IAS Exam Preparation: What is the right approach?

Avadhut Desai | Strategy | July 8, 2020

There are certain proven methods for approaching the civil services exam (CSE). Right from choosing a medium of the exam, choosing an optional subject, creating a schedule for daily routine to taking brief notes, you have to be specific, selective, and very precise in your decisions.

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IAS is undoubtedly a dream job for a host of Indian youth. It is since when ICS was in place in British times; this one single exam has been offering the most powerful government posts to the ambitious youth. Career stability, job security, and most importantly a huge scope of being a change agent to the society in the most diverse social fabric of India are the factors that motivated aspiring youth to prepare for Civil Services Exams – CSE held by Union Public Service Commission – UPSC.

Though it’s not that difficult to crack it, IAS exam preparation demands a holistic approach along with the right strategy in place. 

There are some interesting stories circulated in the IAS aspirants community that one needs to dedicate almost 16 to 18 hours a day and that too for a couple of years to pass the IAS exam. Another such talks are riding air and are spread quickly that one has to go to cities with a coaching hub such as Delhi or Pune to make it to the final list. These are myths. Such kind of rumors spoiled dreams of many aspirants and demotivated the youth from economically backward families from rural India. We have examples where the aspirants have busted these myths and proved that it is all the way possible to prepare for the IAS exam from your home without joining coaching centers in Delhi that charge hefty fees. Then what it requires you to sail the ocean of huge uncertainties easily?

The right approach toward IAS examination matters most

You have to have a specific approach with a positive mindset in the case of the IAS exam. When we talk of approach, we essentially mean that the ways we deal with this so-called difficult exam. Before we start to delve into the right approach I want to make it clear that the Civil Services Exam is neither that difficult nor that easy to crack, it’s our approach that makes it so for us.

An aspirant with an impressive academic background may fail to pass the mains examination or may not able to clear the personality test, the last stage of the exam whereas another aspirant having a simple bachelor degree in arts from a village can clear all three stages in one go. It happens. It happened earlier and it will continue to happen for all the right reasons.

There are certain proven methods of approaching civil services exam. Right from choosing a medium of the exam, choosing an optional subject, creating a schedule for daily routine to taking brief notes, you have to be specific, selective, and very precise in your decisions.

Are you self motivated or forced to fulfill someone else’s dreams?

Why do you want to be in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS)? Ask this question to yourself. There is a category of aspirants who want to be in administration just because their parents want them to. Some other guys might have landed the field because they want to prove themselves that they are no less capable. Enough of this, I have seen worst cases where the aspirant wanted to revenge someone for some reason, and hence the administration was chosen as a mean or tool to achieve very personal and monetary benefits. 

The forced career path may not always take you to the desired destination and money or power must not be your motivation either. The motivation should be broad and benevolent that can make a difference to the lives of masses. The public is what you are going to be a part of. Once you become an IAS officer, public issues would be your issues and society will be your field of work. The government is run on the money that comes from various types of taxes from public and if you become a part of the government you are bounded lawfully to serve the public without prejudice and personal benefits. Of course, the IAS officers get classy facilities including a descent residential facility, a good salary, to a good amount of pension after retirement. Prestige is complementary that one can enjoy while in IAS. Hence, your motivation should be broad and come from within you and not externally.  

The right approach will obviously increase the chances of you being selected for the top-notch posts of the country from around 8 lakh candidates that appear every year for the civil services preliminary exam, the first stage of the exam.

Where to start? What are the initial things to begin with?

Civil services exam (CSE) is totally different from the academic or university level exams. There you have specified resources to refer and here in the CSE-UPSC, you don’t have that kind of advantage. However, the detailed syllabus can help you to figure out and select the related references for your preparation.

Syllabus for IAS exam

Once you are determined to dedicate time and put efforts you would require to carefully go through the syllabus for CSE. Sit and thoroughly read the syllabus – from prelims to mains – word by word. The syllabus is the key to success in the IAS exam. When you understand what is specified in the syllabus published through an official notification by Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) you become ready to proceed further. The syllabus would tell you what to read and what to avoid. If you are reading a bulky reference book, you must know what to read and what to skip, and here the syllabus is the perfect measure you can resort to.

What language should you choose as a medium for the IAS exam?

 UPSC allows you to take the mains exam and answer the oral questions in personality test in a language mentioned in the eighth schedule of the constitution. As of now, there are a total of 22 languages mentioned in the eighth schedule. You can choose any one language that you feel comfortable as your medium for mains exam as well as for the personality test. For prelims, the question paper will be only in English and Hindi. Writing answers in your own tongue will be highly comfortable but you may have limitations in finding resources in that language. The maximum resources are in English. Some successful candidates appeared for the exam with the regional language or Hindi as a medium and still managed to top the exam. Dr. Shrikar Pardeshi got AIR 10 in 2001 with a Marathi medium.  The medium should be the language that makes you feel comfortable in understanding, comprehension, and expression of opinion.

Choosing optional subject

The score in the optional subject is a critical factor in hitting the final list. A preliminary exam is just a qualifying test to segregate the serious candidates from the crowd. The qualified candidates appear for the mains exam where they need to write a total of nine papers – one compulsory English language paper, one Indian language paper, one essay paper, four General Studies papers, and two optional papers. The language papers are of qualifying nature and their marks are not counted in the final score just like prelims marks. The other seven papers each of 250 marks and the personality test of 275 marks will make the total 2025 marks out of which you get your score. 

In all these statistics, optional papers perform a significant role as the General Studies papers will be same for all candidates and therefore all the appearing candidates will have a level playing field in the other papers. You have to select one subject as your optional subject from the list of 27 subjects including literatures. Hence, the candidates who can extraordinarily ace in the optional subject will be having optimum chances of being a topper. To choose your optional consider the following points –

  • The subject you are interested in
  • The subject that will not bore you even after repetitive readings and revisions
  • The subject that is less vast and easy to understand based on your interest.
  • The subject for which you can easily find reference material and resource person

Going by the above criteria, you can zero down on one specific subject that suits you the best. In this regard, you can also take the help of senior aspirants, your resource person (mentor/subject expert), or the successful candidates. Before choosing optional subjects you are also required to go through the previous years’ questions papers so that you could have a slight idea of how UPSC asks questions on that particular subject.

How to come up with the best preparation strategy for the IAS exam?

Have you ever wondered why a very few candidates successfully cross all the barriers spanning two years – One year before the exam and one year while in the exam? Why do some candidates lag behind even after a good start and having access to all the standard material that toppers have access to? Why someone who earlier cracked prelims fails to do that in the next attempt? The answer is they all lack continuity and proper strategy. Given the highly dynamic nature and vastness of the syllabus that demands serious and concerted efforts on a continuous basis until you hit the bull’s eye, someone with a casual approach will not succeed. 

You have to be damn serious with your preparation. IAS exam is all about dedication and continuity in your efforts; it’s not a cup of tea of the casual seasonal frequenters.

The strategy here means your daily routine, covering subjects in a specified time, giving enough time for revisions and answer writing practice, evaluating yourself with periodical test series for prelims as well as mains exam. A few pointers will help you craft your own strategy –

  • Have a flexible yet long term schedule with a broad outline of time allocated to complete each subject well before the preliminary exam.
  • Prepare for General Studies (Prelims + Mains combined) and optional subject simultaneously allocating fair time for each with a proper mix every day. (Minimum 7 to 8 months for both for one reading and one revision).
  • Allocate a minimum of 4 months for prelims-specific reading, tests, and revision immediately before the preliminary exam.
  • Evaluate yourself every week for prelims objective questions and write a minimum one descriptive answer for mains exam every week.
  • Choose study time and place that make you comfortable.
  • Study hours can differ from person to person; there is no rule of thumb. You can sit for 8 hours or 10 hours a day it totally depends on you; the only condition is the preparation should not be boring and forcibly stretched just to hit the specific number of hours a day.
  • Give sufficient time for relaxing – play your favourite outdoor sport or meet friends and relatives or spend time in an activity that fresh up your mind.

Closing words

Stay positive throughout your preparation. Do not let the negative talks by pessimists waver your determination. This exam demands more of mental preparedness and continuity. Many aspirants quit the journey midway thinking they have other big issues to pay attention to and some just get bored due to lengthy, strenuous, time-consuming process of making you an IAS officer. Daily flexible routine, referring selective sources, covering the syllabus in given time with sufficient time for multiple revisions, practicing answer writing, evaluating yourself through mock tests for prelims, taking brief notes to make your life easier after you are done with a couple of reading, and maintaining continuity without fail are some of factors that can give you sure shot success. Read the stories of previous years’ toppers and gain some insight but do not follow them bit by bit. Craft your own strategy because it is you who will appear for the exam, not them.

Until then.

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