With over 10 lakh applicants each year, and only 1,000 selections—the UPSC exams can seem like an insurmountable hurdle. But they can be crossed! In ‘UPSC Simplified’, The Better India catches up with toppers to uncover the dos and don’ts for India’s toughest exam.
Follow the series for all the tips you need.
Sonalika Jiwani, an IIT Delhi graduate, went on to secure an All India Rank of 192 in the Civil Services Examination in 2016. In this exclusive interview with The Better India, she speaks about the importance of time-management, tackling mood wings, and tips to crack the essay question.
She states that aspirants need to manage time under two broad categories—time management daily and then throughout the examination schedule.
Fixing a routine is the most important step, she suggests. She tells me that after waking at 7.30 a.m., she would invest nearly three hours each day in reading the newspaper from end-to-end, making notes online. Then, she would study and rest, as per the plan, going to bed by midnight, sleeping for at least 7-8 hours each night.
Amidst all this, she would take breaks and spend some time by herself. She shares, “I would take 2-3 time-outs to break the monotony. Making a routine can be tough, but it is an indispensable part of the preparation, and you have put in efforts for it. Once this is done, half the problems of time management are solved.”
She also suggests seeking out some company to ease out tension and normalise your hectic routine.
She shares that she would give herself two breaks of one hour each during the day, “one at lunch and another at dinner”.
Speaking to a parent or friend would change her frame of mind and prepare her for the next few hours of study.
So how does one manage time during exam preparation? She answers, “Each attempt for the UPSC is a two-year process. Always start the preparation from the perspective of the mains exam where you first cover the static portions in basic subjects like History, Polity, Economy. Then, reading the newspaper regularly will help you as you will be able to relate to the issues being discussed. The optional subject can be addressed alongside, even if it is a new one.”
While the preparation progresses smoothly, Sonalika suggests changing the strategy three months before the prelims—applying the factual aspects of the basic subjects and revising current affairs. She shares how time seemed to fly for her after the prelims.
Elaborating her strategy, she says, “The preparation for Essay and Ethics should be done first as these are topics which are not touched during the prelims preparation. The rest can follow according to a well-planned test series. Comparatively, there is adequate time for the personality test. Again, this will only be the case if the mains preparation has been strong enough.”
How to handle the essay questions?
These carry a total of 250 marks, which includes two essays in three hours. Sonalika lists that the two kinds of essay questions—topical and abstract—have somewhat different approaches. They require an understanding of all major subjects like environment and governance, and a familiarity with the ideologies of scholars.
For abstract topics, she suggests a style where thoughts ascend logically with proper justification, provoking the examiner’s thoughts and leaving them with something to think about.
Things to remember while writing the essay:
• Aspirants are expected to write two essays, of 850 words and 700 words, respectively. Sonalika suggests that despite the word count, content trumps everything else.
• While writing an essay, especially for abstract topics, always make a rough sketch of the essay first. This will help you stay with the topic and not get carried away with your thoughts. She suggests framing 4-5 perspectives that you will address through the essay before you begin writing it.
• Start the introduction with something interesting. Like a quote, an example or a statistic.
• Address the framed perspectives in a logical discussion in 150 or so words each, weaving one out of the other to maintain continuity. Using formatting elements such as bullet points and paragraphs makes the content easy on the eye.
• The conclusion should summarise the discussion and wrap up the arguments, emphasising your ideas.
Sonalika advises that the conclusion should end on a positive note whenever possible, taking the form of recommendations or suggesting a way forward.
Often, aspirants stay away from their families in the pursuit of this dream. This separation adds to the loneliness of the daunting journey, with the additional challenge of staying motivated. Sonalika says that reminding yourself of the examination as a mission will help you place your goal above your feelings.
She says, “I would handle negative thoughts by going deeper into studies. The feeling of covering a difficult topic during times of distress is greater than any mood swing.”
“In fact, you will realise that you can complete the most challenging topics like Ancient History and Polity when you are feeling low if you channelise that energy properly.”
Having said this, aspirants must remember that nothing is more important their mental health. Sonalika reiterates, “If at any point you feel that you are unable to cope and things are slipping away, take a break, analyse what’s happening, acknowledge the emotions, and come back stronger.”
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With these pointers, we wish you all the best for the examinations!
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)