Mains is the most important stage of the preparation as it ultimately decides whether you are in the final list or not. Below I have divided the entire write up into 3 parts.
First- general points to keep in mind
Second- subject-specific sources and strategy for GS 1, 2 and 3 and
Third- Essay and Ethics
- Answer writing– This is one of the most crucial parts of mains preparation and hence, the focus should be on developing:
Analytical skills: I myself have done this mistake of focusing more on covering source material while ignoring answer writing practice. Many questions in the exam will be new and will require quick thinking, analyzing from different dimensions and moving on to putting quality content on paper in less than eight minutes. So this habit needs to be built by an adequate amount of practice.
Presentation skills: I have made diagrams/ flowcharts/ tables in more than 50 percent of questions. While studying, just think that how you can present the same content in a graphical manner and this can help you to memorize and also get brownie points in the exam. For example: In the 1st question of GS paper 3 in 2017 which was about declining savings rate in India, I made a circle showing how savings lead to investment, investment leads to production and income which in turn adds to the growth of the economy.
Time management and Quality v/s Quantity: Definitely, finishing the paper in the time limit is difficult initially but with regular practice one is able to reduce the time to attempt a question. Leaving questions blank should be avoided at all costs. With practice, one should strike a balance between quantity and quality of answers attempted.
- Timetable- revision– The major difference between my first attempt and the second attempt was the amount of emphasis on revision. For me personally, minimum 2-3 revisions are required to write answers effectively. Therefore this time, I spent most of the time in my last month before mains on revision and consolidation of notes. To ensure, adequate time is left for revision, move strategically as per a timetable (daily, weekly and monthly) to avoid things being piled up in the last month.
- Consolidate notes- Just think that you would only have few hours (2-3 maximum) to revise your entire art and culture notes before GS paper 1 exam date. Similar is the case for revising GS-3 and 4 after writing your GS paper 2 exam in between the mains. The reason I am saying so is that one should keep on consolidating their notes with each successive revision. It helps to revise whatever we have done in the past months in few hours before the exam to refresh and reproduce the content in the exam. For instance- I had consolidated my entire paper 2 commerce notes ranging from 500+ pages to less than 50 pages in the end.
How to use the same source for both prelims and mains? In many subjects such as History and Geography, the source is same but the approach would be different. In prelims, geography and history constitute a major portion of your syllabus and factual knowledge is required. In mains, it constitutes only a portion of your GS1 and analytical skills are required for the same content.
So prepare them exhaustively for prelims while for mains, you can make short notes/ highlight/ underline from those prelims notes itself during your successive revisions and these short notes for mains can hugely save your time one day before your GS 1 and 2 exam for quick revision. Therefore again, consolidation is the key!
- Cost-benefit analysis (Optional> Essay and Ethics> GS)
Optional, essay and ethics can shoot up your total score. The best part about ethics and essay is that they require less time but can yield good returns. Hence do give adequate time to these papers.
- Sources: Balance between current and static and one source per one subject.
To ensure that you complete your syllabus in the optimum time, please stick to a minimum number of sources for a topic. Also do not ignore static topics like technology missions, governance, etc during preparation (ones which are not covered in current affairs). One can prepare 1- 2 pages notes by referring to any small source (online/ coaching institute) for these topics.
- Rajya Sabha TV (Big picture and India’s world) and AIR spotlight analysis: I have been a regular follower of these shows from the very beginning and got immense benefit from them. They help you develop a balanced opinion (essential for mains and interview), keep you updated with the important happenings and streamline your current affairs preparation.
GS 1, 2 and 3 – sources and strategy
Art and Culture
I used multiple sources to cover this section.
Old NCERTS: I made short notes from them (both ancient and medieval) to avoid going through the books again. More focus needs to be put on chapters relating to art and culture such as temples, literature, etc. Also, I included basic important details in my notes such as milestones in king’s reign such as Akbar’s mansabdari system and other important stuff.
Nitin Singhania sir’s book: I did a selective study from this book. Few chapters such as architecture and paintings are exhaustively covered.
Jain Sir’s notes (vajiiram) and GK today.
Spectrum and Bipin Chandra book/ Old NCERT
Though I did multiple books such as Norman Lowe and Jain and Mathur and made notes out of them, I do not think this subject requires that amount of effort. The cost benefit is low and hence one can go for short notes such as Vision IAS notes available in the market.
I again relied on multiple sources here such as 10th, 11th and 12th NCERTs, a book by Periyar publications (few chapters of Indian geography are covered well there), Mrunal videos and Manocha sir’s notes (Vajiram) for physical geography preparation.
Laxmikanth- one-stop source for prelims.
For mains, a balance needs to be sought between current and static. For current, Vision mains 365 and short notes made by me while watching TV/ radio debates helped. For static, one can look at the syllabus of GS2 and create 1-2 pages notes on the topics mentioned. For example- in 2016, a question related to quasi-judicial bodies was asked. The aim of the exercise is that you should at least have something to write in case any question emerges from out of the blue (experience of 2016 GS2 exam). I took help from Vision material/ online surfing/ Vajiram class notes for short static notes.
For prelims, I relied on Mrunal videos and Sriram institute notes found in the market. Arthapedia/ GKtoday website can also be beneficial to understand few concepts.
(I did not read the NCERTs because of my commerce background)
For mains- a similar approach to the polity. A balance between current and static.
For prelims, I read NCERTs selectively and for current affairs section, I relied on Vision notes for both prelims and mains.
Prelims- Shankar IAS book and ending chapters on environment in the 12th biology book.
Mains- Vision mains 365. I again made short notes for the static portion of topics mentioned in the syllabus.
Vajiram yellow book and Mains 365
I did not use to spend much time reading the paper. I used to skim through the paper to know the major headlines and compensated it with TV and radio debates such as the Big Picture and AIR Spotlight Analysis. Also, I used to watch Ram Babu sir’s current affairs videos on Civilsprep website daily to know important points from editorials.
I did Vision IAS current affairs and Mains 365.
GS- 4 Ethics
- Create content– During preparation, take each topic one by one and prepare it in a multi-dimensional way.
For example- Let us take Emotional intelligence.
Questions can be- What is EI, example, a real-life example in your life, utility in individual’s life, interpersonal relations in personal and professional life and importance in a civil servant’s life. You can create such repository of questions by looking at the previous year papers. The utility of the exercise is that since the ethics paper is one of the lengthiest paper in mains, it helps you to produce rich content without taking much time. This helps you save time in Section- A which can be put to use in Section B- case studies.
I used Evernote for my ethics notes as it was easier to edit and include examples if something new comes to my mind.
- Time management-Do go for timed tests. Most of the people (including me) faced difficulty in completing the paper. Abide by the watch strictly while writing the exam.
- Express yourself in the paper- I feel ethics paper gives you the best chance to express yourself and show your personality. To think about it, they are analyzing your personality and not knowledge related to ethics terms by the answers written by you. So just go for it and show the real side of you in the paper. Also, I did not bind myself in any pre-decided format while attempting the questions. For example in 2017 paper, in the case study question relating to RTI, I made a table showing on one side – the general complaints of RTI and on another side showed that how strengthening the act in place of adding more safeguards will be more fruitful. I wrote that if one is working as per the rules and adhering to the spirit of the act, then there will be less scope for misuse.
- Be creative–In seventy percent of my answers, I used diagrams and flowcharts. For example- To explain corporate governance/ CSR- show a venn diagram having an intersection of economic, environmental and social aspects.
Similarly- CSR can be explained in terms of company’s responsibility to various stakeholders and can be explained with the help of a table:
Therefore prepare one or two diagrams for each topic beforehand.
- Books-I selectively did many books such as Subba Rao, Lexicon, Vajiram and Vision notes.
So please decide any one-two sources for static material (such as thinkers) and complement it with what you feel about that topic (as explained in point 1). Please do not forget that the examiner is gauging your personality and not your knowledge through your answers.I am also adding few of my notes on ethics topics to give an idea that how I prepared some content before the exam.
I learnt a lot from reading these two articles on ethics preparation on insightsoninida:
After optional in Mains, it is the essay paper which can cause huge variation in the total score of the aspirants. Also, it requires comparatively less amount of effort as compared to GS and optional to score well. You can also check Siddharth Jain’s blog (Rank 13- 2015) as I took help from it. Few additional points which I would like to add are mentioned below.
Content: Though what we study in GS is relevant for an essay, still, one can collect some good content, introduction and ending lines, interesting data for few expected topics. This time I selected 15-20 general topics such as environment, women issues, education, etc and made a framework. This saves up your time and also ensures that best possible content is produced during the exam. There is a list of last 25 years essay topics available on Mrunal website. You can easily select few repetitive themes and collect content on them.
I haved added one of my notes from the education topic. I maintained a collection of good lines in it.
Handle your essay from multiple dimesions. Another thing which differentiated my first attempt and second attempt’s essay was the amount of emotion into it. Let me explain. In few of my mock essays before my second mains, few of my friends gave me the feedback that my essay is too bookish and factual (they said it appears like a GS answer). Definitely please do not be over-emotional while writing your essay but at least feel about that topic you are writing and let it be reflected in your essay that you care about the cause. That would leave an impression on the examiner.
Introduction and ending: They are most important because they determine the interest of the examiner. Do put some effort in collecting good lines and anecdotes. For instance: this time I started my education essay with an experience of Mr. Narayan Murthy where he had reflected on the difference between education systems in India and other tech giant countries.
Yojana magazine is a treasure trove of good content.
Time management: Please do practice few essays before you sit for the final exam. Give equal time to both the essays.
Presentation: This time I added one diagram in both the essays. Also, a good and neat handwriting never hurts anybody! 😉