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Quality in individual answers and quantity of questions attempted overall is important. Thus it is imperative that you attempt as many questions as possible. In order to do so, follow these tips:

 

Imposing self-restraint on word-limits.

Writing full 150/250 words might be a recipe for disaster, especially if your writing speed is slow. It is highly unlikely that you can attempt all 20 questions (write ~4000 words in 180 minutes ) if you try to adhere to these limits religiously. So, if you have trouble finishing the question paper, try to reduce the number of words and instead focus on better quality points and underlining the keywords.
For a 150-word limit question (10-marker), try to finish the answer in 135 words and for a 250-word limit question (15-marker) try sticking to within 225 words. A harsher self-imposed word-limit will help you save time and force you to come up with better points instead of bland generalist arguments.
Having said this, You should not alter your natural way of approaching an answer. If you can write full 150/250 words, it’s good but it shouldn’t be done at the cost of diluting the quality of your answer.

 

Prioritise 15-markers (250 word-limit) question.

They are more important than 10-markers. If you write a poor answer in a 15-marker question, you risk losing more in comparison to a poor answer in 10-marker (Clearly, 1 mark out of 15 is much worse than 1 out of 10). Also, in situations of time-crunch, like the last 30 minutes of the test, it is easier to answer 5×10-markers instead of 4×15-markers.
However, firstly build some momentum by answering 2-3 easy 10-markers in the starting 15-20 minutes. After this initial phase, prioritise the 15-markers.

 


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Tackling the easy questions early.

In any paper you will encounter 3 types of questions:

  1. Easy“: on topics that you have read and are confident of answering well and scoring above-average marks (>40%)
  2. Hard“: on topics that you have no idea about whatsoever and given a choice you will leave them without second thoughts. In such questions, even if you score 1 or 2 marks you will feel lucky! For example, consider the “Bose Einstein Condensate” question in Mains 2018 GS3 paper. Someone from humanities background with no exposure to this domain will have a hard time writing anything relevant in it.
  3. Intermediate“: you have some idea about the topic but need time to recall, consolidate and write a good quality answer. You can score somewhere around 30-40% in such questions.

Typically, a paper will have 5-6 easy questions, 2-3 hard questions and rest intermediate questions. The key lies in scoring above-average in easy questions and near-average in intermediate questions along with scarping few marks here and there in the hard ones. The best possible answers should be written for topics you know albeit keeping the time-limit in mind. So attempt the “easy” question initially.
In order to identify the “easy” questions, have a glance in the initial 2-3 minutes and mark questions in which you are confident. Attempt them first rather than answering all the questions serially.

Few benefits of the glancing exercise and leaving the hard questions for the end:

  1. After 2-2.5 hours of writing you “might” recall few keywords subconsciously (as you had a glance earlier, your brain started thinking about the topics you read). Now you can write a much better answer as compared to just filling the pages had you attempted such a question earlier.
  2. If you attempted a question at the start without being confident in it and later recall a better point for it, you can’t go back and change it.
  3. You gain confidence by answering the easy questions at the start. This then reflects into your later answers.

But, one big disadvantage of glancing at the start is that you might lose confidence if you see a lot of hard questions. But it is a risk worth taking if you want to write the best answers in topics you are proficient in.

For time management, keep a watch in front of your eyes all the time. Ensure that none of the subparts is taking too much time and as the allotted time is about to end, try to quickly conclude and “move on” to the next question. “Move on” implies that you stop thinking about the past (what you have written) and focus on the next question/sub-part. Once you have answered a question, DO NOT THINK about it at all. You can’t change anything in the past. Be memoryless while attempting (Statistics people would understand this term better).

 

Breaking-down the 3 hours duration.

Break the time duration into 30-minute windows and aim to cover 40 marks [(4×10-marker) or (1×10 marker + 2×15 marker)] in each window.
In 2 such windows, you have to cover 45 marks (3×15-marker). Try to do this in the 2nd hour as it is the most effective phase.
With this approach, you will be able to cover 80 marks in 1st hour, 90 in 2nd and 80 again in the 3rd hour.
Preferably, keep the last 75 minutes for 10-markers and unknown questions. Attempt the known 15-markers before that.

Please note that this is merely a guideline towards approaching the paper and keeping the time in check. It is too ideal to be practical. You can deviate from it and prepare your own strategy as well. Even I wasn’t able to replicate it fully in the exam!

Such an approach will help you tackle any marks distribution by UPSC. Do keep in mind that UPSC can anytime change marks distribution like it did in 2017. It can go back to 25×10-markers or 20×12.5-markers – so mentally be prepared for anything!

 

Some other Miscellaneous tips:

  1. Make it a habit of reading the question twice. Sometimes the smallest mistakes cost you the most.
  2. Do not rush yourself. Read the question twice and give yourself 15-20 seconds to structure the answer and then start writing.
  3. Avoid writing loooong sentences. You have to do this consciously, else you may end up writing paragraph-like sentences. Just write as if you are in a primary class. Short to-the-point sentences are the way to go.
  4. When you start Answer Writing Practice, go for quality content first even if it takes time. Later start reducing the time whilst managing a decent answer quality.
  5. I am not a stickler for blue vs black or ballpoint vs gel pen. It is all person specific. Do what you like!
    If you are still interested, I used a “Hauser” blue gel pen for all my exams.
  6. On the day of the examination, write for 15-20 minutes before leaving for the test centre. This will get your hands movings and you will not feel rusty when the paper starts – Control whatever you can!

 

At the end, I would just point out that Perfection is your nemesis. You need to start answer writing as soon as possible. It is important to know what is a poor answer, then only you will be able to improve. With practice and continuous improvement you can easily manage both the aspects of Mains – writing better quality answers along with ensuring maximum attempt.

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