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How to prepare for UPSC/IAS Mains Exam

How to Start UPSC Main Exam Preparation

How to prepare for UPSC Mains Examination

Before approaching the question – "How to prepare Mains Examination?", one must understand two things. What is the mains examination? And, what is its purpose?

The Mains Examination stage under UPSC CSE consists of two language papers and seven descriptive papers. 

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 and Hindi or any other language. 

Now, let’s jump to descriptive papers. 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 last but not the least, application of current affairs. 

UPSC Mains preparation: Understanding the Dynamics of IAS Mains exam

  • Mains examination is not about your knowledge, unlike Prelims. In mains not only your knowledge of the subject will be tested but the 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 answer copy evaluator will not judge a candidate based upon his/her educational background and merits, It will be your 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.
  • With the changing pattern of the UPSC and way of asking the question is also changing. Unlike earlier examination of mains in which the majority of the questions were asked directly from some of the reputed books and if a hard-working candidate has command on that book, there were utmost chances of his/her clearing this examination. At present, if you have seen the mains question of the last 5 years there is the heavyweight of the current affair portion in paper 1 and paper 2.  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.

Paper wise Approach of Tackling UPSC Mains Exam:

  • Paper I
  • On one hand Paper I require a candidate to know about the history and geography of India and world, on the other hand, it requires you to be updated with current events happenings in and around us especially for art and culture, Geography portion and society.
  • 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 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.
  • You should be well-versed with all the key geographical phenomena, concepts and their applications and repercussions.
  • Again, social justice is also all about current affairs .so, keep an eye on the current events to prepare for the social justice, you need to prepare well for all the schemes and policies that government is implementing for various section of society. 
  • Paper-II
  • Looking at the trend in 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.
  • International relation is all about current events .so, you have to prepare it from Newspaper and any standard magazine, whatever suits you.
  • Paper III
  • Preparation of Paper III can be prepared by current affairs provided your basic knowledge of each topic is clear. So, finish basic books first and make your foundation strong to erect a giant building of knowledge on that foundation.
  • For science and technology, whatever comes in news make good notes of it,e.g. if it is news about Crispr cas9; so, here you not only need to know about the CRISPR cas9 but you have to know about :
    1. What is Gene Editing?
    2. Benefits associated with gene editing
    3. Impact of gene editing.
    4. Another method of gene editing and these kinds of stuff.
  • For internal security and Indian economy read any standard books to understand the basic concept of these subjects.
  • Paper IV
  • Paper IV is 25 per cent of basic book knowledge and 75 per cent 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 utilise 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.
    1. What is Empathy?
    2. What is sympathy?
    3. Difference between Attitude and Aptitude.
  • Knowing of these terminologies is not enough and you have to think of utilising it in your day to day life. If you have clarity on these terminologies you are most likely to answer well.
  • Essay Paper:
  • Essay paper is not about your knowledge and disseminating that information on your copy. It is about the representation of your approach of the skill of pinning down your information in sequence manner supported by some facts and figures.
  • In essay Paper facts and figures play very less role as compare to your art of representation and art of writing it.
  • You can develop this art of representation and writing a good answer only by practising it.so, make a good habit of writing one essay in a fortnight.
  • Optional Paper:
  • The optional paper approach is different from mains answer writing. Inhumanity subject optional questions comes directly and which requires a bit exhaustive studies.
  • For those who are choosing optional subjects other than human subjects to go for the last 5 years question paper to understand the dynamics of question asking pattern and prepare accordingly. 
  • 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.


  • Use a diagram and flow chart especially in subjects like Geography. These little things provide you edge over other candidates as your answer will look more catchy and soothing to the examiner. 
  • These flow chart can be the saviour of you as well. Many times you will feel in catch 22 situation-on; whether to attempt all answer in limited time in the examination hall, at this moment you can move ahead by writing just diagram of flow chart so that an examiner may have an insight that you know the question.

Some Frequently Asked Questions About IAS Mains Preparation:

1. 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 compare to paragraph approach of writing the answer.
  • Bullet points are easy to cover and you can cover the whole paper within the time limit.

2. Should I use a black pen or a blue pen?

  • These questions are very silly questions that I have to answer, tell you one thing your success or failure will not be determined by the pen you will use.
  • You can use any pen either black or blue but remember that you should not use a gel pen and you should use only ball pen.

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

  • Your any chance of success in mains examination dependence upon the number of the question you will attempt, remember that. So, your priority should be to attempt all questions, even if you know nothing about a particular question.
  • As it is said that "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.

4. 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 that should be avoided 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 need but not everyone's greed. These small mistakes are very drastic in marks marking schemes of things.

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 having knowledge of other subjects or without knowing your own writing and presentation styles and thinking patterns, it is better to delay this decision. It will prove more informed and rational decision afterwards.

Tips ias mains exam

Preparations for the Civil Services Mains Exam should start along with those of 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 an year.

The following topics need coverage for General Studies:

  1. Current Affairs National and International
  2. Indian Polity
  3. Indian Economy
  4. Geography of India
  5. Science and Technology
  6. History of India and Freedom Movement
  7. Study of thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore

To study current affairs, it is essential to read one national newspaper and The Competition Master. When you are studying the roundup of national and international affairs, efforts should not be merely taking up the information but also to understand the issues involved. Go into the background of events. For example, the recent Lok Sabha elections threw up many issues. Get to know these issues and be clear about them so that you can answer questions on them.

Reading List

With regard to other topics, the books published by the NCERT are the best source of study. 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. A 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 organising 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 in order 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. Analyse the answers in order 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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