Hello everyone, My name is  Prajit Nair. I have secured Rank 87 in my third attempt. In the past 2 attempts, I had cleared the Prelims all the times before in my attempts, but could not break the Mains barrier to get an Interview call. So this time , I decided to give my last attempt with the most watertight and fail proof strategy, though UPSC is always unpredictable. By God's Grace, I not only got the Interview call this time, but got finally selected with Rank 87, which will give me my dream service - Indian Administrative Service.  

My background :

I am a resident of Mumbai. My parents are from Kerala. So I’m a Keralite by roots and Mumbaikar by heart. I have done by graduation in Electronics Engineering from University of Mumbai. I graduated in 2013. I started preparing since then only. I had joined ForumIAS 4 years ago ( you can see on my profile page, my username is Louislitt ) and followed number of posts and comments, to come up with the final strategy for my this years attempt.  

My strategy

Note: I had failed two times in Mains before I cleared in my third attempt. What I can offer to potential aspirants of value are areas of possible improvement and methods to improve. I’m assuming that you have read the basic books(NCERTs, Laxmikanth, Spectrum etc). I would not be dealing with the book list and sources to refer. You can find many such lists across various blogs and platforms. So read the subsequent parts with this in mind. My GS marks in my various attempts were 2014 Mains
  • GS 1 - 56
  • GS 2 - 77
  • GS 3 - 74
  • GS 4 - 93
2015 Mains
  • GS 1 - 91
  • GS 2 - 57
  • GS 3 - 97
  • GS 4 - 81
2016 Mains
  • GS 1 - 105
  • GS 2 - 92
  • GS 3 - 106
  • GS 4 - 129
I sincerely believe that Mains is a stage where the aspirants uniqueness and creativity comes to the fore. No two candidates are same. All have their own strengths and weaknesses. You work on them separately and write a paper that is the best that you can manage with your skills. There are, however, a few standard pointers that can get you success in mains. I missed them in my first two attempts and failed. I have presented them in the subsequent parts on this article. These are not standard prescription for all to get IAS. These are points that get you to the interview table and, maybe, beyond. What I present in the subsequent passages are a set of things I did beyond the reading of sources. You should take these as pointers for your own improvement and use them to recognize weaknesses in your strategy. If you persist with similar constant improvements, no force can stop you from getting the coveted services. P.S.: I have made the article as elaborate as possible so that there arises no chance of doubt. I have tried my best to put all my experiences that may help any aspirant into this article. So apologies for the long post.

Initiatives that I followed & Implemented

I was following Answer Writing  last year as well on other websites, but I was somehow not able to improve my score. I needed to figure out what I was doing wrong. So I concluded that
  1. The quality and quantity  of questions that you attempt is important. So its not that of you just solve random questions everyday and you will get good practice. Questions quality has to be good.
  2. Even after practicing so many questions, If I was not able to score well, then I needed some guidance or help in writing answers.
  So this time, I did two things 
  • Firstly, me and my group of three flatmates decided to follow the Mains Marathon religiously and not join any Test Series, but do daily answer writing practise.
  • I later thought that I will need some guidance and need to write questions in exam atmosphere for three hours, so I joined ForumIAS MGP ( offline ) which was started last year. I realized that we need to get our copied checked and evaluated at least once from someone to see deficiencies that I am unable to see. Otherwise, I will keep repeating the same mistakes that I made in my last attempts. It bore fruit for me and I was able to score
( I have shared below resources to share how I wrote answers this time so that those of you who are unable to break the Mains barrier, can see what I did and what worked for me
  • My MGP Answers Booklets - Book 1| Book 2 ( Attached at bottom )
  • My attempt of the UPSC Questions Paper - all 4 Papers, which I gave to ForumIAS for evaluation after the Mains. It must be at the Offline Center.

General Strategy for all Papers

Any answer can be written with focus on the following points: content, presentation and lucidity. If you are getting low in your test series or main exam, it is a given fact that you may be lacking in any or many of these points. More often than not, people end up blaming the examiner for low marks. This is a useless argument that defends your failure. To move ahead of the failure acceptance of your weakness is the first hurdle. Without this no one can help you. Another common complaint that people sight is that they lack content to write and end up gulping down more books. This happens to be the most inefficient utilization of your time and energy for improving your score. If you follow this strategy to improve your scores, the chances of succeeding are slim. So what should be the way forward? My Assumptions: Before we jump into the specifics, bear this is mind that you are expected to write an average answer to all questions rather than writing a rockstar answer for 2-3 questions and ending up wasting time and missing questions. One’s target should be to attempt all questions with average answers and if luck and time permits, answer some questions well. If we do the math, assuming average marks to be 4.5 marks per answer, 20 average answer gets you 90. Some answers will be good and will take your marks to 100 and above. If you practice answer-writing, average marks can be pulled to 5-5.5 marks. That translates to 100-110 score. How to do this? We shall see in the subsequent sections.  

Content:

This is the most basic requirement to write an answer. What we can argue over is the amount of content required. Bear in mind that you have barely three sides of paper and 9 minutes to answer a 12.5 marks question. You have no time and space. So be aware of the fact that irrespective of the content you have, you are limited by the time and space to present the same. So read less and try to reduce concepts to its bare skeleton. There is no point in reading large sources for covering bullet points given in the syllabus. You could read a complete book on Indian constitutional development but be unable to write a basic answer on the same topic in the given time and space. So there should be a good focus on reducing the size and increasing the brevity of notes while covering the syllabus. I’ll illustrate my point. For example, if we take a topic from GS-2 Social Justice part :
Issues relating to development and management of Social Sector/Services relating to Health, Education, Human Resources.
Take education and prepare on following points:
  • Basic data on GER, literacy, ASER Report etc
  • Present status of education in India at all three levels(primary, secondary, tertiary)
  • Any policy on the same(TSR Subramaniam)
  • Various schemes that you may have observed in newspapers related to education(Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, SSA, RMSA etc)
Try to compress all this into a single A4 size sheet. This shall keep it concise and help you reproduce them at will. This shall enable you to write a reasonably good answer if a question appears on this particular topic from the syllabus.   For difficult topics like
Welfare schemes for vulnerable sections of the population by the Centre and States and the performance of these schemes;
You can prepare on these lines
  1. Try making some framework for answering. I did it as follows Welfare schemes are of 3 kinds
    1. Social security nets - UBI, Pension, medical insurance etc
    2. Specific sections for vulnerable sections - gender specific, tribe, SC/ST specific, Antyodaya schemes
    3. General schemes that covers all sections - NFSA, PDS, TPDS, Jan Dhan Yojana
  2. Focus on constitutional framework for favouring such sections. Build a list of all provisions vulnerable section wise. List them out separately so that you get a clear idea and are able to recall them and use them in exam.
  3. Prepare general data points on each vulnerable sections. For example, take women and searcgh data like LFPR, wage rate disparity, health access, insurance access, no of entrepreneurs, health indicators vis-a-vis men, etc. Read them and use them in your answer-writing practice sessions. This will build your command over them.
  4. Focus on the performance of each type of scheme by looking at the data of the vulnerable section. For example, for tribes look at their health and education data. Similarly for women. This exercise should focus on recent schemes more.
  Here are some sample notes for other topics that I had prepared. You can get an idea about reducing your content and focusing on organization alone You can notice that I reduced the whole topic to a small, brief and concise set of points that I can utilize in an answer. It ends up organizing the content you have into neat bullet points that are easy to remember and weave answers around. Gradually I started reducing every syllabus bullet point into such a concise set of points. It helped me revise easily and manage the points well in mains. It also helps maintain lucidity of points. Something that we’ll discuss later Presentation: This happens to be the most ignored aspect of answer writing. To improve your perspective of this aspect you need to observe the answers from an examiner’s perspective. An examiner is usually a bored personality who has no interest in reading your answer. The more easy you make your answer for him to follow, the more marks he rewards you. Question is, how shall you understand the art of better presentation? One way to do this is to write answers in a group of 3-5 people and evaluate(not discuss!) each other’s answers. Evaluate 2-4 answers for the same set of questions and you’ll be enlightened. I myself did this for 2.5 months before I reached my final level of presentation in answers. It is when you start evaluating other’s answers that you begin to realize, what is it that an examiner looks for in an answer. The easier he finds it, the less he gets irritated and more marks he rewards. Things like
  • Formatting of points(paragraph/point)
  • Using the space smartly, making various parts of the question stand out
  • Underlining of keywords
  • Sub-headings according to various parts of the question
  • Introduction
  • Conclusion
I have attached my own practice booklets of ForumIAS Mains Marathon in links below. I practiced evaluation through this initiative along with a few friends and learnt the nitty-gritties of presentation. More on this in later parts. You can have a look at them and follow similar strategy. For the Introduction, there is a short video by @Neyawn which he shared a few days before Mains 2016. You can follow it. It is a tried and tested method which most realize only after a few attempts(including by yours truly :P )  

Lucidity:

This is a facet of answering that explains why people with good vocabulary and skills in English do not score the highest marks in GS. Lucidity in writing is reflective of clarity of thought. The most simple answers are also the most difficult to write. How can you get this in your writing? You should be clear with your sources. If you are not clear with them then you must read your (limited)sources repeatedly and revise them. Make notes on topics as shown above and try incorporating the format of notes into the answers. This facet is something that comes at the very end of your improvement cycle. It requires you to be well-versed with your own notes. It is difficult for me to explain this with an example. But I will try. Take this question from GS-2 paper of Mains 2016.
Q9)Professor Amartya Sen has advocated important reforms in the realms of primary education and primary health care. What are your suggestions to improve their status and performance?
  I have uploaded a copy of my attempted answer for this GS2 Question. I have attempted this question in it. Here is the link Notice the format for notes that I presented for the same topic above and the answer I eventually wrote. This is one way of making answers lucid. When the actual answer mirrors your notes, it automatically reflects clarity of thought and becomes very simple to follow. I created additional sections to answer the question in a very broad way. The additional section of “Present Status’ is not demanded by the question but since I knew it due to my notes and it added value to the answer I added it. The answer looks complete.  Second method is to use short sentences and be less verbose in answering. It is easy to write in paragraphs, but they also represent less number of points and require more words to say the same thing. ForumIAS Mentors taught me two things here analyzing my answers at the micro level
  • Write two short sentences instead of one long sentence
  • Your arguments should be self explanatory. You should not waste your time by giving some high funda and then waste the rest of the answer trying to explain or justify it.
So I decided, writing in points is easy to comprehend for the examiner and necessitates lucidity. So one way to incorporate lucidity is to write in points and use paragraph format only for intro and conclusion. I’m not saying that using paragraphs is wrong. The only problem with writing in paragraphs is that it is easy to loose focus of the question while answering in paragraphs. Also, it necessitates the examiner to go through the complete answer instead of handing it out to him on a platter. (P.S: I use paragraphs for answering questions for which I do not have much content. Paragraphs hides my weakness well.)   All the above points are based upon few observations that I made over the course of the preparation+ the guidance that I got from ForumIAS Mentors. Assume someone who has cleared the exam in their very first exam(ex. Tina Dabi ma’am). No matter how voraciously they read, their level of knowledge would be lesser than someone who has cleared their exam in their third/fourth attempt. The difference therefore cannot be of content alone. It has to be something other than content. The usual reaction to failure in mains is to study more or read more. That is what we as students are made to think. This makes us ignore the huge improvement that can be made on the presentation part and lucidity aspect. They are more easier to do. They take lesser time and effort. If you have tried reading more sources and failed, you can try working on the aspects I have mentioned.   Try them over the course of a month or so. Practice notes-making and answer-writing, as mentioned, over this time period. Form a group and try brainstorming while evaluating answers. Join a test series and experiment these and observe whether these things gets you the desired results. Be patient and sincere. It worked for me, it should work for you if you persist and put your heart into it.   PAPER-SPECIFIC SUGGESTIONS How did I improve in GS Paper 1 ( Mains)? This is one paper that I found where the most scoring can be done with least efforts. Since my optional is Geography I can’t suggest much for the same. For sociology, the NCERT suffices in covering most topics mentioned in the syllabus. Preparing a one-page write-up for all topics of sociology mentioned in the syllabus can help in answering all questions of UPSC. I had prepared a set of data to use in sociology related syllabus. Though I could not use it in this attempt due to the nature of the questions asked but I believe they will aid in answering questions on sociology in GS1 if the paper is designed as per 2015 pattern. You will find a link to my Evernote on the same topic. For Modern History, prelims reading comes handy. Focusing on answer-writing can help a great deal in scoring marks in the history question. A good source of questions for practice on this topic are past year UPSC Question papers. For World History, sticking to the NCERT should be sufficient. If you observe the past trend of UPSC, some questions are picked up directly from those given at the ending of each chapter in NCERT. If you seek a good (additional)source for World History reading there is a user on Forum(@kainat09) who has shared his handwritten notes. @crazyphoton certifies them as the best(Me too!). (here is the link: http://discuss.forumias.com/discussion/1468/download-2nd-arc-reports-and-world-history-hand-written-notes-of-d-amarkesh-cse-2012-topper-air-217)   How did I improve GS Paper 2 ( Mains)? This is one paper that is tricky in answering. Assuming that you have gone through the basic ritual of covering Laxmikanth, further improvement can be done in following ways. You can read the ARC reports. But if you are lazy like me you can download and print these handwritten notes by @kainat09 (here is the link: http://discuss.forumias.com/discussion/1468/download-2nd-arc-reports-and-world-history-hand-written-notes-of-d-amarkesh-cse-2012-topper-air-217 ) These notes help you in enriching your answers and aid in expressing an opinion. I downloaded these notes, printed them and read them 2-3 times. Apart from these, reading reference answers of various test series helps immensely in collecting some good points and enriching your answers. The answer-writing part is where all the scoring happens. I have attached a copy of some of my answers that I wrote in the mains. I had reproduced them after mains for friends to evaluate. They are not complete answers, just a basic framework of answering that I adopted. A good way to learn from them would be to look for lucidity, conciseness and neatness. This is one paper where answer-writing practice has spillover effects on other papers too, including optional. I scored 57 in 2015 mains in this paper. The reason for this low score was that my answers were verbose, lacked clarity and were a bit philosophical. I was told about this by many test series. I simply could not understand the extent of the problem in my answers by looking only at my answers. I understood my shortcomings ONLY by comparing my answer sheets  with those of @Arsenal. It was only after comparing my own answers with someone else’s that I could differentiate a good answer from a bad one. So before you start reading my answer papers I would suggest you attempt these questions on your own and compare your answers with my answers. This will enable you to find your own weaknesses and areas of improvement. (P.S: Trust me, write the paper before you sit and compare. It will wake you up from any misconception that you hold about your answering. I know it is boring and time-consuming but I can vouch for this time investment as being an eye-opener) Links:
  1. Link of my re-attempted GS-2 paper of Mains 2016
  How did you improve GS Paper 3 ( Mains) ? This is one paper where the variables are the least. Questions are pretty straight forward. A decently written answer gets you average marks. By decent I mean addressing all parts of the answer. Multiply average marks by the number of questions you attempt and you get an overall average score. If you add in facts, case-studies and diagrams, the score increases. Having a good command over facts help. If you need a good idea about writing answers for this paper you can go through topper’s answer-sheets available at various platform. For data, facts and relevant case studies reading a single newspaper should suffice. How did you improve GS Paper 4 ( Mains) ? This is a paper were getting 100 is the easiest. All that you need to do is complete the paper with average answers. Take it from me that you will score 100(provided that you don’t use expletives in you answers). The real task is scoring more than 100. This is were creativity and preparation plays its part. I experimented with different ways of writing answer and case studies. I implemented them in my test series at ForumIAS MGP and got opinions regarding them and tweaked them accordingly. Apart from the test series I attempted around 14-15 full question papers and got them evaluated from friends. Over the course of solving these papers I developed good examples to illustrate various ethical concepts and dilemmas. These examples I used liberally in my actual examination. I have attached my ethics papers that I wrote at ForumIAS MGP. Notice the various tools that you can use in ethics to catch the examiner’s eye. One example could be the use of flowcharts in illustrating case-studies Other ways of creativity are simple examples. To elaborate this, here is an example. Think of simple concepts like integrity and honesty. You can explain the difference between the two concepts in many pages of theory but in the actual exam you get two sides of a page and seven minutes to do the same. So if I were asked to explain the two concepts, my answer would be something like honesty is telling that I took a bribe, while integrity is not taking the bribe(Short, simple and concise). Similarly there are minute difference between various concepts. Knowing them could help you differentiate between them easily and write answers that are sensible and relevant. Notice questions from this year’s paper Q1.b)Why should impartiality and non-partisanship be considered as foundational values in public services, especially in the present day socio-political context? Illustrate your answer with examples.  
Q5)Law and ethics are considered to be the two tools for controlling human conduct so as to make it conducive to civilized social existence. (a) Discuss how they achieve this objective. (b) Giving examples, show how the two differ in their approaches.
These questions cannot be answered without knowing the difference between the various terms. We tend to use many words synonymously. This erodes the value of your answer. So prepare all the words given in the syllabus and try finding differences.   Another way to increase marks in GS-4 is to spend time in contemplation. I used to take bullet points from the syllabus and think over them. I used to note down whatever used to come to my mind. The focus was on building ethics specific material. For example, there are over-lapping topics of GS-2 and GS-4 like Citizen Charter. The method of covering these topics have to be different for different topics. Here I present the different notes for the same topic but for different papers.
  • Citizen Charter for GS-2 - Link
  • Citizen Charter for GS-4 - Link
Similarly sometimes I prepared mixed notes for the same topic. Here is an example: For good material that can help your answer I would strongly recommend reading the 2nd ARC Report on Ethics in Governance. It is a well-written report that has many good examples and innovative expressions. For example, corruption is very succinctly defined as monopoly plus discretion minus accountability. This was my introduction for this question in mains.
Q4.a) Corruption causes misuse of government treasury, Administrative inefficiency and obstruction in the path of national Development. Discuss Kautilya’s views.
  I will present a some notes that I specially prepared for GS-4. These are some Evernote files that I prepared over the course of my 3 attempts. I have shared them too. Since I switched between handwritten and digital notes the notes are incomplete. Please bear with me. My apologies. :)
EVERNOTE Ethical Terms:
  • http://www.evernote.com/l/AP7wlMGP3pFBTb0qNOQ5Hbwy-MPf3c1nt4U/
Ethical Concept Framework: 
  • http://www.evernote.com/l/AP7MVufbWw1EmYdU8UhjknGn3Rpu3LLQLXA/
About ForumIAS and its role in my selection Civil Service preparation is usually a torturous process often taking time, effort and testing one’s patience to its limits. If someone tells you that he/she enjoyed the process, ask them to write prelims again and their facial expression will tell you all about their “enjoyment”. The whole examination process makes you a theist, drives you insane &  back, pushes you to the very edge among other things. In endeavors like these it is always better to have people who are going through the process to interact and talk out things. Very few people from our everyday life understand the variables of the civil services examination process. Explaining someone who has never ever attempted or even looked at the pattern of this exam about the various stress that one undergoes while attempting this exam is frustrating, leave alone asking for support. This forum has been among the best things that I came across in the course of my four years long preparation. The most significant role that forum played was of giving a platform that allowed aspirants to come together and share their problems. I was a silent member(username: louislitt) on this forum. I found great support in reading various posts by others regarding their own problems. Not that I gloated on other’s problems or drew sadistic joy from reading them. Just that I was reticent in sharing my own problems. But the very knowledge of the fact that people in the process are going through the same and all this is very normal was something that helped me trudge through the process. This has been the greatest help that ForumIAS could offer me during the course of my prep. Apart from the support ForumIAS was of immense help in following ways. I used to frequent the bakar threads and various threads on Geography discussion. In this process I made some very good friends via Forum. @rks22 is one of them. Had it not been for the forum I wouldn’t have met them. They stayed through the process. We interacted over the forum, shared notes, prepared together, discussed answers, made improvements. All this helped in some way or the other in my eventual success. Two notable instances of great help were the posts of @crazyphoton (YOU KNOW WHO!) and the AMA session that the forum conducted with @Arsenal (Karn Satyarthi AIR-9 2015). These enabled me to get a good insight into what does a topper look at when he looks at books, syllabus and answers. You can read through them yourself. I can assure you that it will be a good investment of your time. About ForumIAS MGP I had joined this test series and it turned out to be a gem for me personally. In fact, this time all my friends from Mumbai and flatmates from Delhi are joining it. The tests series consisted of 16 tests(8 sectional+8 full length). Earlier I had thought that i will not join any Test Series, but after 1.5 months , I felt the need to do so. I had already missed some tests and money was an issue. They allowed me to write all tests but evaluate only the 8 full length tests for a reduced cost. However they were kind enough to let me access the Question papers and reference answers of the remaining 8 tests. I did attempt those papers separately . Also, their reference answers are well written. They served as good material for reading current affairs. As for the 8 full length tests, those were evaluated by a single mentor or maximum 2 mentors for several tests, who would be able to see my progress and ensure that I was implementing what they suggested. So what I really liked about the evaluation was an objective assessment and a human contact. I know both these are contradictory. Evaluation is a human endeavor. There are strong biases common in every evaluator. An access to the evaluator gives an idea about these biases. An evaluator looks for certain things when he gives marks. Things like coherence, lucidity, presentation etc. catch the evaluator’s eye. I experimented a lot with my papers in the course of these 8 tests. During the sessions in which I used to interact with my mentor, he was able to point out broad areas of improvement and possible shortcomings. ForumIAS has shared my scanned answer sheets(Links below). The extent of improvement is tangibly visible in the 8th paper starting from my level in 1st paper. My scores in UPSC also saw similar jump in this attempt. The level of improvement speaks for itself. To be  honest, this entire jump in my score was not accidental, but because of lot of effort that went in planning and executing things and the tremendous help that ForumIAS mentors gave. In fact, The mentors are ForumIAS are pretty experienced in terms of evaluating answer-sheets, and if you show keenness they will not disappoint you.  They were also keen on getting people like me who never had interview call before get their first interview call. A few of the people I know from MGP who were in 4rth of 5th attempt with no interview calls got their first interview call. Some of them are on ForumIAS itself. About Mains Marathon I followed this initiative from 22nd August(the day this started) till mid-October. The initiative has some well designed questions. I religiously wrote it for a month and a half before I joined the MGP. It did help me practice. It is a good alternative for similar initiatives on other sites. The problem with initiatives like these are that they have a huge potential to help in your preparation but people end up using it inefficiently. Attached in the link below are a few booklets of my own answer-writing practice using this initiative. We were a group of three who would write the questions and check them amongst ourselves. The gains from this initiative were answer-writing practice, marshalling of various points read at various places and, most importantly, revision. The practice booklets are uploaded from the very starting. You can find the questions to which these answers are written on the ForumIAS Portal. The evaluation of answers began from the Day 14. This can be reached at page no:91 directly. Till then I wrote alone. Gradually I found a group to evaluate my answers and the process of improvement began. If you need visual and logical confirmation whether this initiative works, compare the preceding answers with the initial answers.   Links:
  1. My ForumIAS MGP papers - Download Link
  2. My ForumIAS Mains Marathon booklets -  Book 1 | Book 2
  All that I have written above is nothing new. It is just a collation of many things that have various sources and have been discussed at various places. Some are of previous toppers, some are my own and some are of my close friends. I have learnt them over a period of four years. This article is way to thank ForumIAS and the vibrant aspirant community that allows averages like me to clear this exam. I’m just doing my part now that I’m on the other side.   Regards Prajit Nair