My Two Cents on CSE
People tend to go doe-eyed when I talk about my preparation for civil services on two aspects. The first, I was in a job and had a slipshod style of studying. The second, I took up law as an optional, even though I am not a lawyer.
I made up my mind, on various accounts, to share my preparation strategy. But then, my way of studying is so precarious that I don’t suggest anyone, even my cousins, to study my way. Those, who know me well, call it the ‘perfect recipe to flunk the CSE’. The good, non-sadistic guy that I am, I usually direct them to the blogs of Gaurav and Riju, for I know theirs is the correct way to study. That’s analogous to every great sinner knowing the difference between right and wrong – I didn’t study the right way but I know what the right way is! The CSE is very unpredictable on its own; you don’t want to make it more complex by your own shortcomings. Nevertheless, we all have our unique journeys and stories – what clicked for me, mayn’t for others.
1. I have almost an eidetic memory for the lectures in social studies from school times, obviating the need to go full steam astern for devoting time to history and geography during my preparation. I believe that I had the greatest teachers ever at MCL Saraswati Bal Mandir, a school in Hari Nagar, New Delhi. During my MBA, I read texts like Salvatore, Dornbusch, Shapiro and Peterson & Lewis cover to cover. I remember basics from them; so I didn’t have to worry much for economics, too. My teachers from Biochemistry department at Sri Venkateswara College always laid a lot of stress on how to make sense of scientific journals and new scientific developments. So I studied no book for science and tech. Good memory, yes, I have, yet, at times, it so happens that I forget the name of a case as fundamental as ‘Keshwanand Bharti’. With age, memory starts playing tricks on you. In effect, it is only about doing bare minimum things you must know before appearing for the CSE. If you remember them from your school/college days, fine; otherwise, you will have to devote time for traditional topics, too.
2. I have an extensive teaching experience. I’ve taught kids from class 5 to B.Sc.; for competitive exams of engineering and medicine to SATs and GMATs of the world; for subjects that were core sciences to humanities; new NCERTs, old and older still. That, in a way, has given me a holistic perspective of various things. Now, I cannot tell aspirants to read everything I have. I don’t know what could have worked for me out of all that I studied.
3. From the very childhood, I have had this eccentric habit of reading everything – labels behind medicines, signboards, t-shirts and other unmentionables. I normally follow many newspapers on my phone and google everything. On Facebook, I only follow good magazines, journals and newspapers. I know many people who are masters in their own fields. So I follow them on facebook. If some breakthrough happens in their field, they cannot help shouting from rooftops. Also, it may not be possible to read all magazines always, but they share the best of their content on their fb walls (for instance, the Economist). I take advantage of all that. Of course, I resist the temptation of arguing with every TD&H on what they have to say about the world, the bunny that would eat only blue carrots and poaching of vulnerable unicorns. In fact, in geography paper, I could do the question on heat islands, only because I had read it on NY Times fb page two days before the exam (I missed on reading class XI geography book, which I’m told mentions them). And may God bless Wikipedia for all that it is doing! In childhood, I would pine to read as much of Britannica at libraries and Tell Me Whys. They have all worked for me in some way or the other. I could feel it during my mains and the interview – how something I read once upon a time helped me. Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favours only the Prepared Mind.” So I, at the cost of blowing my own trumpet, shall give myself some credit for my oddities that turned into blessings.
4. We all have our unique strengths. I can lose on any sport competing against anyone. I can’t drive properly to save my dear life. I can be socially awkward sometimes. Yet, my teachers from the very beginning appreciated how I could write well – prose, as well as verse. I love drawing patterns from various languages and can write equally well in Hindi, as well as English (my school offered only Hindi-medium till class 5; that – studying in one’s mother tongue – bodes well on many counts, IMHO). Writing well surely makes a lot of difference in the mains. Written skills cannot be acquired during the course of CSE preparation. So, one must capitalize on ‘their’ strengths.
5. CSE 2013 mains papers were very basic and simple. That may not happen this year. So I cannot ask anyone to skip some texts that I skipped, but which may otherwise be offering in-depth insights (India Year Book, Five-Year Plan Documents). I always believed that the paper on Ethics warranted no preparation as such. I got just 111 in that paper. Rachit , the wonder boy and the third ranker, has got an amazing 142. He must have done something brilliant to achieve that. Since, I didn’t study anything for this paper, except for the discussions we had at our coaching institute, I cannot guide anyone for this. And you need to buy my word for that, for that’s being said by the teacher in me.
6. Many people cannot come to Delhi. I went to a coaching called Nirvana IAS Academy, where much focus is on discussions and not the traditional teaching. I would just go and sit there, and soak myself in the intelligence flowing through the teachers and students alike. Many of my preconceived notions or inane ideologies were blasted to smithereens during such discussions. It was like the didactic way of Socrates. It would have otherwise taken me vast readings of still more texts and articles to balance my ideas. If you have intelligent people and teachers to discuss things with, you may sail through without coaching. I found such discussions at Nirvana. But those who cannot be in Delhi, I cannot tell you some finite numbers of books to balance your approach. You must ask the other toppers, particularly Himanshu and Avi, who did everything without coaching.
Having said that I feel there are a few books that helped me more than the others; they are listed here:
a. The LOTR, the Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter Series. I’m serious. I’m not smiling like a Cheshire cat when I write that. I mean it. They inducted me to the world of reading. Take your pick. If you have enough time left to appear for the CSE, it may be a good idea to develop a good reading habit. Not sure about others, but I couldn’t have survived reading the bare act of the Constitution, had I not learnt how to enjoy reading.
b. NCERTs, old or new, read one set for sure. The more the merrier! You must have solid foundation and understanding for social, as well as pure sciences.
c. Bipan Chandra, R S Sharma, Satish Chandra – they help etch a story in your mind. There may be other books that may fetch you better marks, but I just didn’t read them. Though, I bought a lot of things, just to befool myself into ‘all-is-well’. That’s a counterproductive and destructive path to tread. Name a book, which can be easily ordered or bought from Delhi-based markets, and I’ll have it. Of course, you don’t have to waste all that money.
d. Our Constitution at Work – this NCERT merited a special mention; in fact, all the political science NCERTs of class 11 and 12 deserve to be read.
e. Constitution Bare Act and Laxmikanth, to understand things you are not comfortable with in the bare act and there’s nobody else to guide you. But Laxmikanth is an impossible book to be finished, let alone committed to memory. Also, it gives you no idea about constitutional philosophy and historical underpinnings. You must refer to ‘Our Constitution at Work’ to get a broad idea.
f. Economic Survey – read the first and the chapter on human development for sure; I just glanced through the other chapters (that, too, before prelims)
g. V N Khanna, the book on Foreign Policy (though I benefitted more from discussions at Nirvana)
h. Class XI NCERT book on Fine Arts (it doesn’t cover everything on culture, but whatever it covers, it covers well; luckily for me, all the questions on culture in CSE Main 2013 were from this book – I’d even roughly drawn Lord Nataraja). You may use the internet to fill the gaps (for topics such as music, dance, theater). There are various good websites.
Luckily there are many good websites that can come handy – mrunal.org, insightsonindia, thecalibre (though it’s not updated anymore), gktoday. But you must develop the knack of separating the chaff from the wheat. There’re so many things available on these websites that anyone can feel overwhelmed.
When I told the Hindu, “I didn’t study much; I just read newspapers,” I bared my soul. Some people thought I was not willing to share my secret ingredient or was trying too hard to be modest. Well, I said so many things and they loved this line as the title. But you can see, from what all I wrote above, that my preparation was very amorphous. One thing I always did was reading from news apps (TOI, Hindu, Indian Express, BBC, Al Jazeera) and taking snapshots of things I knew should be crammed. In a week or so, I’d write useful stuff from those snapshots somewhere.
My friends would share their newspaper notes and on Pocket, a useful application, good articles with me (I’d also credit myself for choosing my friends well). Before the CSE mains, I didn’t even have the time to read all of that – we had a theft at our place and we were very piqued about it. That means just reading and writing the gist from it also helps, even if you don’t have time to revisit all that you write.
But yeah, whenever I visited the aforementioned websites (regularity is just not the name of my game) or glanced through the IYB, I’d find that more than 70% things I’d have read for sure somewhere. You anyway don’t score more than 50% in the CSE.
There, I said it.