UPSC Topper Strategy for Essay Optional by Puneet Gulati (Rank-319)
Essay is often seen as a poor cousin of the other more important papers in the Mains Examination. While GS and each of the optionals are worth 600 marks each, Essay contributes a small 200 marks to the total. But just like the interview, these 200 marks often prove to be the Waterloo for many candidates. In CSE 2009, UPSC has been particularly strict in giving out these 200 marks. Not many candidates managed to score over a 100 marks and there have been a shockingly high number of double and even single digit scores in the Essay this time. While none of us can justify the extremely low scores given out by UPSC, I do think that there does exist a strategy for tackling the Essay paper, which, if adopted and implemented thoughtfully, can reap a decent 50-70% mark in the Essay. Such marks will ensure that a candidate does not fail to make it to the list just because of poor showing in the Essay.
The strategy that I propose for the essay is based on my own experience as well as what I learnt from my English teacher during my school days. In CSE 2009, I scored 140/200 in the Essay. I wrote on “Good Fences Make Good Neighbours”.
1. Preparation for the Essay
Regular reading is the only stable and time-tested way to prepare for the Essay. There is no short-cut to improving one’s
language. One must read and learn to apply what one has read. Those attempting the paper in English, should read the Editorials of papers like the
Hindu, the ToI, Indian Express, Hindustan Times etc. One should also try remembering some quotations that one comes across while reading books etc. Maintain a notebook/word document for keeping track of such quotations. Let me recommend here “Inspite of the Gods” by Edward Luce as a valuable read on India before you go for your Mains. Practice Writing Essays for those who are not very sure of their abilities to tackle Essay paper well. Write at least 4-5 essays before sitting for the Mains in Oct-Nov this year.
2. Attempting the Essay Paper
a. Choosing the Essay – This is the most critical but curiously most under-rated part of the paper. Choosing the right topic to write on is half the battle won. Spend at least 5-10 minutes carefully studying the topics. Many candidates pick up a topic and start writing and then realize they don’t have enough to talk about. They end up wasting time as they try choosing another topic later. This year there were 5 topics:
i. Are our traditional handicrafts doomed to a slow death?
ii. Are we a ‘soft’ state?
iii. The focus of health care is increasingly getting skewed towards the ‘haves’ of our society
iv. Good fences make good neighbours
v. Globalism vs Nationalism
The candidate must study each topic and decide which of these topics gives him the maximum number of ideas. Mind-mapping or jotting points may help. Take up each topic and ask yourself, “What can I say about this?” For some topics you’ll not be able to proceed beyond two lines. I felt this when I looked at “Handicrafts” and “Healthcare” questions. Both these essays are asking us questions – Do you agree with the statement? (explicitly in the case of ‘handicrafts’ and implicitly in the case of ‘healthcare’. In fact, all other questions are doing this, except “Globalism vs Nationalism”). Candidates must answer the question no matter which of these two topics they choose.
Writing a general answer without taking a stand when the question is asking you for a stand will not fetch you high marks because then you would not be answering the question. Hence, please, please, please answer the question. In my case, I realized I would not be able to handle either of these topics even if I agreed with the statements because of very limited knowledge about the arguments ‘for’ or ‘against’ the topic. Having rejected these two topics, I examined the other three. I thought about the question on “Soft” State. It was an inviting topic but I realized that I would not be able to provide any interesting insights into the issue. Moreover, I was worried I may inadvertently overlook some important arguments. Hence, I decided to examine the other two questions – Good fences and Globalism vs Nationalism. Topic 5 offered a discussion based essay where there was nothing obvious to agree or disagree about except maybe that there is necessarily a clash of ideologies (this could be questioned), while topic 4 required me to take a stand. I spent some time thinking about the arguments I could offer in both essays and realized that ‘Good Fences’ offered me greater creative license. To me, this was important as I was free to offer a much wider perspective on it. In addition, I could recall the poem – Mending Wall (by Robert Frost….I had studied it in class X) from which the line “Good Fences Make Good Neighbours” was taken. Moreover, I felt that this essay would be attempted by fewer candidates because of the nature of the question. (Please note that this criteria helps only those who are fairly sure of their ability to handle the topic. If you are not sure of your language or knowledge about the topic, please choose topics entirely on the basis of what may be easier to handle)
b. Planning – Having settled on a topic of your choice, spend the next 45-50 minutes planning your essay. Planning has some very important steps:
i. Identify Key Words – Read the topic you have chosen and identify the most important words in the topic. In my case, it was “Good fences” and “good neighbours”. Both these terms need some defining in the essay. So think of how you would address what are fences and what are good neighbours. Similarly, for someone writing on healthcare needs to define healthcare and
the so called “haves” of the society in India. Someone doing “handicrafts” should be able to identify what our ‘traditional handicrafts’ are and what is happening to them. A candidate talking about ‘soft state’ must know what ‘softness’ means in various dimensions of a State. Those writing on Globalism vs Nationalism” must understand both the terms very well and be able to express them.
ii. Scope of the essay – Often one needs to limit one’s analysis due to time and space constraints. Identifying the scope of one’s essay means identifying the issues that the writer will focus on For instance, the topic “Good Fences make Good Neighbours” can be interpreted in many ways. Neighbours can be countries, your immediate next-door neighbors, your colleagues in office or could simply be animals living in symbiotic relationship in the wild. Limiting one’s scope means that one is going to focus on certain aspects of the issue although one recognizes that there is a much broader interpretation of the topic. For instance, “Are we a ‘soft’ state?” is talking about India as a “soft” state. This “softness” is visible in the external and internal security threats, our response to threats, our very accommodative political system, our very flexible rules, maybe a flexible social system and some other dimensions. Having recognized all this, you may want to limit yourself to discussion of only security issues. The writer must be able to recognize the breadth of the topic but draw his/her own borders for discussion. However, given that we have 3 hours to write the Essay Paper, a reasonably wide scope for the Essay may actually give greater avenues to explore the topic. So choose a scope that is reasonable – not too narrowly focused, nor so wide that you need to spend a lifetime covering it.
iii. Planning your introduction – Spend time doing this. Recall any quotations that might be relevant. For me, lines from the “Mending Wall” provided me a good platform to launch my introduction. Your introduction must be clear and should immediately reflect that you have understood the topic. You should define / talk about the key words of the topic and what they mean to you. You should spell out the scope of your essay. And finally you should present your “Thesis Statement”.
iv. Thesis Statement – Thesis statement is your succinct one line answer to the Essay question. It may be simply “I agree with the statement” or a more refined and sophisticated complex sentence. For instance, for the handicrafts question, the Thesis statement (if you agree with the statement) could be “Despite efforts being made by the government and various NGOs, our traditional handicrafts continue to face challenges, which if not overcome, will verily lead to their slow death. In fact, the process may be faster than it appears at the moment.” This has clarified your stance right away to the examiner that you believe that a slow death for handicrafts is likely. (A candidate could actually take a view that the slow death is inevitable but something can be done about it to prevent it. Alternatively, it’s also possible to argue that traditional handicrafts are anachronistic and needn’t be kept alive on artificial life support systems. Depends on the candidate’s perspective but he must justify.) Similarly, for the topic on “Soft State”, a thesis statement would be like, “Detractors may continue to accuse India of softness. However, a closer look at the multitude of challenges and constraints under which our country operates may reveal that what is actually interpreted as softness, is nothing but our age-old philosophy of pragmatism and accommodation”. Another example for a thesis statement may be for “Globalism vs Nationalism” – “While ‘globalism’ and ‘nationalism’ appear to be extremes of an ideological spectrum, I believe there may not necessarily be incompatibility between them. The two may coexist comfortably and in fact, mutually reinforce each other. This view certainly calls for a closer examination of the natures of these two ideologies and this is what this essay seeks to achieve.” A solid thesis statement wins 5-10 more points right away and makes the reader / examiner keen to read the rest of your essay. Thesis statement is an indispensable part of the Introduction to any good Essay. It is like setting the stage for the onslaught.
v. Planning the body of your essay – The candidate must think of different dimensions of the essay here. Typically, this is the part where you need to think about the arguments in favour or against your stand. For instance, if your stand is that “India is not a soft state” you must have an idea about what might be the arguments against your stand which suggest that “India is a soft state”. Jot down both sets of arguments. You need to know both sides because you want to reflect that you understand both sets of arguments and are making a balanced assessment.
Courtesy: Puneet Gulati