Picture (c) Osnat Tzadok
We are living at a pivotal point in human history. Times like these are testing times.
It reminds me of a close friend, a senior, mentor and a guide to me. About a decade ago.
She always wanted to be an Indian Foreign Service Officer. It was her childhood dream. That was all she wanted in life.
She became one.
She cleared the examination with an under 40 ranks. In her first attempt. And chose IFS as her first preference.
She even sent me a photograph clicked before the White House as an Indian Foreign Service Officer. These were times, when Instagram did not exist and Facebook was supposed to be hip.
And then, she met an IPS Officer, and decided to settle down.
“But that would mean giving up on your UN / US postings -which you’ve been very excited about! For what? So that you can stay with your new family in India?”I asked.
My point was, why would she work so hard – first to fulfil her dream of getting Indian Foreign Service – and then to give it up all – foreign postings – and settle down in India in one of the Passport Offices ( back then ) – just for love.
And she exactly did that. When I asked her, what motivated her, she said.
Life may not be the party we had hoped for, but while we are there, we might just as well dance
The lines have been a big motivation for me. We may not have all that we want, but we sure must make good of all we have.
Life is cruel to those who do not make good of the opportunities given to them.
Now that we are living under the threat of a global coronavirus – and life seems to difficult with study schedules and plans all derailed, here are some thoughts I have
#1 This Self Quarantine is your Tapasya
For those of you, who have heard that Civils Preparation is a Tapasya, well now you have an assured opportunity to do it. Times of distress are times of opportunities. We just don’t know it yet.
So all you need is a working Internet connection and a laptop ( or an iPad / whatever you can get, these days ) and yourself. Since there is not much going out – sit and study at home/ wherever you are. Chances are, probably you won’t get it. Avoid travel at all costs.
When you do that, make sure, you are still attached with Pen and Paper, and do not get lost in the digital world, consuming every youtube video on the virus – or worse – every free IAS preparation initiative on the Internet.
And here is something else, you may need to know.
#2 The Commission may not postpone Prelims.
In my lived history, I have never seen the Commission change dates. Not even when
- there was an SMS Ban in the country,
- not even when when the Babri Judgement was to come and streets were desolate
- not even when we had to write Mains where Diwali holiday fell between the Mains ( and you had to shut your ears and study, because back there was no pollution and people actually burst firecrackers ). You had papers both before and after Diwali. Not Language ones, but GS ones!
- not even when Chennai had floods and Mains was predicted to be postponed.
But on March 20, 2020, UPSC decided to postpone the Personality Test.
In case there is any postponement of Prelims Dates, it will only happen if the Commission is in no position to conduct the exam on May 31, at 9:30AM.
It won’t happen because
- Aspirants could not prepare because of the COVID-19
- Interview Appeared, but not selected, people did not get time to prepare for next Prelims
- The Commission failed to declare the results before the next year’s Prelims.
#3 The Competition will only increase, if it does.
I often joke that if ever the Prelims were postponed by a week, the cut off would rise by 5-8 marks, because more people would have completed revision.
Remember that in case of any changes to the schedule, it is not natural that you many benefit from it. People are known to complain of the noise when opportunity knocks at their door.
There could be rain and sunshine, and yet, it may be cold and dark for you, if you are not adequately prepared for it.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Prepare you must.
#4 Calibrate your daily schedule
Now that we are about 70 days from the Prelims, it is time to take a relook at your Prelims preparation strategy.
I am assuming that you have joined some Test Series – at least one, where you are writing the Tests as per the Test Series Schedule or your Schedule. You are not banking on merely solving questions in a set of 25 or 30 questions only.
You are also continuously improving along with the Tests.
#5 Take care of these 5 things.
The most common mistakes people make in Prelims Preparation is as below
- Firstly, this time is only for Prelims Preparation. If you are still stuck with an Optional or Essay or anything apart from Prelims, it is a crime. The time for Mains is gone, and will come again, if you let it.
- Secondly, Not joining a Test Series[*]. If you have not cleared prelims before ( with a margin of at least 5-10 marks ), and you are planning on writing some tests here and some tests there – or – solving 10 questions here and there – its stupidity. You need to practice how to solve 100 questions in 2 hours. Rest every other practice is entertainment* .
- Thirdly, If you have cleared prelims before, and can’t study books, you must solve papers – because – honestly, you can’t read the books which you have been reading for past so many years.
- Fourthly, if you have not cleared prelims before, or if this is your first and second attempt, you must read the basic books. I recommend reading and revising them at least 3 – 5 times.
- Fifthly, if this is your early attempt, you must have one primary subject – which is Static, and one secondary subject – which should be current. Do not study 5 subjects in a day. Those plans look good on Paper – 2hours-polity-2hours-economy-2-hours-environment. They don’t work.
#6 If you in the Top 20% of any Test Series
If you are in the Top 20 % of any Test Series this is what you need to check
- First, is it anecdotal ( which means only in some Tests ) or is it consistent. If it is consistent, you are on the safer side. Now all you need is to ensure that others don’t beat you in coming days.
- Second, are these sectional / topic wise tests you are topping? While this is not bad news, stay cautious about solving full length papers as well. In exam mode.
- Thirdly, depending on what your weak areas are, you need to work on studying. You probably do not have a strategy problem. You may have a problem of continuing with this performance till the Prelims – so focus on that.
- Fourthly, do not change your strategy. Do not “import” any strategy, given that things have been fairly working for you. Don’t fix it, if it ain’t broke. You’re good.
#7 If you are in the middle quarter of a Rank list
If you are scoring ( in terms of rank ) below the Top 20% scorers and yet above the 50%tile, you are nearly the winning horse.
Firstly, This is because, since you are not Topping the Charts, you are likely to have an above average performance across the Tests. ( The word ‘across’ here is important. )
This is because between consistency and excellence, consistency beats excellence.
Secondly, you have enough time to make improvements. Know that and benefit from this information. You can adopt the strategy steps given below, ( only because you may need some alignment ).
Thirdly, Do an analysis and see what subjects you are good at, and in what subjects you are bad at. Make a list, and work on the weak parts.
Fourth, do not be obsessed with just one subject. People in your score range generally have favourite subjects. If they love Polity, they only study Polity again and again. They are usually weak at Geography and / or environment. They only share their Polity Tests and avoid writing Geography Tests.
Make sure that you are not reading what you already know.
Fifth, In this marks range, you are likely to not have even fully solved previous years papers. You can make the jump to the next quarter just by solving past 35 years papers. ( Yes, I said 35! You will only do yourself a favour )
They offer two advantages
- You will see that at least a few questions every year are repeated from previous years papers. You have direct benefits from solving them.
- It will help set the focus when you study , if they have asked in one year a question on Wavell Plan, next year you can expect a question on Desai-Liaqat Pact. If there is a question on Human Rights Commission, you can very well expect a question on Commission for Women. Once you see questions asked, you also know what they can probably ask.
Honestly, You are in this Group only because you are little careless, and not because you are any less smart.
Its like you are in a “Manipal Institute of Technology types” college for your engineering not because you worked hard and were dumb, but because you didn’t study and were smart.
At this point, a very honest thing you need to do is also to finish solving CSAT Papers of past 10 years. In this range, given the careless kid you are, you are likely to spend a year whining about how-you-forgot-to-do-CSAT in-my-last-attempt.
Every year, we have some geniuses flunking the Prelims Paper because they forgot to do CSAT in the last moment. Or they were banking on English in CSAT and somehow English questions were tricky.
(I meet such smart kids every year.)
Further, since you have more on your tasklist than Group 1 ( because you have too much work ahead and too less time ) , I would hugely recommend you to maintain a journal or Google sheet or some tracker so that you have a task list set out for you. You are not clueless with respect to what you have to do when you wake up every morning!
#8 If you are in the bottom 33% of a ranklist
Or the bottom 40% of any ranklist.
To begin with, I would like to tell you here that if you are in this list, it is very likely that you may have quit nearly any course you would have enrolled in. Chances are, you would be blaming the Test Series for poor performance instead.
Or perhaps the Universe.
Hear me you.
We have 60 days for the currently designated Prelims. This is the exact time, where we can give our blood, sweat and tears and make it to the List.
This is also the time, where you can put in a total of 10-12 hours of studies, with about 8 hours+ of quality studies and 5.5-6 hours of laser beam focus studies.
I mean it.
These are called extraordinary measures.
And extraordinary times call for extra ordinary measures.
Please note that people who have cracked Prelims despite being in the bottom 33% tile of a Test were not the ones who stopped writing Tests.
Quitters don’t make it.
The ones from this gang who make it are the ones who were oily, smelly, clumsy – doing only two things – studying , and sleeping.
No third thing.
So you will have to live a sub-altern life that, if you plan to make it from here.
I can tell you that Minal, last year, wasn’t the brightest of students. But she was three things – persistent, hard working and a go-getter. If she knew something could be done to make preparation better, she would do it. She was not just a dreamer. She was also a doer.
For nearly two years that she prepared for the exam ( one year of preparation and another year of actually writing Prelims, Mains and Interview ) , she wore
a single T Shirt. An orange one. two similar looking T Shirts – one yellow the other orange.
When she finally got Rank 35, and we spoke, I told her, a little hesitantly, to change and come, we’ll do a small video, she was very unhappy and gave me the “But-this-is-mee” look.
I believe that this is the kind of laser beam focus we need during the days before the Prelims.
Nothing else matter.
#9 Kill what you are afraid of
Eat the frog first.
This is for those of you who end up scoring less than like 60 marks ( or 40 marks ) or so in a full length Test ( or a less than 30 in a half length Test ). And everyone good has scored at least 90+.
Make sure that if you have such test papers, where you have such low scores, you must kill those papers.
( I strongly believe that unless you kill those papers, you will not make real progress )
By this I mean adopting a three pronged strategy.
- One, don’t just read the solutions. In fact, make a list of topics from which questions have been asked in the Test, ( and you have got them wrong )
- Two, go and read the whole topic / chapter so that you do not get any questions wrong from that topic ever in your own life.
- Third, and the most important one – attempt the same paper – unmarked after a gap of 5/10/15 days.
When you attempt an unmarked copy of the same paper, make sure that you solve the paper by application of mind, and not by trying to recall what you marked last time or what the key said.
You must keep solving the same paper, again after 5/10/15 days ( unmarked / fresh , I personally use a pencil to mark and and an eraser to erase all of it. Also, I do not try to cheat by trying to guess, what I had marked by pencil the last time. Its not worth it! ), until you reach a score of 90% marks.
( You should! You are solving the same paper again and again! ).
I hugely recommend this strategy, especially with the 8 Simulator Tests of ForumIAS ( No marketing, I personally believe in them )
If you are able to so this to 3-4 papers, Congratulations! You have pulled yourself out of the prelims-pity-party.
( There is something called knowledge base and something called problem solving skills. Both are required. I can promise you that if you develop the problem solving skills, it becomes difficult to fail in Prelims, no matter what type the paper comes )
#10 Surround yourself with people who do well
Not in person. But as a virtual peer group. Or stay alone.
But avoid people, who boast about their marks. Especially in Test Series. Shining in reflected glory. Of a Test Series.
Trust me, people who boast about prelims preparedness are usually not helpful – primarily because they refuse to accept that Prelims is a real challenge, and has to be studied for.
I have been a witness to the journey of a few hundred people, right from holy_mojito on the Forum ( who now serves in the Indian Foreign Service, visually challenged , and a nice kid ) to leomessi10, who secured Rank 1 a couple of years back.
And I can tell you this – one of the keys to keep good company or no company at all.
In the end, we are the average of the five people we hang out with.
#11 Be a little mad
If there is one thing, I would confide in you about it is this.
A little madness is necessary to achieve something substantial in life. I would say, without a hesitation, that a certain madness is necessary to clear the Prelims.
Don’t get me wrong. I never glorify the exam. I would not say the same about Mains.
Remember, it our choices more than our capabilities that determine where we end up.
A time like this comes, in the life of every man, where he has to decide what sort of person he or she wants to be. And if you know the story, you know the man.
It is the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life worth living. Always remember, your dreams have only you. And you have only your dreams. Everything else is ephemeral.
Work the hardest you can. Until you sweat from your brows. Switch off the fans if you need to absorb the silence around you.
And when at 2AM ( or 4AM ) when the world sleeps, and you slog it out – you innermost private feelings will concur with mine.
In those moments of solitude – and reflection – the profoundness will dawn upon upon you that we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.
We have 60 days ahead of you. That is the road ahead.
And for those of you who are little panicky, because you have wasted time, hear me you.
People come in two varieties – one who look ahead through the windshield and those who stare back at in the rear view mirror.
Always be the look-ahead-in-windshield kind. Because the future is the only thing you can still change.
Every story has three parts – a beginning, a middle and an end. This part of your story – is the middle.
And I can tell you that there are no worse regrets in life than to have a story that only has a beginning and an end. And no middle.
Bask in these times, even if they look difficult.
Because this part of your life – this one – is your middle.
Rise. Like little Napoleons.
And conquer the world.
Kyunki, Apna time aaega
Until next time,
Disclaimer : Neyawn is a member of the ForumIAS Community, and views expressed are personal. They do not express the views of the organisation. You can drop him an email at email@example.com and buy him coffee at the end of your Civils journey 🙂
 Title inspired by the famous work “Love in Times of Cholera” by Gabriel García Márquez.
 A good approach is to solve all past years papers, and between 4 to 8 Full Length Test Papers.
 Chances, are you are already living it. You don’t know it yet!
 The Source of that line is disputed. Some attribute it to Swami Vivekanand, some attribute it to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Joy of Kindness (1993), by Robert J. Furey. It is also attributed to G. I. Gurdjieff in Beyond Prophecies and Predictions: Everyone’s Guide To The Coming Changes (1993) by Moira Timms. However , I could verify none of those sources.
 In fact, when I meet Forum folks who are serving in different parts of the country, I often tell them my job is better than theirs simply because I always get to work with young people, who have a destiny ahead of them. Some of my readers will be IAS officers, some politicians. One of the people reading this could be make the Prime Minister in 30 years. We just don’t know, which ones.
 Correction offered by the hero of the story. Yellow and Orange looks the same to me.