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UPSC CSE Mains 2021: IAS Sarthak Agrawal shares his answer-writing strategy for GS papers

In all UPSC Civil Services main papers I attempted 15-mark questions before the 10-markers, aiming to spend approximately 11 minutes each on the former and 7 minutes on the latter. Among questions carrying the same marks, I first did those I knew the best. If there were a few I know equally well (or didn’t) I’d first attempt those which occur sooner in the paper to leave a better impression on the examiner.

— I answered all questions by improving my writing speed and putting down generic stuff where I didn’t have any specific points. I did plenty of the latter for the 4 art and culture questions asked in GS1 this year. Questions are designed in such a way that it is nearly impossible to not know anything relevant to a particular question; it is thus best to fill up the space with whatever points come to your mind instead of leaving tones of empty space.

— Underline keywords and data included in your answer in a manner that if one just looks at these highlighted portions of your answer, they’ll be able to understand the gist of it, and whether you have satisfactorily answered the question.

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— While introducing your answer, try to do so in a couple of sentences. Include a relevant data point or a contemporary example that might have motivated that question.I tried to explain and expand all my points and used full sentences wherever I could instead of just phrases. A useful guide is to write six points under every sub-heading you include. Finally, write short conclusions in all your answers. And close with opinionated and actionable statements in the ones that ask you to critically evaluate a claim.

— Make sure you answer each sub-part under a different and clear sub-heading. Half the battle is won if you can write correct, self-explanatory sub-headings that convey to the examiner you know what you’re talking about.

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— In situations where the claim is obvious, you don’t need to give both positive and negative arguments. For instance, one question in the GS-1 paper this year asked: “Covid-19 pandemic accelerated class inequalities and poverty in India. Comment.” I thought devoting space to counterarguments in my response is probably unwise, so instead, I elaborated on the claim with data and evidence, spelling out some reasons behind these occurrences, and offering suggestions on what can be done to reverse these worrying trends.

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— Even when not asked to ‘comment with examples’, it is good practice to include them in your answers. Ideally, an example would accompany every point you make. I think this exam tests your understanding of contemporary issues relevant to India, not random information, so diverse, relevant, and short illustrations of points are your best friends. 

— Understanding the question correctly and quickly is the most important skill you need to cultivate. Do this by going through past papers and guessing the motivation behind various questions. Reading ‘topper answer scripts’ can also be helpful.

— When asked to differentiate between two items, for example, the EIA 2020 versus EIA 2006 question in the GS3 paper this year, try to do so in columns instead of verbose paragraphs. On flowcharts and diagrams – use them if you think that’s the best way to express your thoughts given the time constraint. However, they are not necessary – I used only a couple over all seven Mains papers because writing full sentences seemed like a better way to address the questions. Quickly drawing a well-labeled Indian map is often useful so practice that in advance.

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— On examination day: take out the question paper from the back of the answer booklet right away. Quickly glance at how many sheets are available for the 10 and 15-marker questions – UPSC can change things at last minute that may upset your plans and time management. Finally, I was slightly perturbed seeing other candidates with their notes and books right upto the time they stepped inside the examination hall. Don’t let it bother you or make you feel insecure about your own preparation.

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— However, the most important advice I can offer is to find ways that display your distinctive understanding of issues. Being innovative is a great way to do well in these papers so spend some time figuring out how you can add value. For a few examples of how I used these tips while attempting the papers, candidates can have a look at my website where I have uploaded my UPSC Mains answer scripts: (https://agrawalsarthak.wordpress.com/answer-sheets/)

These are some tips based on my experience of writing and clearing UPSC Mains 2020 in my first attempt. By no means are they to be considered the ‘sole truth’ of attempting the questions – candidates have succeeded in multiple ways and mine is just one example.

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(The author is AIR 17 in UPSC Civil Services 2020 and is a researcher at the World Bank)

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