As the COVID-19 pandemic situation in the world is still severe, the educational institutions in the country remain closed. The examinations continue to be postponed and the Union Public Service Commission will decide on the civil service preliminary examination date in June first week. Many candidates are happy about the extra time they get to prepare. But one should not be complacent and should try to utilise the time productively. One should think about Main examination too as the time between preliminary and Main is very less.
Among the papers in Main examination, the general essay paper is unique since the way one needs to prepare for this is quite different. The general essay paper consists of 250 marks and one needs to write two essays of around thousand words each within three hours. Earlier one had to write only one essay. Now one needs to select two questions from the given list. There is a Section A and Section B with four questions each and the candidate needs to select one question from each section. In recent years, it has been observed that one section contains more factual topics and the other has more abstract ones. By making a candidate write both types, the overall ability of expression and knowledge can be assessed better.
The topics covered in the general essay paper include development, governance, environment, international relations and social issues. There are topics related to philosophy too like "We may brave human laws but cannot resist natural laws”. The overall idea is to analyse the topic in detail and present the same in a lucid manner. Since the candidate needs to write around thousand words for an essay, it is important that one chooses topics in which he/she has maximum knowledge. Then the whole structure of the essay needs to be planned in detail with a proper introduction, main content and conclusion.
Many a time, candidates choose topics which looks a bit difficult. The idea is to write a topic which most people do not dare to choose and therefore make a favourable impression. But if one does not know much, choosing a unique question will not fetch good marks. While I was writing the Main examination in 2005, the essay questions were on justice, women, education, development and terrorism. Surprisingly half of the candidates chose terrorism thinking that not many would have attempted it! In the end, none of them got good marks because of their limited knowledge on the topic.
Essay is the only paper in the Main examination in which one can score a zero! This is possible when a total deviation from a given topic happens. A candidate who wrote about the psychological concept of attitude ended up getting a zero because the question was “Attitude makes habit, habit makes character and character makes a man” which needed to be analysed in a wider perspective. Actually, this paper is quite high-scoring compared to other papers. In order to score well in general essay, one should avoid cliches and one-sided arguments.
A topic needs to be covered from all possible directions. In topics where two sets of arguments are possible (for example: Can capitalism bring inclusive growth?), one has to examine both sides before coming up with a conclusion. An interesting introduction is a must so that the person who values the paper takes a bit more time to read the essay.
A generic introduction may make the evaluator lose interest and he/she may just run through the whole work and end up giving an average mark. It should be followed by the major points presented in an orderly manner. Examples and narratives should be added to emphasis each argument. A logical conclusion should be there in the end. One should try to avoid spelling and grammatical errors as much as possible. One need not have a flowery language to write a good essay. Clear and functional expressions will do.
An officer in the government of India needs to submit a lot of reports and the general essay paper is a similar task given to the candidate. One need not prepare specifically for this paper but the general understanding of socio-political development and reading habits can be of great help. So, in this lockdown period, my suggestion to all aspirants is to take time to read quality articles from good online sources. You can try writing essays too and get them corrected. It will be very useful for all stages of preparation.
(The author is a former IPS officer and a trainer for civil service aspirants)