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Writing a competitive examination: Some first steps

M P Joseph


Many jobs require the applicant to write a competitive examination. This is true of the UPSC’s Civil Services examination, of jobs in most Banks, in General Insurance Companies and for many other jobs. It therefore becomes important for a person aspiring for these and similar jobs to be able to write a competitive examination well and score good marks in it.

There are usually two types of written examinations. The more popular one is the Objective Type or Multiple Choice examination. Each question comes with 3 or 4 choices and candidate has to choose the one correct answer amongst them. These are also called OMR type examinations, as these answer sheets are corrected using the Optical Mark Reader technique. The other type is the more traditional subjective or essay type examinations where the candidate has to give written answers that could range from just a couple of sentences to full length essays.

The two types of examinations require different strategies and approaches for preparing and writing. And yet there are some common points to be borne in mind when preparing for both such examinations. I will touch upon here some of the common points to be kept in mind while preparing for both the types of written examinations.

Firstly remember that here is no point in beginning to study for an examination unless you are know what the subjects for that examination are and have thereafter understood the scope and syllabus for all those subjects. Therefore the first step in preparing for a written examination is to find out what the subjects for the examination are and the syllabus prescribed for those subjects. Concentrate your studies on the syllabus prescribed. There is no point in studying from beyond the syllabus except to understand the over-all context and background of the subject and the syllabus. There will of course be instances where questions may come from beyond the syllabus. But that is an occupational hazard that anyone writing an examination will have to face.

The next step is to collect the materials for study based on the syllabus for each subject. It is good to have the materials as completely as possible with you before you begin your studies. Make sure that the materials you collect are from reliable sources. There is of course the way out today of downloading materials from the internet. This is surely an easy method. But everything you see on the internet need not be factual, cent per cent correct or true. Since anyone can upload anything on to the internet, there is a lot of wrong and erroneous information floating about on the internet these days. What may come up even on sites like Wikipedia etc. could be wrong factually, since they are merely an accumulation of information put up by the general users. There are of course techniques that Wikipedia uses to validate the information on their site. But it is good to keep in mind, that there could be yet a lot of wrong, incorrect and mis-information out there.

Therefore ensure that the materials you download from the internet are validated by you. This could be through what is commonly known as the process of triangulation, which is the process of collecting the same fact or materials from at least 3 different sources. If the 3 should match, then the information is nearly always correct. If it is difficult to collect your materials from 3 different sources, try and get the materials from at least two sources. If they match, you could well presume that the information is correct.

The other way to validate the materials you have is to show them to those who are experts in the subject. These could include professors, your seniors who have studied those subjects etc.

The best materials for study are always materials from original sources. Guides etc. may be useful and to some extent even necessary to speed up the collection of materials. But for authentic information, it is best to go for original sources. Especially while preparing for the Civil Services examination it is important to collect and study from original sources instead of depending on secondary sources such as guides etc.

Try and collect the materials well in advance. Depending on the examination you are appearing for, and the length of time it would take for you to study the prescribed syllabus for a subject, this time could vary. It would be unrealistic therefore to prescribe a time period before which the materials should have been collected. However, I would suggest that for most competitive examinations, it would be good to have a clear 3 month period available for your study after you have completed collection of materials. The time period will increase substantially for candidates who are seriously appearing for the Civil Services examinations, especially if they would like to get into the upper end Services such as the IAS, IFS, IPS etc. In such cases, the collection of the materials for study should be more or less complete, 9 months to a year before the examinations begin.

A question that is often asked is what is the best time of the day (or night) to study? There is of course no one answer for this. People differ from one another and it is best that each person decides this for himself. There are some who can work late into the night and for whom the best time to study would be in the quiet of the night. But overwhelmingly, the traditional wisdom that the best time to study is in the early hours of the morning. The logic of this is obvious: after a night of refreshing sleep, one wakes up fresh. Sleep would have wiped clean the weariness, the tension and the worries of the previous day. The brain has rested and is ready to log in again. Overwhelming then, it would be best if you are able to wake up early and study. What you read and study then is likely to stay with you longer and clearer.