My key advice for the essay paper is to be argumentative and imaginative. An academic essay is a formal piece of writing with a clear structure. This is the one paper for which you will find excellent advice all over the internet — mostly on university websites — so make sure to read them up instead of just relying on the typical UPSC resources.
The following approach worked best for me: start with a story that is relevant to the prompt. Then, state in a few words the “thesis” of your essay – what is the main argument you’re making? Next, support this central thesis with several claims, each one backed by strong evidence or reasoning, and occupying a separate paragraph. As you go along, address the counterclaims. But resist the urge of writing an essay like a mystery novel. This is best practiced when you have devoted some 10-20 minutes to plan and outline what you will write.
Ultimately, the key to putting together a strong response is to make an innovative and strong argument – don’t just provide relevant information around the central topic but take a refined stand and stick to it. For instance, if I wrote an essay on the topic, “Are we entering an era of globalisation”, I wouldn’t just regurgitate data on both sides of the debate. Instead, I would present an incisive and informed opinion defended by evidence and reasoning with an intention to persuade the reader. Remember, variety goes a long way in achieving this aim – avoid repetition and alter your sentence length and vocabulary to keep things interesting. It is also useful to vary the kind of evidence you cite. In some places, data and figures are most appropriate; in others, a vivid example can go a long way in hammering in your point.
When you choose a topic, first make sure that you fully understand what each word in the prompt means. I would prefer a simple one over a more convoluted statement so that you have more latitude to experiment. The next thing to ask is whether you will be able to construct a novel argument around that prompt. Some topics are more conducive to a descriptive type of response, and others to a debate. The latter provides more scope for showing off your critical thinking skills. That’s the real “smartness” essays test, which is why writing them well is a pre-requisite for academic success in the top universities. When you start, make sure you introduce the topic and what you understand by it. This way, even if you make an error in interpreting the prompt, the examiner will know from the get-go what you are responding to and might be a bit more generous.
I find the best essays often start and end with a story. My favourite argumentative pieces are those that feature in The Economist’s leaders’ section; they often start with examples to invite the reader’s interest. In the same vein, I spent time thinking about the kind of stories that would align with different topics instead of memorising quotations. For example, in a mock response to the topic, “Digital infrastructure is key for future ready governance”, I included a fictional example of a future health secretary who can get her department to respond quickly to a SARS-kind of virus in rural Odisha thanks to a mature National Digital Health Mission.
I wrote five practice tests before appearing for the exam; incidentally, none of them was the ‘philosophical type’ that I had to write in the actual paper. The same advice applies for these kinds of essays too, except that the evidence here would be real-world examples and logical reasoning instead of data. There’s also more scope to be creative and critical, which is good for fetching higher marks. I think coaching institutes tend to be overly concerned about analysing the “social, economic, political, legal etc.” angles in an essay, while the essay is an argumentative piece of writing that provides the means to showcase your creativity. It is certainly not a test of your memory, vocabulary, or handwriting so don’t worry if you are a laggard on either (or all) of these.
A word on formatting — start a new paragraph from the middle of the line, leaving a forefinger’s space in the beginning. Try to connect one sentence with the next using bridge words like however, despite, moreover, etc; do the same for paragraphs as it gives the entire piece a nice, logical flow. Underlining important keywords and phrases is also useful to direct an examiner’s attention. Keep cuttings to a minimum and ensure that all paragraphs are of similar length, but these tips are much harder to follow in practice. And it’s okay to use the first person (“In this essay, I argue…”). Bureaucrats are taught to be self-effacing and not present their own front but when writing an academic essay, I think it’s best to lead with the first person.
Finally, even the examiners know that writing a strong 1000–1200-word piece by hand in 1.5 hours that is sufficiently argumentative and delightfully imaginative is fiendishly difficult. They will definitely cut you some slack as long as your approach is right. Make the most of this window, and good luck!
(The author is AIR 17 in UPSC Civil Services 2020 and is a researcher at the World Bank)