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Personal Memoirs of Toppers - Most Common Queries Answered for You

Took the decision of becoming a civil servant as your career choice? Then, you might have many queries on various issues regarding Civil Service Examination (CSE) conducted by Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). These may include questions over preparation strategies; whether your educational background is an advantage or a disadvantage in clearing the exam; whether to join coaching institutions for better chances in achieving success in the exam; and many more. To answer such common queries, personal memoirs of toppers of this exam has been put-forth in the following write-up.

On CSE Being Mother of All Exams
UPSC CSE exam is considered as one of the toughest exams and is even called as  Mother of All Exams . When asked the same, Gaurav Agarwal, a topper of the exam answered in the affirmative. He said, “CSE is mother of all exams. There are two reasons for this….one, the length of the exam, it carries an entire year….it takes minimum two years to prepare for the exams, one year for the preparation and one year for the exam, and if you are not getting good rank and if you are not getting desired services you need to prepare again for that. Second, it is not like science and engineering exam where you write 2+2 is equal to 4 and you know this is the right answer. This is such a subjective exam if someone likes your essay they will give you 50 for the essay and some do not like your essay they will give you 15 for the same essay. It is so random, so subjective, you really don t know whether you have done well in the exam, or whether you have not done well in the exam...”

Sakshi Sawhney, another candidate who topped the exam, also answered on similar lines. In her own words, “That is quite true. The exam process itself takes one year and there are no limits to your preparation. It is also a journey of introspection - you learn a lot about yourself and you learn to take both successes and failures in your stride. I think regardless of the result in the examination, you emerge as a much stronger person. You learn many of life s lessons while going through this process- it is truly the mother of all exams.”

On the other hand, Medha Roopam, a topper, said that, “This (that CSE is Mother of All Exams) may be the view of the market, its true the syllabus is very vast, but in India today, all exams are held in high amount of competition and they are all difficult to crack.”

Hemanth Kumar, who succeeded in achieving his goal has said, “Labelling anything tends to have more negative consequences than positive. It ll tend to create fear psychosis among the aspirants and makes them prone to succumbing to monumental expectations that accompany this examination. It fosters more negativity than confidence/motivation.

No doubt it is one of the toughest examinations considering the number of applicants, the dimensions on which they are judged, the level of hard work and sustained motivation require to succeed in this examination and the mode in which examination is conducted by the UPSC.

Though one must definitely be aware of the enormousness of the examination before embarking on the journey but at the same time constant positivity, motivation and evaluation of self against benchmarks on periodic basis is what needs to be done.”

On Self-Assessment Before Entering CSE Arena
Before plunging into the rigmaroles of CSE preparation, one has to assess themselves - their capabilities, requirements etc. - for having an impactful preparation. For Gaurav Agarwal, his self-assessment came by studying basic books that are required for CSE while doing job. After knowing that he is interested in studying even in his busy life, he came to a conclusion that he is capable to give CSE a try. He quit his job, prepared for CSE and became a topper.

Hemanth Kumar, on the other hand listed out the following for an assessment to be done by candidates aspiring to give this exam. In his own words, “A student needs to assess himself on these dimensions before embarking on the journey: Willingness to persevere; Basis of sustained self-motivation – both external as well as self-drive; Rational and logical thinking esp. ability to think in a balanced manner; Inquisitiveness for understanding the surroundings; Sound analytical ability; Good comprehension skills; Decent handwriting and writing practice.”

On Clearing the Exam in the First Attempt, Their Daily Routine and Preparation Strategies

Some common queries which every person aspiring for civil services ask is,  How many attempts will it take to clear the exam? ,  Is it possible to clear the exam in the first attempt itself?  Well, let us see what the toppers opinion on this subject is.

Medha Roopam says, “Every attempt is like a new attempt and hence I believe that victory can be achieved even in the first attempt.”

Sakshi Sawhney in an optimistic tone said, “Frankly, I don t think we should approach the exam with the mindset that we have so many attempts - we should treat the attempt as if it were our last. I got selected in my second attempt and I understand the fact that frustration does increase with every new attempt. So, give 100% effort and try not to get comfortable with the number of attempts that you have remaining.”

Preparing for CSE requires a proper strategy and a daily routine to follow. Let us see what the successful candidates  strategies were, their routines and suggestions for you.

Gaurav Agarwal said, “setting a daily routine is difficult because it takes two or two and half year time…all I can tell you is that what I did was whenever I used to study anything I used to study from the exam perspective only…I used to study from the perspective that what might be asked in the exam out of this topic, so let s say that there is some news then I would try to ask what kind of question can come from this news and I used to study according to that perspective only…that really helps to filtering out lots of noise…”

On his preparation strategy and daily routine, Hemanth Kumar said, “The basic requirements of the exam are
1. Wide coverage of the syllabus
2. At the same time, in-depth and thorough coverage of selected areas
3. Writing practice is a must. Focus on writing precise, concise and pointed answers.
4. Balanced approach to answer writing
5. Balanced personality
6. Willingness and motivation to persevere”

“Widen your coverage of the syllabus but at the same time make sure that you are selective as well as comprehensive and thorough in the selected topics. Regular reading of at least 2-3 newspapers is a must. Try to understand the issues from different perspectives and form a balanced opinion about them. Intensity needs to be increased as the exam draws near. But make sure that you reserve your best for the D-day. Do not burn yourself out before the exam itself.”

“A daily schedule helps one plan out one s day better. However, every day s work should lead to some perceptible progress towards the final aim. Each day s schedule as well as output should fit into the overall long-term strategy which should be unambiguous and sharply directed.

But do see to it that planning should not become an end in itself as has been the case with the India growth story for some time now.”

Mains (the second stage of CSE exam) is considered one of the toughest part to prepare for. On this Medha Roopam suggests, “The preparation strategy for the mains should be based on increasing the range and keeping the breadth not too high nor too low. Knowing too much about one topic may not help as much as knowing limited amount on every topic. Do not leave any section of the syllabus, manage your time well and try to attempt all the papers of the exam. Also read one book ten times instead of reading ten books one time.”

When asked whether preparation for prelims and mains should be done simultaneously, Medha said, “For the topics which were common, I kept the preparation integrated. But one must remember that the preparation must be done keeping different focus for prelims which is a test of recognition and Mains which is a test of reproduction and description.”

On Most Difficult Part of the Exam
Hemanth Kumar says, “For me, writing precise and concise answers within the prescribed time was the most difficult part.”

“Being a working professional for close to 7 years, computerization had taken a toll on me. I could easily qualify the prelims but due to lack of enough writing practice could not complete any of my Mains papers. And I had to pay heavily for that.”

“Another lesson that I learnt the hard way was the importance of periodic revisions and consolidation of preparation periodically.”

For Medha Roopam, “The most difficult part of the Examination is the Mains Examination. The syllabus that has to be covered intensely and the exam writing procedure is in itself very heavy. I dealt with it by making long term, short term plans and daily targets. I also kept up my efficiency levels my regularizing myself by a physical activity like Squash or Jogging. That also kept my life normalized and my motivation levels high.”

On the other hand, Sakshi Sawhney says, “The vastness and dynamicity of the examination makes it challenging. The only way to tackle this is to revise constantly (and not at the end), analyse current events on your own rather than simply memorizing a newspaper s opinion and practice answer writing.”

She further says, “In the initial months, my preparation was integrated. As Prelims approached – I slowly became more focused on the prelims.
a) I memorized the syllabus by heart.
b) I read the newspapers thoroughly keeping the syllabus in mind and maintained separate notebooks for the notes from the newspapers. I also maintained a glossary page. It is useful if you have this for every subject- it helps to read the newspaper effectively, utilize a good word for concise writing, helps in revision and may also be useful for essay.
c) Reading Yojana is very useful especially for Paper II.
d) Other than that, I read Chronicle, albeit selectively (especially the special editions).
e) Selective reading of EPW and World Focus
f) Lots of revision and re-revision and daily answer writing; weekly revision of notes. Never leave revision for the end because then you may not get down to doing it.”

On the Question of Joining Coaching Institutes
Sakshi Sawhney said, “Yes I did. At the same time, I believe coaching is not the magic wand that will help you attain success. Self-study is crucial and without it one cannot expect to clear the exam. Someone gave me very good advice when they said use coaching as a break from your study routine. Use it as an opportunity to revise and get fresh perspective, don t simply depend upon coaching.”

“It is completely alright if aspirants do not take coaching and prepare entirely on their own. Coaching is useful in the sense that it provides access to teachers who can correct your practiced answers, it helps revise concepts, helps you meet like-minded people with whom you can discuss your preparation levels”, she said.

Sighting her perspective, Medha Roopam said. “Coaching institutes are helpful in giving a good set of friends to discuss with but major work has to be done via self-study. Personal feedback provided in the institutes on answers can really help in knowing your weaknesses and flaws”

Putting a cautious a note, Hemanth Kumar says, “I believe, over reliance on coaching centres can turn out to be counter-productive. A smart and selective approach to Coaching Centres is what is expected. Some coaching centres do provide course material and test papers that help in fine tuning one s preparation.

One positive aspect of Civil Services examination is that, UPSC always keeps innovating and is generally 2 steps ahead of the coaching centres. It helps in preventing “tutored” candidates to make the list.

One must clearly understand that one s preparation need to be based on one s own strengths and weaknesses. UPSC is looking for self-motivated, meritorious and hard-working candidates, not just “tutored” parrots.”

On the Importance of One s Background in CSE
Many a times, candidates interested in giving civil services exam are worried whether their background can hamper their success or boost it. The background ranges from one being graduated from arts background or engineering; from coming from rural areas; poor and rich etc. What do the toppers have to say about this? Let s find out.

Medha Roopam says, “Background does not matter as much as motivation and determination does. If one keeps the vision of working for India, any hurdle and any difficulty can be surpassed.”

Hemanth Kumar says, “There is no gainsaying the fact that background does play an important role in shaping one s personality and thought process. And it is one s individuality that is finally reflected in the answers that one writes in the examination or gives in the interview.”

“Though there are some myths that the examination suits people from a certain background. But, I personally believe that though background helps in one s preparation it cannot be a hindrance for someone who has a burning desire to ace the examination. After all, success is a matter of choice not chance.”

On engineering vs arts background debate regarding prelims exam, Sakshi Sawhney says, “I don t think there is any bias towards engineering background candidates. The Aptitude paper is mostly logical and really does help level the playing field. Earlier, it was believed that the paper was too biased towards students from the Arts background. But now that there are two papers that are compulsory for all, the scope of bias is reduced. The possibility of a candidate scoring so well in paper 2 that paper 1 scores become irrelevant has also been done away with by introducing a minimal score requirement for each paper.”

“Further, I believe that the compulsory English passages are not only less in number but are also not as hard as the English passages which come with Hindi translation. English is an important link language even today and a basic understanding of it is important. UPSC does not test the quality of language written or spoken as much as it is testing understanding and comprehension which I believe is important.”

Advice to Candidates Who Failed
Hemanth Kumar: “It is after all just an exam. There is a vibrant life beyond it.

If you ve chances left, take some time to understand the lacunae in your preparation strategy of last time. Work hard to plug-in those loopholes while building on your strengths.

If you ve exhausted your chances, this is what I have to say to you:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds;

who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” - (Theodore Roosevelt)”

Sakshi Sawhney: “Failure happened to me in my first attempt. It feels terrible. But if you decide to go ahead with giving the next attempt then pick yourself up because there is no other way. Take it one day at a time and study for the next round. Here are lines from a very inspiring song.

Change your destiny, gather your strength and just walk towards your goal…. your courage will alter the lines on your palm, so come and colour your world in the colours of your dreams. So, what if it s dark right now, tomorrow will be a new morning.”

Medha Roopam: “I too faced failures in this exam. Don t let that deter you or bring you down. After my first attempt, instead of getting dejected I got used to failure in a positive way and took it up as a challenge. Once you have determined to work hard, you must not let negative results pull you down, and must continue to have faith in yourself. Because, if you can t then no-one else can.”

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