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How to prepare for UPSC Mains Examination

1To prepare for the UPSC Mains examination one must understand its plan and syllabus first. The Civil Services (Main) Examination is a written examination and consists of 9 papers of conventional essay type, two of them are Qualifying Papers and the rest Papers are counted for merit.

The written examination will consist of the following papers:-

Qualifying Papers:


(One of the Indian Language to be selected by the candidate from the Languages included in the

Eighth Schedule to the Constitution).                                                                                             300 Marks


English                                                                                                                                                  300 Marks

Papers to be counted for merit


Essay                                                                                                                                                      250 Marks


General Studies-I                                                                                                                                  250 Marks

(Indian Heritage and Culture, History and

Geography of the World and Society)


General Studies – II                                                                                                                              250 Marks

(Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social Justice and International relations)


General Studies – III                                                                                                                              250 Marks                 

(Technology, Economic Development, Bio- Diversity, Environment, Security and Disaster management)


General Studies – IV                                                                                                                               250 Marks

(Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude)


Optional Subjects – Paper – 1                                                                                                             250 Marks


Optional Subjects – Paper – 2                                                                                                               250 Marks

Sub Total (Written Test)                                                                                                                       1750  Marks 

The two language papers are easy and qualifying and its purpose is to make sure that the candidate has a grip on general languages like English, Hindi or any regional languages listed in the Eighth Schedule. The papers which are counted for merit are seven in total and descriptive. The general purpose of a descriptive paper is to understand a person’s thinking pattern, personal opinion on various social and general issues, attitudes, skills, emotional quotient, social quotient and his application of current affairs in various social-economic aspects.

Understanding the Dynamics of IAS Mains Exam

The crux of the Mains examination is not just about testing your knowledge on the subjects but your way of approaching the answer, articulation of the problem and providing an effective solution on a positive note within the prescribed word limit also counts.

In mains examination, the evaluator doesn’t judge a candidate based on his/her educational background and merits, it will be based on his/her art of writing to the point and skill of linking the answer with an interdisciplinary approach and concluding it with a positive solution will define your marks in mains examination. Various parameters are taken into consideration while evaluating an answer, conceptual clarity, content relevance, objectivity, language proficiency, use of examples and illustrations are some of them.

With the changing trends in UPSC mains in recent years, the way of asking the question and its pattern is also changing. Earlier in mains question papers majority of the questions were asked directly from some of the reputed books and if a candidate had good command over those books, his/her chances of clearing that exam were maximum. However, things have changed now i.e at present, if you analyze the mains question papers of the last 5 years you can easily come across the domination of the current affair portion especially in papers 2 and 3.  However, these questions can’t be answered solely on the current base, these questions require linking with the static portion to write an effective answer.

To prepare for the mains a candidate first needs to understand the nature of questions and an approach to prepare for important topics of the syllabus. All the question papers contain world and time limit, therefore, the focus should also be given to time management and learning the art of answer writing which is writing as much relevant content as possible, understanding the demand of the question before writing the answer is equally important as any content not related to the directive wouldn’t fetch any valuable marks. 

Always remember preparation for CSE MAINS should start with remembering all the topics of the syllabus so that whenever we come across a particular topic we can understand its importance for examination clearly, getting familiar with the topics is the most important part, one can achieve this by writing them down as many time as possible or by reading them at least once a day until we remember all the topics.

Four Important things to follow in one’s preparation:

  1. Practice answer writing as much as possible, one can start with questions from NCERTs.
  2. Revise the subjects as many times as possible.
  3. Make Notes in pointers, keep it precise.
  4. Follow Current affairs, make notes Paper wise(not date wise) and try to link your notes with the Static part of the syllabus. 

Paper wise Strategy for UPSC Mains Exam:

General Studies Paper I

  • The syllabus of the GS paper 1 consists- Indian Heritage and Culture, History and Geography of the World and Society. These have further been divided into 12 topics and 40 subtopics.
  • Once you acquainted with the syllabus you should immediately start with the basics, reading NCERTs and NIOS material for GS Paper has proven to be beneficial for many candidates especially for the Indian Heritage, Culture and History part, one can download these materials from the following link
  • The most appropriate way to approach Paper I of the GS mains Paper is to understand the topic more broadly. e.g. Why Gupta Age is considered a golden era and why Magadha was the most powerful Mahajanpada of that time.
  • In the Art and Culture portion, questions asked by UPSC nowadays are more analytical which requires both the factual content and good analysis to answer the why and how. You can answer such questions well only when you understand the historical background in which such art was produced. This is why you must read NCERT XI Ancient India for it gives you that historical context.
  • For the Indian Society portion of the syllabus, Class 12 NCERT book on Indian Society is more than enough, a candidate can also refer to Ram Ahuja’s Indian Society for an in-depth understanding of the topics.
  • For Geography part, reading and making notes out of NCERTs is a must thing to do along with Goh Cheng Leong’s Physical Geography, as discussed above the question in this section also come from an analytical and conceptual perspective, for instance, Impact of El-Nino on Indian Monsoon, conditions for a cyclone to develop, how climate change impacts agricultural activities so on. A candidate should not only read these topics but also should make notes in pointers covering all the angles related to a topic which can be asked in an examination, making notes in pointers would also help him to remember easily.
  • Following current affairs and making notes also forms an inevitable part of our preparation as one can always expect direct and indirect questions on the topics contained in the syllabus. 

General Studies Paper-II

  • The Syllabus includes Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social Justice and International relations.
  • Looking at the trend in the last five years of paper II of GS, you can easily understand that this paper is not about static portion anymore; a majority of questions is from current affairs and even that question that looks like of static one is linked to current events of recent times.
  • Let’s understand this with an example; suppose a question is being asked about the power tussle between Lt Governor and CM of Delhi. So here you need to highlight the problem at present but at the same time, you have to state the significance of the post of Lt Governor post and CM briefly.
  • For Basics on Polity and Governance, NCERTs are the best source anytime, along with Laxmikanths’s Polity. DD Basu’s “Introduction To The Constitution Of India” has also been found helpful to many toppers
  • Other Sources: The 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission’s report titled – Organizational Structure Of Government of India (13th Report) and Chahal Magazine
  • The Social justice part should mainly be covered from current affairs from various sources such as PIB, The Hindu newspaper and Indian express, etc

General Studies Paper III

  • The Syllabus includes Technology, Economic Development, Biodiversity, Environment, Security and Disaster Management.
  • Questions from Paper III are asked majorly from current affairs and if a candidate is actively following newspapers and making notes he can solve the paper easily provided his basic knowledge of each topic is clear. Therefore, the focus should be on clearing basics first by reading NCERTs and some standard reference books, the sources to prepare for the GS paper 3 are listed below:
  • Questions from science and technology general in nature and mostly contain the application part of many latest technologies and its impact on society and many other questions which are from general science and directly drawn from current affairs. Every year only 3-4 questions are asked from S&T and from some of the most important topics such as Biotechnology, Space & Technologies, Defence Technologies, Public Health, Nuclear Technologies: Energy, Cyber Security: Discussed in Internal Security, ICT: Latest Technologies: AI, CPS, AR and VR, Quantum Computing, 5G, etc. Any information related to the above topics becomes important.
  • For the Indian Economy, one can refer to Chahal Academy’s Monthly magazine, current affairs and some standard books such as Indian Economy by Ramesh Singh. Economic survey and Indian Budget released give out crucial information on the economy and hence are important sources.
  • In Internal Security and Disaster management, most of the questions are from always asked from few selected topics such as Terrorism- International and domestic, Left-wing extremism/Naxalism/Maoism, North East Insurgency, Border Management, Coastal Security, Organized Crimes, Cyber-crime and cyber-security, Regionalism and inter-state disputes, etc. Topic-wise preparation on the above-mentioned topics is sufficient enough for this section, keeping the current affairs in mind.

General Studies Paper IV

The syllabus includes: Ethics, Integrity, and Aptitude

The questions asked in GS Paper IV are mainly to test candidates’ attitudes and approach towards problem-solving, on issues relating to integrity and probity in public life. The question paper consists of questions on theory and case studies to understand a candidate’s approach to determine these aspects. The Focus areas: ethics, public service/ values, and integrity, attitude, aptitude for the civil services, emotional intelligence, the contribution of thinkers, honesty in public life, etc.

Paper IV is 25 percent of basic book knowledge and 75 percent of your understanding of the situation based on the basic books you have read and clarity of syllabus you have.

For the first portion of this paper, you have to read some moral thinkers and their contribution and when you will solve case study, you have to utilize that information for not only writing the good answer of that case study but you have to also develop your knowledge and understanding of values.

The most appropriate way to develop for this paper is to first understand each terminology given in the syllabus e.g. Empathy, sympathy and the difference between Attitude and Aptitude., etc.

Essay Paper

  • Essay paper is not about your knowledge and disseminating that information on your answer. It is about the representation of your approach to the skill of pinning down your information in sequence manner supported by some facts and figures.
  • Apart from facts and figures the art of representation and art of writing plays an important role in fetching more marks.
  • You can develop this art of representation and writing a good answer only by practicing it. so, make a good habit of writing one essay in a fortnight.

Optional Paper

  • The optional papers carry a total weightage of 500 marks in the mains examination and to some extent most important papers because every year the GS papers but optional subjects are different according to the candidates’ preferences and it is believed that more good you are in your optional subject the more is your chances to clear the examination. Selecting the right optional is a major dilemma form many UPSC aspirants.
  • Before choosing an optional a candidate should understand questions in the optional papers are of graduate-level and solving them requires in-depth knowledge and study of those subjects and hence they would consume an enormous amount of a student time of his preparation. Therefore, a candidate should choose that subject as optional which he finds interesting to read and can sit in for hours without getting bored.
  • Shortlisting some of the subjects, going through its syllabus and last 5 years question paper to understand the dynamics of question asking pattern must be done before jumping on to the most important decision of choosing an optional.

Compulsory Paper

As the compulsory paper is qualifying in nature so before the examination just practice some of the things like grammar and basic things like ways of answering and approach of writing. These little things will shell you through the mains examination.


The use of flowcharts and diagrams enhances the quality of an answer, helps is explaining more in less time and is also an effective way to summarize the information contained in an answer.

Use easy to understand mind maps, diagrams, and flow charts are the things which will provide you an edge over other candidates as your answer will look more catchy and soothing to the examiner.

Many times when you run out of time in the examination hall and you still have a few questions to attempt you can move ahead by writing just a diagram of flow chart so that an examiner may have an insight that you know the question.

Some Frequently Asked Questions About UPSC Mains Examination

Can a candidate write different papers of Civil Service (Main) Examination in different languages?

No, Either in English or in any one of the Eighth Schedule languages except the Qualifying Language papers Paper-A and Paper-B, which they have indicated at the time of filling up of their online application form for the Civil Service (Preliminary) Examination.

What are the Cut-off Marks for the compulsory language Papers?

The minimum qualifying standards in each of the two Qualifying Papers i.e. English and Indian Languages is indicated in the Examination Rules, which is at present 25%.

Should I write an answer in Bullet Point or Paragraph?

  • You can write in a paragraph as well, but the bullet point will be more appropriate due to: Bullet point reveals the work in a more natural way to the examiner and he may not have to find the eye-catching phrases in your copy
  • The bullet point is to the point in nature as compared to the paragraph approach of writing the answer.
  • Bullet points are easy to cover and you can cover the whole paper within the time limit.

Should I attempt all 20 questions or write 17 to 18 good answers?

  • Your chance of success in mains examination dependence upon the number of the question you will attempt, remembers that. So, your priority should be to attempt all questions, even if you know nothing about a particular question.
  • As the saying goes “It is better to have something than nothing”. So, stick with this mantra and write all the answers, you will get something for that answer. But, you should remember that the quality of the answer should not be lowered to complete all answers.

Should I use Quotes in answer writing?

  • Quotes give your answer a dynamic view; eye-catching phrases are always a good prospect for getting good marks in mains examination.
  • Too many unnecessary quotes can backfire as well so, use quotes but use it smartly.

Things to avoid in answer writing

  1.  Reflecting a biased answer for the party: One of the most important things you should avoid is excessive criticism of government policies and also criticizing the person and its work.You should also refrain from writing the answer in a biased manner, as you are preparing for an administrative post that has to work behind the curtain. SO, your vested interest should not hamper the working for people and making chaos in administrative functioning.
  2.  Altering the quotes: While quoting in mains answer writing don’t quote in an altered manner. It means if know exactly the exact quotation then only you should use it, otherwise, these wrong quotes reflect a bad impression about a candidate. e.g. “The Earth has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” So, if you alter this quote and write like the Earth can serve everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed. These small mistakes are very drastic in marks marking schemes of things.
  3.  STRATEGY for handling the IAS-UPSC MAINS EXAM
    While preparing for GS Mains, you will be also preparing for History, Geography, Public Administration, Political Science, Sociology, etc. It will help you in deciding your interest in a particular optional subject properly.

Rather than selecting an optional without knowing other subjects or without knowing your writing and presentation styles and thinking patterns, it is better to delay this decision. It will prove a more informed and rational decision afterward.

Preparations for the Civil Services Mains Exam should start along with those of the Preliminary exam. This is because there is much common ground for study, and there is little time for the mains exam if one waits for the results of the Preliminaries. It is a long haul and preparations should be done with persistence, over nine months to a year.

Reading List

As mentioned in each of our section on paper wise strategy the NCERT are the best source of study to clear your basic concepts. Take up the text-books for classes IX, X, XI, and XII. However, just reading these books will not serve the purpose. What is essential is that the person taking up self-study must pick up past question papers and write down the answers to questions asked therein. Practice in writing is what is required to attempt the paper. Many students make the mistake of studying for hours but have no practice in writing down the answers, which costs heavily during the exam. The skill required is that of organizing the arguments and making a coherent answer from the diverse material. One more thing that must be kept in mind is that the answers must be a little different from others and must have some extra bit that is missed out by others. This is not difficult if one has understood the issue in depth.

One important aspect of the Civil Services Mains Exam is that the questions do not ask for more information as a reply, but seek analysis backed with arguments from the candidates. Usually, one gets the impression that one knows everything but thoughts do not flow out naturally as one puts pen to paper. Hence, writing down the answers is an important aspect of the preparation. Another thing is that the candidate must carefully read the questions to make out what the examiner is asking. Having done that, it is important to organize one’s thoughts before writing and the sequence of the answer should be from the most important/potent aspect to less important aspects.

If you do not have someone to show your answers, keep them away and after a gap of some time, read them again. You will discover many mistakes, which earlier you could not. Analyze the answers to improve them. This exercise of re-analysis of answers improves the ability to be precise. One of the important requirements of the Mains exam is that the answers should be crisp and to-the-point.

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