“How much should I study in a particular topic for UPSC exam preparations? What depth should I go to?”

This is one of the most critical questions for both a UPSC aspirant and a teacher training students for the UPSC exam.

Let us start by reminding ourselves that there is a difference between data, information, knowledge and wisdom.

Data – There is a high pressure and low pressure area in the atmosphere.

Information – Cloud formation is going to happen and hence there will be rain.

Knowledge – It is going to rain. Carry your umbrella.

Wisdom – It is going to rain. If you don’t have an umbrella, stay at home.

Given below is what the official notification of UPSC mentions about the Mains examination -

“The main Examination is intended to assess the overall intellectual traits and depth of understanding of candidates rather than merely the range of their information and memory. “

It further says “The questions are likely to test the candidate's basic understanding of all relevant issues and ability to analyze and take a view on conflicting socio- economic goals, objectives and demands. The candidates must give relevant, meaningful and succinct answers.”

It is very obvious from the above two excerpts that the minimum level expected of a student is at least higher than data as explained above. In addition to that it is also expected that the knowledge can be converted into relevant, meaningful and succinct answers. Hence we decided to target the highest level possible, wisdom, in everything that we teach. Unless one rises above the stage of data and information and reaches the level of knowledge and wisdom it is not possible to connect the dots and perform well in UPSC Mains examination.

Secondly, there is an inbuilt assumption about the level at which a student already is when he decides to take up the UPSC examination and goes to an institution to help him out. Our assumption is simple. The student is at ground zero. Hence our objective is to take him from the level of no data to the level of knowledge in a given topic. How does this help? Our experience tells us that a typical student in an exam may recall only 50% of what he knows (from what he/she has studied) and can effectively write only 50% of what he recalls. Hence he needs to know as much as possible.

So, if we teach a subject in which the classroom notes span around 1000 words, and the student remembers 500 of it, in the exam he/she is likely to condense it down to at least 150 or 200 meaningful words forming a logical answer. If, however, we teach the same topic in a manner that his/her classroom notes span 150 words, then the final output may be less than 50 words.

Our approach is – cover a topic to a sufficient depth so that Connecting-the-Dots becomes possible. A topic should act as a connecting bridge with many others, if a student has to develop mastery in seamlessly answering possible questions in the Mains (and even the Prelims). By only scratching the surface, it is hardly possible to achieve this level of skill building.

Let’s take a look at the most recent addition and one of the most challenging areas in Mains Exam for an aspirant - World History. This particular question was asked in GS I- Mains 2013.

Q. The American Revolution was an economic revolt against mercantilism. Substantiate.

This topic (American Revolution) often consumes years of research for a serious student or teacher. Now this question asked in Mains is not about when and how of the American Revolution. It is about the why. To answer this question one needs to go very deep into the causes of the America Revolution. A small session is really not going to help if the student REALLY wants to understand this topic. Having all the information and not having any writing practice is not going to help either. One has to understand the American Revolution in great depth and have a lot of writing practice in order to write an effective answer and get a decent number of marks.

We have taken one question as an example. This is true of almost every question asked in UPSC mains. And remember American Revolution is just on the events mentioned in the syllabus of GS I. The entire unit reads as “History of the world will include events from 18th century such as industrial revolution, world wars, redrawal of national boundaries, colonization, decolonization, political philosophies like communism, capitalism, socialism etc.- their forms and effect on the society.”

The unit does not even mention the American Revolution. However we did take a comprehensive session on American Revolution which covered the topic in great detail. Moreover this knowledge can be used somewhere else also. For example, in the 2 lectures conducted on American Civil War, we had covered Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address too. Though no questions were asked on the American Civil War in GS I, in GS IV students were asked to write 150 words on “Nearly all men can withstand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”—Abraham Lincoln.

The inputs we gave on Lincoln’s quotes and speeches, which may appear redundant to a casual observer, helped immensely in answering the question.

Let us think what else can they ask from this topic. Possible questions can be

  1. How is the contribution of Abraham Lincoln in the US Civil War relevant for Indian democracy?
  2. The relations between the Executive and Judiciary in India, in recent times, have been a subject of debate. What example from the life of Abraham Lincoln represents a similar crisis in US polity?
  3. Why was the American Civil War the bloodiest that America has witnessed in its history? Relate it to the Vietnam war in 1970s.
  4. In recent times (2015), the US has witnessed a growing tirade against Confederate Leaders from the South. Examine the issue with reference to the American Civil War.

Inputs provided in the sessions can be used to directly answer all these questions. Thus, in events of major importance, drawing a line that only scratches the surface of a topic is not a good idea. A certain depth has to be covered, so that connecting-the-dots can truly happen.

Finally in UPSC exams it is very important to remember one thing - “They have the right not to ask, we have a duty to study in depth.”

To get an idea of what we teach and how, you can watch this free session available online:

Wish you all the best!

This course designed, developed and executed by Sandeep Manudhane sir