Civil Services (Preliminary) Examination 2022 is less than a month away. Precisely, it is on the 27th day from today. That gives us 26 days of preparation. In these 26 days, only THREE THINGS ARE GOING TO MATTER.
I thought it prudent to focus on the third aspect. There is ample guidance available out there regarding revision and mock tests. But not many tell the aspirants about the mental preparation that is essential for clearing the prelims. I was never counseled about it throughout my preparation. In the following write-up, you will find passing references to revision, test papers as well as CSAT.
However, the bulk of the focus will be on the mental preparation for the GS paper in prelims. Because that is what matters the most when it comes to the difference between those who make it through to prelims and those who don’t. I have given all the 6 prelims from 2016 onwards. I have cleared 4 of those. The two in which I couldn’t get through, my mental preparation fell short, not my studies. My focus was low, my fear was more. So I committed silly mistakes which cost me two chances to write mains.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN WHEN I SAY “MENTAL PREPARATION”?
SO, LET’S GET TO IT.
The “ideal attempt” Conundrum
The foremost thing to kick-start your mental preparation is to know that there is no “ideal attempt”. In the bazaar that is ORN, you will be told that there is a minimum attempt essential for you to clear the exam. Some suggest that you must attempt 85 questions. Some say 90 is the bare minimum. I have even heard it suggested that one should attempt all the questions. You’ve also come across similar suggestions, haven’t you?
Let me tell you a secret. There is no ideal attempt. In all my six attempts, my highest attempt was 83, in my very first attempt. All my attempts after that, I attempted 72 to 78 questions. And even in those years when I failed prelims, I failed only by one or two questions. Never more than that. However, on the converse side, a very close friend of mine who recently got a top 25 rank almost always attempted more than 90. He too has failed prelims twice in his years of preparation.
One point of clarification here. If you’re comfortable with attempting 90+ questions, surely, do so. But do not attempt it just because someone else told you to. YOU have to clear the exam, not them. Artificially pulling your attempt up brings with it the risk of increasing your wrong answers, because you are not attempting based on sound logic, you are attempting out of fear. I have always tried to follow what is known as the 51/49 rule (I think I read about this in Hillary Clinton’s Autobiography). Attempt only those questions in which you are at least 51% certain. Anything below that, you’re better off leaving that question unattempted.
WHAT I’M TRYING TO TELL YOU IS THAT THE “IDEAL ATTEMPT” IS SUBJECT TO TWO FACTORS.
Another thing. You don’t clear prelims by studying a lot. You clear it by avoiding silly mistakes. People who clear prelims multiple times have a strong grasp of the basics in all the subjects, and their accuracy in static questions (apart from history – ancient and modern) is very high. I have had prelims where my post exam analysis showed that I have not committed a single mistake in polity, geography, environment, economy, IR and predictable questions from modern history. I have always cleared those prelims. Make sure you avoid silly mistakes in easy/predictable questions. When you see questions that you think are easy/predicted, slow down. Don’t speed up. Take a few seconds extra if need be. But get those questions right.
THIS BRINGS ME TO THE NEXT LEVEL OF ANALYSIS.
Usually, there are 4 sets (A, B, C and D) in prelims, and usually, groups of 20-25 questions are rotated in different sets. For example, question numbers 1 to 25 in set A may be question numbers 51 to 75 in set C. But there is one universal truth. There is always one patch of questions which is quite tough, and there is always one patch of easy/predictable questions.
More often than not, the patch of easy questions has at least a few questions from polity. If you’re fortunate enough to get that set in which the patch of easy questions is at the start, great. But if not, and you feel your confidence sagging due to the difficulty of questions in the initial 15-20 questions, consider attempting the paper from question number 51 onwards instead. Try and not start attempting backwards from 100. Human brain is not wired for walking backwards, and therefore tires easily when forced to do so. If you start attempting backwards, you run the risk of causing mental fatigue that can lead to avoidable mistakes such as marking the wrong circle on the OMR sheet. It’s a better idea to attempt the paper from question number 26 or 51 or 76 in such cases.
Next, and the most important thing. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT count your attempts while in the exam hall. It consumes valuable time, and may build irrational pressure to attempt more. Just make sure you are going through all the 100 questions at least twice, preferably thrice. Try and attempt all the questions you feel comfortable attempting. Spend the time thinking about questions you haven’t attempted, instead of using that time in calculating your attempt. No one tells you this. No one told me either. Trust me. Don’t calculate your attempt while inside the exam hall. It’s an unnecessary burden that you don’t need in those crucial moments.
WHEN IT COMES TO CSAT, REMEMBER TWO THINGS.
Also, my personal opinion is one should attempt more math based questions than comprehension, regardless of your graduation stream. There’s a certainty in math based questions that is simply not there in comprehension. Also, the comprehension section is getting more difficult by the passing year. If you are from a non-technical stream, practice a few maths based questions from previous papers. Usually the type of questions is more or less the same across the years.
One more thing. There is usually only one layer of difficulty in prelims questions. Once you untie that knot, once you solve that one level of difficulty, usually the answer you’ve got is correct. Don’t overthink. Yes, there will be a few odd questions in which there will be multiple levels of difficulty. It’s okay. Such questions are few and far between. In most questions, there is only one level of difficulty. Once you solve that, back yourself in attempting that question. More often than not, you will mark the correct answer.
Good luck. Hold your confidence there. It’s a confidence game. In those two hours, how much you have studied, where you have studied from, how many test papers you have solved etc. doesn’t really matter. Some basic level of preparation is required, true. But if you’ve been studying for nearly a year, you already have that. In prelims, the candidate who successfully holds his/her nerve clears the exam. The ones who panic usually don’t. Don’t panic. Predict the difficult scenarios, and prepare for those mentally. What will you do if you get 20 questions from art and culture? What will you do if you can’t answer any of the first 10 questions? What will you do if there is a lot of street noise at your exam center? What will you do if it is raining outside? Inoculate yourself against the predictable difficulties. Prelims will go easier for you.
THREE LAST TIPS.
the questions. Don’t leave the OMR sheet blank, to be filled in the last thirty minutes.
Good luck. My best wishes. Your efforts are the most important. Result – either for prelims or the final – is just a by-product. Be yourself in prelims. Give your best. Leave the rest to fate – and UPSC.
In Service Officer