Strategy:Shubham Bansal, AIR 43 (CSE 2019)

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About me

I am a Mechanical Engineering Undergraduate (2017) from Delhi Technological University (DTU). This was my third attempt at the UPSC CSE. In my first attempt in 2017, I had reached the interviews/Personality Test stage but missed the final list by 20 marks. In 2018, I could not clear preliminary examination and missed the cut off by approximately 1.33 marks. In 2018, I thereafter attemped RBI Grade B examination and secured an All India Rank of 13.

In my third attempt at UPSC CSE in 2019, I have secured an All India Rank of 43. My optional has been Geography in all the three attempts and my medium of writing the examination is English.

UPSC Sources/Approaches-General Studies(Prelims/Mains)

-By Shubham Bansal (UPSC CSE-2019 AIR-43)

Some sources/approaches for CSE self-preparation are provided below: (Views through personal experience; may be used in conjunction with own strategy/plan as it develops)



    1. ANCIENT: Old NCERT (Class 11/12)
    2. MEDIEVAL: Old NCERT (Class 11/12) I did both the above books in full many times, however some chapters are more important than others (eg. Harappa, Vedic, Maurya, Jainism/Buddhism, Gupta, Chola, Indian philosophy and some others). Also focus on the questions on the back for ready reference. Do not waste much time in old vs new debate, just pick up one and do it.
    3. MODERN: Spectrum History book (Rajiv Ahir IPS) (ideally to be done cover to cover). Practice questions so that you can test your approach.
  2. ART AND CULTURE: Mr Nitin Singhania (IAS) handwritten notes (alternates: Mr Nitin Singhania’s book or GoI CCRT module, however very bulky and to be done by considering cost-benefit ratio). You can then add by doing Fine Arts NCERT and test series. Try to ensure all notes on a topic are in one place; else if sculptures related to Pallava period are in 3 different places, it is tougher to link. Further for arts, try to fill in folk arts, GI tags etc on maps of india and give special focus to north eastern india/arts in news.
  3. POLITY: Laxmikanth Polity book (Other sources such as DD Basu may not be required) (ideally to be done cover to cover, multiple times-has very high weightage in prelims) Practice questions so that you can test your approach.
  4. ECONOMICS: SRIRAM IAS (Coaching) notes (in form of booklet) (Alternate: Ramesh Singh TMH book, however TMH book is bulky with lesser cost benefit, may be referred to for some topics such as WTO boxes etc) (may avoid heavier books such as Uma Kapila or Dutt Sundaram) (online source for guidance: MRUNAL PATEL YouTube video lectures; may be referred as required). Focus has shifted to current affairs related issues lately.
  5. GEOGRAPHY: I had the subject as my optional hence am not the best person to guide-however some sources: Class 11/12 old geography books and GC Leong book along with Atlas (bulkier multi-100 page books on Indian Geography by Majid Hussain or Khullar may not give high cost benefit ratio but may be referred selectively). 1 or 2 map based questions are a key feature of prelims paper lately. (If problems in understanding a concept, MRUNAL PATEL LECTURES on Youtube (given by Ms Ratjanil Solanki, IRS) may be referred to). Recently focus on maps have increased. See countries of West, Central and S-E Asia specifically. Check borders, arrangement of capitals in North to South and East to West. Practice by starting from India and reach another country while making the entire route in between. Similarly see borders of states in India, neigbours etc. Move from state A to B and see which all states are passed. I started this exercise 1-2 months before prelims this time and felt comfortable by the end. You could use YouTube channels like Learn with Amar but in a wise manner.
  6. ENVIRONMENT: Shankar IAS (coaching) notes (in form of book now)-highly dynamic and important for UPSC (especially as Indian Forest Services has same Prelims paper since pattern was changed few years ago)-to be covered from Current Affairs mostly (Shankar IAS book has previous year questions (PYQs) to provide idea of current trend). You can look to make own maps of Biosphere reserves, Tiger reserves, Ramsar Sites, National Parks and World Heritage Sites and compare the sites (which is present in which and absent in another). Try to learn important Wildlife Sanctuaries (North eastern India, A&N Islands and such). Make separate notes on species under endangered list or update in Shankar book. We keep on forgetting these things so regular application is required, look at PYQs/test papers.
  7. SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY: NCERT class 6 to 10-class 12 biology (last few units related to ecology),physics important chapters (Space, gravity, optics etc), chemistry in everyday life and such random things-if have science background, may not spend too much time on this and instead refer to current affairs-must link static concepts (with depth/clarity) such as space/nuclear science with events around us (such as ISRO, NASA efforts etc)-PYQs may help to gauge what is required. Focus on space/diseases/inventions/schemes/defence etc through newspaper and modules.
  8. INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: related to environment (Paris Deal, International Solar Alliance, Mission Innovation etc), international groupings (such as BRICS, G-7, OPEC, ASEAN, OIC etc). A good source is prelims-specific IR module of coaching institutes and newspapers/online blogs/summaries etc. In addition, aim may be to cover as many international groupings, treaties, agreements etc as possible in a comprehensive manner (internet can be used extensively). And multiple revisions. Make their notes and revise them many times over the year. You can get a lot of these from prelims revision specific modules of Vision/Insights/others. So even if you are starting in 2020, you can use current year material for reference selectively. Also make a list of international reports in one place and arrange similar sounding reports nearby (eg. Human Capital Index (WB) vs Global Human Capital Report (WEF). Similar thing can be done for environmental initiatives like Cool Air Coalitition, Climate and clean air coalition and so on. A sense of this can develop by solving questions. Do not worry if you keep forgetting, it’s a part, aim is to maximise the chance that you will fill correct bubble if the question appears in exam.
  9. GOVERNMENT SCHEMES/LEGISLATIONS (old/new): Coaching modules/internet/news/test series. Very high weightage, directly and indirectly. If time permits, you should look to do some old schemes around 2015 and before along with current amendments, if any (however I doubt there is so much time while preparing). But go into depth for prelims, see PYQs to understand what UPSC demands. Have a table of ministry wise schemes and scheme wise ministry. Again focus on confusing names and those where similar sounding things are observed.

*Two books (Rajiv Ahir modern history and Laxmikanth are to be done almost fully multiple times as have high weightage once done well, these guarantee full marks in the asked questions, unlike current affairs which has a broad scope)

CSAT/Aptitude paper: No separate preparation done by me because of previous experience during JEE/Engineering days. However I practised UPSC PYQs to understand my level.

CURRENT AFFAIRS: May read The Indian Express/The Hindu-may follow one monthly magazine from a coaching (Insights on India is good for prelims however is a very bulky monthly module, VISION IAS module is better for mains in my opinion)-It may also be noted that these coachings bring concise subject wise modules of current affairs/issues before prelims and mains examinations (which is a summary of their monthly modules), however time to learn is less as they come in last months. Hence mix and match strategy has to be developed.

Website, for miscellaneous, if required

Insights on India ( (there are multiple such as IASBABA, FORUMIAS, etc, however effort must be to not get lost in the sea-any one may be selected; excess of material is a cause of concern in today’s age). These website/s give daily MCQs for practice for prelims and daily answer writing for mains examination with self evaluation eg. Insights Secure, which may be used as per need. However caution is advised as UPSC questions are very different to day to day detailed/in depth questions of these websites.

Which NCERTS to read and how to read books?

You can see the following on my blog:

Which NCERTs to read?

How to read books: Line by Line?

Prelims Test Series

a very important component to test our direction and for course correction—may attempt either of VISION IAS or Insights on India regularly. Test Series very importantly tells us how to read a certain paragraph/topic/book kept in front of us because through tests, we come to know of how the objective type question can be framed from what we have already read. This allows us to broaden our horizons. Many websites also have free full mocks (albeit limited in number) which may be used before prelims for diversity. Accept that questions will come from outside your tests and books in the real exam, but be ready, have that temperament. Even if one option is eliminated, you can do many such questions correctly.

Random Advice: Don’t procrastinate giving tests, be it for prelims or mains. Perfection never comes in this exam, it is a myth, learn as you go. Tests also give a micro target to finish in a limited time so that we don’t go off the track.

Advice for begginers (For Prelims)

  1. For prelims, try to avoid reading books like a novel. The exam has a very specific purpose. If you’re reading economics, try to have economics previous year questions (PYQs) by your side. If you’re reading history, try to see what was asked previously. If you could do this for micro topics, like after reading inflation, Harappan period or Fundamental Rights, it would open your mind up to possibilities (as to puchenge kya exam me). In my case, I wasted a lot of time initially as I studied without prelims in mind. We at least need to know what can be asked from the text in front of us. There are many websites that have subject specific small mocks (ForumIAS/InsightsonIndia/IASBaba etc) /coachings with subject specific papers. At this point of time (Early preparation phase, marks don’t matter, direction does.)
  2. *If you have just started and do not have a lot of background, you may refer to prelims/mains modules of coaching/websites of current exam cycle. Example, if you are preparing for 2021, you may refer to Insights Prelims modules/Vision PT-365 for Prelims 2020 and Vision Mains 365 for Mains 2020. The idea is to have a feel of these so that you can build a base/read newspaper accordingly. You will come to know what these modules have and maybe if you are starting Mains answer writing, you will have content from Mains 365 with you. This can be improved upon over the next year until your next Mains. (Mains 2021 in current example.)
  3. *Do not get overwhelmed by the so-many extra things like different different maps I have told above. This was my third attempt at prelims so I had a bit more time to do all these things. In my first attempt in 2017 (when I was 22 years old), I did daily current affairs, tests (Without analysis), some newspapers and prelims modules only and scored 110 marks (just scraped through but cleared anyway). So nothing is set in stone, it is just to show you the right way. Do not be rigid, change as per time. If I did not have time, I would have changed the course and done accordingly

B. Notemaking and Answer writing simplified

This is a very long section hence I am directly linking my blog again, you may check it there: Notemaking and answer writing simplified!


Overall selected candidate strategy which inspired me

(They talk about limited capacity of human mind but effective strategy to maximize output)

IAS Rank 87 : Prajit Nair, Kerala, 3rd Attempt, Detailed Strategy with Notes & Handouts Detailed Geography Optional Strategy (Marks 290) and Notes by Prajit Nair, IAS Rank 87

(How to crack IAS in first attempt at age 22 – IAS Topper Rank 43 Harsh shares his strategy)

(however request is to develop own pathway as we go along and not blindly trust any document including the current one, especially as UPSC questions are not predictable to a large degree however there is a method in the madness, so to speak. Course corrections in the strategy must be done by test series or through experience. What gives results must be continued and what fails us may be modified-all of us are different after all)

My Approach for GS Mains

Points given in syllabus are key-aim must be to prepare points on issues and not to finish books/subjects-paper is highly dynamic and requires addition of examples/date/schemes/maps/diagrams related to current affairs instead of static knowledge alone. May develop questions based on news etc and try to answer themselves. Eg. COVID-19 day to day news may not be as important as questions such as: how? Why? What now? What in future? Evaluation of response? Etc. Aim must be to think and write more and more.

General Studies is more about approach as knowledge is there after reading so many things. My fundamental is clear: If I study 100 things one time, I will remember 10 things but if I study 25 things 4 times, I will remember them all. So focus was on making notes as per syllabus points and using them in any question asked (I revised these notes 10s of times within 1-2 hour each because I was so well versed with them). You may note here that I am definitely not asking you to study less or anything, that would make zero sense, I am simply asking you to read strategically. By the time, we sit down to give tests we realise that 1000s of questions can be formed, we can’t prepare specifically for each question. What we can try is to answer

(Have not personally used but Vajiram and Ravi (coaching) yellow books/Vision IAS value added material are talked about for covering some things which are not present in prelims syllabus but require basic knowledge (Such as disaster management, internal security, etc). Considering cost-benefit ratio, it may be better to use internet for such topics instead of books cover to cover. You could also use Vision IAS Mains 365 modules, I used them for both my mains, made headingwise notes and revised them 10 times.)

Good source to understand trend is past years papers and coaching test papers available online which try to emulate the past UPSC papers. (they are never the same though)

General Studies-1

  1. GS-1 Paper
    1. HISTORY: World history from old NCERT selectively (as low cost benefit)-art and culture from Prelims sources (as low cost benefit) and test series-overall to be done from prelims sources, just the way of answering/analyzing differs. Post-independence history which is not a part of prelims syllabus may be done from Mr Nitin Sangwan (IAS) notes/book available online. For World History, Kumar Harsh Sir also suggested Stardust notes which may be referred to. Many years ago, I had read India after Gandhi and India Since Independence but I do not find them suitable for the exam at all. (I did not consider world history and post independence history to be such a key part of syllabus considering everything else we had to do, so I did these basic resources and added a lot from test series. These questions, 50 or more in number, ensured I could write something about anything from these topics. Not a perfect approach but I had to take some risks as in both mains, I did not have much time.) In this section, focus on creating your own questions in modern history eg. relevance of movement A, critical analysis of movement B can be analyzed on lines of impact on stakeholders (women, students, city/village, states, peasant, minorities), long term change, response of Britishers etc. Similarly factors leading to struggle PQR may be analysed under direct (Britisher’s steps etc) and indirect (role of outside influence, rise of new groups etc). This is a part of analytical approach where you develop frameworks and fill it with examples learnt during prelims preparation.
    2. GEOGRAPHY: Static like history-same sources with different way of thinking. See test papers to prepare thinking lines/short notes on popular 50-100 topics eg. volcanoes, earthquakes, climatology topics, etc. For location of industries, MRUNAL website had decent notes. UPSC is asking thought-provoking questions in location of industry etc. so have ready-made frameworks (physical factors and human factors; human factors can be divided into social, political, economic, historical, behavioural etc) and think a lot while preparing.
    3. SOCIETY: general-no specific preparation except newspapers and/or modules-may use polity under GS2. Used vision ias monthly modules or VISION IAS MAINS 365

General Studies-2

  1. GS-2 Paper
    1. Polity/schemes: current affairs-need to prepare along pointers given in syllabus-for specific points, Google Search/news/modules are enough-I did not refer to a book- Used vision ias monthly modules or VISION IAS MAINS 365. Aim must be to included government schemes, data, flowchart etc related to current affairs. Special focus should be given to polity related aspects (articles, cases, amendments, committee recommendations etc; may note these down in a notebook separately or with syllabus topics) and keep using them in frameworking/mock tests otherwise you might forget them. In Mains papers, we have to write so fast that only internalised things come to mind. So I tried not only to learn but constantly apply the same. eg. Article 123 and 213 for ordinance; Article 102 and 191 for Office of Profit; Article 105 and 194 for privileges etc. Similarly, I personally did not read any committee reports as time was never enough. I only used whatever recommendations were given in MAINS 365 modules, even that was a lot for me.
    2. International Affairs: current affairs based-to be done from news/online sources. I used MAINS 365 and made countrywise/regionwise detailed notes for IR. Made frameworks to evaluate relationships across dimensions such as social, political, economic, cultural, defence, groupings, energy, trade/transport etc.

General Studies-3

(Drew heavily upon geography optional)

  1. GS-3 Paper
    1. Economics/agriculture etc: highly current affairs based-focus must be on government schemes/newspapers. Used vision ias monthly modules or VISION IAS MAINS 365
    2. Science and Tech: may be done from coaching modules/news. Focus must be to cover key points such as AI, IoT, robotics etc comprehensively and link it with different sectors. Eg. Role of robotics for agriculture, role of AI for industry and so on.
    3. Internal security: news/vision ias monthly modules or VISION IAS MAINS 365 (module which compiles yearly modules subject wise; released before MAINS)-tried to include maps and geography of areas.
    4. Disaster Management: read under geography-however may visit NDMA website/see relevant edition of Yojana magazine on the topic/follow news (Amphan, COVID etc) A lot of data can come in handy in this paper. Write a lot of data points under different headings for this on a page. Do not over do but whatever you do, revise it 10-15 times so that it becomes a part of you in your mocks or mental revisions.

General Studies-4 (Ethics/integrity/Aptitude)

  1. Instead of books, may do what is suggested by the following IAS officer:

Paper is general but answers demand creativity, aptitude, a simple approach with integrity. Internet may be used extensively. Special examples from Indian history/mythology such as ramayan, Mahabharata and others may be included to give an edge to the candidate.

Day to day examples may be found at:

Further guidance for ethics may be found at:

You can also make flowcharts, diagrams, etc to break long monotony of text in this paper.

I also frameworked a lot of case studies (50-100) in both of my mains attempts and made short notes. This brought me into right framework and every case study can be made into a short example for using in 10 markers. In addition, I used to write 10-20 ethical values in rough space and before attempting any question, I used to look at them so that I could use them. This ensured that my answer did not deviate from GS-4 aspects and I could also generate more points by sometimes looking at them. Again aim for a balance, don’t overdo things.

Essay Approach

I am wondering what I can share about a paper which gave me so many moments of frustration. I scored 131 in Essay in 2017 which was at best an average score back then. While GS papers allow brevity, writing in points or explaining through diagrams, essay requires an entirely different skill set. Essay is an effort to express thoughts coherently, without significant breaks and getting your point across to the examiner. So all in all, I do not know much but I can share certain things based on the efforts I have made:

  1. For essay, knowledge comes from GS papers and Google Search. Aim must be to develop expression/communication skills as mentioned in UPSC syllabus. No single source is there like a key. Practice and thinking are required. UPSC Topper videos/coaching institutes videos on YouTube may be referred to gain valuable insights. Many institutes also upload test copies of selected candidates (checked/unchecked) which may be referred to get ideas about writing and about how the copies may be evaluated in reality.
  2. I prepared essay framework on around 100 topics broadly (many of them were linked or slight variations of others so don’t go on the number but only essence) but now I think main thing is to have a clear understanding and practice. (example of such topics may be seen from previous year questions sorted in categories on Mrunal website: (for quick revision, make a lot of flowcharts, timelines etc but I think it is better to express them in words in exam) Having seen this, we may now move on to the actual battlefield strategy.
  3. Before starting the essay, I used to devote 5-7 minutes to choose the topics. This is very very important as what may appear as a simple topic may turn out to be very tough, eg. Neglect of primary health care and education in India are reasons for its backwardness (2019) appeared very easy as it was related to health and education and I had a lot of content on this. But when I got to attempting this, I was so out of depth because the entire line has a lot of dimensions to be explored and to arrange it with clarity was a real challenge.
  4. Thereafter I used to devote 20-25 minutes to framework about what I will write and in what order. This was very important to cover things like a story without letting go of the demands of the question. This also ensured we did not go haywire and stuck to what we had planned.
  5. I introduced the essay using current affairs mostly, then gave a thesis statement on what I will write and then attempted using various dimensions (historical, social, political, economic, cultural, legal, international etc), then I moved onto solutions/optimistic way forward and tried to link it with introduction. Aim was not to close it but sometimes leave it open ended. The thesis statement in my view ensures that examiner knows what is to come and is not left guessing, this ensures they see our essay in a specific light.
  6. Further linkages must be established between different paragraphs using words like “not only this”, “in addition”, “nevertheless”, “we may also see” etc. (“Having seen this, we may now move on to the actual battlefield strategy.” as used above :P)
  7. Every 2-3 paragraphs I tried to repeat the essay title in my own words so that the examiner may not think that I am wandering astray. However in one mock test, I was told that I was doing it way too much which made it boring, so I tried to cut back on the same.
  8. Further I did not make any figures/map in the essay. I think personally it is best to avoid it.
  9. I also think one should attempt questions related to their optional with great caution in mind. In 2017, I attemped question on agriculture (geography optional) but we get so technical that it becomes boring/very one sided so we must look to make technical things more generic/connected to real world in essay paper.
  10. Philosophical essays: An essay topic may appear philosophical but I think we should look to make it more applied and use dimension such as personal/family, society, nation and international. Within these, we can have sub-dimensions of SPECLIH (social, political, economic, cultural, legal, international, historical among others) and within these sub-dimensions can give related examples. eg. “Care is the biggest joy”: we can give examples of siblings, mother-child, nature caring for us and so on. We should explore why it is the biggest joy, what is joy, are there other joys etc. So once we have enough examples in mind, even a philosophical essay may become easy to attempt and might even fetch us good marks. You may see more about essay writing, especially philosophical essay at: (Shivansh Awasthi sir; AIR-77 UPSC 2018-it is a long video so you may see accordingly) (Key takeaway: write an essay which even a child can understand and appreciate)

Essay Topics attempted by me in 2019 UPSC Mains

I attempted questions on (2019):

  1. Courage to accept and dedication to improve are two keys to success:

I started with a story I heard from the Prime Minister on TV and closed it by referencing the same. In this essay, aim was to show that “all kind” of “success” can come when we first have courage to accept “limitations/shortcomings” and then are dedicated to improve upon this. For this, I first defined what is success, we may call it achievement of good targets/goals etc. Here I used a lot of examples from Shakuni to Napoleon and reiterated my point using various dimensions. We can use government schemes and how they become more targetted or even use example from life of a civil services aspirant or a school going kid. We can use example of Mohammad Salah failing at Chelsea and becoming what he is at Liverpool or use a movie star/Lincoln/founder of KFC/Walt Disney/freedom fighters of India and so on. (However aim is not only to fill sheets with examples but to drive home a point that courage/dedication is necessary and how it helps in reaching success. So we must become analytical and say that courage/motivation motivates people, makes them humble, more receptive to criticism and so on. Examples can supplement these arguments but examples are not an argument in itself.)

“Not only this,” we can also introduce new elements. I added that role of ethics is very important otherwise with courage and dedication, while Shakuni came out of well, he did not lead to success but devastation of empire.

2. Neglect of primary health care and education in India are reasons for its backwardness :

It must be seen very clearly that essay is not about health and education but asks an entire question which must be explored. Try to think of the entire line’s importance and not keywords alone. Try to explore what is backwardness and is this the case in India, why it is the reason, are there other reasons, which is more important, what can be done and so on.

I quoted Dr BR Ambedkar about socities which do not respect women and how this is a lack of education. Apart from that, I do not remember much about what I wrote in this essay.

Thinking points: Education is not simply literacy but also ethical education, morality, physical and mental education. Without good education, morals may degrade and lead to violence, crime, riots. Without good healthcare, population may not be effective to contribute to economy. All this may lead to chaos which will result in political uprisings as in many of African Republics, which May international standing of these countries. At last, there are other reasons too such as history of subcontinent/geography of India and so on, so we can diversify the ambit of the essay in short.

Parting advise: As I was weak in essay, this time I wrote 10 tests of essay (20 essays) to at least come in the habit of writing. Certainly an overkill or maybe not but I went ahead with the plan. I also listened to many of these test discussions (I did the same in 2017 as well) and tried to inculcate good things. Additionally I frameworked around 50 essays right after prelims in my mind/small sheet of paper so that I accustom myself to making frameworks, especially on “philosophical topics”. Even Insights on India has weekly essay challenge about which you can discuss it with your family/friends etc.

Despite this, I was not scoring very high in mock tests. So at the end of the day, I will only suggest that do not get bogged down if we are weak in something, keep working hard and know that UPSC Mains is a game of many papers and not one alone. So even if we can’t top one paper, we can at least try to improve and do better in that. Just my 2 cents. Good luck!

Test Series for GS MAINS

VISION IAS is good-adds 100s of points through their model answers in important topics which come handy in exams. Another alternate is FORUMIAS.

My test copies

Due to the size, my test copies may be found at:

Some additional points to ponder over (in no specific order)

  1. Try to use one book for one subject maximum and fill gaps using online search etc. Every book will have something for prelims but cost benefit must be considered. Also one must try to make not bookwise notes but topic wise, hence one topic must be at one place.
  2. One may also look at frequently appearing topics and revise them more, eg for prelims I gave some extra focus to Vedic/Jainism/Buddhism/Chola/Vijaynagara/Bhakti/Mughals period; rivers of India; National Park, wildlife sanctuary, Biosphere reserves etc and comparison of sites between them, environmental organisations; space missions and details; emergency provisions, Fundamental Rights etc. These topics were collected as I had given prelims twice before and had an idea of where I was going wrong, I wanted to pluck the low hanging fruits first, not that I ignored other things. You may use test series/own evaluation for identification of such topics. But please note that this is only a shot in the dark, it does not guarantee much.
  3. I also extensively made notes on government initiatives, international organisations, wildlife according to conservation status (100s of species), maps of sarees, puppers, GI tags and so on. Maps of Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep specifically. In art and culture, made tables of art forms of north east India and others. I looked to download some selected readymade information from Telegram channels etc. So again, aim was to narrow down on some things which have high value. However I cleared prelims without doing like this in my first attempt (2017), so clearly there is no one method.
  4. For prelims, giving test was extremely important for me. The first prelims I cleared at age 22 (2017; first attempt), I practised 15-20 test papers. This time (2019; third attempt), I practised 7000-8000 questions. But this is because my course books were already well done and even after that I revised them 3-4 times. This practice gave me a temperament to attempt the exam which I lacked in second attempt (2018; couldn’t clear prelims). Please note that one should not copy, the ideal number of questions for you are only known to you and see it as you give tests. The only aim was to revise via tests and analyse my weaknesses so that I could focus more on those topics the next time I read books.
  5. Also develop an ability to get surpised. This time, I gave a lot of tests without studying for the test specifically. Otherwise what people do is study polity and give its test same day. This time before polity test, sometimes I read history. But this approach can only work, when polity has been done previously and will also be done later after the test, it is not as if one should not do it ever. Similarly I started giving tests of Geography optional after prelims without even finishing the revisions. These tests were in itself revision for me and I kept revising books along the way. (please note I am not saying you should copy it; instead one should try to innovate for themselves. I would not have attempted such risky techniques in my first attempt personally as I was not well prepared back then)
  6. For GS Mains, instead of reading a lot, focus must be on making short paragraphs/case studies/data/map on every single syllabus point. Focus more on writing answers and eventually bring down writing time and increase quality. I used MAINS-365 by Vision IAS for addition of current affairs and to get data etc. For eg. let’s consider a topic of GS-3: “Major Crops – Cropping Patterns in various parts of the country, Different Types of Irrigation and Irrigation Systems; Storage, Transport and Marketing of Agricultural Produce and Issues and Related Constraints; E-technology in the aid of farmers.” In this one should make maps of different crops and write indicative reasons as to why it is grown there, don’t make your notes too bulky, shorter notes lead to more revision but adequate care should be given that short does not mean you skip topics (you may make bulky first notes, then micro revision notes from them with indicative words and so on-innovate). Add 2-3 government schemes on each point (which is a key focus under GS-3 these days) and make innovative diagrams eg. hub and spoke model in SAMPADA yojana. Write 2-3 e-models with diagram. Make a small flowchart on irrigation systems and try to see socio-economic and geographical reasons behind presence on one system in a specific place eg. tanks in Kakatiya kingdom or peninsula vs tubewell in Punjab.
  7. Do a lot of frameworking of questions. Use coaching test papers or make own questions using syllabus points. Instead of writing full answers, you can framework answers in 2-3 minutes jotting down intro, key points and conclusion. (but this is not a substitute of full answer writing, only complementary) This approach can come handy in ethics case studies, optional revision using previous year questions, etc. For example, while revising, I thought of a heading, say “water”, then I drew Indian map of rainfall and groundwater provinces, pie chart of sectoral water consumption, table on overall water present, used and left now and in 2050, wrote constitutional provisions related to water, perspectives of international relations, aspects of quality and quantity, case study of watershed management and conclusion. In this, you can see I have followed approach of covering GS-1 topics first, then GS-2, then GS-3 and so on. So I automatically generate points for me in my notes/mind and most questions in any paper can be answered from using these points. We can also add things like National Water Policy etc and do this for many other topics. Similar approach in geography optional: we can think of syllabus to generate points eg. in paper-2, PRAIT (population, resource, agriculture, industries, trade/transport/communication), culture, etc. Similarly while adding points related to physical geography in paper-1 or paper-2, think of geomorphology/land characteristics/entire landscape, climate, hydrology, soil and biosphere as a whole. Keep readymade keywords in these units to use here and there eg. in a question on disaster management/Uttarakhand floods in Paper-2, we can quickly refer to cloud burst topic under climatology and answer it more like a geographer. Similarly, when answering questions on desert/Thar, we can use the diagrams from biogeography to explain salinisation-alkanisation of soil, chernozems/chestnuts/deserts etc.
  8. Have readymade frameworks ready. One approach can be SPECLIH, as used by another selected candidate previously (Social, Political, Economic, Cultural, Legal/polity, International, Historical) or go as per syllabus points as discussed earlier. This does not end here. For instance, if a problem/scheme requires analysis in GS-2, we can analyse it under the heads of:
    1. Institutional: center-state relations, Panchayati Raj institutions, national policy and guidelines etc
    2. Infrastructural: creation of dedicated fund etc.
    3. Awareness: role of NGO, civil society, parents, education, Gram Sabha, audit etc. However make no mistake, all this requires a lot of practice and we can’t imagine to do this rightaway in exam hall. So mind has to be trained to think quickly through mocks/revision/frameworking. Don’t bind yourself to these structures, be like a river, make your own way around problems. These are just indicative.

Doubts from Aspirants

I have tried to answer some common doubts from aspirants in detail on my blog. You may find them at: in the menu "Doubts from Aspirants" on the top.

Last note for the aspirant

  1. It may not be possible to do each and every topic in details however balance must be aimed for. At the end of the day, it is a generalist exam (Except the optional paper). Newspapers alone give enough perspective to attempt all questions, however edge comes from application of existing knowledge and consolidation of the same by multiple revision. (as reiterated by Mr Kumar Harsh, IAS and Mr Prajith Nair, IAS, in the links given above).
  2. Aim must be to cover topic and not finish book. This implies that one book is sufficient for a subject considering the constraints (especially for prelims). Eg. For Mains, have made notes of Economic Survey everytime but now I feel it would be better to include key points within our GS-3 notes itself (or even other GS papers). This might take more time but will ensure effective utilisation of Economic Survey. For example, the last Survey had some points on MNREGA, so they may be linked with GS-3 (employment) and GS-2 (governance). If the Economic Survey is made into notes in isolation, points may not even come to mind in the high pressure exam environment as we might not have internalised them. Alternatively, if notes are made for Survey separately, you may write the relevant syllabus topics on the margin so that brain knows where it has to be applied someday. Just my 2 cents!
  3. I am genuinely scared of preliminary examination even if I had to give it again now. My score moved from 110 to 97 to 130 (2019) approximately in 3 attempts. However it is not as if I knew I would get a high score in 2019 after exiting the exam hall, such is the nature of exam. Yet what I can say is worked the hardest this time and probably it shows, so certain things can be done. Work hard, keep removing your weakness and leave the rest to whatever power you believe in. It is tough but it is that for everyone, so it is an equaliser
  4. For Mains, key points may be added from coaching material selectively; aim is not to reinvent the wheel but leverage efforts done by others (i.e. coaching modules etc) in a manner suited to us.
  5. Revision, although not as interesting as the joy of reading new content every time, is the key element to consolidate preparation. This is the most important part of my entire journey.
  6. Faith moves mountains. Do not fear.

Good Luck!

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