1. Candidate Profile
  2. Education
  3. Introduction
  4. Electronic Vs Paper material
  5. Tempo and style
  6. Working professional
  7. Prelims (CSAT) General studies
  8. Prelims (CSAT) Aptitude
  9. Prelim accuracy
  10. Mains: Compulsory language paper
  11. Mains: Essay
  12. Mains General studies paper 1 to 4
  13. Mains answer-writing?
  14. Mains Optional Subject
  15. Before the interview
  16. During the interview
  17. CSE-2015 Marksheet
  18. Career Backup
  19. Views on UPSC reforms
  20. Insecurity about profile
  21. Wisdom
  22. Credit: Friends/family
  23. BOGUS Marketing Propaganda

Candidate Profile

Q. Details
Name Abhimanyu Gahlaut
Rank in CSE-2015 38
Roll No. 0226141
Age 27
Total attempts in CSE (including this one) 1
Optional Subject Economics
Schooling Medium English
College medium English
Medium chosen for Mains answers English
Medium chosen for Interview English
Home town/city Bahadurgarh, Haryana
Work-experience if any 1.5 years as an Economist for Government of Rwanda’s Ministry of Finance (on Overseas Development Institute’s Fellowship Scheme), 3 years as a Country Economist for International Growth Centre (London School of Economics)
Details of other competitive exams, including success/failures NA
Details of coaching, mock tests, postal material for any competitive exam (if used) No coaching; Vision IAS offline test series for General Studies
Service preferences (Top-5) IFS
state cadre preference (Top-5) NA


% in class 10 94.8
% in class 12 95.6
Graduation course and % BA (H) Economics, 75.4%
Name of college, city, passing out year Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC), Delhi University
Post-graduation M.Phil. in Economics, University of Cambridge
Any other professional courses NA
Hobbies & Extracurricular achievements Hiking, Long-distance running, Street Theatre, Following education and energy sectors in India


Q. Tell us something about yourself, your family, when and why did you enter in this field of competitive exams?
Abhimanyu Gahlaut
I have roots in Farmana village, and I grew up in Bahadurgarh, both of which are in Haryana. My father retired as a Sub-Divisional Engineer with the Haryana Government. My mother is a headmistress at an elementary school.
While growing up in a small town, I always harbored the ambition of living and working internationally. I achieved this to some extent during my master’s degree in the UK, and subsequently working in Rwanda for nearly two years. When I turned 25, I seriously started thinking about crafting a long-term career.  I liked working as an economist, but I also wanted to do something that directly feeds into the Indian national discourse.  After a lot of deliberation, IFS seemed like one of the few careers that could keep me motivated for the next 30+ years. I gathered all the relevant material for the UPSC exam in December 2014 (your website was a great help here- I read the interviews of past rankers, and created a reading list for myself), and started studying for 6-8 hours everyday from January 2015.

Electronic Vs Paper material

Q. In recent times, there is spur in electronic material- blogs, sites, pdfs, RSS-feeds. Many aspirants feel bogged down by this information overload. So, how much do you rely on electronic material and how much on the paper material (Books, newspapers)? If possible, narrate a typical day in your study life. What is your style of preparation (e.g. I continue making notes no matter what I’m reading, I just read multiple times but don’t maintain notes, I make mindmaps on computer …or xyz style)
I knew from the beginning that I had very little time to prepare a huge number of topics, and I didn’t want to quit my job. This lack of time helped me be disciplined- I knew that I couldn’t read multiple sources for the same topic, so I invested time in carefully picking what to study. For a few topics, like history and polity, books are indispensible. For a large chunk of the syllabus, however, candidates need to judiciously use the internet.
There was no typical day as such- I did, however, plan out what I wanted to cover in the coming week, and that helped me plan my days well.
Regarding ‘style’ of preparation: I focused on making electronic notes, for current affairs as well as for ‘static’ portion of the syllabus. I treated notes not as an aggregation of information, but as an aid to revise. Hence, I was quite selective about what I included in my notes.

Tempo and style

Q. People know what books and syllabus points are to be prepared. But most of them lack consistency in their preparation. So, how do you keep study momentum going on? How do you fight against the mood swings and distractions?
I think distractions are unavoidable. Everyone preparing for this exam has a life outside of preparation, and that life doesn’t stop because of an impending exam. There is no doubt that CSE is a very tough exam, and requires consistent effort. However, I tried not to make a big fuss if I was having a bad day and couldn’t focus. I just ensured that I took a break, and got back to studying the next day.

Working professional

If you’re a working professional, share some tips on how to manage studies with job
I had several things in my favour- my bosses were really supportive, and they let me minimise on fieldwork and focus on tasks that could be done from within the office. They also let me stay back at work after working hours, so I could use my cabin to study late into the night if I wanted to. I moved to an apartment within walking distance from the office to economise on travel time. Also, my significant training in economics meant that I could afford to focus solely on GS before prelims. I think these factors were unique, and might not apply to other working candidates.

Prelims (CSAT) General studies

Please see the booklist for GS 1-3 below. All of the prelims syllabus topics can be mapped to topics from these three papers.

Q. Any observation / comments / tips about GS prelim 2015 paper?
People said the paper was easier compared to previous years. I also felt that there were a lot of questions from current affairs.

Q. Now that Aptitude paper has become qualifying, obvious more attention needs to be paid on the GS paper so apart from the books that you already have gone through, what else would you have tried for CSE-2016 (if you were going to appear)?
I think the preliminary stage is now, in large part, dependent on luck. That’s not only because CSAT has now become qualifying- it’s because people are filtered only on the basis of 100 questions. I would have no qualms with being tested solely on GS if UPSC introduced a mains-style format, where they have separate papers for GS 1, 2, and 3, each with 100 objective-type questions. In the current format, chance plays a role because relative weight of different sub-topics is completely unpredictable, and 100 questions just aren’t enough to negate that randomness.

Prelims (CSAT) Aptitude

Topic strategy / booklist
Maths No preparation
reasoning No preparation
comprehension No preparation
Decision Making No preparation

Prelim accuracy

Q1. Did you attend any ‘mock tests’? do you think they’re necessary for success?
As I said before, I started preparing only in January 2015. Given the lack of time, I wasn’t confident of my GS preparation till maybe a week before the prelims exam. Hence, I didn’t write any mock papers for the prelims GS portion.
For CSAT, I enrolled in Career Launcher’s test series, and appeared in a couple of exams. After CSAT became qualifying, I stopped appearing in these tests.
Q2. Approximate no. of attempted answers vs. correct answers. in CSAT-2015

attempted Q. correct (Expected) Official score
GS 87 65 ~114
aptitude Don’t remember Don’t remember ~145

Mains: Compulsory language paper

Compulsory language paper Your preparation strategy / booklist?
English paper No preparation
your regional language No preparation

Q. other observations / tips / comments on the length / difficulty level of compulsory language papers in CSE-2015
Both language papers seemed much shorter than the GS or optional papers, and I was able to complete these well before the official time limit.

Mains: Essay

Q1. How did you prepare for the essay paper?
I practised 10+ time-bound essays, all after the prelims exam. I wrote about 6 essays for the Vision IAS test series, and I requested friends to review the rest. I wanted to maximise my score on the essay paper, and throughout, I was confident that I had somewhat of a comparative advantage here. Still, I didn’t neglect practising essays.

As luck would have it, essay was the first paper, and I was stressed out and under-slept during the paper. As a result, I did a bad job of handling my nerves and messed up one of the essays. I was quite dejected after the exam, and I was sure I won’t make it to the list. After speaking to friends, I calmed down, and geared up for the next day. In hindsight, my assessment of my performance was correct – I got only 108, which is a below average score – but I’m glad I didn’t take the rest of the exams as if I’d already lost the battle.

Q2. Which two essays did you write and What key points did you include in it?
I wrote essays on ‘Lending a hand is better than giving a dole’ and ‘Dreams that should not let India sleep’

Mains General studies paper 1 to 4

I have written a detailed blog with topic-wise strategy, booklist, and notes: <atarget=”_blank” title=”” href=”https://reluctanteconomistblog.wordpress.com/”>https://reluctanteconomistblog.wordpress.com/
<atarget=”_blank” title=”” href=”https://reluctanteconomistblog.wordpress.com/gs-4/”>https://reluctanteconomistblog.wordpress.com/gs-4/
Q. Many candidates found Mains-2015 Ethics paper very peculiar and “out of the book”. What are your observations and tips for future aspirants regarding preparation of this paper?
Please don’t use jargon. Some people like to use words like ontological/ de-ontological, but I think one should write simple answers. Remember, the person checking your paper will not be an ‘ethics’ specialist (whatever that means), so is extremely unlikely to know what these theoretical terms mean
Every year, UPSC asks questions based on some key qualities for public service. They usually ask you to give examples of things like ‘fortitude’ and ‘magnanimity’. If your vocabulary is weak, you should try and read the question in Hindi as well. More often than not, it should be clear to Hindi speakers what the word means once they read the translation

Mains answer-writing?

Please tell us how many marks worth attempt did you give? along with comments if any, in the following cells:

Paper Best attempted Average quality namesake answer Total attempt
GS1 225 25 0 250
GS2 200 25 0 225
GS3 225 25 0 250
GS4 250 0 0 250
Opt-P1 225 0 0 225
Opt-P2 250 0 0 250

Q. What was your approach in the exam (I wrote all, I only focused on the questions where I could answer perfectly, I just not to high quality points to reach the word limit etc.) Because the UPSC aspirant Community is divided over what counts as a ‘good’ paper. Some experts claim you should attempt all- even if it involves “making up” an answer with filler lines, some claim attempt only those questions you know perfectly. Where do you stand on this? [Based on your experience and of your seniors/buddies]
I wouldn’t recommend wasting time on something that you have no clue about. Luckily, I think UPSC now asks questions that are somewhat general, and even if candidates don’t know the exact answers, they can usually write something.
During the exam, I carried a stop-watch with me, and strictly allocated 8.5 minutes per question in GS, and 7 minutes per 10 marks in optional papers. This helped me not go overboard while answering questions that I knew best- it is important to try and attempt nearly the entire paper.

Q. How was your experience with the ‘fixed space’ answer sheet?
There was enough space. As mentioned, I focused on writing whatever I could within 7-8 minutes, and I didn’t worry about how many sheets were being filled/ remaining empty.

Q. Did you write answers in bullet points or in paragraphs? Some players (who cleared mains and got interview call letter) were claiming that they wrote entire paper in bullet points, so it doesn’t matter….whether examiner is asking ‘examine, comment, discuss or xyz’….simply write in bullets and points.
Mix of both, but with I was slightly prone to using bullet points more often than paragraphs.
Q. Did you follow the “introduction-body-conclusion” format? because some mains-qualified candidates claim they simply wrote the points they could recall within the time, instead of bothering with proper introduction and conclusion.
For most questions, yes, I gave a very short intro and conclusion.
Q5. Did you use highlighters / sketchpens in your answers?
Q6. Did you draw any diagram in any paper? (e.g. in GS1 Geography)
I drew one flow chart across all 4 GS papers. That’s it.
Q7. If yes, Did you draw diagrams with pencil or pen?
Q8. Did you use ruler to draw the lines in diagram? Or did you just make it by hand?
By hand.
Q9. You wrote the answer in blue pen or black pen?

Mains Optional Subject

Q. What’s your optional subject and why did you chose it and not something else?
Economics. Given my education and work experience, this was a natural choice for me.
Q. If a new player wants to pick this subject, would you advice for it or against it? (e.g. every senior player in Public Administration seems to be advising against pub.ad)
I think economics is a relatively tough optional, and paper 1 can get quite technical. For people with no background in economics, I would advice that people devote at least 4-5 months (if not more) to get a hang of the subject.
Q. First the essential book/resource list. (Also mention which one is the “Base book” for covering the theory? + Whatever comments you’ve for a particular book e.g. “my seniors said read xyz book but I found that ABC book was better”.  “xyz topic not given properly in this book, so prepare from xyz website or book…” OR and so on.)
Please see <atarget=”_blank” title=”” href=”https://reluctanteconomistblog.wordpress.com/econ-optional/”>reluctanteconomistblog.wordpress.com/econ-optional/

Q. How much of internet-research / current affairs is necessary for this optional? OR can one simply rely on the books and be done with this subject?
Paper 1 can be studied almost entirely from books. Paper 2 requires using the internet.
Q. How many months did it take to finish the core optional syllabus?
3 months
Q. How many days/ weeks before the exam, you started answer writing practice?
I didn’t have time to practise time-bound answer writing for econ, but I attempted all questions for both papers that have been asked by UPSC in the last 15-odd years. I did this as a rough exercise, rather than proper answer writing.
Q. Do you maintain self-notes for revision of optional? In which format- electronic or paper?
Electronic. All of them are available on the blog.
Q. Your observation about the difficultly level of 2015 mains vs previous papers. And what precautions / rectifications are necessary in the future strategy for given optional subject?
Both papers were in line with expectations, given past trends in the difficulty of economics papers.

Before the interview

Q1. How did you prepare for the interview? – for college grad, hobbies, place of origin, current affairs at national and international level?
I framed questions for all the things mentioned on my DAF, and tried answering them honestly and succinctly.
Q2. Did you attend any mock interviews by coaching classes? How were they similar / different than official interview? Do you believe it is necessary to attend such mock interviews?
Yes, Samkalp and Vajiram. Both were useful, but the only mock I had at Vajiram was chaired by an ex-IFS officer. My first preference is IFS, so this mock turned out to be the most beneficial, because the chairman grilled me on a lot of IR topics in great detail. I did well, and he told me as much. I was content with my preparation after this.

As things turned out, there were no IR-related questions at all in my actual interview.
Q3. Where did you stay for the interview? (Hotel / friend’s home …) and what books/material did you bring for the ‘revision before interview’?
My parents’ house.
Q4. Any words of wisdom about Medical checkup?
Don’t plan to do anything else on that day. They only let me leave around 6.30 PM.
Q5. Describe the formal-dress worn by you in interview.
Black suit, white shirt, deep blue tie

During the interview

Q1. Who was the chairman of you interview board?
Dr. David Syiemlieh
Q2. How long was the interview?
~30 minutes
Q3. Why do you want to join civil service? Why don’t you continue in your graduation field? Social service can be done from private sector too.  [Since I don’t know whether they ask you this question or not. But if they had asked- what will be your reply?]
I was asked this question, and my response was what I have outlined above. Growing up in a small town, I had always wanted to live and work internationally. Having achieved this to some extent already, I realized that to motivate myself to stick to a job for over 30 years, I needed a flag to rally behind. Hence the decision to become a diplomat.
Q4. Please narrate your entire interview- what questions did they ask and what did you reply and other pleasant or uncomfortable experiences during the interview. (Earlier some toppers only tell me their question but not their answer. I would appreciate if you give both Question + your original answers)
I will soon write a blog post about the interview.
Q5. Was your interview on the expected lines of what you had prepared or did they ask you totally unexpected questions?  Was it a stress interview, did they ask any uncomfortable questions? If yes, how did you handle it?
My interviewing philosophy was to simply be honest and have a good conversation. This was facilitated by the board members as well, all of whom were very polite and engaging.
Q6. Any side details about technicalities like “make sure you bring xyz document or do xyz thing, or you’ll face problem”?
UPSC issues a list of documents to get when the interview dates are announced.
Q7. Any word of wisdom / observations about medical checkup?
Don’t plan to do anything else on that day. They only let me leave around 6.30 PM.

CSE-2015 Marksheet

Q1. Please attach both prelim and final marksheet
CSE 2015 mark sheet-
Prelims mark sheet-

Subject Marks obtained
Paper 1 ~114
Paper 2 ~145

Mains mark sheet- (link here: https://reluctanteconomistblog.wordpress.com/marksheet/)

Subject Marks obtained
Essay – Paper-1 108
General Studies – Paper 2 96
General Studies – Paper 3 87
General Studies – Paper 4 102
General Studies – Paper 5 94
Optional Paper – Paper-1 143
Optional Paper – Paper-2 119
Written total 749
Personality Test 206
Final Total 955

Q2. After looking at the marksheet, suppose you had to prepare again next time, what changes will you make in your studies?
I would correct my sleep schedule way before the exams! I got a low score on the essay largely because that was the first paper, and I hadn’t been able to sleep properly before the exam.

Career Backup

Q1. If you were not selected, what was your career backup plan?
I would’ve applied for a Ph.D. in Economics after one more attempt.
Q2. When were you going to “execute” that backup plan? (e.g. after __ failed attempts/ after I cross __ age/after dad retires/ after girlfriend dumps me etc.)
I would’ve written the exam only one more time.

Views on UPSC reforms

What are your views on following issues?
Q. Your views on the decision to make CSAT paper 33% qualifying?
As I said above, I think it is okay that UPSC made CSAT qualifying, but I don’t think it’s okay to select people based on only 100 GS questions. At the very least, increase the number of questions within GS so that the element of luck reduces somewhat.
Q. UPSC should disclose official prelim answer key and cutoffs, immediately after prelim is over, instead of postponing it till interview phase is over.
Absolutely. I see no reason for the secrecy.

Insecurity about profile

Q. Many candidates prepare sincerely but constantly live under fear about ‘profile insecurity’. I’m not from a big college, I’m not from English medium, and I don’t have work-experience. What if they ask some stressful questions in the interview about this? Did you suffer from such insecurities? What is your message to these candidates?
I think CSE is one of the most egalitarian exams in the country. Whatever its flaws, I think it does fairly well in judging people from different backgrounds with an even yardstick. Hence, I don’t think anyone should feel insecure about their background.


Q. Through this struggle and success, what have your learned? What is the wisdom of life and competition? What is your message to the new aspirants?
Even after the mains exams and interview were over, I had no idea what rank I would get. The only wisdom here is that candidates appearing for CSE need to be somewhat okay with the element of uncertainty.
Q. Many hardworking candidates have failed in Mains/Interview of CSE-2015. They’re feeling cynical, hopeless and depressed- what is your message to them?
Please don’t lose hope- this world is a huge, huge place, and I’m sure you’ll make your place in it. Getting into civil services is no guarantee of success, and not clearing CSE is hardly an indicator of your intellect and capabilities.

Credit: Friends/family

Q. Behind every topper are many people who stood by during those uncertain times when he/she was merely an ‘aspirant’. Would you like to tell the world, who were those people in your case? Any specific incidence that you would like to share with the readers?
Every year since I about 6 years old, my father asked me to write the civil services exam at least once in my life. This is for him, and for the rest of my family.

BOGUS Marketing Propaganda

Q. You are well aware of the sacred rule of conducting toppers interview- the last question must be about self-marketing. So, Did you use Mrunal.org for your preparation and if yes, how did it help you?  And you can even reply “No”. I’ll still publish your answer without tempering.
Your website was immensely helpful in understanding what to study for what topic. The interviews of past toppers that you compile were my sole source to devise a reading list.