Time and again the question of whether coaching is required for preparing for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) Civil Services Exam (CSE) lingers in the minds of lakhs of aspirants. And with no clear answer, most of the aspirants succumb to the view that coaching is essential to prepare for the competitive exam every year.
Recently, I was talking to a senior IAS officer from Bihar who prepared for CSE from Delhi 25 years ago. When she decided that she wanted to write the exam, she had a vague idea about it. No guidance, material or details about the exam were available to her. She had no other option but to visit Delhi and start preparing in a full-fledged manner.
Her daughter cleared the UPSC exam in her second attempt this year and she took no coaching for the exam either. She prepared from home and spoke with confidence about how it was unnecessary to go to Delhi when everything we required for the exam was available online.
It was quite fascinating to see her fortitude and it intrigued me further. I wanted to understand what is the secret here which most of the aspirants are missing and they spend lakhs every year just for preparing for this exam.
She told me it is only in the initial stage of preparation that one feels underconfident and clueless about how to approach the exam. Her mother helped her but exam patterns and strategies have changed a lot in the last 25 years. So, she had to prepare as per the demand of the current times. The initial hurdle was overcome with the support of online articles and videos of selected candidates. She invested a lot of time in the initial months to understand the basic nuances of the exam and the approach as well as the strategy of the candidates who got selected. This helped her in selecting reading materials and other online platforms where information is available for free. So, her formula was, if most of the selected candidates are referring to some book or website then there must be something about it.
Initially, she followed such recommendations blindly and later when she got a better understanding of the exam she picked her own materials and online platforms which suited her preparation. When I asked if she doubted herself while preparing, she replied, “A coaching institute will teach me the same material and content which I can study on my own. So, what is the need to pay a hefty amount for something that I can already do myself sitting at home?”
She specifically mentioned how free material available online helped her a lot in her preparation. Wherever she faced difficulties, she used to read and watch videos online to ensure that topic is well understood. Not all topics are explained properly in books, so where understanding was an issue, she took help from online sources. At the end of the conversation, she said, “All we need is a good internet connection these days. The rest is available at our fingertips.” I got goosebumps!
My Preparatory Journey
I started just like any other aspirant with a bit of underconfidence and having doubts about each and everything I was doing. But I knew I wasn’t alone.
I worked for three years after college before starting preparation for the UPSC exam. I took coaching and paid Rs 60,000 back in 2012.
I joined the coaching institute in Karol Bagh assuming that it would help me a lot. But unfortunately, my hard-earned money was spent in vain. I discontinued coaching after a month when I realised this is something I can do on my own.
I found discussions with friends who were preparing for the same exam far better than attending those lectures where a faculty would teach me from the same material that I could study on my own in half the time they were taking.
I utilised the remaining time in preparing notes and making my preparation better.
Within a couple of months, everything started making sense. I had a better understanding of the exam, I gained a bit more confidence and that could be seen in my preparation also.
As they say, you have to be a jack of all trades in this exam — I ensured to cover my weaknesses and started converting them into my strengths by focusing more on topics where I lacked clarity. This made my preparation much stronger as I was improving day by day.
I relied on the risk to reward principle, where risk is the amount of time one invests in a topic and reward is the number of questions being asked from it. I ensured this principle was followed in revisions also.
Once I had clarity, I knew I was inching closer towards the exam and just kept on studying continuously. These efforts are what gave me my desired results.
Being Self Reliant
Coaching institutes flourished during the times when aspirants had no access to material and guidance on the exam. There was no social media, online platforms and guidance available from where they could get access to material and information. Even today, the reliability and dependency of these coaching institutes have only further increased to the extent that aspirants feel it is necessary to take coaching to clear the exam. But they seldom realise that the times have changed, and we are living in the era of the digital age where everything is available in the online world.
In recent times, I have talked to many junior officers, especially the ones who cleared the exam without coaching, and certain things were common in their preparation. They all were confident and had a growth mindset, this helped them in realising that almost everyone starts with a bit of underconfidence when they prepare for this exam and slowly this converted to confidence when they drowned themselves fully into the preparation. Everyone thought that not joining coaching not only helped them save some bucks but also gave them more time as compared to others.
So, the time is right for the aspirants to change this mindset of dependency and be self-reliant when it comes to preparation. They can start with the basic NCERTs, then move on to the main sources and finally do multiple revisions as per time availability. The strategy should be whatever they study has to be revised properly in the last two three weeks before the exam so that they would be able to retain as much as possible. It should be clear what not to study rather than what to study. So, the best approach is to select reading materials wisely, make proper use of online resources and ensure discipline is maintained during preparation time. Understanding one’s learning styles, memory functioning and how to manage to study various topics in the given time is the key here.
Times have changed in the last decade, especially due to the online presence of vast information that can boost the preparation levels. This mindset of reliance on coaching institutes has to change with the current times. The change can come when selected candidates who qualified without coaching will come in front to ensure that the exam can be cleared without coaching also with the right approach. But in reality, we only see the marketing of institutes on social and print media which lures aspirants towards them.
I have experienced this at Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy Of Administration (LBSNAA), where all selected candidates were a product of their merit and not of someone else.
So, it is just the mindset that is stopping candidates from achieving their goals. They are fully capable of achieving this without the support of institutes.
Believe in yourself and see how that works wonders for you.
(Written by Jitin Yadav, an IAS officer of 2016 batch, West Bengal Cadre; Edited by Yoshita Rao)
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