I met a teary eyed girl sometime in 2017. She was a friend of Prajit Nair, a popular ForumIAS Member. She was hard working, meticulous, confident and clueless.
“Neyawn”, Prajit said, ” Please help her out if you can. Almost everyone in our friend circle has cleared the exam except her. She is very demotivated and I don’t think she will clear the Prelims this year also. But don’t tell her that.”
The bad thing about guiding people by spending disproportionate amount of hours with them ( because you personally think they could do much better ) is that they only hear what they want to hear. Or they will do the easiest thing you say – Like join a Test Series. Its easy. You pay a fee, feel that the person will no longer pester you or perhaps be pleased, and you quickly escape or run away. You have the false satisfaction that you did what was told to you. But even that didn’t work for you.
Life taught me that never advise someone unless he or she is ready for it. You will be wasting your time. Worse, they’ll misjudge you.
Minal did not clear Prelims that year too. Finally, we met. I sat her down in a classroom, even made Deepanshu Khurana ( a brilliant guy, whom I had seen work his ass off after flunking in Mains a year back, and went on to get Indian Foreign Service after writing that Mains ) speak to her.
“But Sir, It’s just that I have not cleared Prelims. Otherwise, I can easily crack the Mains Examination, just like that. I have been getting a good score in Pavan Sir’s Test Series.” I only need to know how to crack Prelims.
Most people who do not clear Prelims often assume that they will Top Mains if given an opportunity. Little do they realise that out of 10 lakh people who fill the form for Prelims, only 4 lakh people appear for it. Hardly 40-50,000 people actually prepare for Civils in a serious manner.
That is 5% of the total number of applicants. But nearly every candidate who writes the Mains studies hard because he/she has no other option. People are going to actually take them seriously, family starts believing in them, and it’s easier to study for Mains ( which has depth, gives the illusion of intellectual growth ) once you have studied for Prelims ( which is factual, requires memorising stuff, and requires you to read the same thing again and again ).
Yet another problem with people who seek “Prelims-ONLY” help or have the “You-help-me-clear-Prelims-I-will-Top-Mains-Exam-on-my-own” attitude is that unless they study for Mains for a year, either by self-study or through forced classes, chances are that they will study for Prelims for the whole year.
“But what is the problem with studying for Prelims for a whole year, if one is not able to clear it?”.
The problem is that those who do not clear Prelims tend to do a few things. ( The somewhat serious and motivated ones. The non-serious and non-motivated ones do nothing and wait for the next Prelims )
First, they try to take badla on UPSC by studying for Prelims and hoping to clear Prelims with flying colors ( Dude, no one clears Prelims with flying colors)
Second, they join some Prelims Test Series prematurely, like in June or July. If they are motivated, they will study hard and Top in the Test Series – which has a completely bogus crowd – because it only has those people who did not clear Prelims. The more well-informed ones are either writing Mains or preparing for the next attempt. Even if they do well in the Test Series, it is a false sense of happiness.
Third, between June-July to September they study for Prelims ( if they are motivated. If they are not motivated they do nothing. This is worse. ) When in September-October the Mains happens, they see the Paper and feel that “even if they clear Prelims, they won’t be able to clear Mains – GS, Optionals etcetera. By Nov-December they lose steam for Prelims and start with Mains Preparation. Thanks to Mains Classes and Test Series by various coachings, they join some Optional Classes / Test Series which goes on till Feb.
Fourth, When in Jan, Feb they realise that even Prelims is not prepared for, they leave the Mains Classes and focus on Prelims. Unfortunately, changing from Mains to Prelims is painful, takes time. The change in mindset often takes a while, and unless you have a leap year, Feb has only 28 days. They start the Prelims preparation in March.
Fifth, by March, the real crowd – all the people who wrote Mains as well are back in the game. They score less, lose confidence, write the Prelims in June, and go back to the first point. ( Highlighted in bold and italics. Yes, scroll up. )
At this point, I would like to mention a disclaimer that this article has a New Delhi bias. By which I mean this happens more to people based out of/ who have moved to New Delhi or any “student-hub” for preparation.
If you have heard tales about the UPSC exam, even you must have heard these two things
- One, those who persevere and keep writing UPSC, ultimately get through.
- Two, the exam is so tough that only geniuses and gold medalist clear it.
There is only partial truth in both these statements.
First, it is true that those who persevere in this examination, ultimately clear the examination. Then why do you hear that some people did not clear the exam despite spending years in the Preparation? How is it possible that someone prepared for this exam and gave six attempts over six years – which is a very large number, and yet did not clear the exam?
The truth is both the statements are correct. Here is the explanation. Most of the times, people just write the first attempt just to get a “feel” of the exam. They are not sure whether they have to give it or not, given that Humanities Students have the option to go for MBA, Teaching, JRF, PhD etc. Engineering Students have the option of taking up a private job or MBA or M.Tech or Higher Studies, medical students have the option of doing a DNB or M.S. With so many options, for many people IAS is just one of the career options. And those who do not have a job/campus placements in the final year – also end up writing it to insulate themselves from social scrutiny.
Even for those people whose parents are in some government job, there is the myth that IAS exam is very tough. So there is already fear in the minds of candidates who think of taking this exam. Also, there is a risk involved in this exam that if you do not get a rank, then the other government jobs are nowhere close to IAS in prestige, power and perks. And you have no option to go back to the private sector as your skill sets are lost.
What happens to a UPSC Aspirant is as follows:
The Life Cycle of a UPSC aspirant
1st Attempt: Writing to just get a “feel” of the exam. No awareness. Some friends talked about it so filled the form. No idea of books, syllabus. 1st Year of preparation is an extension of casual easy college life. Previous Years Papers, about 20-30 questions are school level, so false confidence that by just doing basic groundwork I will clear the exam. Attempt Wasted.
2nd Attempt : Did some research after the first failure. Read Topper Interview. Did not take coaching or did bogus coaching where the crowd was not good. Lost interest and left classes or lacked the maturity to take classes seriously. ( When we are young, we do not fully understand the implications of things we do or do not .) Wrote Prelims with some preparation, but did not clear. Attempt Wasted.
3rd Attempt : This time, got the entire booklist, prepared well. Did one good test series, but didn’t think coaching was necessary / lost faith in coaching as one bad experience with coaching or lack of maturity in the first attempt to take classes seriously, and some toppers said self-study is the key. No preparation of Mains – but thinking is that “first let me clear Prelims, then I will prepare for Mains”. Parents also by now lose faith and say – Clear Prelims first, then think of Mains. Worked very hard for Prelims. Cleared Prelims. Exhausted or burnt out after Prelims preparation. Could not study with the same enthu. Did not have time for GS Mains , Essay and Optional.Got average marks in each. The result takes time to come and marks come after next years form is filled. Unpredictable UPSC. This was your first prepared attempt at Prelims
4rth Attempt : By now people have faith in you. You have become a Prelims champ. You love solving MCQs. You have done the basic books so many times that now you know them very well. You are so fed up of them that you only solve coaching mocks. You misguide everyone saying that solve 10,000 questions, you will clear Prelims forgetting that you have already read the basic books so many times, but this newcomer is going to follow your advice, will not read the basic books and directly solve five coaching test papers from the market. You clear Prelims a second time. This newcomer, whom you misguided fails Prelims. Thinks that I only did 5 coaching Test papers. Next Year I will do ten coachings test paper. You, on the other hand, feel like a hero. A false sense of achievement. Have no proper notes of GS. Now totally depending on your enthusiasm and dedication and natural writing skills, you write the Mains examination. If your writing style is naturally simple and fast, you are able to clear Mains and get Interview Call with average preparation. Result / score card comes one month before Prelims. No time to take the corrective exam. This was your first prepared Attempt at Mains.
5th Attempt : You are pro at Prelims. But prelims still needs 20-30 days to 2 months of hard work and revision. If you do it well and good, if you do not , you flunk Prelims. By now you see Prelims as a necessary evil. No one congratulates you anymore on clearing Prelims. By now you realise that even appearing for Interview is not a success. You are emotionally, financially and socially drained. The familya the society starts asking uncomfortable questions. Depending on your enthusiasm, the quickness with which you make decisions, your ability to get good guidance / coaching / Test Series / Material and strategy decides what happens from now onwards. Also, three factors become important now that can ruin your entire plan. One is your Optional performance. Second Essay Performance. And third is your Interview Score. You will probably appear for the Interview and may clear it given so many Ifs and Buts. By now Start-Up ideas start surrounding you. You think Jack Ma will fund your awesome start up.
6th Attempt : You are now fully prepared for the exam. You are prepared for the Prelims, the Mains and the Interview. You are so prepared, you can probably teach other people. By this time, Civil Services preparation is not the only thing you are doing. You could be doing other jobs or writing other exams. State PCS, RBI Grade B look like great “IAS-like” jobs. Someone tells you – or you tell yourself – SDM is the IAS of the sub-division. RBI grade B is like the IRS. Depending on the random play of three things – Optional performance, essay marks, Interview , your final fate is decided. You could be on either side. If you are lucky, you could be an officer in the academy where the major crowd is about 4 -8 years younger to you – with a head full of hair. Some of your batchmates end up calling call you Sir. You enjoy it first but later realise it. You sometimes also protest.
The truth is, this is a general trajectory for most people writing the exam. If you have been doing this, it is a good idea to take a pause, take a deep breath and think for yourself how you can alter the course of your life. The key is, do not make this exam a bi-annual semester exam, passing years in student areas. The world outside is beautiful. You give it 100% or you do not try. There is no use spending your youth in this, failing over successive attempts, which are no surprises because you have not prepared well in the first place.
If you are serious about this exam, there are ways how to prepare for it better.
#1 Write your first / earliest possible attempt with full preparation.
Make sure that you do not experiment with UPSC. The first attempt – or if you have exhausted your first attempt(s), make sure your next attempt is a properly prepared one. You must do at least Paper 1 of your Optional well and to some extent GS Papers well. You should have made good notes of at least 40% of the syllabus of the Mains. Don’t count notes of Laxmikant as Mains Notes.
#2 Follow the exam Calendar. Period.
Prepare for Mains between June-December or January latest. Prepare for Prelims from December-January to May. Reverse the cycle and you will be stuck in the Prelims- Mains cycle for a few years.
#3 Do some Answer Writing Practise
By December 2019 if you are writing 2020. You should know how it feels to sit and write for 3 hours. Either through tests by sitting in classes of three hours duration
#4 Master the Art of Note Making
A bureaucrat has to manage a lot of paperwork. Make sure you do diligent work, learn how to make notes, or if you are attending classes anywhere make good notes out of it. Learn how to make notes, leave out the unimportant thing and focus on the important things.
#5 Take Classes. Join Coaching, if you must.
If I have learned something from Anudeep Durishetty, Suraj Patel and Varun Reddy – my students – and John Snow ( not my student ) who served in IRS, IAS, IRS and at Night’s Watch ( in the Game of Thrones), it is that the first step towards gaining knowledge is to accept that you know nothing. Or at least you have some knowledge deficit. Without accepting there is a problem, how can we solve it? If you are very self-disciplined, create a routine and infallible regular schedule.
If you are not very self-disciplined, take some classes somewhere, write down notes, get into the habit of sitting in a class for 3 hours and get a good peer group in the class. If you think classes are useless, leave them after topping the group. Remember that if you have not cleared Prelims 2-3 times or more, you are not that self-disciplined as you may have a self- illusion of. Regular Classes help you build schedule, organise your preparation, get good quality notes and teachers in Delhi do a better job than elsewhere in the country. They may not be ideal, perfect and all that, but they do the job. Also, if you are a self-study person, you can try self-study for a few years, but if you do not get results, try taking classes. Ideally, begin with taking classes. You will be in a much better position that those not taking classes at all.
And if you still do not have the patience to take classes, get the class notes, augment it and write the whole coaching notes in your own handwriting. That pretty much replaces classes. But do not be that candidate who doesn’t attend classes because he wants to make own notes from coaching notes at home, and doesn’t make own notes in the end, because it is boring and time consuming – and doesn’t do self study because he lacks guidance, and does not take guidance from some person, website, senior, because such guidance is available free on the Internet and doesn’t use the advice on the Internet, because it is not reliable and too much in quantity.
In a meeting held by a cabinet minister, which I attended as a Prime Ministers Rural Development Fellow, a very senior and successful IAS officer privately told me in a disgruntled voice that to be successful in bureaucracy, you must say nothing wrong and do nothing right. But why be a bureaucrat before clearing the exam?
You will have to drive your journey. Things won’t happen on their own. Do something.
#6 Self Study is the Key
You could have all the knowledge in your notes, but what is in your head is what matters. If you take classes, make sure you make notes. If you make notes, make sure you read them 5-7 times so that you know things well. Also, do not be the cool dude, who thinks he”ll have everything in his head directly. The UPSC has a fairly large syllabus. You will need to revise things in the end. So prepare notes. Infinite knowledge in your head won’t help you unless you (a) also have it in the paper as your notes (b) can reproduce them in a time-bound manner in the exam. In the end, you will have to do self-study. Coaching only helps in making notes, clearing basic conceptual doubts in some cases, having a peer group, being aligned in the right direction, and not losing track. That’s all.
#7 Be Honest to yourself
Lie to your friends, parents and relatives. That’s for you to decide. I am not judging you on that. But least of all, do not lie to yourself. You exactly know where you stand. And only you know that. Rest everyone is merely taking a guess. Take steps to improve your position. You know you have the capacity to. It takes time to make progress. Give yourself that time. Do not write exams that you have not prepared for just for the feel of it. If you fail in any damn exam, even if it is SBI Clerk exam, after a neurosurgery specialisation degree from AIIMS, you fail. Even if you are qualified for the job. So do not collect failure stickers from all over the place. Ask yourself, did you even prepare for it?
And we can’t blame our parents or relatives or friends, or spouses or anyone for trusting us less after every failure. Work hard. You are young. There will be a time when you will be old, ill, lazy, tired – but that is 20 years from now. Why work less hard when your biology is working in your favor?
#8 You are the consequence of your decisions
Where we stand in life depends on the decisions we make. No one, absolutely no-one can make those decisions for you, because no one knows your true position better than you yourself. Also, you alone are responsible for your decisions and their consequences. People will call a decision good if it works for you, and all decisions bad if they do not work for you. Having a girlfriend is seen as a support point and a good decision in 2019, but is completely dependent on your success. Lastly, whatever you do, do it in all secrecy and quietly. Never tell your plans and dreams to anyone. Sharing your plan dilutes your intent to do it. Have a plan, seek help, do one thing at a time and do it well, and success will be yours. And remember,
राह पकड़ तू एक चला चल मिल जाएगी मधुशाला
Minal Karanwal, did not clear Prelims that year. She chose to study for a full year after that. And only studying she did. Followed the exam calendar. Focussed on Mains from June – December. Focussed on Prelims from Jan – May. And cleared the Prelims. Then the Mains. Appeared for her first Interview. And again sat in classes until the UPSC declared the results. She shared with me her dream – written down in a piece of paper, where she had replaced the name of Apurva Pandey, AIR 39, and Topper from Uttarakhand with her own – her photograph with her own – in a newspaper article print out. Don’t believe me?
Look closely. The answer is in the details.
Dreams are made of these.
Until Next Time,
P.S. If you ask me what was the one right piece of advice Minal had, it was this – Prepare well for a year before being obsessed with Prelims. Then study for Prelims when the time comes. People who flunk Prelims are so scared of it, that they only study of Prelims. They burn out so bad, there is no way they can prepare for Mains – leave alone clearing it that year.
Just a week before the final results, she came to see me and asked me – Sir, Why don’t you write anymore? I said, I don’t think they like me anymore. “But there are many who depend on your for their preparation journey”. She said. I looked back and did find tons of emails, of people reaching out, a lot of them unanswered. And also old email that never got a reply, and here it is, just before last years Prelims results. And I decided to write this down.
 Down that path, you realise that you may not even get a MUDRA Loan from a regular Bank.
 Jon Snow is a popular character in R R Martin’s Game of Thrones. The poor chap lived all his life knowing that he was an illegitimate child, only to realise in the end that he was the true heir to the throne. He is a fictional character.