Satyam UPSC topper RANK 169, Secret tips for UPSC

People never learn anything by being told, they have to find out for themselves.” ― Paulo Coelho, Veronika Decides to Die

The journey is more beautiful than the destination. The strategy defines the journey you undertake to reach the destination in this exam. While the destination remains the same, the journeys are drastically different and depend on many factors. Thus, it is utmost important that you assess the situation you are in before following anyone else’s strategy of preparation. This will have to be coupled by the effort you undertake to learn throughout the preparation of this exam. Let’s plunge into these details now.



  • 1 My History
  • 2 The challenge of cluelessness
  • 3 The Coaching details
  • 4 Prelims-cum-Mains Strategy
    • 4.1 Daily Current Affairs – first focus area
    • 4.2 The “Static” Area
    • 4.3 Making Notes – The Backbone of My Preparation
  • 5 The Prelims Hustle
  • 6 Friends in Need are Friends Indeed
  • 7 The Mains Consolidation
  • 8 Geography Optional – The Mountain
    • 8.1 Completing the Syllabus
      • 8.1.1 Flow of the Syllabus
      • 8.1.2 Books, magazines and notes to follow
      • 8.1.3 Making the notes
    • 8.2 Answer Writing Skills
      • 8.2.1 What an Answer Should Have
      • 8.2.2 Practice the Writing
  • 9 Personality Test – A Different Ballgame
    • 9.1 The Transcript – How the Interview Panned
    • 9.2 The Preparation – Why It Panned So
  • 10 Sharing is Caring – My Notes for Reference
    • 10.1 Social Issues – Paper 1 & 2
    • 10.2 Geography Optional and GS Paper 1 & 3
    • 10.3 Polity and Governance
    • 10.4 International Relations
    • 10.5 Indian Economy
    • 10.6 Science & Technology
    • 10.7 Environment & Ecology
    • 10.8 Security Issues
    • 10.9 Ethics
    • 10.10 Perspectives in Geography (Read in same sequence)
    • 10.11 Consolidation – The Backbone of Mains
  • 11 Miscellaneous Zone
    • 11.1 The Mental Game – Most Important, Least Credited
    • 11.2 The Perception Game
      • 11.2.1 How Difficult is the Exam?
      • 11.2.2 Failure in Prelims – A Setback or A Blessing in Disguise?
      • 11.2.3 Personality Test – Facts or Urban Legends?
      • 11.2.4 Luck and Hard work – the Harder I Work the Luckier I Get?
    • 11.3 The Coaching Dilemma
    • 11.4 The Timeline to Follow
    • 11.5 Two girlfriends not allowed
    • 11.6 Earn While You Learn?
    • 11.7 Books to read before exam is over

My History

Starting from small schools in the small district of Khagaria in Bihar, I moved to Sainik School Goalpara (Assam) in 2001. This is important because this is where I got exposure to multiple sports, writing skills, reading habit, public speaking and most importantly, quality English. I am not a master at any of these, but I did become the proverbial “Jack” in all of these. This helped lift my confidence during preparation too, particularly before the personality test. But while my basic English became alright, many continue to struggle here. I have seen many candidates from regional mediums opting as English as medium while appearing in the exam because there is a perception that it is tilted towards English-medium people. These are the candidates who suffer the most during preparation as they find it really difficult to even read basic books. [Advice 1] Do not increase the scale of challenges from what this exam already presents. Prefer writing the exam in your preferred medium only.

The next important stage was B.Tech. from NIT Jamshedpur in Civil Engineering (2009-13). To be truthful, I did not study there and, hence, had to pick geography as my optional subject later. [Advice 2] In case you are an undergraduate I would strongly advise you to study your undergraduate subject well and opt it as your optional subject in the exam (of course, it is conditioned upon whether UPSC allows that subject as optional subject or not).

Next stage was college campus placement in Mu Sigma Business Solution Pvt Ltd as a Decision Scientist – a profile that combines the role of a Business Analyst and a Data Scientist. This again helped me a lot during my preparation as I could understand data well, form my arguments around them and many a times see through incorrect analysis (including in newspapers) based on data. (One of the first things that you learn as a data scientist is that there are three kinds of lies – lies, damn lies and data.)

In 2014, while working in Mu Sigma I decided to pursue civil services for a more fulfilling career. The topper of CSE 2013 was Gaurav Aggarwal whom I listened to extensively and I considered myself indebted to him for a large part of my success. [Advice 3] You should go through the strategies of the toppers to create a logical one for yourself before you immerse yourself completely in making them a reality. Sharpen your axe before cutting the tree.

One of the advices given by Gaurav Aggarwal was that people who are working should not quit their jobs before understanding whether this exam suits them or not. For this I followed his advice and purchased some books. The idea is to know whether we can study subjects like social sciences and humanities well or not, and whether we can think of answers, however amateur, of abstract answers or not. This helps in taking a really big decision – whether we should quit a full time job for preparation or not. I did these and felt that I could study. I didn’t know anything, but I could learn because I was interested in these and not just because I had to prepare for the exam[Advice 4] Do not quit your job before self-assessment. It carries a huge opportunity cost. Your decision should be such that irrespective of success or failure you must not feel the regret later that you opted to write the exam.

The last lap was the preparation and the attempts in the exam. I cleared the exam in my 4th attempt. The details of attempts are as follows:

Attempt CSE Year Prelims Cut-off Prelims score Mains Cut-off Mains score Personality Test score Final Cut-off Final score
1 2016 116 113.34 787 NA NA 988 NA
2 2017 105.34 125.34 809 805 NA 1006 NA
3 2018 98 97.34 774 NA NA 982 NA
4 2019 98 751 961

The challenge of cluelessness

This section is not going to be detailed and is supposed to just tell that most part of the initial journey has been hit and trial. The online resources were quite limited in 2015 compared to 2020 (some institutes that started as websites created a revolution in this space). So, there wasn’t much to understand. And more often than not, I got misled – whether intentionally or unintentionally – by peers, teachers and institutes.

The reason behind mentioning this was that while I studied many things in the initial months the cost-to-benefit ratio was bad for them and I’m not going to include them as part of my strategy discussions (I’ll include the relevant bits from there). Strategy discussions begin now.

The Coaching details

Due to a long time taken to clear the exam, I have been student of multiple coaching classes, test series and mock interviews. Here is a list with brief comments.

Disclaimer: While I have attended these classes/taken these tests, you shouldn’t assume that you need them too. Your needs have to be evaluated on the basis of your position, not mine.

Institute Program Time Comments
Direction IAS (Neetu ma’am) Geography Foundation Course 2015
  • Great at creating interlinkages
  • Not-so-good at any other aspect. Ma’am discourages reading books which can’t be afforded in geography optional at all.
  • Better classes available
Vajiram & Ravi General Studies classes 2015-16
  • Help in building foundation
  • But with right guidance and study material they can be easily made redundant
  • Some departments are really good (polity, economy, etc) while others are below par
Vajiram & Ravi GS Mains Test Series 2016
  • Not-so-good, but they must have evolved by now, which is 2020
Shabbir Sir (Vajiram then) Geography Test Series with Classes 2016
  • Realisation that reading books is important – started reading them.
  • Specific paragraphs and pages of books were pointed out in the class. This helped tremendously in understanding Geographical Thought.
  • Too much emphasis on data leading to information overload.
Vision IAS GS Mains Test Series 2016-17
  • Quality of questions is pretty standard – not great but not bad
  • Evaluation is also okay – again, not great but not bad
  • Their process of evaluation is pretty standardised which leaves lesser chances for errors
Vision IAS Essays Test Series 2017 & 2019
  • Depends on your luck – if good evaluator evaluates you may learn a lot; if the evaluator is not so great then feedbacks won’t be that good
  • In 2019 I joined the test series only because I couldn’t push myself in writing essays otherwise
Guidance IAS (Himanshu Sir) Geography Test Series with Classes 2017 & 2019
  • Excellent application of Thoughts and Models & Theories in other answers. But the student must also have a grip over these topics – I had that and, therefore, was comfortable.
  • Classes can be overwhelming between prelims and mains. So, never attended too many of them relying more on self-study.
  • Quality of questions is overall good; evaluation is okay.
  • In 2019 joined with classes because classes give me the initial push and bring me out of inertia. One need need attend classes twice at all.
ALS (Sachin Sir) Geography Test Series with Classes 2018
  • Quality of questions is great and a good number of them are applied in nature.
  • Evaluation is done directly by sir – so the comments are few and far but you can meet him and get direct feedbacks.
  • Classes lead to a lot of wastage of time. A class of 5 hrs has a content of barely 1-1.5 hrs.
Forum IAS SFG Program for prelims Dec 2018
  • Main purpose was to get back to studies despite work pressure. SFG has daily targets to cover so had to walk extra mile to get that done somehow.
  • Discontinued after a month because questions are too factual and too granular. They make you mug up a lot of things and were, thus, impacting my method of study which is more understanding based.
Forum IAS GS Mains Test Series 2018-19
  • It had the best organization of syllabus – starting with areas like World History and Ethics which are not asked in prelims in Oct-Nov and ending sectional tests with more prelims oriented parts of syllabus.
  • One-to-one meet with Asif sir was helpful in ethics paper.
  • One of the worst evaluation I have seen anywhere. Can’t comment on the present status though.
Vajiram & Ravi Mock Interviews 2020
  • Classes are good for those who need them (I didn’t).
  • Otherwise, almost useless. Better to skip.
Drishti IAS Mock Interviews 2020
  • The set up in the room is overwhelming and discomforting. Compared to them the set up at UPSC is dramatically different and comforting.
  • Not much helpful, again.

Prelims-cum-Mains Strategy

Another advice that I picked from Gaurav Aggarwal was that we need to study for mains because it is there that we have to score. In prelims we have to just cross the cut-off boundary. (From my performance it might seem that prelims was my Achilles’ heel but that was not the case. Due to financial issues I had to start working after mains 2017 again and trying to repay the loans I couldn’t get the time to study for 2018 prelims. I continue to remain confident for prelims due to my integrated strategy.) Therefore, I made mains my focal point of study, though I never lost sight of prelims either. It is also important to understand that one gets barely 3 months between prelims and mains which are not sufficient to cover the vast syllabus of optional subject and areas that are in GS syllabus for mains but are not important for prelims (social issues, governance, security issues, disaster management, ethics, essays, etc). These sections carry a cumulative weightage of more than 1350 marks out of 1750 marks of mains (>600 in GS + 500 in optional subject + 250 in essays). Hence, mains preparation remain the focus.

Daily Current Affairs – first focus area

I started doing daily current affairs from The Hindu as my primary source. I never took short cut of reading summaries on websites because in my opinion that does not let analytical skills develop properly. My daily current affairs dose was as follows:

  • Base news from The Hindu newspaper. By base news I mean the news other than the editorials and opinion columns. I feel news in The Hindu is most pruned to the demand of the exam. I specifically avoided Indian Express here because IE contains a lot of political news and I used to get carried away as I take keen interest in politics.
  • Selective reading from Explained page of the Indian Express. IE is one of the most balanced newspapers around and has a balanced opinion page coupled with an unbiased explained page. It was helpful in developing a more balanced opinion.
  • There is another page in IE that changes daily depending on the day of the week. It’s named Governance, Rural, Urban, etc on different days and appears just after/before the economy page. I read this page sometimes whenever I found something important here.
  • Sample of making notes on Google Keep from RSTV videos on the go

    Rajya Sabha TV videos on YouTube. These are quite helpful in multiple ways – they provide credible content, diversity of opinions as well as an insight into the manners of seasoned civil servants which improves our language and has some impact during the Personality Test. There are multiple good programs on RSTV – the Big Picture, Desh Deshantar, India’s World, Policy Watch, Main Bhi Bharat, In Depth, etc. I used to scan all of them (all have their separate playlists on YouTube) and take the important episodes ‘offline’ on my phone. Some days I’d find 3-4 relevant videos and some other days none. Taking them offline allowed me to space them out through my preparation. Also, I usually watched them at 2X speed which allowed me to watch 2-3 videos easily in a day.

    • In case of really important issues I used to sit with pen and paper and make notes then and there.
    • In case I have some idea about the issue and I need to learn more I used to watch the video on the go (in metro, cabs, etc or while taking a stroll in the park). I used to split screen on my phone and open Google Keep in the other half where I used to add any point that I found relevant. They were penned down in my notes later.
    • In case that I have a grip over the topic but just want to see video as another revision or in case I find the topic isn’t very important, I used to watch the video while having lunch/dinner. Nothing was noted down from such videos.
  • Monthly Current Affairs magazines to fill the gaps left in the preparation. There was a method to studying them too.
    • Scrape all the mains relevant material from these magazines and add them to own notes. That is because your own notes have to be the one point reference for you as exam nears.
    • Underline prelims related material on the magazine. In case something extra has been read about them on internet, add on the magazine itself (mains material from internet also went to own notes).
    • There were things that overlapped, i.e., were relevant for both prelims and mains. Those also went to my mains notes and were also underlined on the magazine because they had to be revised before prelims too.

Apart from these there was definite reliance on internet for understanding concepts that I came across but did not understand.

Apart from these there were also some standard sources (both online and offline) that I referred for some specific purposes.

  • PRS India for recent Bills and Acts.
  • Yojana and Kurukshetra – extremely selectively. Have read around 15-20 of them over a period of 4 years. Read only the issues that were highly relevant because I did not have content of the areas that they covered.
  • DownToEarth – again selectively based on the issues covered. This I did because of my optional subject – geography.

Most of my Current Affairs notes were made online in 2019 attempt on Evernote. I found this medium most conducive as it helped a lot during consolidation. Mains consolidation is discussed in a section below and links to notes are also shared.

The “Static” Area

Static areas, in CSE parlance, are areas that don’t change on everyday basis. There are some standard books for most of these areas, while for some others materials from internet or from institutes become relevant. The details are below.

GS Paper Subject Source used Comment
GS – I Art & Culture
  • Baliyan’s history optional class notes
  • R S Sharma
  • Themes in Indian History – Part 2 (Medieval History new NCERT)
  • Vajiram class notes
  • Read only art and culture part from Baliyan’s class notes and made a summary in my own notes. His notes are thematic (e.g. all discussions of paintings of all different times in one place).
  • R S Sharma is organised chronologically. So, again read that and summarised. This time added relevant points from Baliyan’s summarisation to make it a one stop solution for me.
  • Again, summarised medieval history NCERT in a few pages.
  • Unlike many others I found
GS – I Modern History
  • Plassey to Partition and Beyond by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay
  • Read the book multiple times and made my own notes
  • The language is quite difficult and the book is usually not recommended, particularly for those who face difficulties in English
  • UPSC has been asking questions lately from this book (even the precis writing given in 2019 Mains English paper was lifted from this book verbatim)
GS – I Post-Independence History
  • Politics in India Since Independence (NCERT)
  • Read relevant chapters; didn’t make notes as there isn’t much to memorise
GS – I World History
  • Documentaries & YouTube videos
  • This is a high cost low return topic. I did read Norman Lowe in my first attempt (misguided soul as I was), which is not required.
  • Watching documentaries and YouTube videos helps (list down all important events and watch them) – they are interesting and, hence, easily retained too. Thus, never made notes for them either.
GS – I Social Issues
  • No Specific Source
  • Relied on current affairs notes and brainstorming
  • NCERTs can be read by you
GS – I Geography
  • Didn’t study for GS separately
  • Recommendation is to cover G C Leong and all the four NCERTs
  • Hess and Tasa – this book is not popular (probably because it’s costly) but is one of the best reads to strengthen fundamentals. I got the book for ₹720 (there are many variants, some costing even ₹26,000 – they are not needed at all).
GS – II Polity
  • Introduction to the Constitution of India by D D basu
  • Read the book multiple times – the book is really involved but extremely enriching – discovered something new in almost all reads
  • Made summaries of own after many reads so they were really crisp
GS – II Governance
  • No single standard source
  • 2nd ARC Reports
    • 4: Ethics in Governance (cover to cover)
    • 6: Local Governance (only PRIs part)
    • 10: Refurbishing Personnel Administration (only recommendations)
    • 12: Citizen centric administration – only first chapter and chapter on Citizens’ Charter
  • Made summaries of ARC reports mentioned in the left column (only the parts that I studied)
  • In report 10 just read recommendations (no summaries) as it’s a big report
  • Current Affairs notes become really critical here – they also help develop understanding of implementation and practical issues rather than just theory.
GS – II International Relations
  • Newspaper
  • RSTV
  • India’s World in RSTV is a weekly dedicated program on foreign policy. Other programs also cover them if something important happens.
  • Questions are almost current in nature – so CA notes helped.
GS – III Indian Economy
  • Mrunal Videos on YouTube
  • Indian Economy Key Concepts by Sankarganesh Karuppiah
  • Indian Economy Performance and Policies by Uma kapila
  • Economic Surveys
  • Internet for topics like IPRs
  • Mrunal videos are really good but are overkill (new ones might be different, I watched in 2016)
  • Indian Economy Key Concepts is a great book but not so popular for reasons that I can’t fathom – great for prelims
  • Indian Economy Performance and Policies is the best book to cover Indian Economy in my view
  • Covered Economic Surveys Volume – 1 cover-to-cover in early years and made notes. The quality drastically went down after exit of Arvind Subramanian and I stopped reading them too.
  • Watched Budget Speech directly and made notes – supplemented using next day newspaper and subsequent RSTV discussions.
  • Many areas had overlap with geography (e.g. agriculture, trade & transport, etc) so did them with geography. Uma Kapila & Economic Surveys helped there too.
GS – III Science & Technology
  • Didn’t study separately because didn’t need to
  • Followed Current Affairs
GS – III Environment & Ecology
  • Vajiram Yellow Book
  • Shankar’s Book
  • Internet
  • Portion has substantial overlap with geography, so a lot was covered there too.
  • I liked Vajiram yellow book more than Shankar. Former is more conceptual and latter more factual. Made summaries of former while just underlined latter and used for prelims revision – not say read latter only selectively.
GS – III Disaster Management
  • National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP) document
  • Hyogo and Sendai Frameworks from internet
  • Summarised these in own notes
GS – III Security Issues
  • Challenges to Internal Security of India by Ashok Kumar
  • Summarised the book in brief. Most discussions are easy to understand and hence summaries mostly included facts.
  • The book is heavily tilted towards a police state, so tempered it with general understanding.
GS – IV Ethics
  • Lukman class notes (from market)
  • Vajiram class notes – only psychology part
  • Vision IAS material – only Governance, International Ethics and Corporate Governance parts
  • Lukman notes have good sequence of syllabus, which I utilised in my notes.
  • Summarised all of these into my own notes.

Making Notes – The Backbone of My Preparation

Throughout the preparation I relied heavily on making my own notes. This also backfired to some extent when in 2017 attempt my notes became too unwieldy to revise. In 2019 attempt I changed my method to making online notes on Evernote (they’re shared here already in the Sharing is Caring section). In making these notes I planned in this manner:

  1. When we make notes after reading an article or watching a RSTV debate, we often tend to write all and sundry as we feel that everything is important. Because this was happening to me too, I wrote them down too (better word would be ‘typed’).
  2. But in order to avoid writing just too many words (note – words, not content; you can write the same content using lesser number of words) I always typed them and never copied and pasted. Copy pasting increases the number of words you write in your notes and they become too bulky later on.
  3. At times when I was editing my notes, I deliberately looked into some older sections and deleted what I didn’t fell to be relevant anymore. As some time passes after watching a video/listening to a podcast/reading an article, you’re able to judge better what’s useful and what’s not.
  4. The final stage was consolidation – this was after prelims. Here I dramatically consolidated my notes (consolidated notes are available separately for reference in the notes section). This made revision work quite easy.

In all this one thing was always on mind – how was I going to use the information that I was writing. One must think which section of the syllabus and which type of question is the information relevant to. An information that can be used in many sections should be memorized and preferred over an information which can only be used for one specific purpose. e.g. Oxfam Report states that top 1% of Indians own 58% of wealth. This information can only be used when talking about economic inequality. But consider this – the MPI for general castes in India is 0.065 compared to 0.229 for scheduled tribes. This becomes useful for both – inequality and tribal issues. If you cover whole MPI you get much better hang too – like between 2006-16 headcount under MPI declined from 54% to 27% – this shows good perfirmance of India’s poverty alleviation programs. Such information should be sought more.

At the same time also understand that Oxfam report data is easy to memorize and very easy to convey. In an essay (which will probably be evaluated by an English teacher rather than a subject expert) I’ll prefer the Oxfam data over the MPI report as latter is more difficult to understand. This again demonstrates how you need to plan for topic/question related information.

The Prelims Hustle

Prelims is a stage that becomes challenge for many. Here my strategy was multi-pronged (an important point is that during preparation we don’t understand that this is our strategy, it is only after the result that we understand what worked and what didn’t; so, while I use the word strategy loosely, you should understand that I didn’t plan many of these but I’m mentioning now because it worked).

The first pillar was content part which was based on these lines:

  1. I avoided making notes from daily newspapers on prelims because that would be too bulky. Instead I relied on coaching monthly current affairs magazines.
  2. In the magazines, I used to underline the prelims related material only. I used to lift the mains related material and move them to my notes. So, monthly magazines were left only with prelims material.
  3. 2 months before the exam I used to pick these magazines again and start revising the underlined materials. I usually had the time to go for 2 revisions.
  4. Still there were some small materials that had to be memorized (e.g. which report is published by which organization or which NASA mission went to which planet). I wrote them down on A4 sheets. Such small jottings barely created 7-8 such sheets. These could be revised 1 day before the exam.
  5. The static part was also revised and notes were scribbled on A4 sheets if needed. It added some more pages.
  6. At last I did make some maps (important national parks, cultural heritages, wetlands, etc) and other small notes like intangible heritages of India. These notes should be preserved. In case you don’t clear the exam in the current attempt, these notes help you in the next attempt too.

The next important pillar of prelims was practicing questions. It was done in two ways.

  1. Test series of coaching. Here, I feel the quality of questions given by coaching institutes are poor and – more often than not – misleading. The proliferation of telegram channels by coaching centers, so-called teachers and self-acclaimed mentors does not help either. They create more confusion than clarity. So, I generally avoided them, particularly the sectional test papers.
    1. In case I used them for certain sections which I felt I was poor in, I used them with a pinch of salt – the scores in these papers and the answers in them didn’t not reflect my condition truly. The purpose was just to know gaps in my preparation and plug them.
    2. The full length test papers are usually good, particularly the open tests or the small test series (comprising of 3-4 tests). This is because these are usually the way for institutes to advertise themselves. They can be picked from marked and solved as “tests”. The sectional ones should be treated as information fillers.
  2. The friend-circle questionnaire. This was really helpful. I had a friend circle in which in the last 1-2 months before the prelims we used to sit together and ask each-other a lot of questions. This helped because it was fun, there was no frustration even if you get answers wrong, because you get good questions from friends (they have your best interests in mind as you have theirs), and because friends also told you tricks to remember tricky things that they devise. This exchange of tricks and mnemonics helps during the exam and helps in building confidence. In the process you also formulate questions and, thus, read things keenly.

The last pillar was strategizing for the exam. This includes simulating the exam conditions and preparing how you will deal with the question paper. It’s difficult to mention this strategy in words, so I’ll soon add a YouTube link having this description.

Friends in Need are Friends Indeed

Friends are an important pillar of your preparation. And the company you choose will decide a lot about your preparation. Company of friends with diverse optional subjects and different strength areas help you in many ways.

  1. I never joined any essay classes. Instead we used to write essays on same topic, exchange with each-other and give comments. We had people with geography, political science, history and anthropology optional subjects. Thus helped in getting different perspectives. e.g. the first observation made on my essay was that it was geography-heavy. This is a correction that I had to make.
  2. The importance during prelims preparation is already mentioned above.
  3. During mains, though I relied on my own notes most of the times, it did help to have other notes as fillers. We can’t prepare notes on every topic. So, we can exchange some small filler notes. People also usually point to good study materials which helps at times.
  4. And finally during interview preparation they become your first mock interview conductors. They help you prepare questions fro DAF as they ask you questions from it. You feel comfortable talking to them and taking inputs from them as they are your friends. Instead if you go for mock interviews directly, you might feel a bit frustrated if your preparation is not good.

Many people prepare alone. That’s not an issue at all. But many prefer company of friends. I never did any so-called group study, but we had these small coordination rounds from time to time which did help.

The last role of friends, though, towers over all the above mentioned points. It is about mental well-being. God forbid, but every time you fail to clear the exam, your family and your society will not back you as much as your friends will. They will not simply back you, but give you the mental strength to fight more. For people facing financial issues (I’m one of them), friends who are working become very important lenders at crucial moments.

The Mains Consolidation

Mains preparation has been the primary preparation strategy for me. Thus must have become clear by now. So, between prelims and mains my main job was consolidating what I had studied. I was going through a lot of issues then and it was really difficult for me to focus on studies. Between all that the process of consolidation really helped as it was something that I had already done. When you consolidate you delete the useless information and keep the useful ones. So, it makes you read everything that you noted down once. If you just keep on consolidating 2-3 times, you’ll have enough numbers of revisions.

Geography Optional – The Mountain

Geography has been one of the tricky optional lately. Usually the CSE toppers from geography take longer to qualify the exam compared to some other popular optional subject as the questions asked in the paper have become more difficult in recent times. Nonetheless, this paper is rewarding too and a wholesome strategy from the beginning itself can help one score.

Completing the Syllabus

Due to huge syllabus of geography, completion of the syllabus itself becomes a challenge. At the same time many topics have inter-linkages too. I made some mistakes while covering the syllabus. So, here I’m pointing the right way of covering it.

Flow of the Syllabus

The syllabus has 20 units in all (10 in paper 1 and 10 in paper 2). They should be completed in certain order.

  1. Basics of Geography – what this discipline is (this helps in developing better understanding; the topic has links to Geographical Thought). This should be done from NCERTs.
  2. Geomorphology (Endogenetic forces only, i.e., leave evolution of landform completely in the beginning)
  3. Climatology (including India’s climate and India’s climatic classification)
  4. Biogeography (including India’s vegetation and soil)
  5. Oceanography
  6. Environmental geography (including Indian laws and related issues)
  7. Population & Settlement Geography (both Paper 1 & 2, related models & theories)
  8. Economic Geography (only basic in paper 1 – refer to PYQs for that; vast syllabus of paper 2 – resources (physical setting should be covered with resources as geology of India is linked to resources it has), agriculture, industry, transport, communication and trade, etc; related models & theories)
  9. Regional Development and Planning (paper 1 & 2; related models & theories; portions of paper 1 are linked to Geographical Thought also)
  10. Political Geography (both paper 1 & 2) and remaining Models & Theories
  11. Perspectives in Geography/Geographical Thought (only till 1930s-40s, i.e., before Quantitative Revolution)

The above topics can be covered in one go (of course value addition will continue even after that). The most difficult part of geography should be taken up after doing this much. And this should be done preferably after taking a break from geography for some time.

  1. Geomorphology (remaining topics)
  2. Perspectives in Geography/Geographical Thought (remaining topics)
Books, magazines and notes to follow
Topic Source Comment
Geomorphology Savindra Singh Book The cost-benefit ratio is bad for the book. But the topic is also difficult. One can try searching for good class notes for the topic and read parts of the book along with notes.
Climatology Savindra Singh Book The book suffices. There is a lot of extra material in the book which can be avoided. One needs to go through previous year questions as many times as possible to decipher it.
Oceanography Savindra Singh Book Do
Biogeography Savindra Singh Book

Rupa Made Simple- physical geography

Some parts of Savindra Singh and some parts of Made Simple are good. Reading whole book is strictly not advisable. The soil part is given quite well in Made Simple. You can use my notes as reference for the topic and read the books to develop understanding as notes are crisp.
Environmental Geography Himanshu sir notes In general most of his notes are good and are fairly popular. But I used only these notes as it is hard to come by a good environmental geography book.
Perspectives in Human Geography
  • RD Dikshit book
  • Sudeepta Adhikari book
  • Majid Hussain book
  • Himanshu sir notes
I have not read Himanshu sir’s notes but I have seen them. This is a complicated topic and it’s really difficult to understand it from books. Notes can be used as the base material and books can be used for further understanding. If this is done, it is preferable to use just RD Dikshit among books.
Economic Geography No book A topic with rally bad cost-benefit ratio. Population-resource relations and only major resource distributions should be studies. Major resources are water, forest, iron ore, coal, uranium, agricultural produces, etc. In-depth preparation of even these is not desirable. Internet should be used to fill gaps.
Population and Settlement Geography Human Geography by Majid Hussain Any class room material will suffice. This topic is just about knowing the population theories and settlement theories and applying them to current scenario of the world. World Population Prospect report can fill that gap for population and current affairs and class notes do the trick for settlement. Majid Hussain book acn also serve both the purposes to a large extent.
Regional Planning No book Again a topic that involves understanding models and current scenarios. Class notes help more than books here. A large part of the topic also overlaps with Perspectives topic. Knowing some case studies helps in this topic and they should be included in answers.
Models, Theories and Laws in Human Geography
  • Models & Theories by Majid Hussain
  • Internet
The book has its limitations as it mostly discusses the models in a static frame. Questions like current application of a theory cannot be solved with just the book. In order to understand better and solve such questions, reference to internet should be made. A few articles suffice there.

Note that this topic is the backbone of three topics listed above. It also has a good application in paper 2. thus, this topic should be done well.

Indian Geography (paper 2)
  • R C Tiwari
  • Majid Hussain
  • Khullar
  • Down To Earth magazine
I’ve listed three books here, but any one should only be chosen. Personally, I found R C Tiwari to be the best and most pruned to the demand of the exam. It has a lot of content and, thus, should be read wisely. But other books also have a lot of useless content.

Also, note that for the whole paper 2 I have made only this listing. This is because of the following reasons:

  • The content in paper 2 is mostly dynamic and applied. Reading current affairs help you more than reading books. This is the role of Down to earth magazine. you need not read every issue of the magazine, but pick the important ones and do make notes from them.
  • Paper 2 involves a lot of application of concepts from paper 1. If you have conceptual clarity you will be able to apply many models and theories in the human geography part, thus, enriching your answer automatically.
Making the notes

While my journey has been longer, it is not desirable to have such a long journey. So, instead of telling what I did, I’d rather say what you should do (and, thus, what I should have done).

  1. Use class notes of institutes (if you have joined one you already have it; if you don’t want to join then get notes) as base material and read books along with them. Books are important as they enrich your language and give you deeper understanding.
  2. Read through the material and the books 2-3 times. During these readings also refer to the previous year questions repeatedly.
  3. After this make your crisp notes. After 3 readings you would be understanding most of the stuff and, thus, your notes will be quite crisp and ready to revise. In case you face any issue while revising you always know which part of the book you need to revisit to understand what you’ve written. So, that’s not a problem.

Answer Writing Skills

What an Answer Should Have

In my view there are certain things that make an answer a geography optional answer (and not a GS one). These are:

  1. Language: The language of the answer should make the student look like a student of geography. Terms like streams, interfluves, fluvial processes, Exceptionalism, etc should be easy for the student. I had created separate sheets where I noted terms as I encountered them. This helped in learning these terms and using them freely in my answers.
  2. Geographical Thought: There has always been a debate in geography as to what this subject represents and what should be studied under it. There are also other useful contents in it that can be applied in answers. e.g. the answer to a question on ‘classification of boundaries’ can be written on the basis of ‘cultural landscapes’. While we study boundaries in political geography, we study cultural landscapes in geographical thought.
  3. Models and theories: When discussions are backed by models and theories they acquire more depth and portray that the student has more understanding. For example, a question on demography of India should have reference to Demographic Transition Model to enrich the answer.
  4. Regional distribution: Geography is the subject that explains,”What is Where, Why There”. Thus, regional distribution of any phenomenon becomes important. Maps as tools come really handy in this.
  5. Regional Synthesis: Many subjects find linkage to Geography. A synthesis of different subjects in a particular regions is geography’s crux. So, while writing on soil of a particular regions the attempt should be made to link it to climate and vegetation of the region. This can also be linked to agriculture and, thus, human population traits. This shows depth of understanding.
  6. Maps and diagrams: While diagrams are particularly useful in physical geography, maps become critical in human geography. Usually, across the paper (19 questions) a student can try to have 19 maps/diagrams too (some answers will have more than one, while some others will have none).

It is definitely not possible to have all of these in every answer, or in fact in any answer. But some of these elements can be included in every answer. It also must be noted that these concepts/ideas should not be forced in your answers. Your understanding should be such that they automatically come to your mind while writing answers. Forcing them into the answers rather make it apparent that the student does not understand the concept very well.

Practice the Writing

It is a good habit to attempt some questions after you complete a topic. You should try attempting previous year questions and some popular coaching institutes’ questions. This will give you a feedback about your preparation and help you in applying the concepts more.

After attempting the questions, if you have a mentor or a friend circle get them evaluated. And make sure you preserve them. When you look back at these answers later you will be able to draw a lot of insights on the following lines:

  1. With time as your answer writing improves, you will be able to appreciate the gains you have made.
  2. As you start connecting dots of different topics you will be able to appreciate what are the contents that you missed before.
  3. While reading a topic some of the questions that you’ve attempted earlier will flash before your eyes and you’ll know instantly that you can write better answers now.
  4. At times you will also find that you’ve written something beautiful earlier that you’ve forgotten now. You will then incorporate such content again.

In this many coaching institutes will give you the “free service” of evaluating answers. Remember, there is no free lunch. It is just advertisement for them and some poor quality evaluation to garner the crowd and sell products. Avoid such channels and focus more on self-improvements.

Apart from this, one should join a test series for geography in some institute. This helps actually. here you are already paying so the quality is relatively better. Commenting on institutes is out of the scope for this page and, therefore, I’m not going to do that.

Personality Test – A Different Ballgame

The Transcript – How the Interview Panned

Board: PK Joshi

Chairperson: You did your schooling in Sainik School, then went to Guru Gobind Singh School, then NIT Jamshedpur and finally pursued a job in Mu Sigma in Bengaluru. Is that right?

Satyam: Yes sir

Chairperson: so how often do you go to Bihar?

Satyam: sir mostly during annual vacations.

Chairperson: so what was your job as a decision scientist?

Satyam: sir it combines the profile of a business analyst and a data scientist. The idea is to solve business problems and take business decisions based on data rather than intuition.

Chairperson: Okay. So after 2015 you have been preparing. Where have you been living?

Satyam: Sir I’ve been living in Patel Nagar in Delhi.

Chairperson: you’ve lived for a long time in Patel Nagar now. What are the issues in this area?

Satyam: sir from the perspective of a student high rent is one issue. Apart from that there is an increased pressure on local infrastructure including transport infra. Also, bye laws are flouted frequently by coaching institutes and shops in the area as they run commercial operations in residential buildings.

Chairperson: okay. So if you get posted as SDM in this area how will you solve the problem?

Satyam: Sir the first attempt would be at decongesting the area by spreading out the institutes a bit. Second, it is increasingly being realised that urban areas should actually see the coexistence of commercial and residential uses of buildings do as to reduce time spent on travel and reduce pollution. So I’d also like to tweak the bye laws a bit to accommodate that. At the same time I’ll take due care that safety norms are not compromised.

Chairperson: Okay. Pointed towards M2.

Member 2: So I see that you have lived a lot in eastern India. Born and brought up in Bihar. Then a lot in Jharkhand. Tell me why do you think there is an issue of development in eastern India while western parts like Gujarat and Maharashtra have developed well?

Satyam: sir the reasons are multifarious. Historically while Bombay presidency did well Bihar and Odisha suffered during British rule. Second would be political where, say my state Bihar has suffered long duration of poor governance. And third would be social – caste divide continues to be deep which hampers development. When it becomes easy to garner votes based on caste identities developmental agenda takes a back seat.

Member 2: but these regions are resources-rich. And there are industries like Tata flourishing. Then why is the issue?

Satyam: sir the industries in this region are capital intensive and not labour intensive. So compared to Punjab and Haryana where textile industry has generated a lot of jobs the steel industry hasn’t done so in Jharkhand. An example is Jamshedpur itself. If you come to Jamshedpur you’ll see a good standard of life but the same is not reflected in areas around the city. There’s also the issue of what we can call quote-unquote resource curse. The region has largely been seen as one that can provide resources. The participation of tribals and their development hasn’t been on agenda equally.

Member 2: I see you’ve lived a lot in Bihar and Jharkhand. Where would you say you’re from?

Satyam: Sir I’d say Bihar.

Member 2: okay. Tell me despite separation of Jharkhand why has it not flourished?

Satyam: Sir Jharkhand was separated in the interest of tribal population. But the population of tribals in the state is still around 30-35% only. This has been coupled with a lot of political instability. In the first 9 years of formation Jharkhand saw 5 chief ministers. It becomes difficult to grow in these conditions.

Member 2: okay. So you have worked in analytics. Did that involve behaviour of people?

Satyam: yes sir. Though it’s a part of overall data analytics, nonetheless it’s an important one.

Member 2: then tell me this – using this data when an advertisement company issues a misleading advertisement on TV that you can grow tall or become slim using some product, do you think that should be banned?

Satyam: sir actually tv advertising does not involve analytics much. The profiling is done for cases where targeting can be done. For example if you open Facebook the advertisement shown to you depends on your age, gender, location, what time of the day you are, etc. Backend profiling is done for it. In case of tv such segregation can’t be done. Nonetheless, as far as misleading advertisements are concerned, they amount to cheating people directly and thus should be banned whether on TV, or social media.

Member 2: okay. (Nodded towards chairman)

M3 (lady): So you are from Bihar. We see there are so many good officers coming out of poor states like Bihar. And yet the state hasn’t done well. What do you think is the problem? Is public service irrelevant?

Satyam: Ma’am public service is definitely relevant as it provides institutional memory, thus helping in policy formulation and execution. However, it’s not sufficient. For example in my district there is a vacancy of 52 doctors in the district hospital but only 8 doctors are working. This is because the salary given to them is Rs 44,000 only – which is not attractive for them at all. In these situations a District Magistrate becomes helpless. So whole of the government will have to be improved.

Member 3: Okay. There was a recent policy in Bihar on prohibition. What is the status? Has it succeeded?

Satyam: Ma’am initially the law has done well and people’s, particularly women’s, response was spectacular. But lately there have been many implementation issues. First, bootlegging is becoming common, second, trafficking of both liquor and drugs has increased lately, and third in the recent raids by Bihar police in their own police stations many policemen were caught using alcohol. There have been increasing reports of women complaining that now they’re losing out even more as the liquor available in black market is more costly. So no income is left with the household.

Member 3: And what about the impact on Scheduled castes and tribes? There is an increasing number of them in the jails?

Satyam: yes ma’am. They were employed in the alcohol industry in large numbers and have been rendered jobless due to the ban. Due to this many have been pushed into illegal manufacture and bootlegging. We actually need to liberalise the bail norms for them. (I realize I should have also talked about jobs for them, but I didn’t)

Member 3: but then isn’t it like creating a monster first and then trying to liberalise that? We are also spending a lot on the policing to enforce it.

Satyam: ma’am the legislation continues to be for people’s welfare. And that’s what the state is for. So yes there have been losses. The state has lost rs 4000 crore per annum in revenue too. But such expenses have to be taken up if welfare of people is involved.

Member 3: but don’t you think it should be left to people to decide what they or should not do? We are in a society that is increasingly becoming educated. It should be people’s choice.

Satyam: Ma’am ideally, yes. The prohibition law is definitely like a Victorian moral legislation imposed on people. However, we need to see the social context within which the law came. The biggest stakeholders – women – came out to vote for the incumbent CM in large numbers because he had announced prohibition. They continue to be the biggest stakeholders and they support the move.

Member 3: but the mentality of men hasn’t changed. Gender issue remains.

Satyam: ma’am it’s like looking at means and ends. If I could take another analogy to explain. If one argues that guns shouldn’t be banned in US to curb violence but the reliance should solely be on social cohesion, it doesn’t make sense. Both the things have to be pursued in parallel.

Member 3: big smile. Passes the buck.

Member 4: You have lived in Bihar, Bengaluru and now Delhi. How have you seen these places change in last 5 years? May be you have not visited Bengaluru lately. But you can talk about Bihar and Delhi.

Satyam: Sir I’ll start from Bihar. There are small to large changes. For example in my own district there was a long standing demand for a flyover as a railway gate disrupted the traffic heavily on a daily basis. Now that has been constructed by the railway ministry. There have been other infrastructural developments as well. Some cities of Bihar have progressed really well. Patna has seen large infrastructural improvements. TCS has recently opened an office in Patna. This will be helpful for students from Bihar who go out in large numbers to other states to study. Many of them want to come back but lack of jobs in IT sector hampers that. This can improve in future. Coming to Bengaluru, I have not been there recently but I do have friends there with whom I talk. Sadly I have heard more negative news about the city. There is some positive work in expansion of metro. But multiple issues have cropped up. Traffic congestion, water stress and haphazard peri-urban development are some of them. I lived in whitefield which is at one edge of the city. And already a lot of construction was taking place beyond it which was not planned well. Also, Bengaluru has one of the best weathers of the country. But slowly that is also getting compromised. Coming to Delhi, my surrounding does look the same as it was. But I can vouch for one thing. My cook has two sons. And she tells me that while earlier she was embarrassed of the fact that they studied in government school now she feels proud that they study in government schools.

Member 4: So you mean to say that the quality of life has gone up. Why do you think so?

Satyam: Sir the focus on health and education by the govt has been extensive. There are the two most fundamental pillars on which quality of life is based. There are some other debatable schemes too which are populist in nature. Free water, electricity, bus rides, etc for which people should actually pay. Yet they have also helped in bringing down the cost of living for the people.

Member 4: Okay. You also talked about water stress. What should be done for that?

Satyam: Sir water is increasingly becoming scarce in the country. Even a state like Bihar that has large rivers flowing through it has become water stressed. To counter this we need both local dispersed as well as large projects. Small water harvesting structures can help a lot. This can improve local resource augmentation. Take Delhi for example. It’s dependent on rivers from other states. But as their own needs increase the chances of conflict for water between states will increase. So Delhi needs to augment its resources but water harvesting is yet to become common here. At the same time for large areas like Bundelkhand we need canals and dams too. We cannot make this region green only through water harvesting. Also, we will have to change lifestyle to make it less water intensive. For example in USA hand sanitizers are quite common. But rely on water for everything. Such reliance has to reduce.

Member 4: Okay. Passed the buck.

M1 (probably from NE, I found it a bit difficult to understand him): So how far is Khagaria from Motihari?

Satyam: Sir Motihari is in North West Bihar while Khagaria is South east relative to center. So there is a good distance.

Member 1: Are you aware of a famous writer born in Motihari?

Satyam: No sir (I am not aware of any writer anyway, so)

Member 1: He has written some famous books like 1984, Animal Farm, etc. Have you read any of them?

Satyam: No sir I have not.

Member 1: His name is George Orwell. Okay, so you have written basketball. Recently a famous basketball personality died. He also had a blot on his career regarding issues related to women. Can you tell me something about him?

Satyam: Yes sir. Kobe Bryant has died recently in a helicopter crash. As far as basketball is concerned he is definitely one of the undisputed legends. However, he does carry a blot of alleged sexual harassment in his career.

Member 1: Okay. You have lived in whitefield. There are issues of land grabbing there by powerful politicians of the state. If you are posted there as an administrator what will you do to tackle this?

Satyam: Sir between political and permanent executives political executives hold an edge when it comes to power. But their accountability lies with people and they are afraid of people only. So I will try to bring it to the notice of the people as to who is grabbing land illegally. This can put pressure on them. Apart from that law also has to be enforced (I started thinking how to do that)….if I could take a moment to think…

Member 1: Sure, take your time.

Satyam: Long pause

Member 1: It’s okay. In my experience of 40 years as an administrator I have not found an answer to this question. I just thought you might have one.

[M4 started laughing, the whole Board started laughing and I laughed along.]

Chairperson: Thank you. Your interview is over.