The author has been teaching the methodology for preparation for competitive examinations for some time now. Based on his own experience as well as on interaction with the aspirants for the competitive exams, the author has discovered some primary techniques which he has collectively categorized as ‘methodology for preparation for a competitive examination’. The author does not claim the universality of the methodology; nonetheless, it may suit some depending upon their own preferences and proclivities, and it may not augur well for others who may be different in approach and orientation. The readers, however, are encouraged to take picks out of the menu of ideas offered, and to tailor their own methodologies. With this introductory note, the following points are submitted for consideration:

Objective of Preparation

The objective of preparation should be to gain knowledge. The standard barrier in the thinking of candidates is that they tend to focus too much on results without realizing that those are beyond their control; they control only the input and the output of knowledge. The way one prepares for an exam defines his level of input, whereas, the way one actually writes and presents his ideas manifests his level of output. If the input is high, the output will definitely be high; conversely, poor input will result in poor output that will surely lead to poor result. The point is important to emphasize because numerous candidates are mentally fixated with marks-scoring right from the word go; this approach disorients a candidate as his focus shifts from preparation to results unknowingly, losing sight of the input-output relationship in his effort. However, love for knowledge will invariably increase his level of retention of knowledge and information.

Selection of Subjects

Subject selection is an area that consumes a lot of energy. The dominating consideration for many a candidate is the ‘marks’ approach to which the author tends to take strong exception. This approach is deceptive in more than one way. In the first place, the background of a person who has scored very high marks in a subject may be markedly different from a would-be candidate and his competitors. For example, a candidate who has done MPhil in International Relations will surely fare better than a candidate who has opted for this subject for the sake of competitive exam only; as the former is likely to be well-versed in the jargon, the philosophy and the analysis as compared to the latter in the subject.

Secondly, the level of interest of the students may be different from each other in each category of subjects. A candidate with a background in social sciences tends to happily chew, in the words of Bacon, the books on the subjects related to social sciences, whereas, a candidate with natural sciences background may not be happy about indefiniteness of a social science subject. A safe rule is to follow the subjects in which one has some sort of interest coupled with the background of candidate. The approbation of others should not be the basis of the subject selection; the only consideration should be one’s own capabilities and one’s flavour for a particular subject.

Time Management

Veritas Liberabit Vos (truth will set you free) and lies deceive, truth relieves; the axioms are more than true especially in the case of time management for a competitive examination. The general propensity is to tell oneself lies about preparation. The candidates themselves are the best judges of their time. They exactly know how they spend their time. The essence of time management is: don’t tell lies to yourself. A candidate of a competitive examination is only constrained by the considerations of time and energy. The constraint of time has to be dealt methodically; some time is to be allocated to planning and in strategizing the preparation. Most of the candidates do not want to invest time in researching for quality material; they tend to do it to save time. The concern is well-placed, but the trade-off is not worth a dime. In fact, using substandard material for preparation tends to hollow the basis of a candidate. Quality material spurs thinking and provides better understanding. For example, an article by Henry Kissinger on a topic is more useful and influential than a book on the subject by an unknown author: Mr Kissinger speaks with originality and authority while the unknown author may be a copycat of some original work.

Tools of Preparation

The following tools of preparation shall be of interest to the candidates:

METHODOLOGY OF PREPARATION FOR A COMPETITIVE EXAMINATIONa. Use fountain pen and never use ballpoints. Fountain pens produce good handwriting and its writing can be erased. Besides, its smoothness ensures that your hand is not fatigued out;

b. Read newspapers in thematic manner. Try to interlink news items and to extract maximum factual information. The print media is usually factually rich, whereas the electronic media may be rich graphically but factually it tends to be hollow. Try to invest more time in print than in electronic media;

c. Read the original documents like the Constitution of Pakistan 1973, which has an all-pervasive value for the competitive exams. It’s a subject that is at the heart of the public administration, and without it, the fundamental issues confronting the country cannot be fully contextualized;

d. Use moderate words with measured articulations. The tendency of labelling things in black and white may be too simplistic;

e. Take stock of depth and breadth of a subject. The breadth of a subject is the range of different topics of a theme in it whereas the depth is the detail of each topic so identified. While one can cover the breadth of a theme, it is really difficult to cover depth of a theme;

f. Try to finish a subject at least three times before the actual exam. While the first finish (or layer of preparation) will provide you the confidence of having covered the breadth of a subject, its repeated revisions (or second and third layers of preparation) will provide you with the confidence of having touched (to some extent) the depth of a subject. The layering or multiple finishes will also increase the level of retention as in the first finish, one is likely to retain up to 30%; in the subsequent revisions, one may retain 50% to 60% of the information one has gathered;

g. Try to prepare short as well as long notes. The long notes help in covering the depth of a subject whereas the short notes come in handy while revising a subject near the exam day(s);

h. Use of dictionaries and encyclopedias will strengthen the fundamentals of a candidate. Many candidates shy or do not use dictionaries, which inhibits their capacity to gain knowledge and comprehension at an advanced stage;

i. One must learn to distinguish between labour and hard work: in the context of preparation in the competitive examination, the labour is work in the wrong direction, whereas hard work is the work in the right direction. The difference may be illustrated. It may be laborious to read number of articles and commentaries on the Constitution of Pakistan without reading its original text; reading its original text will be the hard work but it will be far more rewarding than just reading second-hand versions or interpretations of the original text;

j. For the sake of presentation and output in the examination, if possible, one should cite the source of information in the form of name of the author or his book. The citation provides credibility to one’s argument and may be a salient characteristic of a candidate’s write-up in comparison to his competitors;

k. Revising one’s written material in the examination is one of the most important techniques, but it is seldom practiced. If it is faithfully done, it will bring in qualitative improvement in one’s preparation and output on the exam day.

Concluding Remarks

Mark Twain said: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started”. Getting started is more important than getting secrets.

Note: The aforementioned methodology and tools are not exhaustive, and it is believed that the candidates will tailor the suggestions according to their own needs.

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