Congratulations on clearing UPSC! You must be busy with the felicitations?
There have been meetings, felicitations, and letters; frankly it has been very hectic for me right now. I haven’t had a moment to relax yet.
Was this your first attempt?
No, it was my second attempt. I had not cleared my prelims in my first attempt.
That’s great! Can you tell us a little about your background?
My name is Aparajita Singh Sinsinwar, I am a doctor. I did my MBBS from PGIMS Rohtak. My birthplace is Jodhpur, Rajasthan, but I’ve been living with my grandparents in Rohtak, Haryana since I was a month old. It’s like I have 2 homes, one in Rajasthan and one in Haryana. In this exam I had Medical Science as my optional. I decided to prepare for the civil services, after my internship got over, on 1st Jan 2017. During my first attempt I just had 4 to 5 months in hand and I didn’t know whom to go to and what to do. I ended up missing prelims by a narrow margin. I was staying in Patel Nagar when I was preparing and I was not doing anything else at that time. Initially my family was not supportive. They asked why I was changing my career, and assured me that I would get a good seat for my post graduation and insisted that I don’t change my career. Later they became supportive. Then I joined some local coaching for my preparation and Forum IAS Mains test series and Interview Guidance. I also took many mocks and I think that things have turned pretty well for me.
What did you tell yourself when you started on this journey, when even your parents weren’t supporting your decision?
Actually I had told them during my internship that I would attempt this exam and my mother was supportive of me. My grandparents, who are like my parents, tried to convince me that being a doctor is also a respectable job etc. Slowly I convinced them about my decision. All the time the thing I had in mind was that eventually if everything goes right, everything will make sense. They were just scared that I would waste a lot of time in this vortex of taking attempt after attempt at UPSC. That could mean me losing out on opportunities and precious time in a very important time in my career. I always thought that if I can prove myself and get into UPSC, I’ll be able to make them proud. So after my first prelims, I was quite disheartened and I asked them for a year. They replied that they had given me 6 months. So I asked them to give me an additional year and see and assured them that this would be my last attempt and I would abide by their wishes after that, but for one complete year I wanted to try for accomplishing my dream. They agreed on condition than I also appear for NEET at the same time. I cleared NEET and UPSC both.
So you have two options now?
Actually every parent is worried about their child’s career, and at times they do get scared thinking about the possibility that the decision taken has been wrong and the possibility that the child will not get the desired marks. So this was my backup.
How did you start preparing for prelims? How important is solving tests in preparing for the prelims?
The first focus of the preparation should be collecting all the relevant material. The second step would be learning all the material. Third is, looking at the previous years’ papers and seeing what kind of questions are asked and the fourth test is taking mock tests. We should not take mocks as the first step. I think if this flow doesn’t change, one will see the results. However, if you completely ignore the fourth test and take the exam, you will make blunders. Because each question comes with its error rate, each person has their own way of solving the multiple choice options. And unless we practice and use elimination techniques etc. we cannot improve on that. So only after practicing a certain number of mocks, we can at least make an intelligent guess, which cannot happen without taking mocks.
So I would say follow these 4 steps. And I wouldn’t say take 100 mocks or 150 mocks or all the test series available in the market. I would suggest 2 test series; one tougher than UPSC standards and the other a comparatively easy one. The easy one will keep your morale high and the tougher one balances it.
What according to you is more important towards the success, covering the syllabus or organizing it?
I had a simple trick that I followed. Any material, any book or any random source on the internet that I am reading, if I can’t revise that in the last 2 months, then it is a waste and I should not be reading it. As far as covering the syllabus was concerned, I decided to cover as broadly as I could and at the same time I would organize it so well and make such concise notes that I would be able to revise everything in the last two months. I believe that something random read in the newspaper a year back can never be recalled during an exam, so unless you will revise it and see it in front of your eyes, there’s no point reading it. This is irrespective of how hard you try; on the contrary, this can lead to you getting the answers wrong. So cover as much as you can, but make notes at the same time. For example, if I am reading a current affairs booklet, I will add an A4 sheet or sticky note to it and make a concise note of the factual information from the booklet. So on the last day I will take these sheets or sticky notes and revise them. For example in Geography NCERTs they have examples of Kharif crops, the types of forests and the trees in those forests. So I’ll just write those examples on the sticky note. These will be my flash cards. So I have 40 flash cards for Geography and on the last day I’ll give it approximately half an hour. In that half an hour I’ll just go through those flash cards and that’s how I’ll revise. So plan and organize, simply covering the syllabus won’t help much.
Can you elaborate the procedure of making these flash cards?
I had two sets of notes, digital and paper. We see a lot of online videos but we cannot go back to the videos to see what is most important there. So I used to put the video on pause and take the screenshots of any factual information that I found relevant. I had a folder called screenshots that I would go through at the end of the day and then rephrase them and then the selected screenshots would be selected as favorites. These were my digital flashcards. The other was handwritten flashcards which were basically the sticky notes. I had green color sticky notes for Geography and Yellow color sticky notes for History. I would just paste them on different cupboards. So whatever chapter I was reading I would write concisely about it, like in ancient history, many examples from NCERT are important. Often the coaching institute sources are not covering them. Any of those special examples, I used to write “qqq” on them with a pink pen and then I would summarize the whole ancient history part, say in 4 flash cards and then I would paste them on my cupboard. So every time I would get a chance, I would look at them. This helped me to revise at the last moment. Initially it takes hard work, it is like going on for another half an hour more than other students, but at the end, it is very helpful.
How helpful is digital content and what digital content did you use?
I used to watch video channels like Only IAS. I am not a fan of newspapers. I have only recently started reading newspapers. When I tried reading newspapers, it used to take up the whole day. I used to watch the video sat double speed so that a 20 min video would get covered in 10 min. I used to watch Prelims discussion and Hindu Editorial discussion I used to watch. This was my strategy till mains. After mains I read 3 English newspapers from cover to cover. Also I used to watch Rajyasabha TV. For example if there was some bill proposed or any kind of debatable issue, that is important for mains. Rajyasabh TV is a must for mains and interview. It was so regular for me that I have hardly missed any video of Rajyasabha TV Vishesh. I also watched videos of Kunal Sir Economics and some topics from Geography too. Some topics on volcanism etc, which are good in NCERT too, but I found these better. I used to take screenshots of these videos and save them in the folder in my phone.
How do you filter content online?
First of all I used to watch at double speed. Secondly, a simple test to understand the credibility of the teacher is to read the topic yourself once. So if you feel that you are covering better and more by reading by yourself, then continue doing that, but if someone is explaining something very well, quickly, and giving you enough points to write in your exam, then you should watch that video. I used to stay in Rohtak and travel to Delhi quite often, at least twice a week, and it used to take 2 hours to travel. I used to go by bus or cab, so I couldn’t read because that would strain my eyes, so I just put my earphones in and listen to any topic on Rajyasabha TV Today. I wouldn’t have any pen at that time, so I would take screenshots of specific portions so I could read up on them later. For example there was a video on Rajyasabha TV Vishesh on Geneva Conventions, on the Pulwama Attacks and then the surgical strikes after that. That video is awesome. Then there was one more on a patient called “Cured of HIV”. These two I still recall, they gave very good insights. So I always had these marked, that I will watch these videos.
Yes Rajyasabha TV has great depth on each topic compared to other channels.
True, and I don’t think we need more than that, because if we try to go too deep into one topic, we will miss out on other topics. I had that issue in mains. Initially I was trying to be a perfectionist, but later I realized that finishing the paper is more important than writing everything perfectly.
How have you changed as a person in the course of this preparation?
Irrespective of the results, the process of preparation changes all of us. Each one of us who is preparing is in a journey and it changes us a lot. We learn to accept failures, to accept the depression, we learn to hope for things despite the unpredictability. We learn to be hopeful and come out as stronger people. Above all, we end up as more knowledgeable than we were when we started. I believe UPSC has totally changed me. I never thought I would be this kind of person when I started my preparations, when I look back, there are so many ups and downs; downs that are so low and only one up, the result. Eventually, I think God responds to the struggles that people put in and finally the results show.
How important is current affairs, and can it be prepared without newspapers?
I can speak for myself, I won’t tell people not to read newspapers. If you read it for a couple of hours every day, it is good enough. I avoided them because I used to end up spending 4 to 5 hours on them. So I had to prepare extensively because I was not reading newspapers. If you see the pattern of prelims for the last 2 to 3 years, the current pattern spans has increased to 3 years. Earlier they used to ask from one year back, now it has become that 2 to 3 years back is also current. When I had done my first attempt of prelims, I had read the current affairs by that time so it was already in my memory. After my prelims what I did was, I tore off all the index pages of the current affairs booklets, and I wrote one line each for every current affair item that came across in 2017. It became a small booklet of 2 to 3 pages. I stapled these pages to the next year’s booklets. The year I was attempting, I read these very thoroughly and prepared the summary for the previous year. So basically I read the current affairs of 2 years, 1 as summary and one extensively. Secondly, I was also covering PIB specially the cabinet meetings part, very regularly and holistically. So anything extra like that wasn’t in my notes was in PIB. So I would add that in my notes. Plus I had all those flashcards and screenshots. 2 months before the exam, I scanned all the screenshots and deleted all those that were there in my notes or in my compilation. I saved the rest of the flashcards to revise again and again. Suppose there were 100 questions in the notes and 20 questions are wrong. So I would correct that in the booklet itself. Suppose I did not know the name of the last Buddha so I would make a note of that in my folder itself. So I would avoid turning pages to correct my mistakes. At the same time, I was revising last 20 years questions, I would see the correct option, but I would also try to figure out what questions could be there around the other 3 options. I would write about all the 3 options. So for previous year, 4 options, 400 topics were asked. So that could be the other question that UPSC can ask. And trust me, it helps. Every year, you can predict 2 to 3 questions from previous years. And every mark counts, so I think this exercise can be done.
You have used very innovative techniques to prepare!
It was like managing a jigsaw puzzle in a very short time so I asked myself how I could be more effective.
How did you prepare for the interview?
First of all, I’d like to say that clearing interview is more a matter of luck. Secondly, clearing the interview won’t depend only on preparation of facts. You have to prepare your whole personality. Right from the moment you enter the room. For my prelims I had spent one month worrying about whether I will clear the prelims or not, and wasted time. After mains I was in a similar scenario, but I decided not to repeat my mistake. So I started preparation immediately after my mains. So facts were one thing but what I had in my hand was my DAF. So in OneNote I would make a page on each word in my DAF. Like one page on my name Aparajita. What is the meaning of Aparajita? Who are the famous personalities with the same name? And who were the historical figures with the same name? Then my date of birth, I had a page on what all happened on the same day. even DPS was there in my DAF, so every detail like who started it, how many chains are there, everything was on that page. So I had a page on my surname Sinsinwar. So I prepared my DAF like anything from the DAF I would be able to answer. Because you can excuse yourself on questions on current affairs or some situational question, but if they ask you something on your DAF, you cannot excuse yourself on that. So I had to be firm on that. Then I worked on my expressions. How do my expressions show if I don’t know an answer, how will they show if I am bluffing or being talkative; even the expressions that I have when I am speaking. So I used to practice with previous years’ mock questions in front of a full length mirror for 40 minutes every day. This increased my speed of answering and helped me to increase eye contact with examiners since I was making eye contact with myself. Because, you understand that averting your eyes will not solve the problem. Then I had to practice walking in a saree and I fell too because I don’t know how to carry a saree.
You really micromanaged your preparation!
I gave up everything because I knew that this was the last attempt for me and I could not falter at any step. I read all the newspapers because some people suggested one; others suggested the other, so I read all of them.
What is your opinion about starting preparation early for UPSC?
I think college days never come back, so whether your graduation or your UPSC, enjoy those days. Focus on your graduation, if you have extra time, you can keep a tab on current affairs and read some basic NCERT books. But I think you should start fully fledged preparation of UPSC only after completing your graduation. You can create your base for the preparation during the graduation.
What is your success mantra, and what is your message for aspirants of this exam?
If you want something as badly as wanting to breathe, you will get it. There is nothing called halfway here. A casual attitude will not show results. Second is that, nothing is final or fatal. It is just a process, keep doing your best and giving your best. It is not impossible and it is obviously not the end of the world. Any situation you are in, tackle it with a light head because, if you do it with a heavy head, you will lose marks in that. When you are in that situation, you can either cry about it or work hard and get a better result. So be happy, be light, work hard, don’t exhaust yourself and give your best. That’s it.