Every year, UPSC conducts IAS main exam around this time ( i. e, September- October) consisting of an optional paper, four GS Papers, an Essay Paper and the language test. Given the huge syllabus and diverse areas of topics, the main examination is truly the "mother of IAS Examination." It requires a well strategised, advance preparation spanning months before the real commencement of the UPSC Exam. Among the three levels of the exam viz; prelims, mains and the interview, it is the mains exam that holds the clue to your real rank, cadre allotment and choice of service because it accounts for the bulk of marks i.e. 1750 marks out of a total of 2025 marks which combines both mains and interview marks. Thus, it goes without saying that the mains is the determining factor in your success and your rank and cadre allotment. Needless to say then that utmost importance should be attached to this segment of the exam with a careful thought and a winning strategy. The two important skills tested in the mains exam are:
1.Cognitive skill: Cognitive skill is a process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and sense. It is not important just to acquire knowledge but also to make sense of it in the given context. The first step to gain cognitive skill is to access knowledge through a variety of sources comprising text books, reference books, journals, newspapers etc. The second step is to hone the skill of making sense of the acquired knowledge. In other words, the acquired knowledge is not to be reproduced as it exists, but recrafted and rehashed to make sense to a particular question asked. So the cognitive skill will put to test both your raw intelligence as well as your refined intelligence.
How to develop Cognitive skills? An aspirant is usually advised to depend on few popular books on each subject which are easily available in the market. No doubt these books are necessary as they contain the basic information. But just confining yourself to just these few books will put you in the narrow lanes of preparation. What you really need to do is to access a wider path, a highway of preparations. For this, you need many more sources to be consulted. To cite an example, one may read a basic book on history by Bipan Chandra. But it will not provide a complete perspective on modern Indian History. One must also read books like Discovery of India by Nehru, which provides beautiful insights into Indian history, culture etc. The current format of the main exam, is quite different from the older one in as much as it requires a very diverse base of knowledge that can not be gained by reading up few books , but, by wider consultations of authentic study materials on the subject.
Linguistic skills: This skill has two aspects. One, good command over language and two, an attractive writing ability. In other words, the main components of linguistic skills are: (a) crisp, lucid writing, (b) simple, original style, (c) well connected paragraphs, (d) command over short answer writing (150- 160 words)
Without honing linguistic skills, it is impossible to score high marks even if you have accumulated adequate information and knowledge in the subject. A pertinent question to ask in this context is: what kind of writing is liked by upsc examiners? Well, there can be no official answer available to this question. But, experience suggests that a well informed, learned examiner will expect your answer to be truly your answer and not a text book or journalistic answer. They are keen to know how you answer a question rather than what the book or a journal or newspaper narrates facts regarding it. Therefore, a good linguistic skill must be honed by attempting to write in your own style which of course will evolve through repeated writing practice. You must have access to a good mentor who can give you tips on your writing skills. Though a number of Test Series are available in the coaching world, these do not necessarily enhance your writing styles because not highly experienced and competent examiners are evaluating your copies. Thus, you should not depend on mass test series modules. A better way will be to write a few tests and get them evaluated by some competent person, say, a University professor, a senior civil servant who know the subject matter. They can give you useful inputs to improve your writing skills.
Each Mains Paper requires different terms and terminologies: Apart from developing cognitive skills and linguistic skills, you must understand that your writing style cannot be the same for each paper of the main exam. This is so because, each paper has a different syllabus and it requires use of appropriate terms and terminologies. To take an example, in Ethics paper, you need a particular set of terms that should occur in your answer frequently and contextually. Terms like generosity, altruism, compassion, integrity, autonomy, and accountability must figure in your answers on ethics questions as well as case studies. Similarly, if you are dealing with questions asked on disaster management, terms like, mitigation, adaptation, rehabilitation, resilience must figure in your answers. Again, if you are answering questions on international relations, terms like multilateralism, unilateralism, rules based order, inclusive approach, enlightened self interest etc must be used. Use of these terms reflect your good understanding of the issues and will translate into better marks . The examiner will appreciate that you have taken a keen interest to understand the subject and you know the popular parlance used in a particular subject.
Speed writing is the name of the game: In the present mains format, you are required to write 20 answers in GS papers and 28 answers in the optional papers. In three hours, it is almost an impossible task. Many candidates report after the exam , including the top rankers, that they could not answer all the questions for paucity of time, though they knew the answer. This is a real challenge and one must develop a speed writing ability. By this, it is implied that one has to write much faster than the usual writing habit. In each question, you can devote only 6 to 7 minutes. This will come through regular practice. You must frame a strategy to write fast and work on it over a period of time. For fast writing, you need to remember the following things.
1. Don't write long answers. Though usually, an answer should be of 150 words, the word limit is not given much importance. It is the quality of the answer that matters. So, try to write your answers in just 120-130 words without fearing that it would penalise you. UPSC in its notification itself has stated that the word limit is only indicative and marks shall be given for in depth knowledge and not superficial knowledge.
2. Do not write on irrelevant aspects. Just answer the question. Every question requires specific answer. So, don't try to put information not asked in the question though the information may relate to that question. It would unnecessarily make your answers longer. Suppose, a question is asked on how ethics can play a role in restoring environment in our times. To answer this, you don't need to define ethics and its various components. Just begin your answer by highlighting how an ethical approach to environment is key to solving the problems it faces.
3. Write in a flow and maintain it till last: In exam situation, you are not going to have the liberty to think, ponder over each question comfortably and then craft your answers. You have to write and write in a flow till you have gone to the last question. For this again , you need to rehearse in a simulated environment
4. Save time on well known answers: Some of the questions asked will be well known to you and you can write faster answers to those questions. Attempt them first so that you can save time for little known answers which would require time to think over the answer before writing them. You can use this method to your advantage.
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PRESENTATION OF CHARTS, DIAGRAMS: In order to save time, there is a growing practice among the aspirants to put their answers through presentation of diagrams, charts etc. Though scope does exist to buttress your answers with diagrams, charts, do not make it a regular item in all your answers. Most of the charts and diagrams are not required. What is required instead is an essay type of presentation. Since mains is a subjective exam, you cannot run away from writing paragraphs and just answer a question through diagrams etc. So, only make a prudent use of such projections in your answers.
POINT WISE ANSWER WRITING: Again, many aspirants are addicted to presenting their answers point wise. They do this for two apparent reasons, One, to attract the attention of the examiner and two, to save on time. There is nothing wrong about point wise answer writing style as such, but writing the entire answers in points goes against the very philosophy of a subjective exam like the mains. Ideally, there should be a wise combination of both essay type and pointwise answers. I suggest that even if there is a scope to put a particular answer in a pointwise format, you must give a small introduction and conclusion before enumerating the points.
UNDERLINING YOUR ANSWERS: A large number of candidates like to underline their sentences so that they are highlighted before the examiner. One needs caution in this respect also. I have observed that in many cases , the highlighted sentences are not something extraordinary but just some piece of information. This poses two problems. One, the examiner may not be impressed by your underlined sentence. Two, you may distract his attention from other parts of your answer. He will judge you only on the basis of reading your highlighted sentences and not the full answer. Both are risky propositions, therefore, try avoiding underlining unnecessarily.
GIVING CAPTIONS TO YOUR ANSWERS: Yes, captions do serve a purpose. They highlight the various aspects of your answer. But each question may not lend itself to caption based answer. So, you have to be mature enough to decide, where captions will fit in and where not.
INTORODUCTION AND CONCLUSION: Each answer has an introductory paragraph, the main body and a conclusion. In the introduction, you must encapsulate the answer so that the examiner gets a feel of what you are going to write in the answer. In the main body, use two, three small paragraphs dealing with various aspects of the answer. Finally, in the conclusion, sum up the theme and show the way forward.
USE OF QUOTATIONS: Absolutely. If the context requires, you can quote Gandhi, Nehru, Mother Teresa and many others to lend weight and credence to your answer. But you should be discreet in quoting them. Unnecessary quotes should be avoided. I have seen that in many answers students will use the famous quote of Gandhi: Earth has enough for our need but not for our greed, without any contextual justifications. So application of mind must precede quoting a great person. Never quote a journalist or a diplomat's name in your answers just because you read his article in a newspaper. It may not be appreciated by the examiner. You can take their views and present them in general form rather than in quotations. Only well known names like Gandhi, Nehru, should be quoted without second thoughts rather than all kinds of names.
Before you are writing the main exam this year, you may practice answer writing at least 5 times factoring in the suggestions presented in this article to reap full benefits.
(S.B. Singh is a well known academician, IAS mentor and trainer.)
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Books play a very important role for the preparation of any kind of examination. The following table shows the names of the books which every aspirant must study:
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