In Defense of Common Sense : Preparing for Prelims & Mistakes not to make

A wise man once told me – Remember failure is a great teacher. But if you don’t learn the lesson, life will repeat the lesson for you.

We are about 2 months from the Prelims Examination.

The screening exam that is supposed to separate the chaff from the grain.

This is only partly true. For not everyone who does not make it through prelims is chaff.

Because Prelims is not only hard work.

It is also about smart work, consistency, mental strength,  unwavering commitment to a single purpose, the right guidance, strategy, a good peer group, and being extremely competitive.

And laser beam focus till the Prelims.

And timeliness. And making good use of resources at your disposal.

So this is for those of you who have not written Mains before,  here are a few things that people get wrong in Prelims ( but you shouldn’t )

#0 Do not misdiagnose what is not going right so far ( Only for people who have tried and failed before )

Let me share something with you.

I met Ady the other day.

Ady said – “I can attempt as many as 90 questions, but I get too many answers wrong. Like 40 or something.

( Ady scored something like 70 marks in a test where most candidates would score 110 in the same paper. )

“I have an accuracy problem, Sir” he said, “otherwise just like top scoring candidates, I am also able to attempt 90 questions.

“Perfect”, I said. Let us verify this.

I called Shekhar, who had scored 110 in the same paper.” Lets discuss some of the questions.” I said.

After all peer learning is the founding priciple of ForumIAS.

The three of us discussed some of the questions.

Question 1

The Incheon Strategy deals with _______

Ady says – Sir I marked “b” I think I read it somewhere. But it turned out to be wrong.

Shekhar , who scored 110 says – Sir I never heard of it – I didn’t mark it.

Alright, next question.

The London Process is associated with ___?

Ady jumps to answer the question. Sir I marked D. I thought London has been the financial capital of the world – so I marked it. I thought …

“Sir, I had never heard of it, so I didnt mark it” said, the guy who scored nearly 40 marks more than the guy who had marked it

You may not understand it fully, but if you see the difference between Ady and Shekhar – is that what Ady thinks is an accuracy problem, is actually a knowledge problem.

( There were ten other questions, which Shekhar knew and marked , getting them right and Ady didnt know and marked, getting them wrong – talk of accuracy )

Ady had an idea about only 40-50 questions , but he would mark upto 90 questions . He would get 30-40 questions wrong.

Shekhar on the other hand had some idea of ( knowing clearly + intelligent guessing ) of over 70-80 questions. He would mark 90 questions – but would not touch a question he had no clue of.

The big problem with Ady was – when he misdiagnoses the problem of less coverage – as a problem  of accuracy, he takes the wrong medicine.

To improve his “accuracy”, he would practice more and more papers – perhaps buy 4-5 more test papers from the market and practice them – a solution that would never solve the problem at hand.

Accuracy is about getting as many questions right as possible among the questions you have marked..

And here is the secret to accuracy – the more you revise, the more accurate you are.

So if you have an accuracy problem in any test – I beg of you – dont buy a new test series or test paper. Read the basic book once again instead and see if you can improve.

“But Sir, If i attempt only 50-60 questions, I will not clear Prelims anyway” protested Ady.

“Thats, right, I said. But if you mark only 50-60 questions and see your friends marking 70-80 questions in a test series, and they also score well, you would soon realise that they also know more than you. Once you realise that knowledge gap , you will take the first step to acknowledging that you know lesser – and that is because you revise lesser – and you will be on your way to reading more. Reading better.

One wrong misdiagnosis, and your end up solving a problem that does not exist in the first place.

“But shouldn’t I make intelligent guesses?” asked Ady.

“The keyword is intelligent”  Your guesses have to have some foundation.  It must be founded on allied/ relevant knowledge.

If you, the reader, were in my shoes, you would be equally pained to see that candidates often think that one liner questions such as

X, revently in news is a

a) ABC

b) CBA

c) DEF

d) XYZ

is often marked by candidates , even if they have not heard of X at all , just because (a) the question was a one liner.

If a question is one-liner, it does not mean it is an easy question. It is usually a factual question. A fact is different from an opinion. You either know or dont know. You cannot have an opinion about a fact.

Get it?

And here is the old rant for Prelims preparation.

#1 Solve the past years’ papers.

Truth must be told, even repeated, even if it is obvious or true. Or both.  Past years papers give you the true glimpse of how to prepare for the exam. This is especially true for Prelims – and you must solve these papers for two reasons

a) Firstly, about 10-15 questions are repeated from past years papers directly or from the same topics from which questions have been asked before.

b) Secondly, previous years papers help you identify the focus area while you dive into the vast ocean of Prelims syllabus.

Focusing on some areas is essential to ensure that you dont get easy questions wrong.

#2  Join a decent Test Series. And make your friends join it too.

Yes. The best way to prepare for the Prelims is to follow any ONE primary paid test series, and if you feel the need to – any ONE test series from the market, Thats all. If you have a good peer group – each one of you will be able to pull each other. And nothing beats the internal competition.

A Test series with at least a few thousand students is a good way to begin. And as far as possible, join an offline test series – where you get to fill up an OMR sheet.

I can tell you that I work with a lot of candidates from ForumIAS community who have not been able to clear Prelims for 2-3 years, and we have worked to ensure that they clear the Prelims. Year after year. And sometime in the January of 2018, when I used am OMR software to check some of their copies – as opposed to manual – I realized a few things to my horror

First, a large number of candidates, because of their previous failure do not invest time, energy or money in prelims preparation/test series for the sheer fear of failing again.

Curiously, they would practice test papers from the market, NOT on OMR sheets, and do not know that they fill up the OMR wrong – either the roll number, or the name or at least a few questions – annually in the exam.

They could probably be doing this year after year in UPSC, without realizing that they may not be marking the OMR right. And they have no way of knowing it because the marks come after a year, by which time their next years preparation is half way through.

Sounds unbelievable? I spent an entire night fixing up people’s OMR data because they simply were not well versed in the practice of filling up OMRs, and wrote one of ForumIAS’s open Tests! (It was SFG – 1)

Be wise, practice on OMR sheets – at least in the last 2 months, and possibly join a Test Series which puts you against a good group of candidates.

Also, listen to Abhishek Surana, who recommends practicing filling up OMR’s ( because thats what you get marks for ). You should.

He has a Rank 2 in Indian Forest Service Examination 2016.

#3 Have Patience.

Everyone wants to get things done yesterday. When you are trying to solve a problem – such as memorizing Ramsar convention sites – it will take a few hours.

And then 4-5 revisions, after which you will be good enough to recall a question from it.

But if you are neither willing to give it the few hours in the initial, and the few minutes it deserves for revising it – for the lack of patience, you cannot finish off a few things.

So learn to close things. And by this I mean, learn to mark things as done.

Sometimes, we make an extra effort at solving a problem just so that once we have solved that problem, we will never have to spend any more effort again.

#4 Focus on Progress, not on perfection.

The UPSC conducted CS examination takes you through a learning curve. You dont have to be perfect, you just have to progress towards it.

I for one, am always wrong to some degree, and the goal is to be less wrong every day.

(And I still have a couple of people who have read my articles, send me books and/as souvenirs after they have secured their life goals.)

So It is better to commit mistakes, and be wrong, than fake perfection.

Make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and dont make those mistakes again.

And make Progress on a daily basis.

So Mark my words. In fact save it somewhere. And  here it is

#5 Perfect is the enemy of good.

We all want to be perfect. And probably conquer the Universe. [2]

Or perhaps clear the Prelims with a perfect preparation. Some of us have perfect plans too.

Almost every candidate writing the paper wants to perfectly cover the syllabus before writing Tests.

But sadly, you will never be perfectly ready.

So a good way to proceed is to just make the jump, perfect or not.

And let me tell you an immutable law this Universe has for all objects in this world – absolutely noone / nothing is perfect.

Imperfection is beauty.

Perfection is death.

So even if you are not not perfectly there, but if you are working towards your goal, you are on the right track.

Sometimes, all it takes is to keep walking, no matter how many pebbles you got stuck in your shoes.

#6 Manage your time well. Before the exam, and during the exam.

UPSC Prelims preparation is a time management problem too.

On the night of 2nd June, if the UPSC announces that “due to unavoidable circumstances, the Prelims examination is postponed to June 10th” What do you think its implications will be?

I can assure you that if this were to happen, the cut off would rise by ten marks at least.

This is because a lot of people will have planned for June 3 for Prelims. And a majority of the serious crowd will have studied *almost* everything by the evening of June 2.

Except that they would be a little behind schedule, and would need at least 3-4 days to consolidate and reviseeverything they have read.

And they are brilliant people, except that they annually miss the Prelims preparation+ revision deadline- because they overshot the time it ends up taking. For example, you dont count moodswings when you make Prelims plans.

So make no mistake. You will never have more time in April or May than you have right now. The weather will be hot, humid and sleepy. Your productivity may fall too.

Benjamin Franklin once said Do not leave until tomorrow what you can do today.

You gotta listen to him. The man invented electricity.

So whatever you have to do, you gotta do it today, now, right away.

There is no tomorrow.

And give it all you have – even it means sleeping with the rising sun and studying with the moon by your side.

Because sometimes, thats all the company you will have in this solitary battle.

( You’ll also have ME, if that helps πŸ™‚ )

And whatever is worth doing, is worth doing well.

Always remember,  There’s nothing of any importance in life – except how well you do the task you are assigned. Absolutely Nothing. Only that.

Whatever you become, will come from that.

It’s the only measure of human value.

The code of competence is the only system of morality that’s on a gold standard.[1]

The only difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra. So leave no stone unturned.

And you”ll move mountains.

This, I promise.

Until next time,



P.S. If you liked what I write, you can reach me at , and while I may not reply to each of you, I read every email you “ll send me.

P.P.S. This one is for you @dragonborn πŸ™‚

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not represent the views of ForumIAS.

[1] Ayn Rand, When Atlas Shrugged.

[2] What constitutes one’s Universe is subject to interpretation.Some people, for instance, also believe that the earth is flat.

[3] The Title “In Defense of Common Sense” is taken from the essay – A Defence of Common Sense by philosopher G. E. Moore written in 1925. In it, he attempts to refute absolute skepticism (or nihilism) by arguing that at least some of our established beliefs – facts – about the world are absolutely certain.

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By Neyawn

Neyawn is an anonymous member the founder of ForumIAS. He is a coder Mentor & Teacher by profession, and often writes for ForumIAS. You can buy him coffee , if you really really like his work. He has built ForumIAS - the community - twice. You can say Hi to him or ask him a question on ForumIAS, or follow him on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn . You can also write to him at RxAxVxI@FOxRUMxIAS.COM ( remove the small "x" from the email ).