This is a perennial question I get asked the most. And it’s understandable too. Many aspirants who begin their Civils preparation are clueless about this exam’s demands and most cannot simply afford to go to Delhi and take coaching.
There are a lot of doubts and misconceptions regarding whether to take coaching for Civils Services. So let me break it down for you.
Note: Keeping beginners in mind, let me clarify that for the rest of the post, by coaching I mean the generic sense of the word: the act of going to an institute and attending their classes. Test series, coaching notes and mock interviews at coaching institutes are clearly distinct. So when I say coaching isn’t really necessary for GS, it implies that there isn’t any need to attend classes. I don’t mean to say that you should not take any test series, or read any coaching material.
Q. Is coaching necessary?
Think of an elite sportsman like Virat Kohli. Does he have a personal coach? Yes, he does. But would you say his career success is purely down to his coach? Of course not. Kohli trains and suffers day in day out, practices consistently to learn and improve his game. His self discipline, hard work and the burning determination to excel at the game is what makes him the elite player he is.
Same goes with success in the civil services exam. Coaching merely helps you, it does not ensure you a rank. Your self study, consistency and the hard work you put in sitting at your study table matters far more than what you do in coaching classes.
So if you are attending coaching classes, do take their notes, but you should not rely excessively on them and neglect standard books. In my first Mains, I did this mistake of depending on coaching notes disproportionately— I barely read any of the standard books. When I wrote my first Mains in 2012, my lack of conceptual clarity was evident. Unsurprisingly, I failed to get an interview call.
Always remember that roughly, not more than 25-30% of your preparation should depend on coaching classes. To say that without coaching you cannot crack UPSC is to tell a lie. There are people who put in even that 25% of work by themselves and have cracked this exam (that is, they might have read coaching notes, but did not attend any classes.) So it depends on your personal belief, self discipline and your basic level of knowledge to determine whether you need coaching.
Suppose you know what standard books to study, what coaching notes to refer to, and by reading them you are able to understand the subject, that’s brilliant and you don’t need coaching.
On the other hand, if you are absolutely clueless about the exam process or the books you need to study, coaching institutes will definitely help you get a broad idea. But as I said, you still have to read standard books, make required notes and put in the work to outshine your competition.
Q. How do you compare coaching in Delhi versus elsewhere?
As I had said, coaching does not constitute more than 25-30% of your preparation. And there’s nothing profound about coaching institutes in Delhi.
For those preparing in far flung areas, if you cannot afford to go to Delhi, that’s perfectly alright. You can get notes of all the major coaching institutes in most cities. So make a trip once to your nearby city, buy them from a bookstore and study on your own.
Also, I believe internet has truly democratised information and made it accessible even to rural areas. These days many institutes are providing coaching classes via video lectures. You can opt for them too.
Moreover, online websites (Mrunal, ForumIAS, CivilsDaily, Insights, IASBaba etc) have emerged as brilliant and affordable alternatives to traditional coaching institutes. So if you cannot go to Delhi to take coaching, you are not losing out on anything.
Q. How helpful are coaching notes? Can they substitute standard books?
Standard books are important because they are written from the ground up and they form the foundation of your knowledge. Once you read standard books, reading coaching notes not only becomes much easier, but you can also see where in that big picture does a small topic fit in.
The problem with reading just the coaching notes is that they fail to you give you such big picture perspective. What you will be left with are fragmented concepts and broken knowledge which doesn’t stick for long in your memory. For long term memory, we need a topic’s context which is why you should always start with standard books.
For example, when I started Anthropology, I first read Ember & Ember to get an overview of the subject. Afterward, when I referred to BrainTree coaching material, I could clearly see how a particular topic such as Primate Adaptation fit into the larger concept of Human Evolution. This is why standard books are indispensable.
While reading coaching notes, remember these:
- Coaching notes are helpful and easy to revise before the exam. But they can only supplement but never substitute standard books.
- Always map your notes onto the chapters and topics in syllabus. Most coaching institutes do not cover the syllabus entirely. Even if they do, they usually rush through some chapters. So when you see a topic not covered well in your notes, read on your own from other sources and make notes.
- Coaching notes and material come in handy to cover a specific topic. For example for a topic like Govt schemes, instead of you labouring to compile them from ministries’ websites, it’s better that you buy a compilation booklet of any institute. Smart work saves you a lot of time.
- You have to remember that UPSC is not at all like a graduation exam. In college, it’s fairly easy to read just the notes and score really well. But in UPSC, the questions are of higher standard and of deeper analytical depth. None of the questions usually come directly from your coaching notes. It’s your clarity of concepts— especially in optional— that will help you write good answers.
Q. How to choose which coaching institute to join?
When you are thinking of joining a coaching institute, do not go by their advertisements. Many institutes simply put names of toppers even if they might have just paid a visit to their institute for an open mock interview because it was free. There are gradations of the level of association of a topper with an institute, and you need to recognise it before deciding to join them.
It’s always advisable to take the opinion of people who had already taken coaching in that institute to make an informed decision. Their feedback should be given more weight, not pamphlets or advertisements.
Q. What about the competence of teachers at coaching institutes?
Many a time, aspirants (especially beginners) place too much trust and credibility in coaching teachers. Some teachers are indeed good but some are plain terrible. Especially in specialised subjects such as optional, reading standard books and referring to internet will tell you whether what you are being taught in coaching institutes is accurate or just rubbish.
You can also search for topper’s blogs on that particular subject who would have put an accurate account of his/her opinion about the institute.
Q. Should I take coaching for GS?
General Studies is not quantum physics. UPSC only expects candidates to have a generalist understanding of a wide range of topics. So if you have the material with you and can study on your own, you will be able to understand the subject and hence GS coaching isn’t really necessary. You only need to go the market, buy the relevant GS material or coaching notes and study on your own.
Q. Should I take coaching for optional subject?
Optional requires in-depth specific knowledge and coaching definitely helps you in covering the syllabus systematically. Also, many engineering graduates find themselves clueless about arts subjects like philosophy, sociology etc.. Coaching will definitely be beneficial to those people.
But as always, the caveat is that just like GS, you can prepare for optional yourself. I didn’t take any coaching for Anthropology and I scored 318.
Q. How helpful are Test Series at coaching institutes?
Many aspirants commit one fundamental mistake: they read and revise, over and over, but never practise. Remember that the examiner checking your copy will have no idea about the number of books you’ve read or the number of hours you’ve slogged. Your answers are all that he has to judge you. So it makes sense to learn it, practise it and perfect it.
Test series definitely helps in that sense because it trains your brain to get the hang of how the actual exam feels like. You write tests so that in the final exam you are not taken in by surprise.
So even if you practice daily answer writing, you should write full length tests within dedicated time limits. Writing such tests with all the seriousness of an actual exam will teach you to manage time and give an incredible insight into where you are going wrong. The feedback on your answers will also help you get an independent, critical perspective.
Moreover, you need to remember that Mains exam demands not only our memory and intelligence, but also endurance. If you lack prior practice, writing relentlessly for 6 hours a day and do this for 5 days will cause both mental and physical fatigue. The only way to overcome it is to practice enough before the final exam.
If you want to run a marathon, you cannot simply show up on the race day and expect to run 42 km— it needs prior training. Same goes with Mains. By joining a good test series, you will get such practice and it prepares you both mentally and physically for the final battle.
My association with coaching institutes
What follows is a chronological account of where all I have taken coaching from and for what subjects. I’ve also written my assessment of these institutes. Hope this helps you in making an informed decision.
General Studies (Old pattern and syllabus) at Vajiram Institute, New Delhi
Comment: While the quality of teachers were good, they drain an inordinate amount of your time in note dictation. You’ll understand how redundant this exercise is when you realise that the handwritten notes from the same institute are readily available in the market.
Public Administration Optional at Vajiram Institute, New Delhi
Comment: The quality of teaching and notes were good. But I’ve always scored poorly in Pub Ad. I secured All India Rank 1 in this attempt only when I dropped Public Administration and took up Anthropology.
Public Administration in UPSC is a subject that takes itself too seriously, when in reality, it’s a subject that lacks originality and is bereft of substance. (I can go on a long rant, but I’ll just abstain 🙂 )
Let’s just say that if you are starting just now, I will suggest that you don’t pick this optional in the first place.
Geography Optional at Direction IAS, New Delhi
Comment: Not useful. Not recommended.
2013 (New Pattern and Syllabus)
General Studies – Prepared on my own.
Comment: In 2013, the syllabus of GS got completely revamped. One of the major reasons I had failed in Mains 2012 was that I relied excessively on coaching material and neglected standard books. The questions asked in Mains were clearly different from what I’d read or been taught in the classroom. In Mains 2012, my lack of knowledge was clearly exposed.
So when UPSC brought in the new pattern of four GS papers, I saw it as an opportunity to start everything from scratch (Having a huge time gap between Prelims and Mains that year also helped).
I disbanded all my half baked coaching notes and went back to standard books to gain a comprehensive understanding of all subjects. Made notes wherever I felt necessary.
Also, this self learning experience in 2013 was what gave me confidence last year (2017) to take up Anthropology and prepare on my own.
Mock interview at Sri Chaitanya, Hyderabad
Mock interview at Chanakya, New Delhi
2016 (Skipped the attempt)
GS and Essay Mains Test Series (MGP+ Programme) at ForumIAS academy (Online mode)
Comment: By this time last year, I realised that lack of answer writing practice was dragging me back. So I had decided to join an institute for test series. But I was based in Hyderabad and no way I could go to Delhi for my test series, so I had to opt for online mode. Initially, I was skeptical whether this whole thing of sending them my scanned written papers would really work.
But my apprehensions were unfounded. The ForumIAS team was very professional. Papers were checked meticulously and emailed to me on time. The feedback on my test papers and the post-test discussion videos were immensely helpful in improving my answer content and presentation.
Anthropology Optional – Prepared completely on my own
- Mock interview at Hyderabad Study Circle (Very professional and they had an excellent panel of members. Some of the questions posed in the mock were asked in the final interview)
- Mock interview at Lakshmaiah Institute, Hyderabad
- Mock interview – Feynman IAS academy, Hyderabad
- Mock Interview – RC Reddy Institute, Hyderabad
- Interview Guidance Programme (online) by ForumIAS academy
- DAF analysis session (via Skype) by Officers IAS academy, Chennai
Any of these aforementioned institutes might have claimed me to be their student, but you should see how exactly I was associated with them, and what role they might have played in my success. Some other institutes not mentioned here might have also falsely claimed my rank. Ignore those adverts.
So please don’t join an institute just because you happen to see my picture or any other topper’s picture on their pamphlet. It always helps to take feedback from a few people who had done coaching there. Also verify through a handful of topper blogs to confirm the competence of teachers and their institutes.
Hope this post helped in clearing some of the dilemmas you may have had. More blog posts to follow.
Until next time,
Note: For the benefit of UPSC aspirants, I am working on a detailed guide book on how to write powerful Essays and compelling answers in the UPSC exam. Subscribe to this blog to hear first when the book launches.