Munish Sharma (Rank 2, CSE 2013) on Civil Services Examination

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 –, 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.

83 thoughts on “Munish Sharma (Rank 2, CSE 2013) on Civil Services Examination”

    1. Hi. I don’t suggest any book as such. Regular reading of good newspapers will do the trick. You should go through what Gaurav has written about essay on his blog. I scored 56% in essay in my first attempt, and 52% in the second. I could analyse why my score came down and how I could get better marks, after reading through his blog entry. All the best.

  1. Hey Munish thanks for the write up. Since you had been a student of Nirvana,so can you share the notes of karam sir.I am not in Delhi otherwise would have joined nirvana for law.
    Are you staying near hari nagar?

    1. Hi. At Nirvana, pedagogy is not notes oriented. There are lots of discussions, which are very participative. We got very distilled version of class lessons, and you won’t be able to make sense of them without attending the classes. That’s why they don’t sell the notes.

  2. Hello Munish,

    I was just thinking how much you will rate positive thinking while writing answers and interview?

    I had a long discussion with an IRS officer some days ago I just realized one thing after speaking with him. One can clear this exam only if they have attitude in there personality. The attitude just mean how well you can take decisions and how much considerate you are while you are taking decisions. How much calculated your decisions are. Isn’t it ?

    1. I guess you are correct. Many questions are asked about problems of various kinds in our country. One is not expected to cry hoarse about all that’s not well. That’s for everyone to see. One must quickly jump to solution part, given the question has asked for it.
      A similar approach works for life, too. Being positive helps. Pessimism hasn’t served anyone well.

      1. Thanks Munish. There was one more question. I wants to work in the field of child labor and already working with street kids.
        There was a question in mains which is still stuck in my mind. (There was a longer version of this in IAS mains. )

        “what will you do if you see some kids working in a patakha factory and the employer is not able to prove them a part of his family. Considering You are an IAS officer ”

        I am just thinking what is the best answer for this. If I go by my personal experience best thing to do will be not to act lawfully. It will be best to involve local NGO and to motivate employer for their education and sanitation.

        1. I called the cops. We are not supposed to dilute law according to our whims; we must observe it. Of course, courts are there to decide what could be the best way… they also take a lenient view of things. It’s true that the way the system works leaves much to be desired, but we must always observe the law of the land. That’s my take. I don’t know how my answers got marked. I guess I would have scored better in theoretical questions than case studies. of course, I wrote the bit about involving NGOs as other, less suitable, option.

  3. Respected Munish and RijuBafna sir’s,
    Please share your googledrive link/dropbox link/ notes you prepared, Also write in detail about your detailed preparation strategy for interview. Thank you

    1. Riju is ma’am 🙂
      She, I guess, has shared revision notes for economics optional already. In addition, she didn’t have any notes of hers. I would most certainly be copyrighted material and books. Ditto for me! And we have shared the names of the books.
      Shall write soon on interview part. There’s still a lot of time for that. 🙂

  4. I want all your books and notes donated to me since you wont be needing it. Inflate your heart for a good cause. Let me know if you feel philanthropic.
    P.s. the extra books you bought and dint read..I want those too.

  5. Hello sir,
    many congratulations on your achievement.
    I was wondering if u have any of your friends or acquaintance who took electrical engineering as the optional for the mains exams, since I also graduated from electronics. I would be thankful if you could send me their link or whatever


    1. My uncle took it 20 years ago and couldn’t clear the mains since he got three lesser marks than the threshold. I know some IITians having scored using such subjects in past years (and maybe this year also), but I don’t advise anyone to opt them. Reasons being: 1) they either mark very strictly or scale down 2) you always want to broaden your horizons by studying new things. The CSE gives you a chance to appreciate humanities. Look at me — I took law, when I’m not even a lawyer, but it was fun.
      A very dear friend of mine had taken math in CSE 2012 and in spite of being so good at it, and even on being from a premier engineering institute, he got very low marks in one of the papers. He deserves to be in top 5. Now he has opted for law and you’ll see him in the list next year.

    1. OK. I’m embarrassed. But a dismal 200/600. I couldn’t even complete the papers. Typically, spent 10 minutes writing a 5 marker and 3 minutes writing a 25 marker. All thanks to the fact that I had never appeared for mock tests and always believed that my papers could never go non-attempted.

  6. Dear Munish sirji,

    Can I pliss have ur AUTOGRAPH !!! I’M A bug fan of yours..



    1. Hey Suhaib! Very funny. You can have a pic with me — “this is the zamana of photograph”. (Courtesy: that Virat Kohli fairness cream ad.)
      But you already have so many pics with me.

  7. Thanks a lot, Sirji! For such a nice article on “journey to IAS “! Whatever you have written is really awesome! Now I have got an idea what should be done so as to achieve what we want!
    Keep writing as you are having a god gifted ability to frame your ideas into words! Hope, your books on various issues of Indian society will surely come!

  8. Hello Munish,

    Congratulations. Also, thanks for sharing your views regarding your whole journey to pass out CSE.
    I think CSE is all about knowing India better, from all perspectives of history, social, economics, political, geography, its ethical and cultural values. Positive thinking and actions is surely an imperative for an aspirant. NCERTs are absolutely the base and other reference materials are equally important for CSE. The question regarding, how to remember these all wide-ranging topics from beginning preparation stage to final interview seems tough, but sir, I think it has simple answer – continuous revisions. I think Reading, writing and discussions are all stuff which now every aspirant know because so many good websites and “Reading between lines” guide shared with us. The only question I have is implementation of our own unique strategy.

    1. It’s not all that complicated, bro. Just read and assimilate… you don’t really need to mug up things now… and it’s not just about India and her times, but about the world at large… I personally didn’t revise things much.

  9. Hi munish bhaiya

    Thanks for sharing details on your sources of information basket. Please let me know whether a good vocabulary is very essential for writing answers in the mains paper or it can be done through a good command over the language. Please suggest.

    I would also like to know that I am not good at mathematics. I feel scared to attempt or even look at the questions. Kindly suggest for overcoming this issue as well.

    Thank you

    1. Aksheya: You could have called me! Good vocab is not essential. Doesn’t matter and yours is decent.
      Well, Math is a pet peeve of many a soul. Try solving NCERT books from class 6 to 10 — one at a time. Take no help whatsoever; just look at the illustrations and do sums on your own. If you can, try and teach kids from these classes. When you teach them, your way of looking at math will change. And that is what UPSC wants from CSE aspirants.

  10. whatever be the intention, the use of the word ‘idiot’ in the post is not that good for someone whoz gonna serve the nation…

  11. Munish bhaiya.. sorry I did not call. I wanted to share under this. I thought of asking here rather as your response to my questions May be of help to others as well. 🙂

    Thank you bhaiya
    Take care.

  12. hello sir,
    congratulations 4 ur success..
    need your suggestion sir..
    I am appearing for prelims this year.
    In my e admit card there is an error in my mother’s name and its due to me..
    I have sent mails to the grievance cell of upsc and have been calling them a number of times but nobody is responding the call..
    Sir, am feeling helpless.
    I just want to know, if i appear for prelims and, if i clear it, then can i rectify the mistake, in the DAF form for mains ???

    1. You should submit a written application to UPSC and get the acknowledgment on its photocopy. You may later submit an affidavit, when asked to. Where do you live? I wonder if only speed-posting the application may work. You anyway have email acknowledgments, which is a good thing. Better be safe than sorry. But don’t let this impact your studies. All the best.

      1. thank you soo much sir..
        in fact it is having a terrible impact on my studies..
        initially i had thought f posting the facts but den
        talked with many people and they said u need nt hv 2 do anythng and can correct it, if you appear for mains..
        yes speed post and courier service is available in my place..
        sir, so again its confusing me..

    1. I have not mentioned anyone’s name, bro. But you know that you and Aditya have been my boys throughout the school life.

  13. Hello Munish sir..M from d same place as Dr Himanshu is.I cmpleted my this year though I joined vajiram during my 7th sem internship..Had to b back to colg coz of d last sem..So missed lots of newsppr reading since my focus was on my degree..M taking up the attempt this year..Could u plz suggest some strategy so as to overcome the fear of not having done well in case of current affairs??M done with the static portion..

    1. Riju and Avi subscribed to gktoday and it worked for them. Even I had read their free content. It is well researched. Also, on Khan IAS Academy website, Mr Khan shares his notes… go through them (they won’t be very updated though… don’t worry; do whatever is available). Also on the same website, they publish links to important news for everyday. You may use Jagranjosh though their news is quite summarized, which I don’t prefer. What else — go through some magazines. But the most important thing is that don’t worry; I once got so mad that I had saved newspaper of months, thinking I would finish them. But that never happens. It only gave me grey hair.
      For pre, this mayn’t matter much, but for mains, you should take care. All the best.

  14. Munish sir…kindly tell about the basic strategy of preparing law as optional and also about Nirwana…it us worth to join or not???? Thankyou

  15. Hello sir,
    i m student frm vit jaipur and my goal is same as u, this is my last year in clg (means 4th year .)
    so i would like to ask u that which time is very important for cse exam can i start my journey from this year or after my ?

  16. Sir i m a student of M A english literature from Allahabad university.I had my university exams in march-april and UPPCS mains exam in july so i couldnt focus much on upsc.i want to make an attempt this time. Should i attempt this time or not.What can be the parameters on which one can judge about the level of his preparations?

    1. Take GS 1 and GS 2 (CSAT) 2011, 2012 and 2013 tests at home in stipulated time. The respective cut offs for these years were 199, 209 and 241. Do all the questions, irrespective of your familiarity. The keys and the papers are available on the UPSC website. If you are scoring even 80% of these cut offs, I’ll suggest you to go ahead.

  17. Heylooo munish sharma jii !!! Hearty congratulations..
    I’m doing my mbbs..nw doing internship..please suggest me what to prepare before joining coaching centre??

    1. Read NCERTs of social studies — history, geography, civics/political science, economics, sociology. I’m sure you won’t need to worry much about science.

  18. Hello Sir,

    Can you please elaborate on the importance of answer writing before mains. As Mr. Gaurav Agrawal has stressed too much on answer writing.

    How many mock tests did you write before mains?

  19. im persuing in civil engineer 3rd semester ,is it need to strt prepare for upsc ? can u pls suggest so that i can simultaneously work on my professional course as well as upsc.
    sir u r my great inspiration.

      1. sir
        can u list out ncert books standard wise and subject wise which one to follow u are not asking to read all frm class 6 to class 12 ?

  20. Hey Munish,
    This was one of the most cogent, clear and comprehensive articles on UPSC preparation I have come across (and thankfully ingrained with a subtle sense of humour).
    I can totally relate to your point of inculcating a reading habit and being an eccentric to the point where you read labels on the back of shampoo bottles to know their ingredients.
    You have cleared several misconceptions and doubts regarding the exam for me.

    It was great fun reading your article. Cheers.

  21. Whoah! What an article! Haha thoroughly enjoyed it! Amazed to see almost nobody who is commenting seems to enjoy the tone! Simply wow!! This should be an eye opener for evey aspirant!

  22. Hi sir,
    I was hoping you could elaborate a bit on your optional paper preparation.
    For instance the coaching you attended how was it? Time it took you to get comfortable with the subject,
    Any particular approach you adopted towards it?
    Would you regard it a manageable option from an average students perspective? Etc
    Any details would be most helpful.
    Thank you!

  23. hello munish sir…..congrtss,,, ….is medium of exam matters….
    i read in newspapers that english medium students selection ratio is more…..should i go through english or hindi medium? …..Thnks….

    1. It doesn’t matter. You may write in Hindi, but make sure you go through the material available in English (good books and newspapers). Unfortunately, not everything is available in all languages.

  24. I couldn’t agree more 🙂 obviously I am not rank 2 and so a lot of things you said don’t hold for me but absolutely delighted to read this post. One can see your love of reading and writing reflected in the post itself. P.S. I will share this post if someone doubts my statement about not putting in too much effort for the exam 🙂

  25. hello sir!
    I am doing my graduation with economics right now.
    it is my first year and I would like to know what should I do if I am thinking to start preparations right from today??

    1. Start reading newspapers; the Hindu can be a good source. Focus on the basics — NCERTs (new as well as the old ones). Try to be above average at math and English.

  26. It’s heart rendering to see how you and others (Riju and Avi et al) at such a special time of your lives still take out time to give back! Country is going to safe hands, you see! Congratulations once again.
    It will be great to know how did you manage a ripper of a gig “130” in a essay topic as abstract and lose as “be the change you want to see”! I am especially keen to know how you approached this – the themes that you touched, the areas that you covered. How much should one go to the philosophical and moral plane and how much should one focus on contemporary practical reflections? Need to know what should go in there! This poor needs your two cents on offer here. Thanks 🙂

  27. Hi Munish,

    Can u plz give a fair idea of Niravana?
    You have given positive feedback here however, on the internet I have found a lot of negative feedback about the institute.

    Can you plz share ur honest opinion n revert to me on


  28. congrats munish sir!!
    i am apprehensive as i am not able to join any coaching. according to u what’s the importance of coaching institute? can one without coaching can make it with good rank? what sources one should take help without coaching, i mean some particular websites specially for answer writing practice and some particular topics?? plz help.

  29. Hello Munish sir……first of all congratulations on this bright success of yours. what you have achieved can not be appreciated in words. Sir i really want to be what you are today. I m done with my graduation and now applied for my masters in sociology from IGNOU so that i can give full time for UPSC and also want to take sociology in my optional. I m almost done with my NCERT’s . but my problem is that i m bad at maths . I want to be smooth in maths . What should i do? I usually solve prelims g.s paper and score very less marks. But i am trying my best, improving my g.s by reading NCERT, newspaper, magazines..etc. I started from zero but want to reach on the top as you. Am i on right direction ? Do i need to do anything else? Plz guide me sir.

  30. Hi Munish !!

    Really impressed with your strategy ..

    can you suggest me how to prpare for Law as optional


  31. Hello Riju Mam. I am a working guy and I am preparing for civil services. Many times I feel to quit my job in order to prepare for this exam with full devotion, but I have some commitments towards my family due to which I have to think twice and thrice. There is always lack of time. Can you please suggest me how can I manage my time well or suggest me shall I quit my job? On weekdays I remain 12-13 hrs out of my home and I have my Saturdays and Sundays off. Is this much time sufficient for serious preparation?? Please help.

  32. hi
    i am second year civil engineering student and i aspire to be an ias . how should i start my preparation from the grass root can u guide me plz . i have to manage my engg also.

  33. Sir, please suggest me to start up my preparation on my own and I am in the situation of cant go for any coaching institute!!

  34. Hello Riju Ma’am
    M the final year student in MANIT BHOPAL.I am placed recently in an MNC.Since I have about a year in joining and completion of my degree will be in June,I want to prepare for upsc.From where to start.The syllabus seems like ocean.What to read?

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