Five Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers from different batches help us understand the best way to tackle philosophical and abstract essay topics in the UPSC CSE.
A ‘googly’ in cricket terms is defined as a ball that is bowled in such a way that it seems like it will turn in one direction but it turns in the opposite direction.
In the context of answering the essay paper in the Union Public Service Commission’s (UPSC) Civil Service Examination (CSE), googlies can throw an aspirant off track.
The essay paper, for instance, is for a total of 250 marks with each essay carrying 125 marks. A score above 125 is considered good, while most aspirants score an average of 110 to 125 in the essay paper.
We speak to Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers who have cleared the CSE to find out the best strategy to adopt for such unexpected questions. We ask five officers their approach while answering the essay paper when the topics are abstract and philosophical.
T Prateek Rao who secured one of the highest marks (147) in his essay section in 2020 says, “Remember that the essay question is the same for everyone and the distinction you can bring about in your essay is how you showcase your personality in it. For example, I had written a poem about women and if I had the opportunity I would incorporate the poem in my essay.”
“Embellishing the essay with relevant quotes that you have read will also help in ensuring your essay gets more marks.”
Making the essay relatable to the examiner is also an important aspect. “Starting the essay with an anecdote, story or an incident will help grab the examiner’s interest immediately.” Adding to this, Prateek says, “Showcasing your creative side is also a sure-shot way of breaking the monotony and boredom that the examiner might be going through reading so many essays.”
Satyam Gandhi who secured an All India Rank (AIR) of 10 in CSE 2020, says, “UPSC CSE essays are getting philosophical and not all aspirants will be able to attempt it without some sort of prior understanding of the topic. For this, reading non-fiction books and expanding your understanding of the world around you will help.” He also urges aspirants to spend up to an hour each day just on reflection.
“The conventional approach of having a knowledge bank ready to attempt the essay question is also a good practice to follow. The numerous examples in your knowledge bank will help add value to your work.”
“To tackle unexpected questions in the essay paper, use your imagination to come up with an interesting essay,” he adds.
Sonalika Jiwani who secured an AIR of 192 in 2016 says, “There are two kinds of essay questions — topical and abstract. The approach for both these is different. The topical essay question requires an understanding of all major subjects like environment, governance and a familiarity with the ideologies of scholars.”
Concerning abstract questions, she says, “A style where thoughts ascend logically with proper justification, provoking the examiner’s thoughts and leaving them with something to think about would be a good approach.” So, 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 four to five different perspectives that you will address through the essay before you begin writing it.
Nishant Jain who secured an AIR of 13 in 2015 says, “As much effort and time aspirants give other topics while preparing, one must allot the same to essay preparation. Attempting one essay every 15 days during the time you are preparing will push an average score to good and a good score to excellent.” From the options that are provided, picking two essay topics to attempt is also an art, which one can develop over time, he says.
“Pick a topic that you feel familiar with – whether you have read something on the topic or have some knowledge about it. Half the battle is won if you choose the right topic.”
“While attempting the essay always bring the attention back to the topic, do not deviate too much from the central theme,” he adds.
Devyani Yadav who secured an AIR of 11 in 2020 says, “The essay paper would, until last year, contain philosophical and a regular essay. Aspirants must ensure that they attempt the philosophical questions when working on the mock papers. Along with that, while the essay question might be abstract, one can base the essay on facts. Ensure that you cohesively present your points.”
“Even in an abstract question aspirants can find ways to bring out all the elements of essay writing that they have worked on. Try and write real-life anecdotes and examples even in such abstract questions.”
“The structure for the abstract and general questions is also the same, so concentrate on all these points,” she adds.
In an interview with The New Indian Express, Shubhra Ranjan, a UPSC exam expert, said, “UPSC just does not want information gatherers. Rather the focus is on creative thinking. Overall, the approach was to make an aspirant think, deconstruct and then express, rather than just some assortment of facts. One needs a deeper understanding and reading of standard texts around broad socio-political issues.”
A common point that all officers mention is the need to read. To be able to write well, one must read. That is the first step in ensuring that your writing keeps getting better. Aspirants must develop the habit of reading and must also try and read on a range of topics and genres. Non-fiction reading will help aspirants develop their thinking and might also help when it comes to attempting the essay paper.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)