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Those who think they can, and those who think they can’t are both usually right

I’ll come to the purpose of writing the above quote at the very starting of this post later. But first things first. This post is as close an account of my preparation for the CSE, as it could be. I’ve only one motive behind writing this piece – to help an aspirant clear the examination in one go.

I must also declare that I did not take any coaching for any subject whatsoever, and have achieved AIR 162 in my first attempt. Also, I hold the belief that coaching isn’t mandatory for a serious candidate. Period.

My optional was Sociology.


Here is my score card:


prelims scorecard Saurabh Dixit


mains Saurabh Dixit upsc

The details that don’t matter but need mention:

I have always been good at studies, and at examinations for that matter. I scored more than 90 per cent in both my board exams and achieved AIR 1675 in IIT JEE in 2010. I graduated from IIT Kanpur in June 2015 with a dual degree in Civil Engineering.  Thereafter, I joined Housing.com in Mumbai. I was planning to write the examination while on the job. Plans changed and I came to New Delhi (Old Rajinder Nagar) on December 1, 2015. I would have gone to my hometown instead but couldn’t really take that bold decision, then.

Anyways, I rented a good place in ORN and started my preparation on December 03, 2015 (co-incidentally, exactly one year before CSE 2016 written examination). I moved to Gorakhpur after having written the main (w) exam, and came to Delhi for a few mock interviews just before my PT.

Preparing for the CSE preparation:

While I was on campus, I had done as elaborate internet search on UPSC, CSE prep, qualified candidates, optional subjects, as possible. I even bought most NCERTs (ALL new ones) while on campus. Never read them though.

Before I finally came to ORN, I had most of the booklist (we will talk about it very soon in this post), I had joined an online test series, was firm with the decision of my optional.

The game had begun.

I sincerely believe that you must always do a thorough research on following things when it comes to choosing a career: your own capabilities, your aspirations, career options available, the rigor expected from you in a particular career and so on. I must also add that there were times when I was still in college and I felt I should not attempt the CSE. I had my reasons, but finally here I am, preparing to join the FC soon.

I did elaborate search on many portals regarding exam pattern, booklist, severity of effort required, fall back options etc. Only when you have done all of this, should you attempt the examinations, or else the following may (read will) happen.

Your juniors from college will clear this exam and that. They’ll apparently post things on FB, you’ll get jealous and helpless and what not. Let’s come the more relevant part – if you fail in successive attempts at CSE for lack of ‘preparation of preparation’ — you’ll join a coaching institute somewhere for a few lacs, only to realize later that it doesn’t guarantee your success.

You’ll be made to believe CSE is a lottery, luck and the like. (Conspiracy) Theories like only the brightest stand a chance, there’s some sort of ‘setting’ in the examination etc keep you engaged. Your precious youth is not being used to the extent it should be, so to say. You start to doubt your own capabilities.

You hunt for that ‘perfect’ approach and ‘perfect’ material for CSE. I must remind you outright, there is none! Everybody who has cleared the exam this time (and every time) knows there are few thousands more who deserve to be on the list.

Books keep on increasing, attempts keep on increasing and you gradually become less ruthless. Alas.

Students of mathematics can better relate my following analogy. See, there’s a domain of things that a serious candidate must do in order to be successful at CSE, and once that is done –wait for your chance!

This exam will test your patience and your perseverance. I know even under 10 rank holders in IITJEE who couldn’t clear the exam in one go. And in the same breadth I must also mention there’re some who clear it multiple times in a row! It all boils down to your own efforts. Period.

In a nutshell, be very clear as to why CSE? Why IAS? Why a government job? Only then will you be able to build the tempo required to enjoy the time spent studying.

When In ORN:

My online searches had told me that ‘answer writing’ and ‘test series’ hold the key in today’s era of CSE. I don’t dispute it, but I have my own reservations about these suggestions.

Anyways, I started writing answers daily (yes, from Day One as people will have you believe it). Only after 20 odd days did I realize that it isn’t helping. It won’t. If you’re going to attempt this exam for the very first time, be least worried about answer writing. I will tell why I think so when I discuss my main(w) exam approach.

Things that I won’t discuss/write about:

Importance of reading a national daily (I read and recommend The Hindu), importance of NCERTs, watching RSTV programs, solving a test series (once you’re done with prelims), attending a mock panel for interview guidance.

I have chosen to not write about them, ironically, to highlight their importance. The sheer advantage the above things give you can’t be put in words. I owe my success to the above sources (and some more).

Let’s quickly move to examination part:

CSE is an exam, just like any other. Only a bit more thorough and demands particular skill set. If you have that, you’ll have no problem clearing it.

The skill set here includes presentation, imaginative power, planning, problem solving, and analytical ability. People prepare a lot for the exam, but hardly focus on the exam duration. It’s very important. Your skills, knowledge, imagination and you yourself are put to test in a limited period of time. You need to be highly attentive when taking the CSE, in the exam hall.

Pre-exam is a test of decision making, and requires more of memorization. In order to be confident of writing the main(w) exam, you need to be sure of a comfortable margin between your expected score and the expected cut-off in your category. Only then can you be firm in planning your time between pre and main(w) exam, if this is your first attempt. And main(w) exam is all that matters. At least for me it did.

The booklist for pre exam is easily available on a simple Google search. Importance of studying Laxmikanth, Bipin Chandra, NCERTs, current affairs and the like can’t be emphasized more. I stuck to these basic books and got a very comfortable score in CSE 2016 pre exam. You will need lot of practice in a simulated environment to clear pre exam. I had joined online test series and that helped me revise important topics several times.

Always remember, anything that you haven’t revised a couple of times before the exam is as good as you not having read it. You won’t recall it later.

Paper 1 for pre-exam is based on facts mostly. Syllabus is well defined. If you’re not reading it from basic books yourself, chances are you’ll miss the train to writing the main(w) exam. Many students, unfortunately, hunt for short notes, gists of magazines etc few weeks before the exam. I made my own short notes, and revised them multiple times. See, you should always write the exam when you’re on your peak. The peak is reached when you’re getting 120+ in test series(s), you aren’t making silly mistakes, you’re thorough with NCERTs etc.

While in exam hall, there will be questions that will need to be solved based on tricks. For example, if I know Nashik isn’t on the Malwa Plateau – all options suggesting so are wrong and hence I can quickly arrive at my answer. The climate change fund transfer as agreed upon by developed countries was $100 billion, if an option mentions it as $1000 billion, it’s wrong. [These examples are taken from CSE 2016 pre exam, sorry if you can’t relate to them].

Then some people call it luck based. I have only one line for them: don’t go to a temple to pray, if you’re an atheist. Nobody forced (or should) you to write this exam. If you’re here, you’ve to play by the general rules.

So, how many days are sufficient for preparing for the exam?

I have a simple answer for this question. The government conducts the exam every year. This is the time required – one year. If it wasn’t the case, the exams would be held every alternate year.

If you can use your faculty in an efficient way, you can prepare and clear the exam in one year. I did it. Many others have done it. Can you? Now, I take your attention to the quote I had written in the starting, those who think they can, and those who think they can’t are both usually right. You’re your own best judge. Confidence is the key here.

Some Important details that need mention:

Now I shall be as honest as possible. I used to study for around 12 hours a day, every day! Consistency is the key. This included newspaper reading & making notes out of it (yes, I made my own notes from December 2015 to May 2016), reading optional & making notes out of it (I did self study for optional as well), reading GS for upcoming mock tests.

I gave even mocks after revising the syllabus. This helped me memorize books like NCERTs, TN history, GC Leong, Laxmikanth – all by heart. I still have a pictographic memory of all of them. It helps. The scores in the beginning were like 59/200, 60s/200. 90s/200. But in 2-month’s time I was building up the tempo. I thought I was late (considering many people join coaching a year before the exam, many take the exam to improve their AIR, several others may have better grasping skills).

But I now realize 6-8 months time is more than sufficient before pre. If you aren’t able to finish the required syllabus in this time, few things can be inferred. You’re not reading relevant books, you’re idling around, perhaps you’ve weak memory (and I don’t think almond helps), or you’re just not in the mood maybe?

I was done with my pre syllabus by end of May 2016. I had also made notes for Sociology for almost 70 per cent of the syllabus (to those coaching institutes who promise to finish syllabus in 3 months time, I have only thing to say: please don’t cheat the innocent). I now decided that I must revise and start taking full syllabus tests. In hindsight, the revisions made all the difference. I stopped studying Sociology and just revised all what I had read.

Right after the exam, I knew I will get through. I matched answer keys and was comfortably scoring 140+, so I knew I was on the right track. Take some time and try to visualize my situation here. I stayed in the UPSC hub yet never took coaching, had just read online success stories*, and had attempted online test series. To me this was big.
[this fact has motivated me to write this piece, what if someone somewhere takes motivation and finally clears the exam just by self study? I will consider time spent in writing this article as a good investment]

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