easiest questions, Mini Mains a level higher, and Mains Test Series having UPSC-level questions. My writing skills improved systematically due to regular answer writing done in this manner. The feedback I got for my answers was very helpful, and I worked on whatever improvements they suggested.

I think writing just one GS answer every day, be it from the static portion or from the current affairs, is a good practice, before starting any full-fledged Mains Test Series. You can do self-evaluation or get it evaluated from friends or even post it on one of those free answer writing websites.

If possible, do please join a Mains Test Series, preferably after you finish at least one reading of the entire GS static portion. Do try to finish at least the sectional tests before the Prelims, and then after Prelims you can write the full-length tests. I found both Vision and Forum very good with regard to the quality of questions, evaluation and the model answers. However, the most important thing is to work on the inputs and the suggestions received.

While I did not emphasize much on sticking to the time-limit while writing any of these tests, I did not grossly overshoot the allotted time either. I have a fairly fast writing speed, so I knew that time would not be an issue in the actual exam. If you feel that your writing speed is slow, do please practice writing the tests strictly within the time-limit. You can start with trying to write one-side of the page in 3.5 minutes. Then slowly increase the number of pages written, and then finally try and write a full-length paper in 3 hours.

Above, I have already written in detail about how I covered both GS and the current affairs for Mains, and how I made notes from the Mains perspective.

So here, I am going to stick to answer writing.

Do please remember the syllabus of every paper, and try to use terms from the syllabus in your answers.

First, I will elaborate about the GS 1, GS 2 and GS 3 papers. Here, I wrote all the answers in the introduction – body – conclusion format. And I wrote all the answers in the point format.

For introduction, I mostly defined, in my own words, whatever the most important term of the question was. Or I just rephrased the question statement in a simpler manner. If I knew any facts, statistics, judgement names, government schemes, committee names or constitution articles related to the question, I mentioned them in the introduction.

Examples from Mains 2019 – for the question on water stress, I quoted the NITI Aayog CWMI Report. For the question on the food grain distribution system, I mentioned the Shanta Prasad Committee. For the Attorney General question, I cited Article 76.

Many questions have one or two ‘keywords’. ‘Keyword’ here means the first or the last word of the question statement. In case of more than one sentence in the question statement, these can be the first or the last words of every individual sentence. Some examples of ‘keywords’ are ‘Explain’, ‘Elaborate’, ‘Discuss’. Vision has a document about how to frame answers depending on these ‘keywords’. The link for the same is – http://www.visionias.in/beta/sites/all/themes/momentum/files/Keywords.pdf

I did not really remember these distinctions. I think I mostly answered in a similar manner, irrespective of the ‘keyword’. However, it is a good idea to go through the document once to get an idea about how the answer may be framed differently based on the ‘keyword’.

A lot of questions have more than one part, so the body would consist of addressing each of these parts, with 3-4 points for every part. A careful reading of any question can tell us what these parts are. Usually they are the sets of the most important words of the question. If you remember English grammar we learnt in school, these parts are nothing but clauses of different types.

Examples from Mains 2019 –

GS 1 – Q. Examine the linkages between the nineteenth century’s ‘Indian Renaissance’ and the emergence of national identity.

Here, the parts to be addressed are – what was the nineteenth century’s ‘Indian Renaissance’, how the national identity emerged, and how the two were linked.

GS 1 – Q. How can the mountain ecosystem be restored from the negative impact of development initiatives and tourism?

Here, the parts to be addressed are – what is the mountain ecosystem, negative impact on it due to development initiatives, negative impact on it due to tourism, and how can the mountain ecosystem be restored from the negative impacts of both.

GS 1 – Q. How do ocean currents and water masses differ in their impacts on marine life and coastal environment? Give suitable examples.

Here, the parts to be addressed are – what are ocean currents, what are water masses, the impact of both on marine life, the impact of both on coastal environment, and how those impacts differ, along with examples.

GS 2 – Q. What are the methods used by the farmers’ organizations to influence the policy-makers in India and how effective are these methods?

Here, the parts to be addressed are – who are the policy-makers in India, why farmers’ organizations are trying to influence them, the methods used by them to influence the policy-makers, and the effectiveness of those methods with examples.

GS 2 – Q. Despite consistent experience of high growth, India still goes with the lowest indicators of human development. Examine the issues that make balanced and inclusive development elusive.

Here, the parts to be addressed are – how India has had consistent high growth, how India has low indicators of human development, what is balanced and inclusive development, and the issues that are making it elusive.

GS 2 – Q. ‘The long-sustained image of India as a leader of the oppressed and marginalized nations has disappeared on account of its new found role in the emerging global order.’ Elaborate.

You do not have to necessarily agree with the statement given. Here, the parts to be addressed are – India’s image as a leader of the oppressed and marginalized nations along with examples, what is the emerging global order, India’s new found role in it, how it may seem like India’s previous image has disappeared on account of her new role, and how that is not true, as India is successfully balancing both, her previous image and her new role.

GS 3 – Q. The banning of ‘Jamaat-e-Islami’ in Jammu and Kashmir brought into focus the role of over-ground workers (OGWs) in assisting terrorist organizations. Examine the role played by OGWs in assisting terrorist organizations in insurgency affected areas. Discuss measures to neutralize influence of OGWs.

Here, the parts to be addressed are – why was the ‘Jamaat-e-Islami’ banned, who are the OGWs, their role in assisting terrorist organizations along with examples, measures currently being taken to neutralize their influence, and other measures that can be taken for the same.

GS 3 – Q. The public expenditure management is a challenge to the Government of India in the context of budget making during the post-liberalization period. Clarify it.

Here, the parts to be addressed are – what is public expenditure management, what is the post-liberalization period, how has budget making changed in the post-liberalization period, why is public expenditure management a challenge in the context of budget making during the post-liberalization period, measures currently being taken to address these challenges, and other measures that can be taken for the same.

GS 3 – Q. Disaster preparedness is the first step in any disaster management process. Explain how hazard zonation mapping will help disaster mitigation in the case of landslides.

Here, the parts to be addressed are – what is disaster management process, what is disaster preparedness, what is hazard zonation mapping, what are landslides and what harm do they cause, and how hazard zonation mapping can help in disaster mitigation in case of landslides.

So, for every part, I wrote one line, explaining what that part is about, and then wrote some 3-4 points addressing that part in detail. This format of one sentence, then 3-4 points, then again one sentence, then again 3-4 points and so on, makes the answer visually better than simply writing the whole answer in only points or only paragraphs.

If the question does not seem to have any parts, you can divide the question into parts yourself. Some of the standard formats to do this are –

  • 5 Ws and 1 H – Who, What, When, Where, Why and How – not all of them may be applicable, so choose only those that are relevant to the question
  • past, present and possible future
  • positives, negatives and possible improvements
  • structural issues, functional issues and their solutions
  • short-term, medium-term and long-term view
  • PESTEL (political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal) issues
  • SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats)

Please do not force-fit any of these formats in your answer. Instead, depending on the question, see which one fits the best and use the same. You can also combine two or more of these formats. And even if the question already has parts, you can still use these formats to further write a more detailed answer. There is no standard way of deciding which format fits which questions the best, and only by experimenting while writing the Test Series can you get a fair idea about it.

Even in the body of the answer, wherever possible, try and quote facts, statistics, details of judgements, government schemes and their outcomes, committee recommendations, government reports and their recommendations, provisions of the constitution and other such data. Also use examples, both national and international, wherever possible. You can also quote from the Economic Survey, the Union Budget and NITI Aayog’s strategy documents, wherever relevant.

I have already shared the notes I had made from the Mains perspective. I had tried to include all such data in those notes.

Also, please do not show any ideological biases in your answers. Do not criticize any policy or initiative of the government. Write balanced arguments and always stick to the values enshrined in our Constitution.

Apart from the sources I have already mentioned above, some other material I found useful for value addition in the Mains answers were:

SDG Goals – Not just the 17 goals, but the sub-goals under each goal can also be quoted in some answers. The link for the same is – https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/21252030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development%20web.pdf

Summary of the NITI Aayog Case Studies and Best Practices by MK Yadav Sir

Topic-wise Keywords by MK Yadav Sir

IAS4Sure Value Added Material for Mains. The link for the same is – http://www.ias4sure.com/ias4sure-notes/download/

Also, I read the model answers of all the tests of the Vision Mains Test Series of the latest year. I also referred to the model answers of Forum FLTs and sectional tests on some selective areas like Geography, History and Ethics, again of the latest year. This ensured a good revision of the current affairs related topics, especially for areas like Polity and Economy.

Civils Daily and IAS Baba had come up with a list of the most important and probable topics for the Mains. I studied and revised all those topics properly from the Vision material.

I am not very good at making diagrams or flowcharts, so I made them in barely 5-6 questions across the four GS papers. If you are good at it, do please make them. However, avoid using flowcharts excessively and ensure that they are easily readable and understandable. MK Yadav Sir’s QEP PDFs had flowcharts of various formats, and you can go through them once to understand how to make flowcharts. You can experiment with the various formats while writing the Test Series, and then decide if you want to make them in the actual exam.

Also, do please practice these two – India Map and the World Map. If you have less content to write in some answer, you can fill the space using these maps to point out some location or phenomenon or other such things.

Conclusion should always be short and optimistic. Preferably, it should be restricted to just one sentence. Do not write any new point or start any new argument in the conclusion. Even if you are writing ‘way forward’ as part of the body of the answer, writing a one-line conclusion is necessary. You can just summarize the way forward in a single sentence and write it as the conclusion. If you are not writing ‘way forward’ as part of the body of the answer, your conclusion should be one or two sentences about the way forward.

Coming to GS 4, for Case Studies, the introduction should be a short explanation of what the case is about or why that particular case is important in the present context.

For the body, I already had a list of ethical or moral dilemmas ready, and wrote them in the answer, as per applicability. I explained how that dilemma applies in that particular case and how could it be resolved. Some of these dilemmas are:

  • Personal ethics v/s Professional ethics
  • Public interest v/s Private interest
  • Majority interest v/s Minority interest
  • Legally correct v/s Ethically correct
  • Duty v/s Conscience
  • Professional ethics v/s Following orders
  • Rule of Law v/s Discretion
  • Efficiency v/s Accountability

You can add more such dilemmas to the list.

In case studies where there are multiple possible courses of action, I used ethical theories. I applied different theories like the utilitarian approach, the deontological approach, Rawl’s theory of justice, virtue ethics, care ethics and other such approaches to suggest the alternatives. Mostly, I tried to suggest three possible alternatives, explained each one of them, stated their merits and de-merits, and then chose the best one. The best alternative was written only after the less desirable alternatives, and some explanation was also given as to why it was deemed as the best.

I also used some of the standard frameworks like the stakeholder approach and PESTEL, wherever applicable.

In stakeholder approach, the usual stakeholders are the individual, the administration, the political class and the society. However, depending on the case, there can be some other stakeholders as well. I first explained the interests of each stakeholder, and then I wrote about the impact that any action could have on each of them.

Another framework I used was to elaborate about the impact that any action could have on – an individual, the organization or the society and the nation as a whole.

Suggesting short-term, medium-term and long-term solutions can also be one way of addressing the case studies.

The most important point to keep in mind, when it comes to case studies, is that the solution being proposed should be practical. Do not suggest idealistic but impractical solutions. Also, the actions being recommended should be within the power of the actor – be it the DM or the SP or any other actor.

For the theory part of GS 4, for some questions I used the point format, and for some questions I used the paragraph format.

In the introduction I mostly defined the core value that the question was trying to ask. Or I just rephrased the question statement in a simpler manner.

In the body, I tried to use standard ethical jargon instead of explaining anything in layman’s terms. I also tried to give as many examples as possible. In GS 4, the examples can be national or international, from the real-world or from the realm of fiction, from your own experience or from someone else’s experience. Thus, the scope for examples is wider here.

There are some standard set of principles and ethical values as given by the 2nd ARC and the Nolan Committee, and I tried to mention them in both the case studies and the theory part. Even for questions from the Polity or Governance areas, I tried to give an ethics-related interpretation in the answer.

I also wrote about legal, constitutional and practical values wherever necessary. If relevant, I also mentioned facts, statistics, details of judgements, government schemes and their outcomes, committee recommendations, government reports and their recommendations, provisions of the constitution and other such data.

Conclusion, for both the case studies and the theory questions, was short and optimistic. Generally, I tried to reiterate the core value that the question was addressing.

Now coming to the actual day of the exam.

I used Add Gel Achiever Gel Pen (black ink). I personally felt that the replacement refills were not as good as the refill in the original pen. So, I preferred to use new pens instead of using replacement refills. Diagrams and flowcharts were also made using the same pen. And the underlining of some important points in the answers was also done with the same pen.

In all the four GS papers, I attempted all the questions, and thanks to big handwriting and good spacing, I also managed to fill all the pages. I am not sure if this translates into more marks, but filling all the pages does seem to give an impression that a lot of content has been written.

For GS 1, GS 2 and GS 3, in the beginning, I quickly read all the questions. I first answered all the 15 markers I knew well. Then I answered the first three questions of the paper, as those create the first impression about our knowledge. Then I answered all the 10 markers I knew well, and finally I answered the questions where ‘Mann Ki Baat’ had to be written.

For GS 4, in the beginning, I quickly read all the theory questions. I first answered all the case studies. Then I answered the first three theory questions, then I answered the theory questions I knew well, and finally I answered the remaining theory questions.

Do please try and answer all the questions. Even for questions you are not aware of, do try and write something, anything that might seem related to the question. Example – for the CyberDome question, we could have written general points related to cyber security.

Also, please carry Volini spray or any other similar product with you. You will need it for your writing hand.

And please read the instructions given by the UPSC, so that you do not lose any marks due to penalty. The link for the same is – https://www.upsc.gov.in/examination/common-mistakes-committed-candidates-conventional-papers

I have already shared my Notes and checked Test Papers on my Telegram Channel and my Google Drive.

My Approach to the Essay Paper

Essay is one paper for which I did not really prepare much. It is also the only paper where I had huge fluctuations in my Test Series marks. From less than 90 to more than 130, I covered the entire spectrum of marks in the Test Series I wrote for Essay. Hence, I did not have much expectations from this paper, and my target was to score about 115-120 marks in Essay, in the actual exam. Last year I had scored marks in the similar range and I just wanted to maintain the same this year too.

Vision’s Essay Enrichment Lectures by Smriti Shah Ma’am and Vision Handouts and VAMs for Essay were my base material for Essay preparation. Apart from techniques to write a good Essay, these also covered some of the important subject areas from which Essay topics may be framed by the UPSC. Thus, it provided good ready-made fodder for some of the important areas.

Apart from these, I also referred to the IAS4Sure material for Essay. It had good quotes, data and examples for some of the important subject areas. The link for the same is – http://www.ias4sure.com/wikiias/essay-notes/

Also, I had gone through all the topics asked in the latest Essay Test Series by Vision, Forum, Baliyan’s and Lukmaan, and had created rough frameworks for how I would have written those topics.

If possible, do please join an Essay Test Series. I found both Vision and Baliyan’s very good with regard to the topics and the evaluation. However, the most important thing is to work on the inputs and the suggestions received.

Our preparation for the other papers forms the knowledge base for writing an Essay. Essay is as much about this knowledge, as it is about the writing skills. Above, I have already written in detail about how I covered both GS and the current affairs.

Coming to Essay Writing, I am copy-pasting the little notes I had made on One Note, from what Smriti Ma’am had suggested. These are not much, but they may give a rough idea as to how to proceed with writing an Essay.

Here begin my notes:

Read the syllabus to understand what is expected from an Essay.

It should be multi-dimensional – historical, social, political, economic, cultural, legal, technological, psychological, environmental, ethical, humanist, local, national, international issues and prospects of the topic.

Interlinking of topics

Logical organization and coherence in writing

Lucid language and conceptual clarity

Passion in words

Qualities of a good Essay are:

  • Originality
  • Explanatory – explain every argument
  • Specific
  • Analytical – many ways of analysis, substantiate with facts and arguments
  • Completeness – give examples justifying your arguments, relate with current affairs
  • Concise
  • Cohesive
  • Relevant
  • There must be a link between the paragraphs
  • Signposted – relating to the topic
  • Should not be highly opinionated or biased
  • Can be critical, but do not criticize – the tone should not be negative

Clarity of expression is very important. Use simple English to express your point clearly. You need not use flowery language. Simple logical presentation is sufficient.

Trend Analysis of past papers gives the following broad subject areas from which the UPSC frames Essay topics – have quotes, anecdotes, data, examples ready for them:

  • Social Justice, Poverty
  • Women
  • Education
  • Children, Youth
  • Health
  • Political Issues
  • Components of Democracy like Federalism, Decentralization
  • Judiciary
  • Administration
  • Economy
  • Agriculture, Rural Development
  • Socio-Economic Issues
  • Indian Culture
  • Media, Television and Cinema
  • Environment, Sustainable Development
  • Globalization, Urbanization
  • Quote-based, Philosophical, Value-based
  • International Relations
  • Science and Technology
  • Defence
  • Energy Security
  • Current Events

Make sure that you have sufficient understanding and fodder to write, before choosing the topic.

Introduction, Body, Conclusion – all three parts are equally important.

How to write a good Introduction:

  • It should be a guide to what you intend to convey in the Essay
  • Introduce the topic
  • Premise should be the ‘theme’ of the Essay
  • Reflect of your ‘theme’
  • Why is the topic important
  • Explain the central idea, basic or core concepts, and definitional criteria
  • Use of quote – it is to be explained with reference to the Essay
  • Use of anecdote – newspapers can be used as a source for this
  • Posing question
  • Background based on which that topic has been asked
  • Paradox
  • Deconstructing of the topic
  • Arouse interest and generate curiosity
  • Can be around 1 page

How to write a good Body:

The Body of the Essay must develop, support and explain the main ideas stated in your Introduction. This essentially is a systematic organization of information based on a consistent methodology. It deals with the topic and the related issues to be addressed, the correlation of facts, figures, ideas, views, concepts; an in-depth, systematic, coherent analysis based on the topic leading to logical inferences; as well as making (if it is required) plausible projections and providing with (if necessary) viable solutions.

  • Pay attention to ‘keywords’ mentioned in the topic
  • Inform and persuade
  • After writing every paragraph, read the topic again to ensure that you are not moving off track
  • Temporal dimension – in phases, through time periods – at least one paragraph of history, if possible
  • Subheadings according to the UPSC syllabus
  • Concentric approach based on – individual, family, national-level and global-level
  • Prospect – Issues – Challenges
  • Role of and impact on institutions like family, religion, community, government, media, education system
  • Issue-based topics – background, examples, current status, future implications, government efforts, successful cases, challenges, suggestions
  • Smooth transitions
  • Can make diagrams, maps, pie-charts; can quote facts, reports, scholars but do not overdo
  • No repetition of points
  • Do not divert into areas which are irrelevant to the topic

How to write a good Conclusion:

As the Essay draws close to the finish, it should have reached the stage of ‘critical mass’, a sort of a climax. The Conclusion should express the essence of the Essay. It should not contain any fresh evidence, facts or figures.

  • Not just a summary
  • Cannot be only 1-2 sentences
  • Way forward, prospects
  • Assertive and problem-solving
  • Optimistic, visionary
  • Not to start new arguments
  • Penultimate and ultimate paragraphs
  • Can be around 1 page

Here finish my notes.

I more or less tried to stick to the above points while writing the Essay paper.

The Essays I wrote were – ‘Courage to accept and dedication to improve are two keys to success’ and ‘Neglect of primary health care and education in India are reasons for its backwardness’. These were the most commonly chosen topics this year.

There is a belief that writing on a topic which is chosen by a smaller number of students can result into more marks. I do not know how true this is. But this alone should not be the basis to decide which topic to select.

In the exam, I divided my time as follows – I created a rough framework of the first topic in 30 minutes, then I wrote that Essay in 1 hour, then I created a rough framework of the second topic in 30 minutes, and then I wrote that Essay in 1 hour.

I did not use any quotes or anecdotes or stories in both the Essays. I wrote very simple paragraphs and concluded on a positive note. In the first Essay, I tried to give as many examples as possible, and explained how the topic applied to each of those examples. My second Essay was very fact-heavy and I mentioned all the data, statistics, government schemes, reports, committee recommendations related to healthcare and education that I could remember.

I have already shared my Notes and checked Test Papers on my Telegram Channel and my Google Drive.

Selecting an Optional

The two papers of the Optional subject are perhaps the deciding factor when it comes to getting a Top Rank in the UPSC CSE. While the scope to maximize the score in the GS papers or even in the Essay paper is limited, Optional papers provide a wide opportunity to boost the Mains marks.

While I was working, I had started preparing for the UPSC CSE with Management as my Optional subject. I had chosen it, mainly due to familiarity, and the belief that it will take lesser time compared to a completely new Optional. Little did I know how wrong I was. After struggling for almost six months with it, I decided to look for a new Optional. I spent nearly three months evaluating different Optional subjects, and then finally chose Sociology. By then I had decided to leave my job, so studying a completely new Optional was not an issue anymore.

The biggest challenge with Management Optional was the crazily huge syllabus. Those of us who have studied in B-Schools with a trimester pattern know very well how ‘seriously’ we actually studied for some of the papers. And exactly some of those subject areas like HRM, OB and even MIS have a higher weightage in the UPSC CSE papers, as compared to Marketing or Strategy.

Also, there were barely any ready-made notes, either by past rank holders or by any good authors or institutes, available for it. I could devote only 3-4 hours to the exam preparation on weekdays. And even in that limited time, I had to spend a lot of time reading the various Management Textbooks and making notes from them. My GS as well as current affairs preparation lagged behind due to this.

Finally, in the recent years, some of the Optional subjects are seeing very high marks, while Management remains a slightly low-scoring subject. This is not to say that high marks are not possible in it. In UPSC CSE 2018, Rank 46, Deepak Kumar Dubey Sir, scored an excellent 307 marks (158 + 149) in Management. But I still think that the marks awarded in this Optional are not commensurate with the amount of efforts that one has to put in for it. In fact, I personally know two extremely talented and smart-working people, who are still in IRS, only and only because of their marks in the Management Optional.

However, the good thing about Management is that the syllabus is static, and questions do get repeated. If you are keen to choose Management as your Optional subject, I wish you the Best ! You can refer to Divya Mittal Ma’am’s Blog for the sources. I had referred to some of those sources only. The link for the same is – https://divya-mittal.blogspot.com/2014/01/management-optional-books.html

Now, coming to my evaluation of the various Optional subjects.

Some pointers that I had kept in mind while deciding the new Optional were – my general interest in that subject, the volume of the syllabus, the availability of good coaching guidance, notes and books, and the kind of marks that were being awarded in that subject. I personally think that overlap with the GS syllabus should not be taken as one of the criteria while selecting an Optional. However, if you think that it is important as well, do please check that too.

Also, please go through the syllabus of the Optional that you are interested in. Then go through the Question Papers, of at least the past five years, of that subject. And then, if NCERTs exist for that subject, do go through the Class 11 and Class 12 NCERTs, to get a very basic idea of what that subject is all about.

Do please check all of these before finalizing your Optional.

If your graduation or post-graduation subject ticks well on the above points, I would suggest choosing the same as your Optional.

If you are from a Tier 1 Engineering College, do please consider Engineering or Science Optionals. While they are syllabus-heavy and have no overlap with the GS papers, they also provide a huge scope for a high score. There have been many past rank holders with 325+ marks in such subjects, and you should at least refer to their strategies once, before completely discarding the idea of choosing a Science or an Engineering Optional.

If you are good with your regional language, Literature of your regional language can also be a good choice for the Optional subject. There have been some past rank holders with 320+ marks in such subjects. And from what I have heard, the syllabus for such subjects is quite limited and static, and questions often get repeated.

If none of the above work well for you, what remain are the popular humanities subjects, which are not very difficult, even for those with no previous background in them.

I had done an assessment of some of the Optional subjects, and this is what I had concluded from that exercise. Do please take it with a bowlful of salt.

Economics – I had gone through some of the notes shared by Gaurav Agrawal Sir. The link for the same is – https://thesupermanreturns.wordpress.com/2014/06/18/upscnotesgauravagrawal/. Paper 1 seemed a bit too technical, and hence I did not proceed further.

English Literature – The syllabus is pure love. I had already read some of the books mentioned in the syllabus. I had almost finalized this Optional, but a chat with an active member of the Forum IAS Community, who had the same Optional, changed my mind. It just seemed like too much work, at the end of which, you might actually start hating those very books, which you loved before preparing for this exam.

Public Administration – Did not consider this because of the whole negative perception surrounding it. It was ‘butchered’ in the past, though last year there were some rank holders with 300+ in this Optional.

Geography – Studying this even for GS was annoying for me, hence an absolute no. From what I have heard, the syllabus is huge, and it is not that high-scoring either.

History – The only issue with this subject is that, like Management, it is a slightly low-scoring Optional.

Psychology – I don’t even understand why this is considered a part of the humanities stream. Some parts of the syllabus are proper science, Medical Science to be precise.

Philosophy – A bit too abstract for my taste. And from what I have heard, it is not that high-scoring either.

And then I was left with these three:

Anthropology – It is called the sister branch of Sociology. Short and interesting syllabus, good marks, good coaching guidance, notes and books. However, the only issue for me was the part of the syllabus that is based on Biology. If you are comfortable with Biology as well, this can be a good choice for an Optional.

Political Science and International Relations – Like they say, memorizing Shubhra Ranjan Ma’am’s notes alone are enough to get at least 270 marks in this Optional. The IR part was a deal-breaker for me, because it is too current affairs oriented. Slightly huge syllabus, but I think it can be managed thanks to Shubhra Ma’am. And there are a lot of past rank holders with 300+ in this Optional.

Sociology – Obviously the most interesting syllabus, because we all are part of the society. However, unlike PSIR, there is no one amazing Teacher available for this Optional. Hence, no matter which Coaching Institute you join, you will have to refer to multiple notes and books. Paper 2 is very dynamic, but with some practice and knowing how to write ‘sociologically’, it is quite manageable. Marks awarded in this Optional have been good too. I will write in detail for Sociology. However, in short, if you are planning to join offline classes, I would suggest Upendra Gaur Sir. Not sure if Sir plans to start online classes, but if he does, that would be really helpful. Else, for the online mode, you can consider joining Shankar IAS (Rajitha Shivashankar Ma’am).

Below, I have written a detailed review of the Coaching Institute as well as the three Test Series that I had joined for Sociology.

Finally, Optional is a very personal choice. No matter what you hear from me or from others, do please use your own discretion while choosing an Optional. Also, if you have a legitimate reason to change your Optional, please do not shy away from the same, just because you have invested a lot of time and efforts in studying it. Avoid being unnecessarily possessive or emotional about your Optional. However, an Optional should be changed only if you are confident of at least 485 marks in Essay + GS. Else, studying a new Optional and refining the GS preparation as well, would be too cumbersome. And once you have finalized your Optional, do not forget to go through the strategies of some of the past rank holders from that subject.

My Booklist, Strategy and Approach to Answer Writing for the Sociology Optional

Sociology ! While the marks are yet to come, I am very sure that it is Sociology that has played the biggest role in me getting this rank. I had scored around 270 marks in Sociology last year. And that too, after poorly written 20 markers on non-positivistic methodology and Mills in Paper 1, and mention of very few thinkers in Paper 2. After the Mains last year, I had spent almost three months studying only Sociology. I completed whatever topics I had not been able to cover properly, did value addition to whatever notes I had already made, and also wrote six tests of the Vision Test Series. Hence, I had everything ready, and after the Prelims this year, I just had to read and revise the same several times.

Coming to the beginning, before finalizing Sociology as my Optional, I had gone through its Syllabus and the Question Papers of the past ten years. These two activities provided a rough idea of what to focus on while studying.

I first read the two Class 11 NCERTs – Introducing Sociology and Understanding Society, and the two Class 12 NCERTs – Indian Society and Social Change and Development in India once, and highlighted the important points in them. Later, I added only these highlighted points to my notes.

Then I once read the entire ESO 13 and MSO 04 Blocks of IGNOU Sociology. This was just a quick basic reading and I did not highlight any points or make any notes from this first reading.

Then I started selectively reading Sociology – Themes and Perspectives by Haralambos and Holborn. This book is also known as the ‘Blue Haralambos’. The book only looks huge, but it is actually written in a very simple language. In the first reading, I only highlighted the important points. And in the second reading, I made notes from this book. These notes were my base material for Paper 1.

Following are the page numbers that I read from the Blue Haralambos (8th Edition):

  • Introduction: sociological perspectives – full
  • Chapter 1: Stratification, class and inequality – pages 21-24, 30-34, 47-56, 80-82, 87-93
  • Chapter 2: Sex and gender – pages 95-101, 104-121, 130-138
  • Chapter 3: ‘Race’, ethnicity and nationality – pages 155-160, 174-187, 193-197, 206-210
  • Chapter 4: Poverty, social exclusion and the welfare state – pages 231-236, 246-247, 259-264, 269-276
  • Chapter 6: Crime and deviance – pages 347-352, 361-367
  • Chapter 7: Religion – pages 431-437, 444-462, 473-475, 487-488, 491-499, 504-507
  • Chapter 8: Families, households and personal life – pages 509-525, 544-545, 566-569
  • Chapter 9: Power, politics and the state – pages 579-590, 593-603, 608-620
  • Chapter 10: Education – pages 663-671, 702-704
  • Chapter 14: Methodology – full
  • Chapter 15: Sociological theory – pages 953-998, 1013-1015

Here, I would suggest first reading the Introduction, then the selected pages from Chapter 15, then the entire Chapter 14, and then the remaining Chapters.

Once the notes-making from the Blue Haralambos was done, I did one reading of Fundamentals of Sociology by Vikash Ranjan Sir (5th Edition). From this book, I read all the Chapters except Chapter 4 (Sociological Thinkers). The language of the book is very simple, and I made notes in this first reading itself. This book is helpful for Chapters 6, 9 and 10, which are not covered much in the Blue Haralambos. And it also helped in adding some more content and Thinkers for the remaining Chapters.

Once I had my notes ready from the above two books, I read the Class Notebooks of Upendra Gaur Sir. These had been written by a friend’s friend, from Sir’s batch for Mains 2016. They were very good and covered most of the topics of Paper 1. Even some topics of Paper 2 had been covered in them, but I did not read those. I have not read Sir’s written notes that are available on Telegram, so I cannot comment on their quality. I did not make any notes from these Notebooks, as they were anyways written in the notes-format only.

Then I again read the entire ESO 13 Block of IGNOU Sociology. I did not make any notes from them, and instead only highlighted the important points.

I did not read Ritzer because Upendra Sir’s Class Notebooks covered Chapter 4 (Sociological Thinkers) in great detail. Plus, even my notes from the Blue Haralambos had covered Marx, Durkheim and Weber quite well. And the remaining gaps had been filled by ESO 13.

I started with Paper 2 only after completing all the above actions.

For Paper 2, I first read Applied Sociology – Indian Society: Structure and Change by Vikash Ranjan Sir (5th Edition). The language of the book is very simple, and I made notes in this first reading itself. For topics that were too huge to make notes, I just noted down the page numbers from this book, and then read only those pages multiple times.

Then, I read Mohapatra Sir’s Class Notebooks which I had ordered from Pankaj Copiers. These were seven Notebooks from Sir’s batch that had started in December 2016. And they were excellent. I had initially planned to read only Paper 2 from these Notebooks. But once I started reading them, I realized that, for many topics, Sir had covered Paper 1 and Paper 2 in an integrated manner. Hence, I read everything except the two Notebooks that covered Chapter 4 (Sociological Thinkers) of Paper 1. I made notes in the first reading itself. For topics that were too huge to make notes, I just noted down the page numbers from the Notebooks, and then read only those pages multiple times. I also added to my Paper 1 notes from these Notebooks. I have not read Sir’s written notes that are available on Telegram, so I cannot comment on their quality.

Then, I once read the Vision Test Series Model Answers for Paper 2, from the years 2014 to 2017. I added any new content or Thinkers that I could find in them, to my notes.

Then I quickly read the entire MSO 04 Block of IGNOU Sociology again, and added any new content or Thinkers that I could find in it, to my notes.

And then I read Tusharanshu Sharma Sir’s notes for Paper 2. I did not make any notes from them, and instead only highlighted the important points.

Most of the above was done from June 2017 to January 2018, alongside the GS preparation. Then from February, I had started focusing more on the Prelims, and did not study much for Sociology.

After the 2018 Prelims:

  • My own notes, Upendra Gaur Sir’s Class Notebooks and the highlighted points from ESO 13 were what I read and revised several times for Paper 1 and
  • My own notes and highlighted points from Tusharanshu Sharma Sir’s notes were what I read and revised several times for Paper 2

Also, for some topics in both the Papers, I referred to my own Class Notebook.

Along with all these, I also wrote the Test Series.

This is all that I had done for Mains 2018.

I had joined the online combined Lectures and Test Series Course for Sociology by Praveen Kishore Sir. I have already written a detailed review of it below.

Unlike PSIR, there is no one amazing Teacher available for Sociology. Hence, no matter which Coaching Institute you join, you will have to refer to multiple notes and books. However, honest advice – if you are planning to join offline classes, I would suggest Upendra Gaur Sir. Not sure if Sir plans to start online classes, but if he does, that would be really helpful. Else, for the online mode, you can consider joining Shankar IAS (Rajitha Shivashankar Ma’am).

If possible, do please join a Test Series, preferably after you finish at least one reading of the entire portion. Do try to finish at least some tests before the Prelims, and then after Prelims you can write the remaining tests. I found all three – Praveen Kishore Sir, Vision and Shankar very good with regard to the quality of questions and evaluation. However, the most important thing is to work on the inputs and the suggestions received.

The day Mains 2018 got over, I was sure of narrowly missing or narrowly clearing the cutoff (when the result came, it was the former). So, after taking some days off, I geared up for the 2019 attempt.

As stated in the beginning, now I spent almost three months studying only Sociology. Here I will elaborate what I did in those three months.

First, I quickly read my own notes again.

Then, I read Essential Sociology by Nitin Sangwan Sir. The language of the book is very simple, and in this first reading itself, I added any new content or Thinkers that I could find in it, to my notes.

Then I quickly did some very selective reading of those IGNOU Blocks which I had not read before. This is what I read:

Paper 1 – https://reliableandvalid.com/2017/07/22/upsc-sociology-paper-1-ignou-topic-wise-notes/

Paper 2 – https://reliableandvalid.com/2016/06/05/upsc-sociology-paper-2-ignou-topic-wise-notes/

The language of IGNOU is very simple, and in this first reading itself, I added any new content or Thinkers that I could find in it, to my notes.

Then I read Tusharanshu Sharma Sir’s notes for Paper 1. In this first reading itself, I added any new content or Thinkers that I could find in them, to my notes.

And then I went through all the past rank holders’ Sociology Test Series Papers that I could find. You can download them from:

Vision – http://www.visionias.in/resources/toppers_answers.php

Lukmaan – here I went through the papers of both, the past rank holders, as well as the Test Series toppers – https://lukmaanias.com/topper-best-copy/ and https://lukmaanias.com/current-series-best-copy/

Triumph – https://www.triumphias.com/pages-toppers-answer-sheet.php

GS Score – https://iasscore.in/toppers-copy

I added any new content or Thinkers that I could find in these papers, to my notes.

For some very few topics of Paper 2, where I still felt that I did not have enough content, I referred to the printed notes of Praveen Kishore Sir. In this first reading itself, I added any new content or Thinkers that I could find in them, to my notes.

Once all this was done, I wrote the Vision Test Series. My marks and the feedback that I got showed that I was most certainly on the way to 300+ marks in Sociology.

Then, after the 2019 Prelims:

  • My own notes, Upendra Gaur Sir’s Class Notebooks and the highlighted points from ESO 13 were what I read and revised several times for Paper 1 and
  • My own notes and highlighted points from Tusharanshu Sharma Sir’s notes were what I read and revised several times for Paper 2

Also, for some topics in both the Papers, I referred to my own Class Notebook.

While this is same as what I had done for Mains 2018, my own notes were much more detailed by now.

Some additional things that I read once, just before Mains 2019, were:

Sociology Value Added Notes by IAS Baba

Triumph IAS Compilation of Sociological Articles from EPW, Yojana and Kurukshetra – https://www.triumphias.com/pages-epw-yojana-kurushetra.php

Some of the current affairs related articles shared on the Website – https://reliableandvalid.com/. They also have a paid programme, which I had not joined, so I cannot comment on it. But the free content available on this Website was good too.

These three sources gave some very good examples and case studies from the current affairs, especially for Paper 2.

And I also wrote the Shankar IAS Test Series.

Besides all these, my Class Notebook from the Society and Social Justice Lectures by Smriti Shah Ma’am, and the Vision VAMs for Society and Social Justice were also useful for the Sociology Optional preparation. Also, from my ‘The Hindu’ reading, I had tried to make a list of examples and case studies that could be used in Sociology, especially in Paper 2.

Now coming to Answer Writing.

First, please ensure that, in your notes, you have content of at least 400 words, for every topic that has been mentioned in the Syllabus. All the sources I have mentioned above are almost enough for this. For Chapter 4 (Sociological Thinkers) of Paper 1, apart from the concept given by the Thinkers and its criticism, also have content ready on the current relevance and current examples of those concepts. And if possible, also have content ready on the current relevance and current examples of concepts given by Thinkers from the other Chapters, of both Paper 1 and Paper 2, as well.

Also, please have content ready for everything that has been asked in the Question Papers of at least the past ten years (except for those topics which are no more a part of the Syllabus). For very few questions, whose answer content I did not have in my notes, I referred to the solved previous years’ Sociology papers by Chronicle Publications. The answers in this book are not that good, and hence please use it minimally.

As mentioned above, in these two attempts, I wrote three different Test Series for Sociology. The feedback I got for my answers was very helpful, and I worked on whatever improvements they suggested. If possible, do please join a Test Series, preferably after you finish your own notes-making. However, the most important thing is to work on the inputs and the suggestions received.

The key to good marks in Sociology is to write the answers ‘sociologically’.

Firstly, try and quote as many Thinkers as possible. My target was to quote at least four Thinkers in a 20 marker, and at least two Thinkers in a 10 marker. But please quote only those Thinkers which are relevant to the question that has been asked.

If Thinkers are not available, especially in Paper 2, wherever possible, try and quote facts, statistics, government schemes and their outcomes, government reports and their recommendations, committee recommendations, details of judgements and other such data. The Social Issues Vision Mains 365 document, and the Government Schemes Vision PT 365 document, are what I referred to, for this type of data.

You can also use examples and case studies from the current affairs, wherever possible, in both Paper 1 as well as Paper 2. For these, besides my own notes from the newspaper, I referred to the three sources already mentioned above.

Make Paper 1 your strength because it is largely static, questions do get repeated, and there are enough Thinkers available for almost all the topics.

You can quote some Paper 1 Thinkers in Paper 2 as well, but please do not overdo it. Likewise, Indian Thinkers from Paper 2 can be quoted in Paper 1 too, but again sparingly.

In the exam, try and select those questions which are based on the static portion, so that you already have enough content and Thinkers to write.

For static questions, generally this standard framework fits really well:

  • Explaining the sociological concept, its criticism, its current relevance and current examples or case studies related to that concept.

Even for questions that are based on the current affairs, or questions that seem to be from the GS, make your answer ‘Sociological’. This is what you need to do for it:

  • First remember every topic mentioned in the Syllabus. Then, for the given question, analyze how the core issue that the question is asking, has an impact on, or is impacted by, the different topics of the Syllabus.

or

  • Analyze how the core issue that the question is asking, is interpreted as per some of the theories like the Structural-Functional Theory, the Conflict Theory, the Feminist Theory, the Symbolic Interactionist Theory.

These three frameworks can be used together as well, especially for the 20 markers.

Let me explain this with examples from Mains 2019 –

In both Paper 1 and Paper 2, apart from the compulsory Q1. and Q5., I attempted Q4., Q6. and Q8.

Paper 1 – Q. Discuss the issues of access and exclusion in higher education in India.

This seems like a question from Paper 2, but it was asked in Paper 1. So quickly recall the Syllabus topics of Paper 1. Some topics that fit in here are:

Alienation – the curriculum is based on middle-class values and is alienating for students from the other classes. Also, many courses are not available in regional languages, again causing alienation.

Suicide – discrimination in higher education institutions led to suicides by Rohith Vemula and Dr. Payal Tadvi.

Pattern Variables – education system is part of the AGIL framework.

Deviance – due to lack of access to higher education, some students may become deviant.

Social exclusion, poverty, class – lower participation of poor, Dalits, Tribals and Minorities in higher education.

Gender – lower participation of women in STEM courses.

Social mobility – higher education can be a source of social mobility. Lack of it perpetuates poverty.

Informal organizations – they see a large participation of those who could not access or were excluded from higher education.

Power elite – they use entrance exams or other such criteria to restrict the access to higher education for the masses. Also, increasing privatization of higher education.

Religion – students who have completed basic education from the Madarsas, may face difficulty in accessing higher education.

Education and social change – without an inclusive and accessible system of higher education, social change is not possible.

You can similarly think of points related to some other topics of the Syllabus. Not all the points are equally important, and the more important points should be written in the beginning. If required, points can also be written from the Syllabus topics of Paper 2.

Migration – migration towards urban areas is seen due to lack of access to higher education in the rural areas.

Social Movements – student movements arising from higher education institutes have played an important role in India.

Some data that can be quoted here are the Sukhadeo Thorat Committee, Xaxa Committee and the Ranganath Misra Commission.

Paper 1 – Q. What is affirmative action? Substantiate theoretical positions on affirmative actions with examples.

Affirmative action is a form of sponsored mobility as stated by RH Turner.

Here we need to analyze affirmative action as per some of the Sociological theories.

Structural-functionalism – affirmative action provides opportunities to the various deprived sections of the society. This helps avoid protests or a revolution, thus maintaining social equilibrium. Example – once the EWS reservation was announced, a dominant caste stopped the protests demanding reservation for their community.

Conflict – affirmative action only provides mobility to a limited number of people. Thus, it is like a safety valve used by the bourgeoisie. Due to some successful examples, it perpetuates the false belief that the system is an open system. It thus prevents true class consciousness from emerging. Example – rags-to-riches stories are over glorified using the ideological state apparatus, to give the proletariat a false hope that anyone can achieve the same.

Feminist – affirmative action only gives token representation to women. The true power is still wielded by men, and structural inequality remains. Example – Sarpanch pati.

Some data that can be quoted here are the Indra Sawhney judgement, the M. Nagaraj judgement and the Sinho Commission.

For additional points, quickly recall the Syllabus topics of Paper 1 and write on the topics that fit in here.

Paper 2 – Q. Highlight the main features of the ‘Inter-linking of Rivers’ project in India. What could be its probable advantages to Indian agriculture.

This was a 20 marker, and the points we know from GS can barely fill two pages. Thus, recalling the Syllabus topics of Paper 2, some topics that fit in here are:

Land tenure system – can lead to a rise in capitalistic farming and bullock cart capitalists, as land hitherto unutilized due to lack of water, can also be brought under cultivation.

Tribal communities – may lead to their displacement, alienation, loss of tribal way of life, ecological imperialism.

Agrarian class, caste system – large farmers, most of whom are from the dominant castes, are more likely to benefit.

Middle class, social mobility – farmers benefiting from assured water availability will rise to the middle class. Also, tourism, logistics and other such activities that will see a boost due to the inter-linking of rivers, will see a class of small entrepreneurs or petty bourgeoisie rising.

Family and marriage – case study on ‘water wives’.

Religious communities – religious ceremonies, which were performed in the river or on the river banks, may face difficulty if the course of the river is diverted.

Rural development, poverty alleviation – self-explanatory.

Regionalism – inter-linking of rivers is a long duration project, and if the state governments change, issues may arise. Past example of the Cauvery water dispute.

Peasants and farmers movements – may decline.

Environmental movements – may rise.

Migration – migration towards urban areas may decline as opportunities may come up even in small towns and rural areas.

Environmental problems and sustainability – climate change in the future may raise a question on the feasibility of this project.

Also, using the Sociological theories:

Structural-functionalism – the project will contribute to maintenance of social equilibrium. This is because agriculture may become more remunerative and other employment opportunities may also rise, thus preventing any protests or a revolution.

Conflict – it will only perpetuate false class consciousness. All the benefits will be garnered by the influential land-owning class and the urban bourgeoisie. Also, it takes away the attention from the other structural issues like declining soil fertility, over-use of fertilizers and pesticides, poor skill training opportunities, lack of access to capital.

Please do not force-fit any points. Not all Syllabus topics or Sociological theories may apply to a particular question. Also, not all the points are equally important, and the more important points should be written in the beginning, and in case of space or time crunch, you can skip writing the less important points.

If needed, these standard frameworks from GS can also be used. But please use them sparingly, and that too only and only if the above three frameworks do not seem to work.

  • 5 Ws and 1 H – Who, What, When, Where, Why and How – not all of them may be applicable, so choose only those that are relevant to the question
  • past, present and possible future
  • positives, negatives and possible improvements
  • structural issues, functional issues and their solutions
  • short-term, medium-term and long-term view
  • PESTEL (political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal) issues
  • SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats)

Even for Sociology, I wrote all the answers in the Introduction – Body – Conclusion format. And I wrote all the answers in the point format. Many prefer using the paragraph format while writing the answers in the Optional papers. So please choose whichever method suits you the best.

In the Introduction, I mostly defined, using some Thinker, whatever the most important term of the question was. Or I just rephrased the question statement in a simpler manner.

The Body of the answer consisted of addressing each part of the question. For every part, I wrote one line, explaining what that part is about, and then wrote some 3-4 points addressing that part in detail. This format of one sentence, then 3-4 points, then again one sentence, then again 3-4 points and so on, makes the answer visually better than simply writing the whole answer in only points or only paragraphs.

If the question did not seem to have any parts, I divided the question into parts using either the Sociological frameworks or some of the GS frameworks that I have already mentioned above.

Please do not force-fit any of these formats in your answer. Instead, depending on the question, see which one fits the best and use the same. You can also combine two or more of these formats. And even if the question already has parts, you can still use these formats to further write a more detailed answer. There is no standard way of deciding which format fits which questions the best, and only by experimenting while writing the Test Series can you get a fair idea about it. But do please remember to add as much flavour of Sociology as possible, in whatever you write.

And I wrote a short and optimistic Conclusion, restricted to two or three sentences only. It was mostly related to the ‘way forward’ regarding the most important term of the question.

In the exam, in the beginning, I quickly read all the questions and selected which sets of questions I would be attempting. I tried to select those question sets where I knew the 20 markers really well. And as far as possible, I tried to select those questions which were based on the static portion. In the first 90 minutes, I answered all the 20 markers, and in the next 90 minutes, I answered all the 10 markers.

Thanks to big handwriting and good spacing, I also managed to fill all the pages. I even filled all the four pages for all the 20 markers. I am not sure if this translates into more marks, but filling all the pages does seem to give an impression that a lot of content has been written.

I have already shared my Sociology Own Notes, Sociology Class Notebook and checked Sociology Test Papers on my Telegram Channel and my Google Drive.

How I Prepared for the Personality Test

I have written a detailed transcript of my Personality Test, which you can read here.

This is a post I was very reluctant to write. Honestly, of the three stages of the UPSC CSE, I was least serious and least prepared for the Personality Test. This is an extremely risky attitude, and I do not recommend this to anyone.

I was slightly over-confident after the Mains, and believed that, unless a major screwup happened in the Personality Test, a Top-50 Rank was very much within my reach. Also, from my experience of the Campus Placement Interviews in my B-School, I was quite confident of my interview skills as well. If the result had not been what it is, it is this over-confidence and nonchalance that would have sunk me.

So please, irrespective of how excellent your Mains papers go, or how many corporate interviews you have aced, do not take the Personality Test lightly.

For the Personality Test, I had not joined any Classes, nor did I attend any DAF related Sessions. I did not even give any Mock Interviews. Hence, I absolutely have no parameter to judge whether my approach was correct or not. So please take this post with a bowlful of salt.

Coming to the PT preparation, after the Mains, I took a break of about one month, in which I studied nothing, not even the newspaper. Watching Bigg Boss and reading Telegram bakar were the only ‘productive’ activities I did.

Then, from November, I again started studying Current Affairs. I have already written a detailed post above, about how I covered Current Affairs. To state in short, I started reading ‘The Hindu’, listening to the AIR News and watching some shows on the Rajya Sabha TV YouTube Channel. And I also started reading the Vision Monthly Magazine and Insights Secure for GS 1, GS 2 and GS 3.

From December onwards, I also started reading ‘The Indian Express’ and ‘Mint’. I personally think that, about two months before the Personality Test, one should start reading at least two newspapers.

In December, I also read my Sociology Notes, twice.

The Mains result was delayed this year, so it was only in January that I finally started reading the previous years’ Personality Test Transcripts. Ideally, this should have been started in December itself. You can find the Transcripts on the Telegram Channel – https://t.me/PTT2019. I mentally framed answers to most of the questions that I read in the Transcripts. And I also noted down some specific questions, that had been asked, to those, who had a profile similar to mine. For only these questions, I wrote the answers in my One Note Notebook, so that I could refine and revise them later.

After the Mains results were declared and the PT dates were notified, we filled the DAF – Part II. So, it was only in February that I started making notes for questions that could be asked from my DAF.

Regarding the DAF, I had not consulted anyone before filling it, so my approach may not be correct, but writing it nonetheless. I had good points to write in Prizes, Medals and Scholarships and also in Position of Leadership, so I wrote these two sections well. I had nothing to write in Sports, so I left that section blank.

And for the hobby section, I did not ‘create’ any hobbies, but wrote the four that I genuinely like – Teaching, Watching TV Shows, Creative Writing and Skipping. Apart from Teaching, none of my hobbies are ‘smart’ or ‘bureaucrat-sy’.

While I was asked questions only on Teaching, and was not asked questions on the remaining three hobbies, I had planned to answer them honestly like:

Q. What TV Shows do you watch?

Now I watch only Bigg Boss, and some shows I had watched before starting the UPSC CSE preparation were Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Modern Family, House of Cards.. etc etc..

Q. What did you learn from Bigg Boss?

How to fight for what I believe is correct, how to take a stand for myself and for the people I care about. Would have elaborated with examples. Similar answers for other shows.

Q. What do you write?

Fan fiction, mainly love stories, shipping some couple from the TV Shows I watch. Would have spoken in detail about one or two stories.

Q. What did you learn from writing these stories?

Complexity of human emotions, empathy. Would have elaborated with examples.

Skipping, does sound slightly silly, but it is the closest that I have come to playing any ‘sport’. So, I would have talked about its health benefits.

The point I am trying to make is, it is okay if you do not have smart sounding hobbies. Do not ‘create’ a hobby just because it would look good in your DAF. Hobbies are meant for having fun, so I think even answers like the ones I had planned to give, would not have been looked down upon, as long as I could have justified them with enough examples and full confidence.

I had seen a suggestion on Telegram that if you do not have any hobbies, watch some Documentaries or TED Talks or read some ‘Motivational Books’ and write these as hobbies. Personally, I think watching Bigg Boss is more fun than TED Talks, but if you have paucity of time and want to ‘create’ hobbies, these three are good ideas.

Coming back to my DAF preparation, I made notes for questions that could be asked from every single word written in my DAF. By every single word, I mean Every. Single. Word. I prepared content of at least 3-minutes’ length on every word written in my DAF. The previous years’ Personality Test Transcripts provided a good idea of what type of questions get asked, so please read them before you begin preparing notes for your DAF.

Some study material that I found useful for the PT preparation was – Vision’s Interview Current Affairs Issues that they had uploaded on their Website, State Guides for Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh by Next IAS and Dhyeya IAS, Dhyeya IAS Current Affairs Snippet for Interview (all the Dhyeya IAS material had been uploaded on their Website) and Major Issues and Practice Questions that GS Score had posted on their Website.

I also watched mock interviews of some of the past rank holders on the Drishti IAS and Rau’s IAS YouTube Channels.

I consciously avoided reading any ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’ or Interview Guidance Handbook type of material because I did not want them to influence my way of answering or my body language.

My PT was scheduled for March-end, and by March-mid, I had completed all the above activities. I was fairly confident of my preparation related to both, my DAF and the Current Affairs. Then came the virus.

I immediately got into a vacation-mode, and even stopped reading Current Affairs. Though I did add a lot of content to my hobby of Watching TV Shows by watching DD’s Ramayan, DD’s Mahabharat, Star Plus Mahabharat, Devon ke Dev Mahadev, Ertugrul Ghazi and I also developed a new hobby of Watching Web Series by binging on Sacred Games, Mirzapur, The Family Man, Asur, Special Ops, Paatal Lok. I may have missed out some TV Shows and Web Series, but you get the drift, right?!

Finally, it was almost June-end when the new PT dates were notified. My PT was on 20 July, the first day itself, so I had less than a month to again prepare for it. I quickly went through ‘The Hindu’, ‘The Indian Express’ and ‘Mint’ starting from June 1 onwards. And I read and revised all the DAF-based notes I had made in March. Honestly, now I was far less confident of my preparation related to both, my DAF and the Current Affairs, as compared to March. But the PT panel did not know that !

The qualities being tested in the Personality Test are mentioned in the UPSC CSE Syllabus. Do please go through them once. Overall, I think one just needs to present oneself as a decent human being with fair amount of knowledge and confidence. Personally, I think answering confidently, with a smile, is half work done. And the remaining work would be done based on your answers. How you answer, and what you answer, both matter is what I believe.

As seen above, my PT preparation was quite haphazard, so I really do not know what more to advice when it comes to the Personality Test.

My Experience with the Coaching Institutes

These are the various Courses and Test Series that I had joined:

All the following were in Online Mode. Most of the Lectures were watched at a faster speed.

Before joining these classes, I had once read the History (old), Geography and Sociology NCERTs, Indian Polity by M Laxmikanth and India’s Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra, but had not made any notes. I had also once read the Vision VAM on World History, Economy and Society, without making any notes. And I had also once read the entire ESO 13 and MSO 04 Blocks of IGNOU Sociology, again without making any notes.

2018 – Vision IAS Foundation Course (Prelims + Mains) – Excellent course. The notes I made from the Lectures were my base for all static topics. The Schedule keeps you on your toes, with regular Assignments, Mini Prelims, Mini Mains apart from the Prelims Test Series and Mains Test Series. Just studying for and completing all the Tests itself is enough to cover the GS Syllabus multiple times. Answer Writing improves in a systematic manner, with Assignments having easiest questions, Mini Mains a level higher and Mains Test Series having UPSC level questions. Checking was very good. I know many feel that there is no correlation between Vision marks and actual marks, but I feel my GS marks are going to be similar to Vision ones only. Essay Enrichment and Test Discussion and Ethics Enrichment + Case Studies Lectures were also very helpful. I have not seen any GS Test Discussions or PT 365 or Mains 365 Lectures so cannot comment on them. GS Model Test Answers were also very good. Model Answers were not provided for Essay Tests, but the VAM given was good. While all Teachers were good, I would like to make special mention of Ashish Kumar Sir (Polity), Smriti Shah Ma’am (Society + Essay), Prateek Gupta Sir (Economy) and Neeraj Rao Sir (Art and Culture + Ancient and Medieval History). And needless to say, the Monthly Magazines, PT and Mains 365 Material as well as the VAMs are top notch. Classroom Handouts and PPTs that some Teachers shared were also good. Never called any Teacher, but asked doubts in their Lecture Chat Box, and they were promptly answered. From 2019, this Foundation Course also includes Current Affairs Classes, which we did not have, so cannot comment on them. Did not read the Printed Notes they had sent, so cannot comment on them, but I think they are mostly similar to the standard NCERTS and Textbooks.

2018 – Lukmaan IAS Ethics Course – While Ethics was covered in Vision as well, I felt this was one Paper where I could score high and hence joined Lukmaan too. Ansari Sir teaches really well and both Theory and Case Studies were covered in a good manner. I have not even read Lexicon or any other Textbooks for Ethics and depended solely on Lecture Notes of both Vision and Lukmaan, Vision VAMs, Lukmaan Workbooks and various Test Series Model Answers. Never called Sir, so cannot comment on Teacher support. Someone else wrote the Tests that came with this Course, so I cannot comment on the Test Series.

2018 – Sociology Optional – Praveen Kishore Sir Lectures + Test Series (Nice IAS on Neostencil) – Whatever Sir teaches, he teaches well. But there are many topics that he does not teach. He took a total of 71 Lectures for our batch, while the Mohapatra Sir Class Notes that I had ordered from Pankaj Copiers had ~120 Lectures. While quantity is not necessarily representative of topic coverage, but Sociology isn’t that small an Optional to be covered in 71 Lectures either. Say for a particular topic, if PK Sir had discussed 2 Thinkers, Mohapatra Sir had discussed 3 or 4 Thinkers. I focussed on quoting as many Thinkers as possible for every answer, so a few more Lectures by PK Sir could have covered this additional content. Test Series had good questions and checking was good too. This Combined Course does not have separate Test Series Discussions, that is held only for their Test Series (which has now been rebranded as Test Series + Crash Course). Nonetheless, most of the Test Series questions were covered in some or the other Lectures. Never called Sir, so cannot comment on Teacher support. Sir does not provide Model Test Answers for the Test Series. Printed Notes have too much content (Total 11 Books), and I read only some selected topics in Paper 2, and whatever I read was good. I later learnt that Shankar IAS also offers Online Sociology Lectures (by Rajitha Shivashankar Ma'am). Honestly, had I known about it before, I probably would have joined it instead, and then would have joined PK Sir's Test Series only. This in no way means that his Full Course was not good, but we all know he is more famous for Test Series.

2018 – Vision IAS Sociology Test Series – While this was of 2018, I actually joined it after 2018 Mains as I was sure of narrowly missing or narrowly clearing the Mains cutoff, thus making the 2019 attempt inevitable. Again very good questions and checking. Special mention of Smriti Shah Ma’am’s Test Series Discussions which were like a Quick Revision Module. Never called Ma’am, so cannot comment on Teacher support. And the Model Test Answers were excellent.

2019 – Forum IAS MGP – 8 FLTs after Prelims. I joined this only because I had written so many Tests for Vision, that I could almost predict my Test Marks. Good questions and good checking too. Never tried calling the Mentor, so cannot comment on it. I have not seen any Test Discussion videos, so cannot comment on them. The Model Test Answers were very good.

2019 – Shankar IAS Sociology Test Series – Yes, Shankar provides Online Test Series as well as Online Sociology Optional Lectures (by Rajitha Shivashankar Ma’am). I learnt about it only after the 2019 Prelims. Good questions, good checking and special mention of Rajitha Ma’am’s Revision Classes + Test Series Discussions, which like Smriti Ma’am’s, were like a Quick Revision Module. This was the only Institute where the Mentor had himself called to discuss the Test Paper. He had said I’ll get 300+ and maybe they tell this to every student, but nonetheless, it was good to hear. The Model Test Answers are in form of key pointers and good for very quick revision.

2019 – Baliyan’s Essay Test Series – Joined it only because I was too lazy to write Essays. Good topics, good checking. What I liked was that every Test was based on a particular area like say Governance or Economy. In Vision which I wrote in 2018, each Test had topics from a variety of areas, and as a result I ended up writing only those topics which were from areas I was comfortable with. Here I had no option but to write on IR, Philosophy and such areas which I avoid, but may have to choose in the actual Exam. Never tried calling the Mentor, so cannot comment on it. Nor have I seen any Test Discussion Lectures or Model Essays so cannot comment on them either.

2018 and 2019 Prelims – Vision (All Tests) and Insights for selected areas like History, Environment. Good questions. The tests helped in improving guesswork and option elimination.

Interview – Nothing. Actually I was going to go to Delhi in March beginning for a few mocks, but then Corona happened. And when the PTs were restarting, only online mocks were happening, which I thought would not be very helpful. My board was of PK Joshi Sir and my PT was average, and had I not got this rank, I would have kicked myself for not giving any mocks.

All of these contributed to my knowledge as well as marks. I feel that sometimes Coaching Institutes are unnecessarily criticized among the aspirant community. They saved my time, made me write answers and helped me a LOT !

My Lecture Notes and my checked Test Papers of all the Courses and Test Series mentioned above have already been shared on my Telegram Channel and my Google Drive.