FOCUS: CIVIL SERVICES
Achieving the impossible
A SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
|A carefully thought-out plan and proper guidance can enable a focussed person to clear the tough UPSC examinations. |
A UPSC PRELIMINARY examination in progress in Chennai.
"THE hardest thing to learn in life," goes the saying, "is which bridge to cross and which to burn." With a plethora of choices ranging from Physics to Pali, aspirants to the Indian Civil Services may be forgiven for thinking that choosing the right optionals for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) selection examination is more than half the battle won.
Given that optional papers in both the preliminary and main examinations determine a candidate's scoring pattern, and that questions in the final interview are also usually based on the choice of optionals, the decision seems an extremely difficult one to make.
There is a vast choice of optionals, since students belonging to various streams of education aspire for the Services. The optionals may be broadly categorised as science subjects such as Physics, Chemistry, Botany and Zoology; Humanities subjects like History, Political Science, Public Administration, Geography and Sociology; and languages like Hindi, English, Urdu, and Pali. The UPSC also allows for subjects like Anthropology, Psychology and Philosophy. The subjects are many but choices are not easy.
An optional may be evaluated on the basis of a number of parameters. While some optionals are considered to be "scoring", others are preferred for their relevance to either the General Studies papers or Current Affairs and essay questions. Still others are chosen for their comparatively short, clearly defined syllabus.
Students point out that with a little bit of planning, it is possible to choose combinations of optionals which have common syllabi - thereby reducing workloads and improving scoring chances.
"Botany and Zoology are examples of two complementary optional subjects," says Abhijeet Singh of Evolution Academy, a UPSC coaching centre. "There is almost a 50 per cent overlap between the syllabi of these two subjects, and we encourage students to take advantage of it." He points out that Botany and Zoology prove to be useful as they provide students inputs on emerging issues such as genetically modified (GM) foods, cloning, biotechnology and environmental sensitisation. However, students must obviously display an aptitude for the subjects they choose as they require a fair degree of specialised knowledge.
A CLASS IN an IAS study centre in New Delhi.
Public Administration is another subject that can be usefully coupled with an Optional like Sociology or even History. "Public Administration is fast becoming the most popular Optional among UPSC aspirants," says M.K. Mohanty of Synergy, a UPSC coaching academy. Public Administration also covers significant sections of the General Studies papers, and essay questions invariably relate to the themes of administration and current affairs. Another advantage is that the optional subject does not require a previous background in it.
Philosophy is another subject that may be profitably combined with other humanities subjects. "Philosophy maybe coupled with Political Science or Sociology as there are several similarities in their subject matter," says Dharmendra Kumar of Patanjali, a UPSC tuition centre. "It is also very useful for the essay papers." The subject is also a scoring one and requires no previous background. Since the Philosophy paper is usually scheduled towards the latter half of the examination date-sheets, students get ample time to prepare for it.
However, K. Siddhartha of Ensemble, a UPSC coaching institute, believes that the primary criteria should not be the nature of the subject or whether it is perceived as scoring. "Student interest in the subject is of paramount importance," he says, a statement that is backed by a majority of people running coaching centres.
Siddhartha feels that any optional can be scoring if the student approaches it strategically and systematically. Siddhartha lists Geography as one subject that is open to students from varied academic backgrounds. He also points out that the "objective" nature of the paper - with its tables and maps - makes it extremely scoring; at the same time it has the merits of a semi-technical subject, such as a well-defined course.
"We urge our students to choose one Optional which they have a background in, and another one that complements their original choice," says V.B. Gupta of RAU's IAS. While he concedes that some optionals fetch higher marks than others, he is quick to point out the absence of any fixed trend. "When this year's topper - Mona Pruthi - had English Literature as an optional, how can one say what is scoring or not," he asks.
Economics is another optional that is often shunned by students as it is seen as a difficult subject. However Economics has helped some students top the rank list in the past. Hence methods and strategies of study are more important than the nature of subjects.
B. Ramaswamy of Ramaswamy's IAS (RIAS) believes that strong fundamentals are essential for the success of any approach. The subject he recommends is Sociology, which he says is very useful in the "social issues" section of the General Studies paper and in answering essay questions.
Mona Pruthi, this year's IAS topper.
While preparing for an optional paper, it is often advisable to study first for the main paper and then come back to the preliminary paper. This gives the student an overview of the subject and allows him or her to specialise in certain scoring areas. Since 2001, the trends in the question papers have become more and more unpredictable and so questions may come from any part of the course, and more than one question may come from the same section.
In such a situation, it is imperative to be thorough in one's preparation as the preliminary paper is primarily a multiple choice type paper with choices that have only marginal differences. In fact many students have trouble clearing the preliminary paper year after year, while they clear the main in the first attempt.
For the preliminaries, real-time testing is very important. Students state that constant testing - often with double the number of questions in the same amount of time - is the only way to crack the paper's code. The UPSC exam, among other things, tests one's skills in managing time, and organising work in a systematic and efficient manner.
"Time and resource management is essential in the General Studies and preliminary papers," says D.P. Vajpeyee of DIAS, an IAS preparatory centre. "Hence sticking to the word limits in all questions is essential as devoting too much time to one particular question will mean that you miss out on others. Also all questions and statistics carrying two marks should be attempted as they are scoring sections."
Time management is important not just in writing the exam, but also while preparing for it. It is advisable to break up long study sessions into a few compact ones with more breaks to refresh oneself. For example, two four-hour sessions prove to be more beneficial than one long eight-hour stretch. Some students prefer to study in short bursts of two hours, with 15-minute breaks in between.
Ultimately it is up to the individual to find his or her own unique time management strategy. It is also possible to use "free time" effectively. Thus, time spent commuting, or relaxing can also be used to refresh concepts or read different, if not completely unrelated, books. However, it is important to "switch-off" for at least some time in a day.
Writing skills are perhaps the most essential requirement in the main examination sections of the UPSC exam. As the exam is also a test of an individual's analytical and interpretative ability, clear, coherent and well-written answers in simple, effective English (or Hindi) are essential. Most students who clear the preliminaries are extremely comfortable with their material, and are unlikely to add particularly unique or new information. The difference lies in the method of presentation - or the writing.
The interview is the last stage of the examination. Students who clear the main exam are called for an interview, and their performance through the entire course of the preliminary and main examinations are taken into account. Like the written examinations, interviews can vary between being cordial and friendly, and difficult and stressful.
Most successful interviews last 35- 45 minutes, and the aspirant is quizzed on issues concerning his or her choice of subject, bio-data, professed areas of interest, and current and emerging issues. As is the case with the rest of the exam process, aspirants are advised to provide analysis.