Guidance: Coaching, Answer Writing, Essay and Choosing Optional Subject by Taranjot Singh (AIR 70)

Taranjot Singh AIR 70, UPSC CSE 2016Hello guys,

I am Taranjot Singh, AIR 70 in Civil Services Exam 2016. I am a 2012 graduate in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Roorkee. This was my 3rd attempt overall, and 1st with Mechanical as optional. I’ll share my experience and suggestions here for future aspirants.

I’ll discuss the following:

  1. Coaching vs self-preparation
  2. GS answer writing approach
  3. Current affairs coverage
  4. Essay approach
  5. Why I changed optional from Pub Ad to Mechanical Engg., and lessons learnt

In another article, I will discuss Mechanical Engineering Optional strategy, book list and notes.

1. Coaching vs Self-preparation

I did classes for GS from Vajiram (in 2012) and classes for Mechanical (for GATE and IES) from Made Easy. I found them very useful (though it depends from person to person as discussed below).

Coaching is neither necessary, nor sufficient. My friend Vivek Kumar (AIR 278) did Mechanical as optional all on his own, without any coaching, and while continuing his job. Similarly, many aspirants cover GS on their own, as all the resources are available in the market as well as on line.

However, any GS coaching does offer a couple of benefits:

  1.  A candidate needs some expert guidance to understand this exam. If there is no one whom you can approach for guidance, coaching classes can do that job. You become part of the ‘aspirant community’. It helps you understand the nature of exam, the kind of preparation needed, the level of competition, the sources for covering various syllabus topics, etc.
  2. Classes also help you achieve a certain level of preparation (say 65%) in very short time. Generally, self study takes little bit more time to do the same coverage. (Again, it depends from person to person as well, for instance, 2013 topper Gaurav Agarwal preferred self study over coaching.)
  3. Lastly, you don’t need to worry about making targets on your own, as you just follow well structured coaching schedule. Setting realistic targets is necessary, so that you neither burden yourself by overambitious target, nor become too complacent by too small a target.

But, coaching is not necessary, provided you have some guidance (which is available through online community), and self discipline and patience for timely completion of targets.

Coaching is neither sufficient for complete preparation. One needs to do significant value addition from newspapers and online search to plug gaps in preparation, develop a bird’s eye view of syllabus topics and develop inter-linkages, which no coaching can help you develop.

Further, you need to revise your notes as many times as you can. In fact, I’d suggest you to not cover anything in the first place, if you cannot make space for its repeated revisions later on. So, keep limited sources, and revise them repeatedly.

And finally, the preparation is always incomplete without answer writing practice. At the risk of exaggeration, I’d emphasise that for GS and humanities optionals, gathering knowledge is only 40% of the preparation and answer writing skills is the rest 60%

2. GS answer writing approach:

My suggestions are based on my own experience in 3 attempts, my friends’ experience, as well as review of toppers’ answer booklets available online.

  • Its General Studies, and in my opinion UPSC respects generality of the answers. One need not explore the depths of a topic like an expert to get good marks.

In fact, in my second attempt in 2014, I tried to limit the scope of my answers to 2 or 3 major points and explain them in depth. I ended up getting worst marks in GS compared to my 1st and 3rd attempt. (328 in 2013, 316 in 2014 and 431 in 2016; 328 in 2013 was like 380s in 2014)

On the other hand, my friend Vivek Kumar (rank 278) writes very general and diverse answers, with a very limited knowledge base, and attained excellent marks in GS in both his attempts (373 in 2015 and 439 in 2016)

  • Bring diversity in answers. That is, instead of writing similar points, interlink the issue with other topics of syllabus, give current affairs relevance, examples and best practices etc
  • Learn to quickly generate ideas. If you find it difficult to generate ideas, interlink the question to GS syllabus topics.

For instance, for a question related to agricultural land reforms, explore its links to history, geography, society, urbanisation, constitution, governance, policy, welfare, e-gov, IR, budget, industry, PPP, infra, environment, technology, security, ethics etc. If you notice, these are all topics of GS syllabus.

  • So, know the syllabus thoroughly, it helps in establishing inter-linkages and writing diverse answers
  • Write basic points as well. Sometimes candidates shy away from writing basic points, thinking that examiner already knows this and instead write hi-fi points. But missing the basics compromises the marks
  • Write far fetched ideas as well. We sometimes don’t write ideas that are impractical, or too idealistic or infeasible to implement (even though logical). But do write such ideas, as they make your answer unique and fetch marks
  • Don’t worry about word limit. Write as many diverse points in answer as possible within given time (9 minutes)
  • Try to complete the paper, even if you have to compromise quality of your individual answers
  • Maintain evenness in the quality of your answers in all 20 questions. Never get attached to questions from your favourite topics. There is tendency to become an expert and in fact one ends up getting less than average marks due to lack of diversity in that answer
  • Write intro and conclusion in the answer

3. Current Affairs coverage:

  • I regularly followed The Hindu and VisionIAS Current Affairs Monthly magazine in first two attempts.
  • In my 3rd attempt, I did not devote much time to newspaper as my base was already built. I just used to read newspaper headlines and relied mainly on VisionIAS monthly magazine
  • Since I felt time constraint, I did not follow magazines like Yojana and Kurukshetra. But I occasionally covered specific topics from them, like I covered disaster management from a particular Yojana issue

4. Essay approach:

  • In my 2013 attempt, I did my essay debut in Mains exam itself, and not surprisingly, UPSC gave the deserving treatment (95 marks). For 2016 attempt, I did essay test series with Vikash Ranjan sir (141 marks). So, I’d suggest you to write at least 8 to 10 essays before appearing in Mains, and have them reviewed by teachers or peers.
  • Do some online research on ‘How to write an essay’ to know the basic rules and framework for writing an essay

5. Public Admin to Mechanical

I appeared in 2013 and 2014 CSE with Public Admin as my optional, but fared very badly in Pub Ad (150 and 222 marks in ’13 and ’14). Moreover I did not have any alternative back up plan. So, I dropped 2015 attempt, changed to Mech and prepared simultaneously for GATE and IES as well.

(I cleared both GATE and IES, and having a job at hand in fact gave me a lot of confidence in CSE Mains. So, I’d suggest you to have a good back up plan while preparing for CSE.)

Learning from my own mistakes, I’d recommend Humanities Optional aspirants to do a lot of answer writing practice and review. I’d also recommend you not to join test series with same teacher from whom you have taken classes. Because, if same teacher is setting the questions for test series, its really easy to score marks by just replicating his/her notes and you don’t get to know your actual level of preparation. This is what happened with me in Pub Ad in first attempt. So, join coaching and test series with different teachers.

Changing to Mechanical Engg proved to be a good decision. Because, unlike humanities optional, though technical optional takes a lot of time for coverage, but once prepared, it offers a lot of certainty. Once you have covered a topic, you can be sure of getting marks in any question from that topic.

Please leave your queries in the comments!


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7 Responses

  1. shubham manjhi says:

    Sir, I am preparing with mechanical optional ( without any coaching for mechanical) . I gave my attempt this year straight after 8th semester, but scoring only 97.I ,somehow, in college, managed to cover the portion for prelims on my own and relied on online sources for current affairs.After calculating my prelims marks and seeing the air of expected cutoffs, I thought of taking coaching for GS , but having spent some time with mechanical , realised that I won’t be able to manage optional time with GS coaching. I have no one to look up for doubts in GS , so, is dropping GS coaching for covering mechanical a wise decision? I am thinking of going for vision test series to keep a check on my GS prep. I know sir it depends on the individual, but with your experience of 4 years, any suggestions for me sir?

    • Taranjot Singh says:

      Shubham, since you have already covered a lot of ground in GS in your college days, so I’d also suggest you to prepare GS on your own.

      Prelims tests the knowledge base and Mains tests the answer writing skills and bird’s eye view understanding. So, in GS focus more on answer writing skills and idea generation. Join test series and keep a tab on insightsonindia website also.

      In mechanical, prioritise the topics which were asked more often in previous years and prepare them well.

      Since you are facing time constraint, you’ll have to walk the middle path, with even focus on GS (esp essay and ethics) and optional.

  2. Gurinder Singh says:

    Satsriakal Veerji!! I’m from Ludhiana, preparing for the exam with Political Science optional, without any coaching. Congratulations for the coveted feat, and Wish you the best for the journey in the service ahead. Thank you very much for sharing your preparation strategy.
    I have a few queries, if you could please help.
    Firstly, Current affairs notes making from different sources seems to be cumbersome task and it’s considered must. So, how should we go about it, both for Prelims and Mains?
    Secondly, Could you please share some of your sample answers from GS mock test copies. Thirdly, Your experience in Interview, and suggestions in this regard.Thanks.

  3. Kiran Sharma says:

    Thank you for share your experience with us.Ksgindia provides best RAS, IAS coaching In Jaipur .

  4. Kalpesh says:

    I am a mechanical Engg graduate. I want to choose Mech Engg as optional paper for UPSC CSE. Currently I am taking GS coaching. I am preparing for mechanical on my own. Sir how helpful is the coaching in mech Engg ? because when I study on my own I feel little disconnected from the subject. I feel like I am not getting the basics.

  5. Anubhav kumar says:

    Sir I am average in mechanical engineering,from a average private class,can I take as mechanical engineering optional,or I have to go through humanity paper, please suggest sir,

  6. Mayursinh Rajput says:

    Dear Sir,
    Thanks for sharing your strategy.
    What answer to give if asked about ‘ How Mechanical Engineering will help you in administration / Civil services ?

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