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UPSC CSE preparation: Straight from the horse’s mouth
Featuring W. Aotula Ozukum in an exclusive interview with Eastern Mirror, where she shares her experience and tips for those aspiring to write UPSC exam
DIMAPUR — As someone who has given the civil services exam many times, I can honestly say that the process has grounded, shaped and changed me as a person; it has given me a fresh perspective on life, one that emphasises diligence, commitment and humility, said W. Aotula Ozukum, who is currently undergoing a training course at AJNIFM, Faridabad, on being allotted the Indian Defence Accounts Service (IDAS) after cracking the UPSC CSE exam in 2023.
Ozukum, who graduated (B.A) from St. Anthony’s College, Shillong, cleared the NPSC exam in 2022 and worked as a Secretariat Assistant for a few months before cracking the UPSC civil services exam in the following year after several attempts.
Attributing her career choice to her father, who inspired her to pursue civil services, she said the dream she had as a young girl, not just persisted but strengthened despite facing numerous setbacks. “I am encouraged to use the lessons I have learned wherever I am placed,” she said.
In an exclusive interview with Eastern Mirror, Ozukum, who likes to read and journal, shared her experience and tips for those aspiring to write UPSC exam.
How can one unlock a detailed understanding of the UPSC exam? Is there a specific key or window that reveals its essence?
The syllabus and previous years’ questions (PYQs) are like the Bible of this exam. This should be the guide of every aspirant as they navigate through the plethora of resources and study materials available. The prelims syllabus is a little general and vague. However, the mains syllabus is comprehensive. One should cover every single topic mentioned in this and make notes. This way a broad outline of the entire syllabus can be covered. PYQs are a must to understand the trend of the exam. You will find that UPSC does not usually repeat questions, but the themes are repeated. One can gauge which topics to focus on through this.
At what point do you think aspirants should begin preparing for the exam?
I think one should focus on whatever stream or course one has decided to pursue. After graduation, one can seriously start preparing for the exam. In the meantime, one should develop the habit of reading newspapers (local and national) and acquaint oneself with the current events. I would recommend reading the editorials as they help in developing analytical skills.
When considering exam preparation, what role does coaching play, and how does it compare to the value of self-preparation?
I took coaching from ALS and it helped in laying the groundwork for me. Having said this, coaching and self-preparation goes hand in hand. Even if one does not sign up for the traditional coaching institutions in Delhi, you can benefit from various online platforms and the materials available. You can use all these tools to add value to your self-preparation. At the end of the day, it is you, your personalized strategy and hard work that matters.
What steps would you recommend for someone looking to find guidance or mentorship?
The good news today is we have so many YouTube channels, Telegram channels, Blogs etc. that provide free guidance and mentorship. There is a community out there for aspirants to help each other in this journey. I would recommend aspirants to look out for such platforms. There are also paid mentorship programs if one would like individual attention and handholding. I had joined the Mains Mentorship Programme by EdSarrthi in 2022 and benefitted from it.
Can you share the materials that played a pivotal role in cracking the prestigious exam?
These are some of the basic books I had followed:
Polity – Laxmikanth
History – Spectrum and Bipan Chandra (modern), Old NCERT by Satish Chandra (medieval) Tamil Nadu History textbook (Class 11 and 12, ancient), Vision IAS notes on art and culture
Economy – Ramesh Singh, Sriram IAS economy notes, Budget, Economic Survey
Geography – NCERT Class 11 and 12 (four books), GC Leong
Environment – Shankar IAS book
Ethics – Lexicon, DK Balaji
Current Affairs – The Hindu, Vision IAS PT 365 and Mains 365
Daily answer writing practice and MCQs – Insights on India, ForumIAS
How does the process of note-making or engaging in mock tests contribute to the effectiveness of exam preparation?
We go through various news articles and study materials daily and it is often not possible to go through them twice. So note-making helps in keeping record of these important data, concepts, ideas we come across. Also, it is not necessary to make notes of everything, for example, Laxmikanth which is better studied from the book cover to cover. Last moment revision notes are very helpful for the last few days before the exam. As for mock tests, it helps in time management, improving speed, covering of syllabus in a comprehensive manner as most mock tests are devised strategically, and analysis of one’s weak and strong points.
Could you recommend some strategies for honing writing skill to excel in the mains exam?
To write any answer, you need content. For good content, you need good notes and to make good notes, conceptual clarity and understanding is key. Let me mention here that I struggled the most with answer writing in the beginning. I was used to memorizing notes all through high school and college days, so I never really knew how to write based on my own understanding and in my own words. PYQs and toppers’ answer copies came in very handy. Along with this,I practised answer writing daily and got it evaluated by peers.
Can you suggest an efficient division of the 24-hour day during exam preparation?
My suggestion will probably only apply to non-working aspirants. I would recommend dividing the day into 3 blocks- morning, afternoon/evening, night and allocating time for each block based on one’s productivity. Say, if one is more productive in the morning, 4 or 5 hours can be devoted to it and 2-3 hours in the evening and 1-2 hours in the night accordingly. The difficult/challenging subjects can be taken up in one’s most productive hours. Example, I used to devote my more productive morning slots to newspaper reading and optional subjects.
Based on your interview round, what tips would you offer to aspiring students?
Confidence is the key. And the more prepared you are, the more confident you will be.
In retrospect, what advice would you give to aspirants in line with your ongoing training for the Indian Defence Accounts Service?
Civil Services as a career provides wonderful opportunities to work in different capacities in the government sector. I understand that for most of us, we go into CSE preparation with the idea of becoming IAS or IPS and we are unaware of the other Group A services. It was the same for me. It is only as I currently undergo my IDAS training, that I have become aware of the various roles (accounting, auditing,financial advice, payment services) and opportunities for deputation (UN Peacekeeping Force and Central Ministries) this service offers. Apart from UPSC, I would encourage aspirants to explore other central government exams like SSC as well. There are many opportunities available if one is looking for a life beyond the comforts of the four walls of home.
Can you share us your personal tips based on your experiences of persisting through six attempts to succeed in the exam?
Self-belief. In this, my personal faith in Jesus and the endless support from family and friends were priceless.
What advice would you give to aspiring candidates in terms of maintaining emotional well-being during exam preparation?
This is a lonely journey. However, reach out for help when you need it. It could be other aspirants on a similar journey, close friends or family. And yes, having a hobby was therapeutic for me. I read books, journaled, went for long walks, listened to music, watched ‘my happy movies’, prayed and meditated daily.
Three significant people in your life
My mom, dad and sister.
One benefit of journaling
A safe haven for retrospection and reflection.
What did you buy recently that you now regret?
Actually none. I have been travelling a lot in the past year so I have tried to follow a minimalist lifestyle and be a conscious consumer.