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I had cracked the preliminaries of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) examinations for the civil services six times, before I joined the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) in 2016. I also taught at some coaching institutes that prepare aspiring civil servants for the UPSC examinations. So, when the UPSC announced the delayed date for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) preliminaries (prelims), I found myself being transported back into the shoes of the aspirant again.
The UPSC examinations for the prelims has now been delayed to 4 october, 2020. The first thought that came to my mind when I heard that was that many smart students will now plan to prepare for the second stage (the IAS mains) first and then spend a couple of months to prepare for the prelims, hoping that would secure them a good rank at one go.

This used to be success mantra that coaching institutes would propagate a few years back, but the pattern of the prelims has changed drastically since then. Since 2013 when the changes were incorporated into the syllabus of the IAS examinations, the prelims have actually emerged as the toughest part of the selection process.

To buttress my surmise, I would like to point out that in 2019 eight lakh students appeared for the prelims, but only 11,000 qualified in it. At least 7.9 lakh students ? or 98.6 per cent of the civil services aspirants ? got eliminated from the selection process right at the start. A minuscule 1.4 per cent of the examinees qualified for the mains.

The questions for the prelims are now from anywhere under the sun and applicants are expected to mark the correct bubble. The second reason why candidates should focus on the prelims is that this first stage of the selection process constitutes just one paper, which decides the fate of the candidate, unlike in the mains, which has nine papers. Candidates, who do not do so well in some papers in the mains, have a hope of doing better in the other papers.

The prelims also have a provision for negative marking for a third of the questions, implying that wrong answers disqualify the candidate. The candidate gets a choice of as many as four answers, true, but the answers are all so close to the facts that only an exceptionally well-prepared candidate is able to get them all right.

Moreover, more than 60 per cent of the topics, like ancient, medieval and modern history, the polity, economy, geography, art and culture, geography, current affairs etc. are common between the prelims and the mains. So, preparing for the mains implies focusing on just 40 per cent of the syllabus.  Studying smart for the civil services will mean preparing for all of the 60 per cent of the common topics first, to cross the first hurdle of the prelims and also be prepared for the mains.

Here are some nuggets of advice that I hope will help IAS aspirants prepare better for the October examinations. I wish all hopeful civil servants the very best of luck for the examinations. I hope you realise your dreams.

? It is foolhardy to prepare for the mains before you prepare for the prelims.

? The artificial distinction between the prelims and the mains was created by some coaching institutes some years back when the pattern of prelims was completely different.

? Since changes were incorporated into the UPSC examination syllabus in 2013, the prelims have become the toughest stage of the selection process.

? More than 60 per cent of the topics are common between the IAS prelims and the mains, like ancient, medieval and modern history, polity, economy, geography, art and culture, geography and current affairs. So, it is not clever to study for just that 40 per cent of the syllabus that the mains cover. Prepare for the 60 per cent common topics first and cross that first, tough hurdle of the prelims.

? If you would still like to study for the mains first, do so till July and that too, only if you are 100 per cent sure of succeeding in the prelims and have done so in the past few years.

? Respect the prelims. Have little fear of the prelims. Prepare for the prelims. Read, revise and take tests from at most ten most common books repeatedly. Remember the prelims will open the door to the next stage of the mains. I repeat, please don’t be over enthusiastic about studying for the mains first.

? In any competition, the most commonly used source for study should be completed properly to be able to compete with other contenders.

? Primarily use just one source as study material, because every single source provides at least 70 per cent of the answers to likely questions on the subject in the examinations. The hard work that goes into studying from the second and third source on the same subject is usually not commensurate with a better score in the examinations.

? Ignore all the negative rumours about coaching, the subject, Delhi etc. Focus only on your studies.

? Now barely 90 days are left for the IAS prelims, so gear up your studying pattern. Study for as many hours as possible. ‘Smart work’ sounds beautiful, but I believe that only hard work pays. Only hard work shows you what to read, how to read and how much to read. So, don’t wait for any special day to start your full- fledged preparation for the prelims ? begin now.

? Your hard work and the simple strategy of reading a good book for a subject, studying consistently, making short notes in your own language and revising repeatedly through regular tests, will easily sail you through the prelims.

Best of luck.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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