Friday, January 20, 2012

Confidence: The one within

There are times, we ask ourselves:
                    Am I on the right path?
                                 Am I doing the right things?
                                               Am I doing it the right way?
we spent some time thinking about it. Next, we ask our family and friends.

..........and then we hear "Be Confident".

What does it mean to be confident?
                    Where is this confidence?
                                        Where does one get it from?

Well, enough of philosophy !! 
                        Lets get to the answers.
Confidence comes from self-simplicity. Confidence comes from self-discipline. Confidence comes from self-honesty.
Self-Simplicity: Establish simple targets for yourself. Make simple achievable plans, with simple steps to follow. Remember: Simple does not mean trivial, or too easy.
Self-Discipline: Achievements require Dedication-Devotion-Determination. Achievements require sacrifice. That New Year Party or IPL Semi-Final, it will come again next year.
Self-Honesty:  Be honest to yourself. Ask yourself if you are working hard enough. Ask yourself if you are focused enough. If not, make an honest promise to yourself - I will do better.

In summary: Confidence comes from the inner-self.
Help yourself - Believe in yourself - Trust yourself and things will happen. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Solving comprehension passage based questions - a 7-step approach

Comprehensions are an important section in several competitive exams. English Language Comprehension tests a candidate’s ability to read, understand, and interpret. Each comprehension is followed by a set of questions. If you can answer one question well, there is good chance of scoring on a bunch of questions. On the other side, if you have problems with a comprehension, you lose out on more than one question.

In order to be good at Comprehension, a candidate must have the ability to understand the basic information given to solve a question / problem on the basis of rules. Candidates need to follow a certain structure to solve the comprehensions. Comprehensions fall under variety of topics and are formulated in diverse ways. One needs to consider the following structured process to solve the comprehensions with ease:

1. Context of the Question:
It’s important to understand what the passage’s focus is. For example: A passage could be talking about a teacher who served as a nurse in World War II.   Out of these three subjects what is the most important idea in the passage the person, the events, or the work the person is undertaking, or may be something else.
We need to read the entire passage carefully so that we can comprehend the context that has been outlined in the passage. Many a times, the context is not mentioned directly. We need to understand the point that is mentioned in the passage based on the basic facts and information sketched within.
2. Information:
Information is usually the easier part to identify in a passage. Usually the passage depicts a lot of information in the form of events, information, incidents, situations and adhering to these set of points the story of the passage is outlined.

3. Facts:
These are the finer points in the information. Who? What? When? How? How much? Where?
Often, the key challenge here is that there might be too many facts in the passage. In such a case, noting down each and every fact may be a waste of time. Look at the facts and try to understand their importance in the passage.

4. Point of View:
Author’s point of view is one of the most important things to be analyzed in the passage. Is the author critical or appreciative of the situation or is the tone of passage ironic or satirical. Does the author agree or disagree with the events in the passage. Make a note of it.

5. Analysis:
Very often, the passage would analyze a situation. It could be a political situation with an analysis on its effect on people or a business situation with some analysis using numbers. The questions on the passage may point to the analysis itself.

6. Inference or Outcome:
Note what are the key findings, conclusions, or outcomes in the passage. This is very often, the basis for at least one question.

Here is a 7-Step approach to solve questions based on comprehension.

Step 1. Review the context
                Get a feel of the main idea, the key focus of the passage
Step 2. Understand the point-of-view of the author
                Is the passage in criticism, or appreciation, or is it just an analysis
Step 3. Classify the information in the passage into “Themes”
                Identify the major theme, the minor theme, and other extra information in the passage
Step 4. Read Fast. Keep classifying information into major and minor themes but speed is very important at this stage. Do not try to remember each and every detail in the passage. You would not be able to.
Step 5. Reread the first few sentences in the passage
Very often, the first few sentences in the passage provide critical information. While, the information may be a bit unclear, it becomes much easier to grasp after going through the entire article. Make sure to read the first few sentences at least twice.
Step 6. Map the ideas. Note down the major and minor themes and mark the linkages that you see between them.
Step 7. Pay special attention to questions and the alternatives. Several times, two of the four alternatives may have no connection to the question. This will help you make efficient in your search for the right answer.

Comprehension passages could be long, full for data, and sometimes boring. But remind yourself, that there is more than question at stake. Never get scared by a long passage. The key to solving a comprehension passage based questions is focus.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

How to practice writing for UPSC mains?

Here is a real question from a real student in a real situation. 

"I am preparing solely by myself 
                              - how do I practice writing answers to 10-15 years previous question papers. 
Should I get solved mains papers and learn from them and then write, or should I write answers directly 
                           ...but then there's nobody to check them. 
I'm a feeling confused. Please guide."

Let's start with understanding the situation first. You are alone, and finding a need for someone to discuss the ideas / information / answers with. The key area under focus is the writing skills so I will limit this article to this situation and this area. 

First of all, there is no denying that study groups can play a significant role in the preparation. While most of us would easily agree that our study group  is playing an important role in the preparation of information based areas. For example, there is so much information being exchanged right from definitions, to phenomena, to facts, events, and current affairs. But that almost sounds like limiting the group to the prelims preparation. But, when we come to UPSC Civil Services Mains, writing is very important. Before we go into answers, let's first cover other important issue. 

How to improve writing? Well, you cannot make a chocolate sweet by adding salt. you cannot improve writing by reading alone. To improve writing you will have to write. But then as our friend says " ...but then there's nobody to check them.". Now this is where the group can be of help and you can help the group too.

You can follow these steps:
1. Write about an important topic and issue. This could be a previous year's question paper or a new current topic. 
2. Post it as a note on the group. 
3. Ask the team members to rate and  review on the following areas:
        a. English - Grammar
        b. English - writing style. Ease of reading, and whether is message is communicated properly
        c. Facts - Are the facts correct, are the facts sufficient, are any facts missing
        d. Arguments - Are the arguments logical, are there any errors in the argument
        e. Overall appeal as a complete write-up

For the group:
These write-ups would be a good reference for the team-members. You should be happy that someone contributed an important and current issue of importance. Contribute by reviewing the article and constructive feedback. 
Remember, by reviewing an article, you will be able to set the right benchmarks for yourself. I will not say learn from other people's mistakes but I will strongly suggest "Learn From other People's Efforts"

For the Writer:
The review from the team would help you not only with language but also with building logical arguments and a case for your point of view. 
Do not worry about:
a. What will people think about me if they find mistakes? You are doing the right thing. Do not hesitate. Go ahead and write.
b. Bad Reviews. Split the bad reviews into two parts. 
             1. Logical reviews - very important, do not ignore them
             2. Reviews without references and logical reasoning - don't be bothered by these kind of review. 

Help others and they will help you back. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How to Remember so many dates / facts / names ..........??

India has 28 states - each state has a capital, a Chief Minister, a Governor, several rivers, dams, power plants, industries, art forms, historic places, power plants, minerals, flora, fauna .........and an infinite number of points to remember. It seems every thing is important for Civil Services. This leads to the focus of this article:

How to remember so many things?

Lets understand two important points first:
  • It is very difficult to remember things in isolation. If you read list after list of facts, there is very little that you can retain.
  • UPSC will not ask you facts but would test how you can apply those facts. You need to know more than just a fact to answer questions.
Now here is one way you can organize and retain more information than a list or a big write-up. I call it the web-of-knowledge. I recommend a three step process and explain it with an example.

Step 1. Go over the basics fast
Say, you just started studying history and you picked up the NCERT books. Go over them fast. Understand the most important things and do not waste time in cramming up the details. For example: Mughal empire - administration - art and architecture - key adversaries
Chola Empire -  art and architecture - key adversaries - note about their navy

Step 2. Link up the topics
You need to go over the same subject again. Pick a more detailed book and start laying out the subjects. Make connections between topics.
Administration in Mughal Empire - Vijaynagar - Mauryan - Vedic ................
Religion under Mauryas, Shungas, Mughals, Bahmani .................

Step 3. Mark the unusual highlights
Ashoka renouncing war, Chola navy, North and South Indian temple architecture, Tuglaq moving to Daulatabad, Akbar moving to Fatehpur Sikri

 Is it easy. Well, I must say 'no'. Its much easier to study one thing at a time and go over lists and lists. I believe nothing is easy when you talk about Civil Services. But, what I can say is that it will be effective.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Adaptive Learning and UPSC

Students today face an unprecedented challenge with regards to learning. There is a huge amount of information being created every moment. The students today are expected to know more and more about more and more and more subjects. That’s too many “mores”!

Let’s take the case of UPSC Civil Services. A candidate is expected to have an expertise in English, at least one Indian language, General Studies, and problem solving skills. The last two include History, Geography, Sports, Economics, Polity, Law, Mathematics, Reasoning……………… and so much more. There are some major questions that a student faces:
1.       How to plan their studies across such diverse subjects?
2.       What to study and what to leave?

Competitive exams like UPSC civil services are open to aspirants from all domains be it social sciences, technical, or professional. Unfortunately, the current modes of learning are uniform and static.

Does a History student need the same books to study for UPSC as a Math student?
Does a fast learner need the same course as a consistent learner?

The answer is no and to some extent students try and make arrangements for it on an ad hoc basis. What is needed is a system that:
1.       Adapts to the students background preparation
2.       Adapts to his learning speed
3.       Adapts to his learning style and time remaining for the exam

In short students today need an: ADAPTIVE LEARNING SYSTEM

There has been a tremendous amount of research in adaptive assessments and adaptive learning systems. Researchers have explored the learning needs, and learning behaviors of students to come up with intelligent systems that can adapt to students and help them Maximize their potential. Such systems are not just an electronic replication of books on the computer. They incorporate analytical intelligence engines that lay down the development path ahead.

Very soon adaptive learning systems would be available in India and that too for UPSC Civil Services exam preparation.

If you would like to know more about adaptive learning system for UPSC Civil Services you can email me at

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Search for an Inspiration !

The Search for an Inspiration: A non-idealistic approach.

The UPSC Mains results were declared a couple of days back and the media is full of interviews of successful candidates. Aspirants are eagerly going over every word from the source of success to inspire themselves. That brings us to the first question, "Do we need an inspiration"? Perhaps, we will quickly reach a unanimous conclusion - "for sure !". But at this point of time, I would like to split this idea into more parts:
Inspiration - Purpose - Drive - Mood and then go our way up.

Ever heard this from your friends "I am not in a mood to study today", "Are yaar, I will start after this weekend". What gets you in the Mood? 
                               Classical music or hard rock?
                                                       Garam Chai or Thandi Lassi?
So far so good. But if you are waiting for Sachin to hit another century to get you in the mood, ask yourself, is it really your mood, or you are losing your drive?

What makes you get out of bed early in the morning (or keep you awake late night) with an energy that yells, "I want to study today". What drives you?
Students often tell me that its the "search for success" that drives them. But how long can the search for success last? Till the time that you realize, that indeed in a super competitive exam, most of the aspirants have to settle for a lesser outcome. Sometimes, it happens even sooner, they get depressed seeing a close friend or a class-mate doing very well. Perhaps the drive needs to come from a higher idea - Purpose.

Ask yourself, would you be competing for Civil Services even if it did not carry the social reputation it enjoys? Can the quest for a social reputation motivate you for so many months for a focused hard work. Ask yourself, that the social change you aspire to bring is your innate desire or a bookish answer for your interview, even before the prelims. If despite so much of questioning and challenging, you want to do things the hard way, that is, prepare for UPSC, let's continue.
Every life should have a purpose, every second we spend should have a purpose. If you have a purpose, you have a direction. If you have a direction you have a drive. If you have the drive, mood is immaterial. Its your vision, your goal that will keep you on the track, and at a pace.

Coming back to Inspiration. It is what gives you your purpose.
Do not search for inspiration in success stories.  Do not confuse inspiration with a short-term mood builder. Search for inspiration in stories that talk about struggle, hard-work, and a higher purpose. Failure they may be from a results perspective but look for the triumph of the spirit. Search for an inspiration around you, in people, in nature.

If you are inspired, you have a purpose that can drive you, you are on your path.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Cyclic Preparation Plan

Developing a Study Plan for Civil Services

You are just going to graduate from your college, and being a civil servant is your ambition. You are thinking how you can make a thorough plan for your preparation. Here is one approach that could help you: Cyclic Preparation Plan

Step 1. June: Understand UPSC Civil Services Exam

Spend one full month in going through the information about the exam. Understand the exam pattern and thoroughly go through the syllabus of both the prelims and the mains. Look at the list of optional subjects and identify the ones that appeal to you most. Here is a link to this info. Get feedback and information about good study material and learning systems. Finalize your optional subjects.

Step 2. July-August: Prelims – Round 1

By now, you would have become a newspaper lover. Go through good editorials, latest events, and develop a learning attitude. News is very important, and every event has information. Go through the NCERT and the basic learning material for prelims. Map your strengths and weaknesses. Identify the subjects that you love to study and the subjects you tend to avoid. This will help you structure your studies. Go through one full round of study for prelims. Make sure to work hard on English and Writing Skills, they will be useful.

Step 3. October – December: Mains – Round 1

October: Go through the syllabus and the topic in your optional subjects. Go through the basics of the subjects and develop a plan.

November – December: Some students may choose to go over one subject in complete detail and brush over the second subject. Other students may choose to go over both the subjects in a similar fashion. Decide which of the two styles suits you best.

Step 4. January – May: Prelims – Round 2

Split up your preparation into phases:

Phase 1: Build-up Knowledge

Phase 2: Practice

Phase 3: Revision

Develop an exam temperament.


Ok, at this point you might be thinking that you are sweating hard. But remember, this was the net practice. You are yet to play the match. So shake up yourself and one more round around the ground.

Step 5. Mains – Round 2

Keep working on General Studies and Current Affairs throughout.

July - Start with English and your optional language. Work on your essays.

August – September - Optional Subjects: the Last chance to go into the depths.

October – Take Tests and develop an exam temperament. Keep yourself in a steady and relaxed mode. There is no space for panic – “positivity” is the mantra


Almost a year of secluded study may have affected your social skills. Go out and talk to people, meet some achievers, some friends, family, and some common people on the streets. Know the real-world once again. In other words, build a personality. Keep reading good news and books. Keep reminding yourself that the whole process may need another cycle.


Keep them with you: Positivity – Focus - Determination