Friday, June 01, 2007

Preparing for the Mains GS Paper

The piece I wrote about preparation for the Civil Services exam in general is very well received. I am now asked to say something about the preparation for the GS Mains paper. Here I go.

First the caveat emptor: What I say here is said keeping the most common denominator in mind. Exceptions can always be found on the +ve and –ve sides. If you belong to the exceptions, you are responsible for it; not this advice.

GS paper should never be seen as a routine optional paper. There is a world of difference between a GS paper and an optional paper. Barring perhaps subjects like Maths or those having numericals as essay questions in them, all other optional papers have definite syllabus – howsoever exhaustive it may seem to you at the first instance. The case with GS is not like that. The syllabus at best is only indicative. Nobody can predict what is ‘in’ and/or what is ‘out’. I find that the UPSC shenanigans have succeeded in ensuring that is only a kind of ‘lifestyle’ that can successfully tackle a GS paper; not a certain ‘level’ of preparation. This may look like an overstatement. Yet, I prefer to stick with it.

That ‘lifestyle’, in my view envisages that a candidate preparing for the Mains exam should be very well informed; be very analytical in his approach to a given issue; have the capability to write/present any current issue in simple, lucid and flexible terms. The ‘simple’ here doesn’t mean lack of detail; it means the ability to present a complex issue in an easily understandable way. The ‘flexible’ here refers to the ability to present an issue from anywhere between 50 words to 300 words. It depends on the circumstance. And this kind of ‘lifestyle’ can only be cultivated by constant and determined practice. One may be convent educated, have had consistent outstanding academic performance to back him up; but there is no guarantee that such a person will be able to perform well in the GS paper.

One should cultivate the habit of staying well informed throughout. That includes reading a paper, watching/listening to news, understanding and debating about issues of current importance. A ‘current’ issue would obviously need some background information also. It is just not enough if you know the ‘current’ status of an issue; you need to be well informed about its background also. That is where delving deep into the background of an issue is a necessity. It is only then that one can say something about an issue in one’s own words. And if you interpret ‘current’ to mean only current political developments, nothing can be farther from the truth. It also encompasses some basic background about some conventional knowledge.

Coming to the ‘exhaustive’ versus ‘selective’ preparation debate, I would say that one has to be exhaustive. And to be exhaustive, one has to be prepared from the beginning. This is where lot of discipline is called for. Imagine a case where the candidate doesn’t clear the Prelims, but yet he is being asked (by me, that is) to prepare for the Mains. May look silly in the beginning. But will not look that silly after all, when you see the results. This kind of sparing of time for preparation, in a long and sustained fashion will definitely yield results, even for a so called ‘average’ performer.

People keep worrying about the books that others read. They exhibit all sorts of paranoia when it comes to not being able to lay hands on some material that is in the possession of somebody else. I believe such worries are unfounded. Look at the web today. Any number of resources are there which point to you a reasonable list of books/material. Gather them in the beginning. Don’t postpone the gathering to a later date. Start in right earnest. And be consistent with your preparation. Let it not be in fits and starts. Consistency is important. If you are sparing something like 4 hours per day for GS, stick to that regimen. It will see you through clearing/covering all the material that you gathered.

Have group discussions with some others who are preparing like you. Join some institute, if that is feasible for you. If you can’t, don’t blame your fate. Joining an institute is recommended for having a good circle of friends with whom you can discuss the preparation, impress them with your progress, get impressed by their progress. All that should create a ‘virtuous cycle’ of preparation for the whole group. Avoid people/circles which are not open. Cultivate ‘giving’. You will ‘receive’ more than what you have ‘given’ in return. This is the secret of friendship.

Last but not the least, keep watching this space regularly. The shout-box will have queries from people, who you may at times feel are very ‘naïve’. But more often than not, such ‘naïve’ people only are asking questions that you were afraid to ask in the first place. But you are getting benefited by the replies they are getting for their queries. So keep asking questions, they will be answered – may be not immediately, but certainly in time, either by me or by somebody who knows the answers. Express yourself by writing and posting to the entire group. You will be learning a lot in the process.

You may feel that the foregoing did not answer your query. I am coming to that – if I were to prepare for 2007 Mains, how would I do it? That’s coming in the next piece.

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