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Cracking the Civil Services

Here is the winning strategy for you

Nishah Zargar

Of late, more and more youngsters are considering civil services as a career option. Why not, after all it offers a secure officer-level job, handsome salary, upward job mobility, perks and privileges. Plus you just have to be a graduate from any stream to be eligible.
However, the attractive perks of the career mean the examination is going to be highly competitive, with tens of thousands of aspirants fighting it out for a few hundred posts. Cracking the multi-stage competition calls for a planned and structural approach in preparation.


The examination is not an easy bet, as not only the range of topics you need to cover is very broad, but you also need to have in-depth understanding of your subjects. To prepare, most experts advise taking coaching classes.
“Preparing for civil service is not only about how you prepare, it’s about how you plan to prepare. And this is where expert guidance plays a crucial role,” says K Bashar who runs a civil service coaching academy.
“The syllabus of civil service examination is like a sea and you have to have someone to show how to put this sea in a glass,” said Bashar.The examination (Combined Competitive Services Examination) comprises of three stages: Preliminary, Mains and the Interview.
The Preliminary is an objective type test and comprises of two papers – General Studies and an optional subject of your choice. You need to qualify this round to reach the next stage.
The Mains examination is a descriptive type test which includes five papers – General studies, Optional 1, Optional 2, General English and English Essay.
The third stage, the Interview, is a personality assessment test.
The first decision you have to make is to choose an optional subject for the Prelims. Choose the one you are confident about, good and comfortable at. One for which you have enough study material and expert guidance available. This can be a tricky decision. So it may be a good idea to get help from experts, or seniors over here.
General Studies (GS) needs a different preparation plan as the content is too spread out and you can face objective questions on any issue, major or minor. You can’t afford to leave out any minute details, data, important events, or dates. You can get stumped on anything in the examination.
“While preparing General Studies for Prelims, it is important to identify the loop holes and plug them urgently. And it is here you must consider a good coaching academy and top notch guidance,” said Shabir Khan, a 2009 KPS topper.
While preparing for GS, you must set yourself deadlines. But putting those marks on the calendar is not enough. You have to meet these deadlines. Distribute the time between different subjects. Decide which subjects need more time and effort. Budget your time accordingly. That will give you a basic road map.
The preparation pattern may vary from person to person. Like, a student of humanities would be comfortable with the political science section, and not with science and mathematics. For a science student, the case may be the reverse.
Starting preparation on schedule is critical. Showkat Ali, who qualified KAS in 2013, says that you should get started almost a year ahead of the examination. He has another important suggestion, “You should adopt an integrated approach. It means you should prepare for both- prelims and mains simultaneously.”
Khan also stresses on the integrated approach. “Students never get enough time after the declaration of prelims result, so it is better to prepare together for prelims and mains.”
Another issue is how much time you should devote to General Studies and the optional paper. If you have access to proper study material, you can save a lot of time. So procure the required study material well in advance. Otherwise you would be grappling with a host of issues with time slipping by and your frustration multiplying by the day.
Experts say that you should cover the syllabus (both GS and optional) before you have submitted the application form. Afterwards, you should focus on solving as many objective questions as possible from previous papers or test papers. An eight hour daily schedule is advised, with three hours for optional, four for GS, and one for newspapers and magazines.
Give yourself enough breaks though, as an exhausted or a stressed mind cannot work efficiently.
After you are through with the prelims exam, go straight to your mains preparation without waiting for the results. Again breaking up your time is important. Experts suggest a scheme of three hours for the second optional, two hours each for the first optional and GS. But while you are concentrating on your books, don’t lose track of current affairs. Browse through at least three newspapers, a couple of magazines and follow events on TV.


Probably the thorniest issue you would face is how to choose the right optional subjects. Ajaz who is preparing for the upcoming KAS examination faced this problem too.
“My major hurdle was how to select the optional subjects. I changed two optional subjects within a month and was very confused” says Ajaz. A counseling session at coaching institute helped him to settle for the right subject.
Experts say you must go for a subject that you have already studied at graduate or postgraduate level. If you know the subject inside out, it is a big advantage. However, you should also check out the success rate of the subject in CCSE, says Showkat Ali.


Jabeena, who is preparing for KAS was lost in figuring out what and how to prepare. “I consulted many people and researched online to know how to prepare for this examination. But I was always confused about what I should study and what I should leave out,” says Jabeena. Then she found the way out. “I joined a local coaching institute where I was given a preparation plan and that helped.”
You can easily get lost in the vast syllabus. You have to be precise about what to prepare. Having a plan becomes critical here.
“When I saw the syllabus I thought this is all I have to study. Then I checked previous year’s papers and found a huge difference. After joining the coaching academy I came to know that we have to be specific and have to have in-depth knowledge about the particular topic,” adds Jabeena.
While in-depth study is a must, there is an equally crucial thing here –something most aspirants don’t give enough attention to. And that’s your proficiency in writing. Khan says it is the hold over writing that helped him crack the KAS.
“I feel 90 percent of students who sit in the mains have poor writing skills. They have studied everything, but are unable to pen it down in a clear, concise and comprehensible way,” says Khan.
So brush up your writing skills. Any compromise in this area can cost you your potential career in the civil services. If you’re attending a coaching academy, ask the guys there to arrange for a writing workshop. You can also get valuable help from the internet. Get help from academicians, writers, journalists and others as well. Bashar adds some cautionary words here, “Never try to be over smart while writing an answer because the examiner is way too smarter.”
Usually you feel a long answer is good to take you through. No. Verbosity in your answers won’t fetch more marks. Marks are given for orderly, effective and to the point expression as well as for economy of words. Marks are not allotted for mere superficial knowledge. Bad handwriting also leads to deduction of marks because if it is illegible, it is of no use.
Check out previous year’s papers. Try writing out answers for a few questions and then have it evaluated by some expert. This mock assessment can go a long, long way in helping you plug the loopholes.


There is without doubt a surfeit of resource material available. You have books, libraries, stuff available on the internet and a whole lot of study material you can purchase. But knowing what not to study is more important than what to study. Instead of studying ten different books, you should study one top quality book ten times.
For Modern India, Indian geography, Indian polity and Indian economy you strictly need to concentrate on NCERT books, particularly of the eleventh and twelfth standards.
So get cracking and good luck for your preparation.

Stage 1 — Preliminary Examination:
It is all objective.

Paper I: General Studies:
120 questions - 1.25 marks/question = 150 marks
Paper II: Optional Paper:
120 questions - 2.5 marks/question = 300 marks
Duration: 2 hours for each.

Stage 2 — The Main Examination:

There are eight question papers of descriptive nature out of which one paper, General English, is of qualifying nature only. Each paper is of three hours duration.

Paper I: General Studies - 300 marks
It consists of these topics: Indian History and Indian Culture, Events of National Importance, Events of International Importance and Statistics

Paper II: General Studies - 300 marks
It comprises these subjects: Indian Polity, Indian Economy, Indian Geography and Science & Technology
Paper III: 1st Optional (A)-300 marks
Paper IV: 1st Optional (B)-300 marks
Paper V: 2nd Optional (A)-300 marks
Paper VI: 2nd Optional (B)-300 marks
Paper VII: General English-300 Marks
Paper VIII:(English Essay)-150 marks


Personality assessment.
— Courtesy:
The Civils — An Institute for Civil Services


First step is mastering the basics of the subject. Read the basic books.
(NCERT) first rather than going for journals and reference books.
Focus on conceptual understanding rather than memorizing facts.
Facts are easier to memorize if concepts are clear. Facts can be memorized by using mnemonics or other methods.
Success depends on not ‘what all you have read’ but ‘how much you retain it’.
Solve as many questions as possible.
Solve all the previous year’s questions of KAS.
Pay attention to your written expression.
Aim for 100% clarity in your answers.
Writing skill is also based on your knowledge base, conceptual understanding your ability to process and analyze information.
Conceptual understanding will help you in better organization and structuring of your answers. Writing skills and content should complement and supplement each other.

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