Strategy:Satyam, AIR 169 (CSE 2019)

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“People never learn anything by being told, they have to find out for themselves.” ― Paulo Coelho, Veronika Decides to Die

The journey is more beautiful than the destination. The strategy defines the journey you undertake to reach the destination in this exam. While the destination remains the same, the journeys are drastically different and depend on many factors. Thus, it is utmost important that you assess the situation you are in before following anyone else's strategy of preparation. CSEWiki contains strategies of many toppers and it's desirable that you should go through the past of at least some of the toppers to understand which strategies might be relevant for you and which might not be. This will have to be coupled by the effort you undertake to learn throughout the preparation of this exam. Let's plunge into these details now.

My History

Starting from small schools in the small district of Khagaria in Bihar, I moved to Sainik School Goalpara (Assam) in 2001. This is important because this is where I got exposure to multiple sports, writing skills, reading habit, public speaking and most importantly, quality English. I am not a master at any of these, but I did become the proverbial "Jack" in all of these. This helped lift my confidence during preparation too, particularly before the personality test.

The next important stage was B.Tech. from NIT Jamshedpur in Civil Engineering (2009-13). To be truthful, I did not study there and, hence, had to pick geography as my optional subject later. [Advice 1] In case you are an undergraduate I would strongly advise you to study your undergraduate subject well and opt it as your optional subject in the exam (of course, it is conditioned upon whether UPSC allows that subject as optional subject or not).

Next stage was college campus placement in Mu Sigma Business Solution Pvt Ltd as a Decision Scientist - a profile that combines the role of a Business Analyst and a Data Scientist. This again helped me a lot during my preparation as I could understand data well, form my arguments around them and many a times see through incorrect analysis (including in newspapers) based on data. (One of the first things that you learn as a data scientist is that there are three kinds of lies - lies, damn lies and data.)

In 2014, while working in Mu Sigma I decided to pursue civil services for a more fulfilling career. The topper of CSE 2013 was Gaurav Aggarwal whom I listened to extensively and I considered myself indebted to him for a large part of my success. [Advice 2] You should go through the strategies of the toppers to create a logical one for yourself before you immerse yourself completely in making them a reality. Sharpen your axe before cutting the tree.

One of the advices given by Gaurav Aggarwal was that people who are working should not quit their jobs before understanding whether this exam suits them or not. For this I followed his advice and purchased some books. The idea is to know whether we can study subjects like social sciences and humanities well or not, and whether we can think of answers, however amateur, of abstract answers or not. This helps in taking a really big decision - whether we should quit a full time job for preparation or not. I did these and felt that I could study. I didn't know anything, but I could learn because I was interested in these and not just because I had to prepare for the exam. [Advice 3] Do not quit your job before self-assessment. It carries a huge opportunity cost. Your decision should be such that irrespective of success or failure you must not feel the regret later that you opted to write the exam.

The last lap was the preparation and the attempts in the exam. I cleared the exam in my 4th attempt. The details of attempts are as follows:

Attempt CSE Year Prelims Cut-off Prelims score Mains score Mains Cut-off Personality Test score Final score Final Cut-off
1 2016 116 113.34 NA NA NA NA NA
2 2017 105.34 125.34 805 809 NA NA NA
3 2018 98 97.34 NA NA NA NA NA
4 2019 98

The challenge of cluelessness

This section is not going to be detailed and is supposed to just tell that most part of the initial journey has been hit and trial. The online resources were quite limited in 2015 compared to 2020 (some institutes that started as websites created a revolution in this space). So, there wasn't much to understand. And more often than not, I got misled - whether intentionally or unintentionally - by peers, teachers and institutes.

The reason behind mentioning this was that while I studied many things in the initial months the cost-to-benefit ratio was bad for them and I'm not going to include them as part of my strategy discussions (I'll include the relevant bits from there). Strategy discussions begin now.

The Coaching details

Due to a long time taken to clear the exam, I have been student of multiple coaching classes, test series and mock interviews. Here is a list with brief comments.

Institute Program Time Comments
Direction IAS (Neetu ma'am) Geography Foundation Course 2015
  • Great at creating interlinkages
  • Not-so-good at any other aspect. Ma'am discourages reading books which can't be afforded in geography optional at all.
  • Better classes available
Vajiram & Ravi General Studies classes 2015-16
  • Help in building foundation
  • But with right guidance and study material they can be easily made redundant
  • Some departments are really good (polity, economy, etc) while others are below par
Vajiram & Ravi GS Mains Test Series 2016
  • Not-so-good, but they must have evolved by now, which is 2020
Shabbir Sir (Vajiram then) Geography Test Series with Classes 2016
  • Realisation that reading books is important - started reading them.
  • Specific paragraphs and pages of books were pointed out in the class. This helped tremendously in understanding Geographical Thought.
  • Too much emphasis on data leading to information overload.
Vision IAS GS Mains Test Series 2016-17
  • Quality of questions is pretty standard - not great but not bad
  • Evaluation is also okay - again, not great but not bad
  • Their process of evaluation is pretty standardised which leaves lesser chances for errors
Vision IAS Essays Test Series 2017 & 2019
  • Depends on your luck - if good evaluator evaluates you may learn a lot; if the evaluator is not so great then feedbacks won't be that good
  • In 2019 I joined the test series only because I couldn't push myself in writing essays otherwise
Guidance IAS (Himanshu Sir) Geography Test Series with Classes 2017 & 2019
  • Excellent application of Thoughts and Models & Theories in other answers. But the student must also have a grip over these topics - I had that and, therefore, was comfortable.
  • Classes can be overwhelming between prelims and mains. So, never attended too many of them relying more on self-study.
  • Quality of questions is overall good; evaluation is okay.
  • In 2019 joined with classes because classes give me the initial push and bring me out of inertia. One need need attend classes twice at all.
ALS (Sachin Sir) Geography Test Series with Classes 2018
  • Quality of questions is great and a good number of them are applied in nature.
  • Evaluation is done directly by sir - so the comments are few and far but you can meet him and get direct feedbacks.
  • Classes lead to a lot of wastage of time. A class of 5 hrs has a content of barely 1-1.5 hrs.
Forum IAS SFG Program for prelims Dec 2018
  • Main purpose was to get back to studies despite work pressure. SFG has daily targets to cover so had to walk extra mile to get that done somehow.
  • Discontinued after a month because questions are too factual and too granular. They make you mug up a lot of things and were, thus, impacting my method of study which is more understanding based.
Forum IAS GS Mains Test Series 2018-19
  • It had the best organization of syllabus - starting with areas like World History and Ethics which are not asked in prelims in Oct-Nov and ending sectional tests with more prelims oriented parts of syllabus.
  • One-to-one meet with Asif sir was helpful in ethics paper.
  • One of the worst evaluation I have seen anywhere. Can't comment on the present status though.

Prelims-cum-Mains Strategy

Another advice that I picked from Gaurav Aggarwal was that we need to study for mains because it is there that we have to score. In prelims we have to just cross the cut-off boundary. (From my performance it might seem that prelims was my Achilles' heel but that was not the case. Due to financial issues I had to start working after mains 2017 again and trying to repay the loans I couldn't get the time to study for 2018 prelims. I continue to remain confident for prelims due to my integrated strategy.) Therefore, I made mains my focal point of study, though I never lost sight of prelims either. It is also important to understand that one gets barely 3 months between prelims and mains which are not sufficient to cover the vast syllabus of optional subject and areas that are in GS syllabus for mains but are not important for prelims (social issues, governance, security issues, disaster management, ethics, essays, etc). These sections carry a cumulative weightage of more than 1350 marks out of 1750 marks of mains (>600 in GS + 500 in optional subject + 250 in essays). Hence, mains preparation remain the focus.

Daily Current Affairs - first focus area

I started doing daily current affairs from The Hindu as my primary source. I never took short cut of reading summaries on websites because in my opinion that does not let analytical skills develop properly. My daily current affairs dose was as follows:

  • Base news from The Hindu newspaper. By base news I mean the news other than the editorials and opinion columns. I feel news in The Hindu is most pruned to the demand of the exam. I specifically avoided Indian Express here because IE contains a lot of political news and I used to get carried away as I take keen interest in politics.
  • Selective reading from Explained page of the Indian Express. IE is one of the most balanced newspapers around and has a balanced opinion page coupled with an unbiased explained page. It was helpful in developing a more balanced opinion.
  • There is another page in IE that changes daily depending on the day of the week. It's named Governance, Rural, Urban, etc on different days and appears just after/before the economy page. I read this page sometimes whenever I found something important here.
  • Rajya Sabha TV videos on YouTube. These are quite helpful in multiple ways - they provide credible content, diversity of opinions as well as an insight into the manners of seasoned civil servants which improves our language and has some impact during the Personality Test. There are multiple good programs on RSTV - the Big Picture, Desh Deshantar, India's World, Policy Watch, Main Bhi Bharat, In Depth, etc. I used to scan all of them (all have their separate playlists on YouTube) and take the important episodes 'offline' on my phone. Some days I'd find 3-4 relevant videos and some other days none. Taking them offline allowed me to space them out through my preparation. Also, I usually watched them at 2X speed which allowed me to watch 2-3 videos easily in a day.
    • In case of really important issues I used to sit with pen and paper and make notes then and there.
    • In case I have some idea about the issue and I need to learn more I used to watch the video on the go (in metro, cabs, etc or while taking a stroll in the park). I used to split screen on my phone and open Google Keep in the other half where I used to add any point that I found relevant. They were penned down in my notes later.
    • In case that I have a grip over the topic but just want to see video as another revision or in case I find the topic isn't very important, I used to watch the video while having lunch/dinner. Nothing was noted down from such videos.
  • Monthly Current Affairs magazines to fill the gaps left in the preparation. There was a method to studying them too.
    • Scrape all the mains relevant material from these magazines and add them to own notes. That is because your own notes have to be the one point reference for you as exam nears.
    • Underline prelims related material on the magazine. In case something extra has been read about them on internet, add on the magazine itself (mains material from internet also went to own notes).
    • There were things that overlapped, i.e., were relevant for both prelims and mains. Those also went to my mains notes and were also underlined on the magazine because they had to be revised before prelims too.

Apart from these there was definite reliance on internet for understanding concepts that I came across but did not understand.

Apart from these there were also some standard sources (both online and offline) that I referred for some specific purposes.

  • PRS India for recent Bills and Acts.
  • Yojana and Kurukshetra - extremely selectively. Have read around 15-20 of them over a period of 4 years. Read only the issues that were highly relevant because I did not have content of the areas that they covered.
  • DownToEarth - again selectively based on the issues covered. This I did because of my optional subject - geography.

The "Static" Area

Static areas, in CSE parlance, are areas that don't change on everyday basis. There are some standard books for most of these areas, while for some others materials from internet or from institutes become relevant. The details are below.

GS Paper Subject Source used Comment
GS - I Art & Culture
  • Baliyan's history optional class notes
  • R S Sharma
  • Themes in Indian History - Part 2 (Medieval History new NCERT)
  • Vajiram class notes
  • Read only art and culture part from Baliyan's class notes and made a summary in my own notes. His notes are thematic (e.g. all discussions of paintings of all different times in one place).
  • R S Sharma is organised chronologically. So, again read that and summarised. This time added relevant points from Baliyan's summarisation to make it a one stop solution for me.
  • Again, summarised medieval history NCERT in a few pages.
  • Unlike many others I found
GS - I Modern History