> The hierarchy of needs for the UPSC Civil Services:
1. Need of luck, the more you have the better.
2. Need of hard work, and the more sincere and intelligent it is the better.
3. Need of memory, preferably better than average memory skills.
4. Need of intelligence, given the changing pattern of Mains, but still average intelligence is sufficient.
5. Need of writing abilities, this is valid for all optional subjects even though is a little to very different for every subject.
Note the order of these needs, their importance is in the order I've written them. Although it is better if all needs are fulfilled to the largest extent possible, but which of these and in what percentage does the trick is again different for every aspirant, but any one of the above if present in its extreme could suffice to get selected into the civil service one wants to be a part of.
About the interview:
Every interview is unique as every aspirant is unique. Going through interviews of other selected UPSC candidates can help you understand the essence of how an interview can be if you read a lot of such experiences but it cannot prepare you for what will be asked from YOU in a UPSC interview. Knowing yourself well, confidence, clarity of thought and maturity of opinion, and luck are important to score well in the interview. And you would notice for yourself when you read such experiences, it is not as difficult as people make it out to be. So prepare hard and well, starting as soon as you can after Mains. Nothing else is required in terms of the inputs. It is not a test of personality as much as a role play that anyone can score marks in if they play it well.
> About the approach one should have towards this exam:
UPSC Civil Services Examination isn't the JEE or the PMT or the CAT exam that gets you into colleges! This exam is one that gets you a career and tests you at all levels -emotional, physical and cognitive- and needs you to be mature and learn every day during the preparation as well, not just after joining the service. Self study and developing a comprehensive understanding is far more important than coaching, but if coaching helps you cover these two aspects too then there's no harm in taking it. But note that it is possible to clear this exam purely through self study too.
The Prelims preparation is not different from Mains, and even though CSAT is almost exclusively a part of the Prelims syllabus its fairly easy to prepare using standard sources and methods. I hope I need not elaborate about CSAT further, and so I'll not deal with Prelims preparation separately.
> Regarding General Studies:
Newspaper - Hindu, Indian Express, Business Standard, Economic Times etc (choose at least one of the first two and one other to supplement that for developing a perspective on issues and comprehensive news coverage). Should be read well from about a year or 10 months before one takes Prelims. Filter what you have to read through your knowledge of the Mains syllabus.
Basic books that cover the concepts and topics mentioned in the Mains syllabus. I need not mention their names, as friends in other blogs have already done that.
Answer writing practice, preferably in a simulated examination setting with UPSC like questions. This is essential to optimize the attempt, time management, and develop a writing ability on issues and other topics even if you do not know well about them.
A perspective on as many issues as one can have that are related to the service and the exam is helpful in preparing for General Studies and the Interview.
> Regarding Psychology as an optional subject:
Psychology is not the best option to choose if you don't genuinely have a feeling that you will like it, and especially if you don't have that bent of mind that psychology needs. It will not teach you to read people as much as you think it will, it will though need you to read more than what you would imagine. Its awfully lengthy too even if I leave the difficulty aside. At the risk of sounding biased I would say that it is the most difficult of all Humanities Optionals in terms of the level of abstractness required to have a conceptual understanding. Moreover the marks aren't coming as one expects. If I can quote an example, a friend got 53 marks less in Paper 2 alone than what he got last time even though he wrote it better this time. This was his 2nd attempt and interview. The nature is this exam is such that one cannot predict marks and even if that wasn't the case, I still strongly believe that one should not infer one's or anyone else's preparation from marks alone to evaluate the ability they have or their performance!
Mukul Pathak Sir is the best mentor one can have, and in my opinion not just for Psychology but also for a lot of other things in life. Apart from his classes and/or class-notes that you should do, his Psychology Mains Test series discussions are also helpful and rewarding but can also be very cognitively taxing and time consuming. Speaking for myself, I did not take any test series for Psychology when I was writing Mains and could only attend 2 discussions of Pathak Sir's test series, and that was sufficient I thought to get the essence of how I should approach writing it in Mains. Self study and discussing with fellow Psychology friends is more helpful and also sufficient for Psychology in my opinion, especially if you're taking any other test series. An integrated understanding is far more important than joining a test series in case of Psychology, unlike many other Social Science optional subjects.
How to write Mains in Psychology: Understand the basic concepts in an integrated and comprehensive fashion. Apply them in Paper 2 while being as original and comprehensiveness as possible. These two aspects are key for getting good marks in Paper 2. Reproduction of what you've read might not even fetch you average marks. For Paper 1 though reproducing the things you've read will get you good marks, but if that is accompanied by your understanding of issues it'll make them better.
What to read in Psychology: Reading from anywhere that helps you develop a good understanding is all you need to do. For me Pathak Sir's notes was sufficient, but some friends of mine find it easier to understand through books. The sources that you choose are at your discretion which could include Baron, Morgan & King, NCERT, R. Solso (for Cognitive Psychology), Ciccarelli, Hall & Lindsay (for Personality theories) etc but do not not-read Sir's notes for sure. They should be covered for Paper 1. For Paper 2 application of that integrated understanding fetches more marks than reproduction, like I said earlier. So do read from somewhere whatever you feel is a good source for Paper 2, I can't think of one single source except for a book compiled by Smarak Swain for this purpose, but try and be original in your answers in it rather than reproducing what you've read whatever be the source of your reading.
> Regarding Public Administration as an optional subject:
It is one of the most relevant things to study before one becomes a civil servant in my opinion. This year, ie 2011 Mains, the scoring has been pulled down due to scaling leaving only a few steep peaks that don't get affected by it.
If you have no background in the subject and are in Delhi, then MK Mohanty is a good teacher to understand it from. But like everything else in this preparation, relying on his notes or classes would be like believing the world is black even though its you who has closed his/her eyes. Newspapers, recent Commission reports summaries are essential for a decent preparation. I've been asked a lot of questions regarding IIPA journals, also called as IJPA journals. I must tell you that I do not have links to IIPA journals and also didn't read any. I did have some of them with me though but in the form of a hard copy, but did not read them like I already said. IIPA journals are not as important as many might make you to believe they are. They are supplementary reading material once you've read the basic material. Not before that. They are not like standard preparation notes just in case you didn't know that. As far as what sources to study from, Prince [Dhawan] has articulated the details well, if you would like further details ie.
> Whatever be your optional subjects do remember this:
There is not a big difference and sometimes no difference between what a selected candidate can tell you and what someone else who is preparing would assuming he's preparing well. Also someone's marks, rank, service should not be your criteria to judge if his/her opinion is helpful or correct, especially if they are the ones that the media disproportionately highlights. You have to develop a comprehensive understanding. Do what 'you' feel is necessary for that. Read what and from sources which you feel are sufficient for you to be able to develop that. Reading a lot from a lot of places won't help. Reading things deeply and analytically from a few but comprehensive (which is not necessarily lengthy) would. Reading from the same source again and again would. Reading from your own handwritten notes and gists would
The role of Luck:
I'll talk about this a little more than what is talked about by most people who get selected, so this might be the lengthiest of all subtopics I've discussed regarding the preparation.
Luck plays a part in different shapes and sizes in getting selected in this Exam. But for one to actually understand the effect luck can have on marks it usually needs to happen with oneself in a bad way. The effect can be as huge as getting us AIR 1 to throwing us out of the list. And it never gives a hint as to what role it'll play for you, it can be very different from what you imagine it would be.
Scores are a relative, subjective, scaled as per UPSC wants even within the subject at times, luck based result of one's preparation and arbitrariness of this exam. Don't judge any aspirant based on his performance in the exam (like his marks, service allocated, rank etc) even if he hasn't reached the Interview. You'll realize what this exam is if and when you take it. Once you've prepared enough, the rest is not in your hands..you could still not even be in the selected list of candidates for any service!
hope the bad side of it doesn't harm you personally and you don't have to see it to know it, and therefore I'm telling you that before just so you know. This isn't JEE or CAT where aptitude and preparation alone matters most of the time. You got my hint I hope.
To elaborate what he meant, In Mains somebody else has to check the copies, who checks them, his personality, his knowledge, his ideology, his mood, his concentration on what you've written, his priorities, his reasons for checking your copy, his interpretation of the question, his interpretation of what you've written, his hunger, his habits, his thirst, his energy that day affect your marks. What copies get checked before yours, your handwriting, your cuttings, your presentation, the perception of your presentation by a particular examiner, your writing ability especially in the English medium, and at what time of the day the copy gets checked affect your marks. On the day of the exam what questions come, whether in that split-second you interpret the question correctly, whether you are able to manage time properly, whether ideas come into your head that are required to give a good answer, your confidence, your calmness and presence of mind, a mental block etc affect your marks. Then these factors come into play in every one of the papers you've taken and on every question while its being checked. In the Interview, somebody else has to judge your personality, and everything gets reduced to a matter of perception. What questions are asked based on whatever strikes them in their head to ask you for whatever reason that day, what words you use, how your body reacts and moves, your clothes that day, your expressions, your features, their gestures, their personalities, the weather outside, which candidate in the serial order are you to go in, what personality and evaluation the candidate(s) who took the interview before you had especially the one just before you and then the others on that day in that board, what is the time of the day and so many other factors all affect your marks.
Not just these, there are other factors too. Rather the two most crucial factors are scaling and arbitrariness. Scaling is the biggest factor that leads to skewed marks of a lot of hard working candidates. And scaling also happens both within and between the subjects. Also which subject will be scaled to what extent and whether upwards or downwards cannot be said beforehand. On top of that the trends of which are the favoured subjects keeps changing every few years. In the model that's followed it appears that the peaks and extremes are the least effected, as you too would know if you've read about statistical data whatever be the model UPSC uses. UPSC is trying to improve upon that by making the syllabus the same for all candidates who appear in Mains. This change will happen soon. To give an example of luck, an aspirant got 348 in Sociology in 2010 Mains, and then in 2011 in spite of having prepared and done better he got only 231. Another one got 204 in Psychology Paper-1 in 2010 Mains but managed only 29 in Paper-2. And this isn't a one off instance, a lot of students who had Psychology got such marks in Paper-2 in 2010 Mains. How could everyone write so bad when they didn't write bad at all in the first paper, I wonder? In 2011 Mains Psychology, Sociology, Geography and Public Administration have been heavily scaled down, the average marks being less than 250 or so including of some very well prepared students, whereas the Sciences, Languages, Engineering, Medical Science and Mathematics have very high scores and the averages are above 320 or so and moderately hard working students have scored more than 370 easily with some even crossing 410. No one in a few languages has scored less than 300. This data and these marks cannot be verified, and may even be an incorrect over-generalization. To stay optimistic, lets think and hope that that is the case. Afterall, hard work doesn't go unrewarded! Well, most of the time anyways. And even if its partly true, at least scaling will no longer be an issue after the changes happen to Mains, which'll happen soon. That's yet another reason to prepare hard.
To give you an example of arbitrariness, which sometimes also masquerades as scaling, a senior in the service who got 245 in the interview in one attempt, got only 65 in the next attempt. He appeared again and the third time he got 232. Arbitrariness plays havoc sometimes. It could affect Prelims, Mains or the Interview. I won't like to talk about what happened with me as that'd appear as complaining. So, all I'll say is that I feel I am lucky to have the service that gives me the platform to do good work, serve and help people.
All one can do is read the books and write the answers and try to appear confident during the interview, and hope it all works out well!