The centre court at Wimbledon is a remarkable place. Throughout Wimbledon’s history, on the day of the finals, this hallowed arena has been witness to something extraordinary. Many young, promising players who were expected to win the title simply buckled under the searing pressure. They were just too intimidated by the occasion. On the other hand, the place gave birth to many unexpected heroes, who on their biggest day at the centre court produced some of the finest tennis of their careers. That’s because they weren’t intimidated. Instead, they chose to get inspired.
For lakhs of UPSC aspirants, one cannot emphasize the importance of the Mains exam. The significance of these nine odd days is akin to the Wimbledon championships— if not more.
Moment of reckoning
I had given this exam five times and each time I learnt something new about my strengths and inadequacies— of what worked and what didn’t. As you all take your Mains in ten days time, I want to tell you ten things that helped me ace this exam.
1. This Mains might be your first shot, or that it might be your last attempt and you are really, really desperate to crack it. Whatever it is, just don’t raise the stakes so high. We rarely perform to our potential under pressure. We give our best when we are in the moment, unmindful of the outcome but fully focused on the present. This why it’s so important to have a Zen Mindset. A Zen mind is neither too psyched or excited nor too indifferent or overconfident. To be zen is to be calm, composed and fully alert. That’s the mindset you need to cultivate. I’ve illustrated it in the graphs below:
The Psyched Mind
The Apathetic Mind
The Zen Mind
2. In these ten days, dedicate at least a couple of days when you’d write two tests on a single day. This will train your body and mind to write for six hours a day so that in the final exam you don’t find the task overpowering.
3. To perform well on the day of the exam, revising the syllabus the day before is absolutely vital. In the limited time you get, if you are unable to revise the entire paper, that’s fine. Just try and revise as much as you can without getting mired in a single topic. While revising, it’s possible that you might feel that you’ve forgotten everything. Don’t panic. You’d be surprised how much you will be able to recollect in the exam hall.
4. Once you are done with an exam, do not waste even a second in pointless speculation about the marks, or the evaluation, or the difficulty of the paper. Every time you spend a moment speculating, you cede the ground a little to your competitors.
5. Finish the paper in time, no matter what. You should realise that UPSC can change how it distributes marks across questions, but it cannot change the 250 marks assigned to a paper. So whatever be the number of questions or distribution of marks across those questions, your target must be to write 80 mark worth answers in the first hour, another 80 in the second hour and 90 in the final hour. This translates to 40 marks in the initial 30 minutes. So whether you start with 10 markers or 15 markers or 20 markers, aim to finish questions worth 40 marks in the first half-hour and then repeat this process. Always have an eye on the clock and if you think you are falling behind the time, accelerate.
6. It’s possible that you may not do all the papers equally well. So if one particular exam does not go as per your expectation, that’s not much of a problem. The problem comes when you endlessly ruminate over the mistakes you did and ponder on all the what-ifs. Don’t do that mistake. Once an exam gets over, make a clean rupture from it and focus on the next. Your behaviour in these ten days must resemble a clockwork— ruthless, efficient and unemotional.
7. This advice might feel cliched, but it’s probably the most important. We only realise the value of health once we fall sick. Staying healthy during this last lap is more important than ever. Eat healthy, stay hydrated and get adequate sleep. During my Mains, I always carried a thermos flask full of tea and used to drink a couple of cups during the afternoon break. It used to really uplift my senses. Such small things do matter.
8. When you are feeling tensed or if the anxiety is getting the better of you, practise controlled breathing. I benefitted immensely from this NYTimes article. Whenever I felt restless, I used to do controlled breathing exercises to ease my anxiety and lower my stress. Fidgety people among you might find it helpful too.
9. In the previous 3-4 months, you read all you had to, and wrote all you could. Apart from the books and the strategies, Mains is also about mental toughness. Mindset really matters. During this time, your self-belief must be unshakeable.
10. Focus on the process, not the outcome. Your goal must not be about getting a rank in top 100, or scoring 450+ in GS, or 300+ in optional. Your goal must be to write as well as you can for 20 questions in those 3 hours across all the papers. Have small targets. And then smash them. Final success will inevitably follow.
In any fiercely competitive tournament, the final battle you face is always the most difficult, but also the most rewarding. As you enter the arena on 28th September, the gravity of the occasion tries to overwhelm you. But remember that you always a choice.
Like those heroes who emerged at Wimbledon, do not be intimidated. Be inspired.
With best wishes,
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