MOTIVATION-The Problem of Benchmarking: How to avoid the most vital blunder in Civil Services Preliminary (CSP) Examination?

How many marks are you targeting for Prelims this 2nd June? 140 or 150?

Oh, is that on the higher side? Then, what was the cut off last year? Was it 100 or 110?

You need to score at least 115 then; isn’t it? But what about the cut off of 2017 Prelims? Was it higher or lower? And why not talk about the cut offs in 2016 or for that matter all the preceding years? Won’t it be better if the average of the cutoffs for the years 2013 to 2018 is calculated to set a benchmark for your performance this year? Sounds logical. But there is a problem.

Anyone having some knowledge of statistics would know the concept of standard deviation. If the standard deviation of a particular year is high, it can’t be relied upon as a reasonable benchmark. That’s a simple matter of fact that the community of Civil Services aspirants isn’t ready to accept. Time wasting speculations and unreasonable benchmarking have left aspirants disillusioned. Let us see how.


What does a typical aspirant do two weeks before the examination?

For most of the aspirants, the last two weeks before the examination are completely devoted to revision. However, since no one is at complete ease with his/ her preparation, they start doing unnecessary or rather counterproductive things. For example, they start analysing the cut off trends of the last few years.

They start browsing topper’s videos to see whether attempting 90+ questions is a must in Prelims. More funnily, they also search for tips and tricks to guess answers with the help of probability and human psychology (read UPSC’s psychology).

They get bewildered by the diversity of opinions. Some toppers and websites recommend attempting only those questions in which you are confident whereas many others suggest attempting at least 90. On the basis of the information that filters through different sources, a typical aspirant sets a target in his/ her mind, say to attempt at least 85 questions come what may. This target gets fossilised with the passage of time and under no circumstance, he/ she will deviate from it.


What does the same aspirant do during the examination?

In the examination hall, the preconceived targets haunt the aspirant. He/ she browses through the paper and immediately realises that answering more than 85 questions appears far fetched as the standard of the paper is tough. In the first round, he/ she attempts 50 questions and marks 20 to revisit them. In the first revisit, with the help of forced recall and intelligent guessing, he/she attempts 15 more. Then, the counting starts. Realising that he/ she has managed to answer only 65 i.e. 20 short of the target, he/ she then venture out in the tricky category of questions.

While all this is happening, he/ she remains completely oblivious of the fact that the question paper might have been tougher this year. Even though he/ she is struggling to answer more than 65 questions, the unreasonable benchmarking (thanks to some toppers’ suggestion) makes him/ her attempt more. What if 65 questions aren’t enough.

What if others have marked more than 90. What about those discussions on the forum wherein everyone unequivocally agreed that a minimum of 125 is a must this year? What about last year’s cut off? What if I lose it by one mark? What if only I am finding the paper difficult? So, by stretching the imaginations and applying the “tricks” of guessing the correct answers, he/ she manages to touch the benchmark of 85. Then greed starts kicking.

Why not attempt 5 more to enter into the elite category of aspirants who must have attempted more than 90? Well, to do so, one needs to have blind faith on one’s gut feeling or intuition. Finally, the golden figure of 90 is achieved. The aspirant feels happy and satisfied. He/ she has aced the examination. But has he/ she? Let’s see.


Reality Check 

What might have happened in this case is that the aspirant would have sabotaged his chances by marking too many wrong answers? To leave one’s career on the mercy of sheer luck is not a good move. One must understand that each year, the examination is different and so are the questions, their level and of course the cut-off. Let us make you understand this by taking a simple example.

If you have ever seen any cricket team batting first on a ground, you must have realised that they set the target by keeping in mind the pitch conditions on that day. Sometimes, even at a traditionally high scoring ground, teams have to adjust their targets because of change in pitch or weather conditions. It means there can’t be uniformity of externalities in Cricket. In fact, it is the curator who decides whether a game would be high scoring or it would benefit the bowlers. The same applies to Prelims.

The paper setters in UPSC are like curators. They decide the toughness of the paper. And while your benchmark reflects the reality of last year, the conditions have changed this year. Just like a team unable to lower their target gets bowled at a below-par score in a low scoring game, you can also fall below the cut off even if it is low this year. Just like a smart cricketer, you need to read the game, in this case, Prelims, so as to set your benchmark right. You don’t have to score the highest marks; you just need to clear the cut-off.

It simply means don’t mark more question just for the sake of it. You should guess mark only those questions in which you have confusion between two options. If you are taking your chances in questions involving 3 or 4 confusing options, you will repent your decision. It is simply because each wrong answer makes a dent into the scores earned by marking the correct ones. Don’t enter the examination hall with a preconceived cut off in your mind and simply focus to give your best. Don’t overstretch your imagination and commit blunders. Believe in your knowledge and be reasonable with your guessing abilities.


Endnote

Guessing isn’t bad. In fact, you do need to guess in many questions asked by UPSC. However, in most of the questions, the guessing is intelligent and based on judgements derived out of the information bank stored somewhere in the mind. Blind guessing, on the other hand, is fatal and stupid. Don’t overdo it.

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