by Apurva Pandey , IAS Rank 39

Hello friends,

My name is Apurva Pandey and I have secured AIR 39 in UPSC Civil Service Examination 2017.

From excitedly reading and commenting on topper strategies on the internet to writing one myself, it has indeed been a transformative couple of years for me. But today, as I sit down to write my strategy I realise how daunting a task this can be. I remember being naive and taking every word a topper said very seriously, comparing myself to them, then getting upset over it and finally spending the rest of the day wondering if I will ever make it. It was only after sometime that I realised that each one of us is unique and will thus experience a unique journey. So if you are reading this and feel that your journey is not quite the same as mine, then do not get flustered. Have faith in yourself, pick up parts that you think might work for you and forget about the rest as you get back to studying. 🙂

Association with ForumIAS:

Since I was preparing from my hometown in Uttarakhand, I was completely dependent on online mediums not only for guidance, but also to keep in touch with other aspirants. I would often go through threads on ForumIAS and reach out to more experienced members for advice, everytime I got nervous. They were very kind to me and I am so grateful to each one of them for helping me overcome my anxiety.

I decided to join the Mains Guidance Program when  I read about Mittali Sethi mam’s extremely inspiring journey. Till then I was my own mentor with all my strategy derived from what other toppers said on the internet. All answer writing was done on CSE specific websites and all corrections in style were based on the reviews that my answers received on these platforms. After prelims I felt the need for more personal guidance, which I was afraid other popular test series would not be able to provide. And so, I decided to place my faith in MGP and I have no qualms saying that this decision was a turning point in my preparation.

I joined the MGP – the plan along with the Essay Module. I have scored 175 marks in the Essay paper – which I think has been quite instrumental in me getting under 100 Ranks.

I observed how MGP had a completely no-holds-barred approach as far as correction was concerned. Once, my answer sheet was returned with “Work harder” stamped on the first page in very bold handwriting indicating to me that there is no limit to hard work and one has to keep going till the very end, no matter what the status of one’s preparation.

I could reach out to my mentor anytime and he was always kind enough to patiently listen to my huge set of problems ranging from time management to general anxiety. The suggestions and corrections on the answer sheets were specific, precise and very helpful. The tests were good with holistic coverage, so that by the time I wrote my final tests I felt more confident than ever before.

For all these things, I am and will remain grateful to ForumIAS for life 🙂


I did my bachelors in mechanical engineering from Govind Ballabh Pant University of Agriculture & Technology and graduated in 2016. Since I was determined about not giving more than 3 serious attempts in this exam, I decided to appear in 2016 itself for getting to know the exam better, since I was anyway going to waste 3 attempts. It was of course a disaster given my level of preparation but gave me a scare that kept pushing me everytime I got complacent.

So I got back home from college and spent the next one year preparing religiously for CSE 2017, and fortunately got through this time.  🙂



I hope I am not alone in thinking that prelims is the most difficult stage in CSE. I am not even exaggerating when I say that ,for me, the best part about making it to the list is not having to sit for prelims again.

I am sure I scored only enough to get me past the cutoff, yet my two cents on preparation for prelims is as follows.

  1. Be thorough with the basic books: Everybody knows the important NCERTs, everybody knows about Lakshmikant and spectrum. Point is doing these books again and again till you gain an absolute mastery on the static part.
  2. Mock tests: The importance of mock tests has been highlighted time and again by many. Solve as many mock tests as possible, and revise till you feel confident. While solving mocks, also develop your personal strategy for dealing with prelims. Try and infer what kind of question paper makes you feel confident enough to go 80+ in attempts or what kind of question paper demands you to be conservative. Identify your strong areas and weaknesses and schedule your study for the last two months accordingly.
  3. Pick up trends: I cannot highlight enough the importance of picking up trends. Go through previous year papers to guage what areas are trending and require special attention. For instance, questions from Buddhism & Jainism figure in the paper almost every year, questions on national parks/wildlife sanctuaries, maps etc are common. So pick up these trends and work accordingly. This exercise is especially helpful during the last two months. While the rest of the year can be devoted to holistic coverage, in the last two months before prelims, you have to be selective and strategise your study smartly.
  4. Current affairs: You can prepare you own notes out of newspapers or go through compilations made available by different institutes. Whatever you do, trust you source and revise as much as possible. I personally found compilations very helpful in this regard.

Finally, do not let your test marks affect you any more than pushing you to work harder. Stress takes away confidence, and confidence is key to doing well in prelims. So learn from tests and move on. Trust me, most people who make it to the list have their bad days where they don’t score well in mocks. Let mistakes be learnings and not distractions.


I feel more confident sharing my strategy for mains as I completely loved this stage. However, in my opinion, one has to strike a careful balance of several factors to score well in mains. Since marks are not out, I think it’s only fair to give a general strategy for GS than elaborating on each paper separately

1. Content: Your years of hardwork is pointless unless you can show it to the examiner on paper. Therefore, I think our content should be such so that the examiner is convinced that we have studied hard and know stuff. For this we must quote reports and committees, put in data, cite examples, refer to current developments etc.Of course one cannot read all reports and learn all kinds of data. Here again lies the importance of picking up trends. For instance, cyber security, subsidies, mob violence, river interlinking, privacy etc were really trending before mains. I was expecting questions on these and so had certain facts from reports/ committee recommendations jotted on a piece of paper. I did not read entire reports, simply googled and found facts & recommendations that were simple enough for me to remember.

Then apart from current hot-topics, one must also keep an eye for all-time hot topics. These include topics like climate change, inclusive growth, Indo-China relations, Panchayati Raj, agriculture etc. You can ready some data, recommendations, committees, and innovations in these too.In fact, if time permits, it is best to go through all topics in the syllabus and jot down data on each one of them in not more than half a sheet. Revise it before the exam, and impress the examiner with the apparent wide range of your knowledge.However, all this only after you have covered your basic books and are doing your newspapers properly.

Quoting data & committee recommendations cannot compensate for lack of analysis. There is no shortcut or trick to bettering your analytical skills and the only way is hard work and sincere study.The aforementioned is only to make more attractive what you have, the foundation lies in focused study and not in quick google searches.

2. Presentation: The examiner checks several copies a day and we must try our best to ensure that our answer script stands out. If our content is great then there is no way it will not stand out, but good presentation makes this content more readable, catchy and emphatic, thus directly impacting the examiner’s impression of us.

A few things that can be done to better presentation are:

a) Introduction and conclusion
b)Break down the answer in parts if the question is in parts.
c)Use of heading/subheading for better organisation and visibility of content
d) Use of flow charts, diagrams, maps for greater clarity. It also helps break monotony and makes the copy interesting to the examiner.
e)Underlining important points, for eg any committee or report name that you may have mentioned
f)Simplicity in answering. Language should be simple, not very flowery or complicated. If the examiner has to put in extra effort to understand your answer, it does not bode well for your marks.
g) Concluding answer on a positive note, maybe with some kind of solution. For instance, I ended many of my answers with ‘Way forward’, listing few good solutions or recommendations.
h) You must also try to begin your essay on an interesting note, with some quote or story or poetry so as to capture the interest of the examiner at the very outset.
i)Practice. All the points mentioned above cannot be implemented in the actual exam without prior practice. Remember, the more we sweat in practice, the less we bleed in war.

3. Time management: I, for one, struggled a lot with time management. When I first started writing full length tests post-prelims, I could only do around 14-15 questions in 3 hours. Then I starting solving questions on hour-basis, setting my target to 6 per hour. I practiced this way one hour every day, while solving full lengths weekly. I also used flowcharts and wrote point wise to better the situation. My speed improved considerably by the time mains arrived, although I still ended up leaving 35 marks worth in Optional paper 1 due to speed issues.

4. Optional: It is important to devote to your optional as much time as possible. Choice of optional must be based on how much the syllabus interests you. If you are sure that you enjoy your optional enough to spend lots of time on it, then nothing else should matter. I found PSIR interesting, and I really felt that I could manage it on my own so I chose it without any second thoughts.

Here again, answer writing is important. I joined Shubhra Ranjan mam’s online test series for the same. I also purchased her notes since many toppers had recommended that, but for me reading directly from notes did not help gain the kind of insight and confidence that I thought I needed. So I purchased all the recommended texts for various parts of the syllabus and read them religiously. Reading these texts not only gave me a better understanding of the subject, but also helped me understand how exactly should a student of political science write.For PSIR, I read an excellent strategy article by Ananya Das ma’am that really helped me a lot. I would advise all those who have this optional to go through it at least once.

5. Essay Strategy

I has joined the MGP+ module along with the Essay Module of ForumIAS. I had diligently taken the tests and also attended the first few discussion classes. I have also provided my Essay copies for download so you can take a look at that.


1) Where do I get the content for my essay?

I never studied separately for essay. I used whatever I had studied for GS and optional. But then again, I was lucky to have PSIR for my optional and from there, I often picked up concepts, thinkers, ideologies etc. to make my point. However, one must be careful to not use one’s knowledge of their optional to such an extent that the essay stops being general. If reading your essay is becoming extra work for the examiner, then that might not be good news for your marks.

2) Do I need to use very flowery language?

Every essay strategy I read during my preparation suggested using simple  English and rightly so. Sometimes, in our quest to put our vocabulary to use, we end up inserting complicated words forcefully in our sentences. Not only does it make the sentence difficult to understand, but also gives it an awkward sound when read.

But that does not mean that we stop getting creative with language. Using metaphors, similes, idioms etc breaks the monotony and makes our essay look attractive. Here again, usage must not appear forced. This comes with careful reading of good texts and of course, practice.

3) Should I write in simple paragraphs or subheadings?

I don’t think it really matters. I wrote with subheadings in one of my mock tests and got good feedback. But in the final exam, I wrote in simple paragraphs which worked out perfectly fine for me.

4)How do I choose my topic?

For me, comfort triumphs every other factor. I have always had a certain discomfort, more of a mental barrier for topics related to science, technology, economy etc. But with topics that have a socio-political background, I feel very much at ease, even when the topic is relatively unprepared and may require a certain brainstorming.

I personally feel that if we are comfortable with the topic, our expression has a more natural flow. I wrote the essay on women this time around, knowing full well how popular the topic was and how well prepared people must be. But I was not only comfortable but also very passionate about that topic, and everything I wrote came straight from the heart. I have a strong feeling that it is this very essay that helped me secure such high marks in essay. But more on that, later.

5)Do I really need to practice essay?


No matter how confident you are in your writing skills, practicing a few essays beforehand is never a bad idea. If you can get some feedback on it then even better. Even if you have good content and are good at expressing yourself, you might be making other mistakes like writing very long paragraphs, diverting from the topic, not putting in sufficient examples and so on. Therefore, please practice a few essays and get those reviewed.

Now a few pointers on the specific things I did that may have helped me score good marks:

1) Start solid: Somebody once told me that an examiner will probably read hundreds of essays on the same topic, and is likely to get bored after some time. As such, our beginning must be interesting so as to capture his/her imagination at the very outset. In a strategy article that she wrote, Mittali Sethi mam mentioned how she began her essay with a poem she had written herself. I did the same in my NAM essay. Wrote a couplet on the idea of standing for truth, and then began my essay by explaining NAM as India’s way of standing for truth.

Similarly, for my essay on “Fulfilment of new woman in India is a myth”, I started off with a story where I talked about Meena, the new age Indian woman, who is well educated, financially independent, working at a big corporate firm and married to the man of her choice. And then I began to expose the myth by explaining how Meena still takes care of household chores and the kids even when her work hours are same as her husband’s, how sexism still exists for her at workplace where she is asked to take care of the hospitality of important clients while her male peers get to engage with them business-wise, how she quit a previous higher paying job to escape sexual harrassment at workplace, how her family keeps telling her to quit so as to take better care of her children and so on. I hope you got the idea.

2) Having strong opinions: I am sure you can guess by now how opinionated my essay on women must have been. And I really think having strong opinions and being passionate about the topic helps. But your opinion must be supported by examples or facts. For instance, in my essay on women, I wrote that while a woman defence minister in Nirmala Sitharaman may reinstate the myth of the new Indian woman, we must not forget that women Parliamentarians in India have never crossed the 12% mark.

So while keeping balanced views might be the popular advice, I personally think that my strong opinions on certain things helped me score well. Of course, I was worried about this before the results because I really thought that this could work both ways. I played the gamble and was rewarded generously. 🙂

3) Positivity: Even when you are writing passionately and pointing out everything you think is wrong, you must end on a positive note. Again coming to the women essay, my last few paragraphs were about how things have drastically changed over the years, and while there might not be a fulfilled new Indian woman as of now, she is slowly but surely emerging.

4) Flow: If there is flow in our essay, it will keep the examiner engaged throughout. Abruptly jumping from one dimension of the essay to another must be avoided. For good flow in your essay, you can plan beforehand by devoting the initial half hour to deciding the structure and content of your essay. Also, practice helps.

5) Some important but oft-repeated points:

i) Try to cover as many dimensions as possible. Mittali Sethi mam and Chandramohan Garg sir mention the SPECLIH technique( Social, Political, Economic, Cultural, Linguistic/Local, International, Humanistic dimensions) in their strategies. You can use it for more diverse content. Mittali’s Ma’am video on Essay was in the Essay Course module of ForumIAS.

ii) Avoid writing very long paragraphs.

iii) Use examples, facts, data, current developments, anecdotes, anything and everything to substantiate your point. I did not use a lot of statistics because I could never learn it up, but examples I used liberally.

iv) Read the topic carefully and do not divert from it. For instance, the topic “Has NAM lost its relevance in a multipolar world?” does not require us to explain the entire history of NAM although you may talk about it a little in your introduction. If in your essay you are writing all that you know about NAM without delving on its relevance in a multipolar world, then you might not get good marks. Similarly, if you talk about the relevance of NAM but completely ignore the multipolar world-part of the topic, you are very much on your way to committing a blunder.

So read the topic very carefully, underline the keywords and ensure that you do not divert.

I always knew essay was a scoring subject, but never knew that it would so crucially influence my selection and rank. And so once again, I will ask you all to definitely practice a few essays before the final exam, no matter how good you are with it. Trust me, it will be highly rewarding. I will also suggest you go through Chandramohan Garg sir’s strategy which many have found helpful.



Finally, whatever you do, never lose hope. Because no matter how well prepared they are, nobody is absolutely sure of their selection. So if you feel a little low, or if you feel that you are falling behind, then remember that  those who get selected also face similar fears and moments. More often than not, this fear pushes us to work hard and so your fear is not entirely a bad thing.Of course, luck does have a major role  to play. But for your luck to work, you need to be well past a certain threshold. We must focus our energies on working hard and reaching that threshold, so that luck, if any, can get to play its role.

Also, please don’t overwhelm yourself with this exam and it’s preparation. Take breaks, watch movies, talk to people who make you feel better, just don’t stop living your life. It is after all just another exam in the great series of exams that life is.I wish all of you good luck and a very happy, fulfilling journey.

Thank you.

Apurva Pandey is a ForumIAS Academy Student. She has secured Rank 39 and is the Topper from Uttarakhand. She has secured 175 marks in Essay which is the highest score this year among selected candidates.

You can download her Essay and GS Copies here

Mains Test Series

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