Making the right choice

Published : Dec 30, 2005 00:00 IST

A relaxed moment in a classroom. Hard work is essential in the marathon effort to succeed in the examinations. -

A relaxed moment in a classroom. Hard work is essential in the marathon effort to succeed in the examinations. -

For success in the civil services examinations one must follow a clear and determined study plan.

MUCH is written and said of the back-breaking effort required to crack the Union Public Service Commission's (UPSC) civil services examinations. The series of tests starting with the preliminaries and culminating in the interview evaluates an aspirant's physical, mental and emotional calibre.

While hard work is essential, focus is imperative to succeed in the marathon effort. Without adequate focus, a student studying for hours on end could still be under-prepared. Essentially, an aspirant must be aware of what is and what is not relevant to pass the exam. Sajjan Singh, of Spectrum IAS Study Centre, New Delhi, says: "A systematic approach is required, without which a student's effort might just be in vain."

The first hurdle encountered is the preliminary round. It consists of a general studies paper and an optional paper. Given that the main examination also includes two exhaustive papers on General Studies, many see it as the key to success. "While the subject matter in General Studies is diverse, the answers must be specific, concise and precise," says C.B.P. Srivastava, director of the New Delhi-based Discovery IAS Academy. "The striking feature of General Studies is that questions are now based on a combination of subjects, such as socio-political, politico-economic subjects," he adds.

According to Srivastava, the most important point is that subjects listed in the general studies syllabus are merely indicative of the areas covered. Students should expect questions related to the categories enumerated in the syllabus. However, it is important to remember the stipulation that while questions in the general studies section requires a degree of academic rigour, a deep and specific knowledge of the field of study is not required.

For instance, in the subject of Indian Polity, the new trend is to include questions on the applied aspects of the Constitution. The other questions in the section relate to the socio-economic implications of the constitutional provisions. Panchayati raj, the political system, federalism, and so on are important areas of study.

In the section on the Indian Economy, globalisation has been the prism through which diverse issues such as planning, banking, foreign trade and fiscal management are viewed. Yet, it is important to include non-economic factors that either weaken or strengthen the economy.

The third section, India and the World, focusses on international affairs. In this section it is important to give a nuanced answer. The global perspective must be kept in view while considering any topic. In the light of the recent developments, India-United States ties, the India-Russia-China triangle and global nuclear policy are key areas that should be looked at.

The fourth section on Science and Technology requires a thorough understanding of the question and a sequential presentation of the facts. The answers should be concise and systematic. According to the UPSC's guidelines, it does not require a specialisation in science but a basic knowledge is essential.

The fifth section on Topics of Social Relevance is considered the first part of the paper and is often mistaken for Sociology. It is necessary to note that topics of social, political and environmental importance might also be considered to be of social relevance.

For the preliminary examination, it is essential to have a thorough understanding of Indian and world geography: Indian physiographic divisions and the origins and causes of the monsoon. It is advisable to be aware of the trends in Census 2001; indicators such as sex ratio, birth and death rates, literacy and demographic transitions are important, apart from natural resources and their distribution. In terms of world geography, current issues of debate such as climate change, the Kyoto Protocol, earthquakes and tsunamis are important, as are issues such as the internal structure of the earth, atmospheric circulation, ocean currents and types of rocks.

History is another area that is considered essential in General Studies. Ancient, medieval and modern India are all equally important, with a special emphasis on the freedom struggle. Over the past few years, examiners have shown an inclination towards historical maps.

In general, in General Studies it is important to remember that both static knowledge such as ancient Indian history and fast-changing areas such as internal affairs are equally important. One should not be given precedence at the cost of the other.

After general science, the candidate is required to pass two optional papers. While the UPSC gives the candidate a range of subjects to choose from, it is important to select a subject that one is comfortable in. Moreover, it is a good idea to evaluate all the options available before taking the final decision; you might be good in a subject you never considered.

Philosophy is one such subject. Dharmendar Kumar of the Patanjali IAS Academy, New Delhi, points out that in comparison with a number of other optionals, philosophy not only has a clearly defined course but is also a comparatively high-scoring subject, which requires only about three months of dedicated study. Another good reason to opt for philosophy is that it helps a candidate formulate and express his/her thoughts clearly and effectively - a skill that is useful in the essay paper in the main examination. The essay question also invariably offers at least one philosophical or ethical topic every year. Thus, philosophy not only prepares one for the mains, it also helps in the essay section.

The philosophy syllabus is divided into two papers with two parts each. Thus, it comprises four sections. Each section starts with a compulsory short notes question. It is advisable to follow the word limit in all cases.

The first section in Paper I is on Western Philosophy. It is divided into three sub-sections - Greek philosophy, which deals with Plato and Aristotle; modern Western philosophy, which deals with seven major philosophers, including Kant and Hume; and contemporary Western philosophy. The first section in this paper is rather large but it is important as a number of questions are asked from this section.

The second section of Part I is on Indian Philosophy. Three heterodox philosophical schools such as Charvaka, Buddha and Jain need to be studied. Among the orthodox philosophers, Samkhya, Nyaya-Vaisesika, Mimansa and Vedanta are prescribed. Apart from a separate analysis of each philosophy, a comparative study of theories is necessary.

The second paper in the philosophy course is also divided into two sections: social political philosophy and philosophy of religion. Social political philosophy has a total of 12 chapters on ideas such as equality, independence, justice, sovereignty, democracy, Marxism, humanism, secularism, theories of punishment, and sarvodaya.

The final section, the Philosophy of Religion, is not as large as the preceding section and consists of only eight chapters. This section focusses on the nature and existence of God and so on.

While answering the Philosophy papers it is important to remember that the style of answering questions is very different from the university style. While some things are common, the university technique of long introductions may be dispensed with. However, conclusions are crucial. No answer is complete without a nuanced, well-thought-out conclusion.

Unlike Philosophy, which appeals to a rather niche section, Public Administration is one of the popular optional choices in the exams. M.K. Mohanty of Synergy, a New Delhi-based study centre, points out that Public Administration is a sought-after course in the optionals, owing to a number of factors: the interesting nature of the course itself, the high degree of its relevance to the job of a civil servant or administrator and its coverage of a large number of topics that also fall under the General Studies. Public Administration is also a scoring paper and offers aspirants an edge over those with less scoring choices.

Like all subjects, preparation for Public Administration must be carried out in a systematic manner. The preliminary test is usually seen as a test of a candidate's memory rather than his or her analytical abilities M.K. Mohanty cautions candidates against such ideas. The pattern of the exam seems to have changed over the past few years and even multiple choice questions require a good understanding of the subject.

The main subjective exam is obviously a more analytical paper. Students tend to concentrate on Paper I that encompasses theories such as administrative behaviour and development administration, owing to the prospects of scoring high marks. However, changing trends have meant that there are few, if any, "sure-shot" sections where questions are routinely asked.

As a matter of caution, one should guard against excessive use of jargon and to express concepts succinctly.

While almost anyone can prepare and hope to succeed in the humanities optionals, science and engineering optionals are not recommended for those who do not have a background in the subject. D.P. Vajpayee of the Delhi Institute for Administrative Services, feels that Physics is an ideal choice for students with a science or engineering background. This is because it has a well-defined and well-structured syllabus, and has the shortest syllabus in the science and engineering stream. Besides, there is no shortage of study material. According to Vajpayee, the entire syllabus can be covered in 200 hours of concentrated study.

Like all other optionals, physics too is divided into two papers of two sections each. Each section has four questions out of which the first question is compulsory. Section A of Paper I comprises Classical Mechanics, Special Relativity, Waves and Geometric Optics and Physical Optics. Classical Mechanics has three well-defined topics - particle dynamics, system of particles and rigid body dynamics. Special theory of relativity is centred around sections such as Lorentz transforms, length contraction, time dilation, velocity addition and mass-energy equivalence. Newer additions such as Minkowsky diagrams or covariance are not so important. In the section on waves, damped and forced oscillations, and phase and group velocities should be given due importance. In geometric optics, Fermat's principle and the matrix method should be studied extensively.

Section B of Paper I comprises electricity and magnetism, electromagnetic theory and blackbody radiation and thermal and statistical physics. The sections on electromagnetism and electricity are reasonably straightforward.

The second Physics paper can be covered in 80 to 90 hours. Section A consists of quantum mechanics and spectroscopy, while Section B comprises nuclear and particle physics and electronics and solid-state physics. While all sections should be covered thoroughly, it is a good idea to go through backdated question papers. This helps create perspective and gives an idea of the current trends. Answers should be crisp and effective, and units and formula used should be correctly explained.

The one thing that all teachers of all optionals seem to agree on is that the choice of optionals should be clearly thought out and that answers should be clear and concise. However, the most important advice that most teachers give is: "Stay calm, don't panic."

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