[Long Read] : The Inspiring Story of Minal Karanwal, 3rd, but first fully prepared attempt, after 2 Prelims Failure, #AIR35

Hello everyone, I am Minal Karanwal. I have gotten Rank 35 in CSE 2018. This was my 3rd attempt, having failed to qualify prelims in the first 2 attempts. This time, with a wholesome, crack proof strategy, I managed to breeze through the entire process, unscathed.

A brief Recap of my whereabouts:

I have been born and brought up in Dehradun Uttarakhand. I finished my schooling from St. Joseph’s Academy. I then went on to do my graduation in B.A[PROG] from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi and completed it in 2015. I did my coaching in Public Administration from Vajiram and Ravi in 2015 itself and due to some health related issues had to shift back home. After failing my 1st attempt in 2016, August, I shifted back to the famous: Old Rajinder Nagar. And have been staying here since then.

My journey to RANK 35, The highs and lows that added up to it, and My Strategy:

I had dreamt of becoming an IAS right after I passed out of school. Hence I went on to join St. Stephen’s with the conviction that I will study really hard and crack this exam as soon as I graduate. But life had something else in store for me.

I had written prelims twice in 2016 and 2017. And both were massive failures:

  • Score in Prelims in 2016: 103          Cut Off: 116
  • Score in Prelims in 2017: 100          Cut Off: 105

I have been good academically since my school days. I topped my school in class 12 with a percentage of 97% and then went on to be the department topper in St. Stephen’s with an aggregate of 79.5%. However, constant good performance inculcates a sense of complacency in you. For me this was the case, and more.

I had come to epitomise several urban distractions since my college days where everything apart from studies interested me: good food, good clothes, roaming around and the rest, anyone can guess. This had completely distracted me from studies. My focus in studies was not even lasting 5 minutes when I had graduated college. A host of health issues had added to the problem. However, my confidence that ‘I CAN DO IT’ metamorphosed into overconfidence that ‘Kar hi lenge, kya badi baat hai?

But isn’t it rightly said for a child when he learns to walk, that let him fall and learn to get up. Let him commit mistakes and then learn from it. God had the same plan for me. My arrogance and overconfidence had to be crushed before I could be where I am currently.

I had cried my heart out when I failed my 1st 2 prelims, thinking that I am a victim of some external conspiracy. I blamed it on an unlucky room, jealous evil eyes, unpredictable UPSC, and what not. But there was absolutely NO introspection on what I did wrong.

[You see the love for myself I had :p]

I had never wanted to do a post graduation or get a job, because I knew this is the only thing I want to do. But with 2 failures, people started to raise their eyebrows. All that you have achieved throughou,t gets reduced to rubble and people start questioning your abilities to do anything. But you are all that you have and I didn’t stop looking for answers to my questions.

It was in this absolutely low and cringe worthy life state that i had met Ayush Sir, along with Prajit Nair. I still remember that day. It was 24th August, 2017. Ayush Sir sat with me for nearly 2 hours to really understand where I was coming from and what were my issues. The first question he asked me was: ‘Did you just cry and come?’ I said no, but I actually had. He asked me several questions ranging from whether I had studied world history, do I read the newspaper or have I finished my optional? I boasted like there was no tomorrow. But he could clearly see through that I was a heavily misguided and still over confident person.

He had asked me to join a new program he was working on called CGP. I remember being super reluctant, that it won’t help me. He still texted me personally a day before the classes were to start: ‘I can see a lot of potential in you, please give another thought to joining the program’

I did give in because I thought classroom study will help engage me productively and that was the best decision I have taken in this journey to Rank 35.

Read also: Topper strategy

#1 The benefits I had personally gained while being part of a classroom program:

  • It gainfully engaged the very distressed me. It was better than lying alone in my room and sulking 16 hours out of 24. Failure does this to you.
  • It helped me finish the static portion of GS by December 2017 itself: CGP was meant to cater to students who had done a basic reading of the books but still can’t connect their knowledge dots. I made sure that I made notes of every portion and keep it ready for a post Prelims scenario.
  • With weekly tests, I could gauge how well I had studied static portions. I remember that after my first world history test, Ayush Sir had walked up to me. Severe disappointment was so evident on his face. But he just said that your knowledge is not showing on the paper. My overconfident self was taken aback. But i decided to work on every little feedback given to me on my tests. And slowly i saw my name on the top of the list.
  • I was introduced to the very brilliant: Dipin Damodaran. He is a genius when it come to approaching the CA for CSE. He teaches ‘issue’ wise, covering all the details about that particular issue in 2-3 pages. That would include a quote, pros and cons, solutions, best practices etc. This helped me read the newspaper from a fresh and productive aspect.
  • It tied me into a schedule where my urban distractions were not able to pull me into dirt.

After December 2017, I had started connecting the dots and analysing my problems on why I failed prelims and what to do next and here is what came to my mind:

#2 Why had I failed my first 2 attempts at prelims?

When we fail Prelims, our first guess is that (a) either it is too unpredictable and there was a pattern change OR (b) I am plane unlucky OR (c) I am not just smart enough to crack Civils, leave alone Prelims.

(a) 1st attempt: over confidence that I have read everything and I’ll easily clear even though I had revised my entire course not even once and had haphazardly covered some subjects like Geography and Art and Culture, because I wasn’t ‘fond’ of them.

(b) 2nd attempt: Overconfidence. Even though I had proper notes for every subject, my revision was again not up to date. I had mechanically solved many test papers without introspecting if I had enough conceptual clarity and I hadn’t revised my notes. Plus, I had shamefully not solved last year papers.

Because of my association with Forum and Ayush Sir, I went on to join the very first batch of SFG for prelims. All CGP Students were thrown into SFG. In CGP, we could demand things. In SFG, we were told we would be thrown out if we performed below a certain benchmark. [I still get goosebumps remembering how I used to rush in early winter mornings to give the tests in the under construction Pusa road centre] Apart from that I did several things differently:

#3 What different approach did I use for my 3rd attempt?

(a)    Making sure that I was conceptually thorough with every subject. Even for an intense subject like ‘Art and culture’, I had read Nitin Singhania, and had made many side notes in the book and separate topic wise notes for topics like types of dances, music etc. you can see them HERE

(b)   I had solved the last year question papers with a mind for reverse engineering, figuring out how the questions are asked by UPSC and what portions I should focus on. For ex: in geography the emphasis over the years has been questions on location of resources, location of cities etc. Hence, then my orientation while reading the text book was developed accordingly. In fact, I had even revised the last year papers, given that there is a chance of repetition.

(c)    Faster completion of course- I was once advised by Ayush Sir, that since ‘work expands to fill time’, we should not get stuck on one subject and finish the course as fast as possible. Hence, I finished the first reading of the prelims course by January itself, even though I was still giving some time to my optional.

(d)   1000 revisions: Metaphoric, but a lot of revision of my short notes and re reading of text books. This trained my sub conscious to even work under stress and anxiety.

(e)   SFG: A very smartly designed course for a very focussed completion of the course and makes filling of the OMR sheets a naturalised activity :p

(f)     Revision of some tests I hadn’t performed well in

(g)    CA  classes for prelims by Dipin Sir were extremely helpful in fetching conceptual clarity and his 3 tests were the closest to the quality of the 2018 prelims

(h) My focus was to always stay on the top in all the tests [And flatly saying it, I did :p] There were other people too, who were in Top Lists, like my friends Manoj, Pragya, Nikita ( 221 Rank this year ) , Abhinav ( fellow CGP and 222 rank ). All of us had failed Prelims before. And all of us had monopolised Top Ranks of SFG 😛 And all of us cleared Prelims. Ayush Sir, had once said – he will keep his promise of getting is through Prelims, I could see most of our friends from CGP had cleared.

Read also :upsc syllabus


When I wrote my prelims exam on June 3rd, 2018, it went so smooth that I am sure those of you reading this will find it fake.

I had trained myself so thoroughly to write any kind of test: easy or difficult, that June 3rd was not a task. In fact, when I came out of the centre, the first thing I told my mother was that, I will clear this exam. It might sound creepy, but my mother has been in the habit of reading my facial expressions on how well my paper went since school days. And she knows that I am so self critical, that I will never lie about it. That day, even she knew that I would clear the exam. And I did on July 14th, 2018.

  • Score in Prelims 2018: 110              Cut off: 98

This is the same girl who was super clue less about the reason for her failures exactly a year ago. But it was a very focussed and strategised hard work with excellent mentorship that had brought me here. Prayers were still there, but this time, they weren’t wishful thinking, but determinations.

My father always says, ‘A ship crossing the ocean is sometimes buffeted by strong waves. Only by overcoming the rough seas, can it reach a new shore.’ so for all of you, who can’t clear prelims, reflect, introspect and proceed forward with determination.

As stated earlier, I was so sure of clearing prelims, that I jumped into preparation for mains right away. [I did take a 4 day trip to Manali, because I was exhausted :p] I had notes for EVERYTHING ready: GS and OPTIONAL. This will be one very important advice, do not engross yourself into prelims preparation so much that you ask yourself after clearing prelims: Now what?

There were several threads on discuss.forum after prelims seeking advice on how to prepare for mains. It’s like digging your own grave and burying yourself into it. You will soon get stuck in the vicious cycle of hellish CSE attempts. If you like yourself even a bit, don’t do this.

I joined a test series for my optional and religiously stuck to it’s timetable. My work was only revising my notes and honig the way I write my answers. The first test I wrote, Ii scored a 149 and topped the test. The second person had scored around 120. This was my fierce preparation and determination. In fat, I wrote all my tests diligently and hardly slipped below top 5. This fructified in my optional score as 308.

I would like to elaborate in detail about my GS preparation. My score is 436, which is apparently a good score by this year’s standards. My score card is:

#5 How did I prepare for the essay paper?

I had joined Shabbir Sir’s essay test series that was brilliant. I also got them evaluated and took feedback at ForumIAS. At first they were reluctant to give me feedback on Vajiram copies, but eventually they did.

Sir has a very logical approach towards deconstructing the topic and writing relevant essays that will at least fetch the minimum marks. The content that he provides is also very detailed and relevant. [Notes are attached on his strategy HERE and some classroom discussions on 2 topics]

#6 How did I cover the static portions?

As stated earlier, with CGP, I had finished my static portion with ForumIAS till December 2017 [Needless to say that you should refer the syllabus intensively at this stage. I made sure I had covered every syllabus topic]

A.      HISTORY:

  • Focus was on making topic wise notes of everything. Some of my notes are attached HERE..
  • Subjects like World History, Post independence cannot be read after prelims. You are guaranteed to freak out.  Ayush Sir’s handwritten notes on world history were a godsend.
  • As far as Modern India is concerned, a thorough reading of Spectrum and solving of last year papers will suffice, because there are too many repetitions. Practice writing answers here as well.
  • For ‘Art and Culture’, I find Nitin Singhania a compulsory read here along with the NCERT and the last year papers. There is heavy mugging up of facts required and this can only be achieved by thorough practice and numerous revisions.


  • Reading the 11th and 12th class NCERTs is the most important. I preferred making short notes out of them so that revision is fact focussed. Most diagrams given in these books are also extremely handy.
  • For the topics of ‘Distribution of resources’ and ‘location of industries’, I referred a CGP book on it. In my opinion, it is brilliantly compiled, pontified , such that no separate notes are required.

C.      Society:

  • Reading of NCERTs of class 11th and 12th plus adding the knowledge of current to it. The question in GS1 this time on contrasting Western and Indian secularism was sourced directly from these books and exact references came handy for me.
  • I solved many VISION IAS papers on this topic which added to my content.

D.      Globalisation:

  • Had done separate preparation in my essay classes for it. That sufficed for me.


  • I had PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION as my optional and hence I did not have to devote separate time for this portion. Also I used my PUB Ad notes for its preparation.
  • For ‘polity portion’, focus should be solving last year papers and test series papers. Open endedly reading Laxmikant will not suffice here.
  • Many polity issues like Judiciary, whips etc were covered by Dipin Sir. like HERE.
  • For governance portion, it is important to read the ARC reports. Focus while reading them should be that of ‘differential study’: focus only on the specific problems highlighted and the corresponding solutions. I had made many notes from the ARC in a tabular ‘problem-solution’ approach. For example: in the 6th report of Local Governance the problem of 3Fs of Local bodies is pretty detailed and the solutions are also very specifically given. Ignoring them in the name of them being lengthy will be like putting a nail in your own coffin. You can get hold of either summaries or if you can read them fast and focussed, it would be better. ARCs that are a must:









G.     IR: Dipin Sir’s class notes sufficed for this portion. Some notes are attached HERE.


  • Sri Ram’s economy book should be thoroughly read to gain a conceptual clarity.
  • Current affairs have an exceedingly important role to play here. For me, Dipin Sir’s CA classes of economy were gold. I had also read the Mains365. If you are not taking any class, reading of any CA booklet becomes necessary here.

I.        Government budgeting:

  • ARC 14TH REPORT has beautifully explained budgeting kinds and procedures. Must be read.


  • Apart from Dipin Sir’s notes attached HERE, I bought the VisionIAS compilation of agricultural issues and their past year paper compilation from the market and made notes out of them topic wise: regarding procurement, MSP issues, Food processing etc. Also, Mains 365 Agriculture portion is a must read as it compiles a lot of static portion like issues with fishery industry, horticulture sector etc.
  • Land reforms was covered as part of Post Independence and the analysis of LARR, 2013.

K.      INFRASTRUCTURE, S&T: No separate preparation. Only Dipin Sir’s notes.

L.       INVESTMENT MODELS: sourced from my public administration notes

M.    Environment:

  • Focus was on reading Dipin Sir’s notes and Mains 365.
  • However I also revised ShankarIAS’s book from mains perspective because of which I was able to solve the Biological Diversity Act question in GS 3, with utmost exactness.


  • Read the TATA McGraw Hill book selectively to cover static portions like Naxalism, communalism.
  • However more reliance was on Dipin Sir’s class notes and Mains 365.


  • The ARC Crisis Management report is redundant here because it’s fairly old.
  • Read the NDMA plan and made disaster wise notes in the form of pre-during-post disaster response
  • Read portions of sendai framework and hence could solve question of Disaster risk reduction in GS paper 3.
  • Had also read portions of JANUARY 2017 YOJANA.

P.       ETHICS:

  • SECTION A: Read Lexicon and CGP  notes. Was still unsatisfied. Hence joined Atul Sir’s test series at OrientIAS. Just wrote 3 tests but his training in how to explore ethical dimensions and develop examples was brilliant. His video classes after tests helped immensely.
  • I had also collected many case studies while reading the newspapers to use as examples. Like: Case study for swachha bharat: pimpri chinchwad
  • Section B: CGP had made us practice some standard case studies and practice of many case studies is crucial to get a hang on what stand to take place in different case studies.
  • A paper has been attached HERE that closely resembles how I wrote in exam.

#7 How to cover Current Affairs for mains?

A.      Dipin Sir’s CA classes:

  • They have been of the single biggest help to me during my preparation. I was his one year student. His approach of emphasis on conceptual clarity- topic wise, was the key for me to clear mains.
  • His answer writing training is also brilliant. I learnt the skill of question interpretation, use of quotes and writing concrete ‘way forwards’ via his classes.
  • I summarised all his topic wise notes in one page of a diary [using mainly keywords] and had revised it multiple times before mains.

#8 Did I not read newspapers?

  • I genuinely like reading newspapers and I have read ‘The Hindu’ throughout the preparation. [not 1 month before prelims and 2 months before mains]
  • The focus was not so much on making extensive notes as Dipin Sir used to cover most of the topics, but to collect case studies and be aware of the important national and international happenings. If sir hadn’t covered an aspect, I would add it in the same ‘one page note’ that I had for the particular topic. No separate note making was done.
  • For interview, thorough reading of one newspaper is gain compulsory. I read 2 newspapers: The Hindu and Indian Express, the day of my interview.

#9 Revision is the key

I have stated it time and again that revision is the most important for this exam and has been at the centre of my preparation. For UPSC, I can give you one mantra with a lot of conviction: ‘Reading once, is no reading at all.’

You can smoke the most of your first reading by really understanding an issue conceptually. That increases your retainment and helps you remember the issue for a long term. But the first 2 stages of CSE also demand something mechanical from you. It’s not possible to understand and remember all facts for prelims and all data for mains. Infact, even though you’ll understand the gist of most of the issues, to remember all dimensions for answer writing is also not possible.

As far as revisions are concerned, make it point to do it regularly. You have to discipline yourself for this exam more than anything else. If you read a topic today, try doing a revision tomorrow, one week later, and one month later. Make it a habit to give atleast 1–2 hr daily for revising things you read yesterday.

As exam approaches, do repeated iterations of subjects. Ex:

  1. Day 1: polity+geography
  2. Day 2: ancient India+ economics
  3. Day 3: polity+environment

You need to read fast while revising. If the flipping of pages doesn’t reduce every time you revise, you are probably doing something wrong.

Also, while you revise, do not look at the book. Recite the concept like a school child and try recalling. Only if you falter, look at the book.

Hence, what becomes your weapon here is effective note making and multiple revisions.

#10 Make notes. Go old school. Lose the youth “tashan”

Revisions can’t be possible if you do not have notes. Most of the students hardly know how to make notes. They have summary like creations that are hard to read when time is less. Thus, your notes need to be very crisp and concise, keyword oriented and try to fit one syllabus topic in one page. For example, to detail a nagara type temple, write down points like:

  1. No gopurams
  2. Elaborate vimanas
  3. Dvarpalas
  4. Panchyatana style
  5. Examples

This makes things easy to remember and even if you are writing an answer on it tomorrow, these keywords will fetch you marks.

These are tips that have been taught to us since school days. But we forget them in the ‘tashan’ of our youthful times. Get back to basics. An organised hardwork is the only thing required. Neither am I a genius nor is ANY of the other toppers. I can say that with absolute guarantee.

But both revisions and note making require hardwork. And this weapon though widely available, is seldom used by students. Everyone is looking for some kind of a short cut to get through the exam. And instead of a short cut, you will get enmeshed in a spaghetti bowl, and come out only as a defeated warrior.

#11 How I found motivation to study daily and be on track even after 2 failures?

There were 2 scenarios for me: I was forced to stay motivated and I sought motivation.

  1. Forced to seek motivation to upkeep with daily studies:

The stakes in this attempt were really high. Let me share with you a brief about my family. This is my father.

He was retiring from a 30 year long service in SBI. I had to clear this exam to give him the best retirement gift. I wanted his colleagues and the rest of the world to realise the amount of hardwork he has done to bring his kids where they are currently.

I  stuck a picture of both my parents in front of my study table and a look at those 2 faces every morning prodded me to study harder with each coming day. Recently at his retirement felicitation, he was congratulated more for me, and that feeling of making him proud is unparalleled.

My mother has travelled to Delhi a gazillion times, for the smallest of my needs and to help me give the exams. The amount of investment our parents put in creating this human capital [a term understood by them even before Amartya Sen and Others elaborated on it :p], you should make it worth the return. If this doesn’t motivate you, nothing ever will.

2. Seeking motivation:

My father has always told me a story about what wonders can strong determinations do to your life. [Something I have elaborated on quora as well]

Once there was a king who loved his mother a lot. She meant the world to him. One day, in a jungle, a tiger mauled her to death.

The king was furious. He avowed to kill the tiger. Along with his army contingent he went to the jungle with a firm vow to kill it.

While searching for the tiger, he noticed a movement behind the bush. Assuming it to be the tiger, he pulled an arrow shot from his bow towards him, with a very strong determination that it should pierce his heart.

When the bushes were cleared, it was noticed that it was a piece of rock. The king was amazed and felt that he had extraordinary powers.

He invited kings from nearby areas to showcase them this talent of his where he could even pierce stones with arrows. However, he tried a lot and could not repeat his feat.

The reason was that ‘this time he knew it was a stone.’ Because of the slightest doubt that the arrow might not pierce, he couldn’t repeat the act. However when he was so single mindedly determined, he could achieve it in the jungle.

The moral of the story is: With very strong determinations and eagle eyed focus, one can achieve ANYTHING. This belief is important before you set out on this journey of UPSC. Otherwise the journey will be nothing but a long, painful austerity.

#12 Final words

In hindi, the summary can also be like: ‘Agar kissi cheez Ko Puri shiddat se chaho, toh Puri Kainaat usse tumse milane Mai lag jaati hai!’

HOPE IS A DECISION. After failing twice, I rebuild myself, with the HOPE that I will see my name in that coveted PDF, sans all my hardwork. And I tried with all my might to make it happen. Hence, be hopeful, and I wouldn’t prefer it writing like this, but “Work your ass out.” I remember when the forumias building sealing had happened, I used to attend forum classes when there was no flooring, and it was all dusty and dirty. I wrote my every single SFG test as if I was writing my UPSC Prelims. In short, I never had a slack from my end. You can check my weekly SFG ranking of any week in this link

I would like to end this article with these words that my mother had once told me: ‘May you live in such a way, that others will say, “S/he is a woman/man, who though ordinary, somehow stands out and has a beautiful story to tell”.

Keep working hard, believe in yourself, care for yourself and next year, probably, I would be reading a blog from many of you guys 🙂  All the best!

Read also :  Today current affairs 

Vote of Thanks

I have been in the “UPSC Preparation line” for quite sometime. I have also been a regular Forum Discuss Member with the name @Haze, though I have not posted much. My success has contributions from many people. My parents stood like a rock behind me when I said I want to prepare from home, then again when I said I have to go to Delhi. I owe this success to them.

Lastly, I would like to thank ForumIAS Academy and all members of the staff for providing the missing link in my preparation.

-Minal Karanwal, AIR 35, CSE 2018

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