IPS officer Navdeep Aggarwal shares how he took the exams again and cracked UPSC CSE with AIR 150, after a gap of five years.
In 2016, I cleared the Indian Forest Service (IFS) exam with an All India Rank (AIR) 21 and joined the 2017 batch.
I finished my training and was posted at my home cadre Punjab. After working in Pathankot as Deputy DFO for a year and a half, I was posted as Regional Manager in Punjab State Forest Development Corporation.
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In Pathankot, I got the opportunity to work as a nodal officer for the migrant movement on Shramik trains.
While all this was happening I also got married and now have a daughter who is almost two years old.
But after having seen the work done by the administration and police closely, I wanted to take the exam again to serve society more holistically. So, I spoke to my wife about taking the exam again and she fully supported me in this process which lasted for almost a year.
When reappearing after a gap of five years, I had to change my strategy. In 2016, I had Maths as my optional and I could never score well in the subject despite it being my post-graduation subject in BITS Pilani. So, I took a subject that I have a deep interest in — Sociology.
In a short time, I picked out the right strategy and managed to score 286 in my optional (one of the highest marks in Paper 1) with limited and content-rich resources.
Here’s how I cleared the UPSC CSE exam to become an IPS officer:
1) Find time within your job to study:
Luckily, for me, in my present posting I was relatively free as compared to a job of a DFO, so I could take out three hours from 9 am to 5 pm to study.
I would solve prelim questions between the time I dictated notes to the staff and the final printed draft. Due to the lockdowns, I would hold/attend meetings online or over a conference call.
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I used to have lunch in the office itself and during holidays and weekends, I used to devote 14 hours a day to studying.
But for working aspirants who cannot take out the time it is advisable to take leave for at least one to two months, both before prelims and the mains.
2) Control emotions and be optimistic when things go out of your hands:
Having a positive attitude and emotional intelligence are the key elements that are needed in this journey.
Moreover, I was diagnosed with dengue and chikungunya one after the other during the mains and my entire strategy failed. However, I didn’t give up. I used to give myself positive affirmations now and then. I’d only focus on things that were in my control and leave the rest.
I reworked my strategy for the remaining time and made sure I finished the most important things before writing the final exam.
3) Delayed gratification without compromising on prime duties:
I never missed any vaccination or health check-ups for my daughter. I never missed taking her monthly photos on varied themes. I never avoided any work-related meetings or field visits that were crucial. I also brought my parents to Bathinda when they were ailing with COVID-19.
The things that I avoided were social media accounts, minimising office parties and friendly get-togethers.
As a couple, we couldn’t spend quality time going on dates as frequently as we used to earlier. I deliberately avoided meeting new people or making new friends as I was sure that I wanted to clear the exam without any distractions.
My wife’s role in supporting my journey is commendable. My parents were always there with me during my exams. My mother-in-law took care of our daughter most of the time. My brother-in-law (who is also preparing for the civil service examination) gave me all the notes and taught me all the important topics.
So whatever free time I had I used to spend with my family and my duties.
4) Reverse engineering helps:
Before starting any topic, referring to the previous year’s questions is important. For sociology, I prepared notes as per the trends of questions asked so far. For prelims, I solved more than 10,000 questions and then revised my static part. Having a problem-solving approach to studies, helps you narrow down the scope of what is to be studied. It should be a step-wise approach. First, see the questions to get an idea of the syllabus. Then move towards basic reading, then again start with questions from the test series and revise and update your already existing notes. It saves time and gives you rich content available to write in mains.
5) Revision is of utmost importance:
It is almost impossible to retain so much without at least revising it 2-3 times. The revision has to be systematic. No matter how one makes notes ( online/offline), while revising one needs to have a pen and a paper to jot down important keywords and stats and create mnemonics or stories out of it. Over time one will be able to retain a lot through multiple revisions and rough scribbling.
6) Writing tests for mains, irrespective of how much one is prepared, is a must:
Writing practice is a skill set that needs to be developed. One cannot just learn how to swim by reading about it.
Even if one has not completed the neverending syllabus one should write the test in a stipulated time. Not even a second extra!
It improves your writing skills and gives an idea of how to approach the answer holistically and new ideas come up on the spot during the final exam.
For instance, there was a question on reverse migration during the pandemic in my sociology paper.
Generally, one thinks of reverse migration in terms of people moving from urban areas to rural areas only but I also added sociological insights on urban to urban migration which strengthened the joint family.
Also, I added reverse migration from outside India and its dimensions. I had not prepared those topics but I still wrote about them. When we practice writing tests in time we can think of many angles on the spot and it is a skill that needs to be nurtured.
7) Don’t neglect interviews at any cost:
I believe interviews are harder to crack than the mains exam. One has to prepare a lot and develop balanced perspectives. One cannot ‘fake it’ during interviews and that confidence comes only after intense preparation. Mock interviews of respectable panel members must be taken in offline mode.
(Written by Navdeep Aggarwal; Edited by Yoshita Rao; Images source: Facebook)
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