June 8th, 2019       UPSC

UPSC Civil Services Examination is conducted in three stages- Preliminary Examination, Mains Examination, Personality test. Around 5 lakh aspirants appear for the Preliminary Examination which is a MCQ based test and contains two papers- Paper 1: General Studies having 100 questions totaling 200 marks. The merit list/ cut off list for the mains examination is prepared on the basis of the marks in this paper, Paper 2: CSAT having 80 questions totaling 200 marks. This paper is qualifying in nature and requires 33.33% marks for paper 1 to be considered.

Preliminary Examination is a test of filtering out the right answer from the given options in a limited time. As easy as it appears or said, most of the times aspirants are not able to choose the right answer. A smart strategy involving diligent preparation and practice is what is required to be ahead of the others. In this article, we suggest some essential rules/tips that are highly important and beneficial to taste success in the preliminary examination.

UPSC Prelims Rules

The tips/rules are as follows:

Selection of study material

NCERTs Books (both old and new) are a must to begin your preparation. They should be thoroughly studied and revised such that they become an integral part of your knowledge and intellect. Newspapers like The Hindu and Indian Express are highly recommended. In order to help the aspirants, IASGYAN posts articles like ‘What to read from the Hindu’, Daily News Analysis on the official website which will help in saving time. For beginners, an article on the books required for CSE is there on the website. Remember UPSC CSE is more about SMART study.

Conceptual learning

The syllabus for UPSC CSE is vast and rote learning might not help you in the long run. Some aspirants tend to rote everything looking at the MCQ pattern of the prelims paper. However, do not try to rote facts from the start. Understand the concept first.

Prelims is more about eliminating the wrong options from the given choices. So if the concepts are shaky, the answer choices will be appear to be very close. Try to memorise only the important facts and figures and other relevant information that is important in the present context. eg: Even a subject like history requires SMART learning and not just cramming of the information. It should be memorised from the start by interlinking and connecting the various events. Also remember that the three stages of UPSC CSE are overlapping and not individualistic in nature. So while preparing keep this in mind.

Time utilisation

As mentioned before, UPSC CSE is more about SMART preparation and requires a perfect balance between study and recreational schedules. The preparation requires 10-11 months of diligent efforts from the aspirant. This number might vary from person to person.

There should be seriousness in the preparation from the word go. Some aspirants study optional first and then switch over to GS. This leaves less than satisfactory time for prelims. The preparation should happen simultaneously. Time should be managed judiciously. Starting from NCERTs, to standard books and high level books (for specific weak areas), newspaper reading and notes making, revision should all be done regularly and simultaneously.

An article on Time Management and how to prepare time tables is available on the official website of IASGYAN. Also try to invent your own techniques to remember things. Try to visualise things from different perspectives. This will help in developing a more critical outlook which will help in eliminating answer choices in prelims. Try to attempt daily MCQs from various sources including IASGYAN which will help you gauge the level of your preparation. Remember that many questions in prelims are more like derivatives from the current affairs and hence, do not back log on this section. Make it sure that you spend 90-120 minutes on it every day and also revise thoroughly.


The preparation of prelims is not limited to just understanding concepts, memorization of the information. The real test starts when one has to apply the same learning to the MCQ questions. Remember that the prelims questions are not direct. However, the examiner gives enough hints in the question to eliminate the wrong choice.

In order to develop and nurture this art, one has to regularly revise and regularly write as many mocks as possible. However, any aspirant should start writing mocks only after diligently preparing for the required topic or syllabus. Mocks should include previous year questions, and at least 2-3 different institute tests. In this regard, be cautious and smart enough to attend mocks that have quality and the questions are of UPSC pattern. Some institutes for marketing gimmick, intentionally give hard questions. Try to avoid such mocks. Remember that it is ok to make mistakes before rather than making them in the examination. The more mocks you do, the better would be your preparation on the subject as well as your confidence will increase.

Balance between self study and peer learning

UPSC CSE requires a fine balance between self-study and peer group learning. Both are highly beneficial and important. However, both have cons. One must remember that the preparation requires a patient attitude. In a tendency to quickly finish the syllabus, aspirants succumb to wrong strategies. These are mostly a result of peer influence.

However, remember that UPSC is unpredictable in nature. And the only trend that it follows is that there is no trend. Every subject is important in itself and the weightage of the same cannot be underestimated at any cost. All the subjects should be smartly and thoroughly prepared keeping in mind your strengths and weaknesses and here the balance becomes important. Remember that at the end of the day it all comes down to you and thus, make your choices keeping yourself in the centre of things.

Educated guessing

UPSC is quite popular for its dynamism and uncertainty. Even if an aspirant is fully prepared with the subjects, he or she cannot attempt all the questions with 100 percent confidence. There will be questions where the aspirant will feel confused between options and will have difficulty in zeroing in on the right answer. And thus, Guessing becomes very important in this MCQ examination. However, aspirants should never go for wild guessing. Educated guessing is the key to success and the art of the same can be developed by attempting as many mocks as possible and by developing a more critical outlook in learning.

Pay attention to the keywords

Questions in the prelims are tricky. And thus, reading of the question becomes very important. Every aspirant while attempting the question should pay attention to the key details. This will help in a better understanding of the question. Depending on what is asked, aspirants can give a true/false test to each option (particularly in statement type questions).

Eg: a question containing statements about NIIF was asked in 2017 prelims. One statement read that it has a corpus of Rs. 4 lakh crore. Even an entire sector like education etc has less budget allocation (< 4 lakh crore) in a year and thus, aspirant must realise that the figure mentioned cannot be true. This eliminates the statement. This way by using knowledge as well as paying attention to the keywords an aspirant can eliminate wrong options.

Relating the information given is important

Sometimes the aspirants feel that they have not read on a particular topic and thus, that question they cannot answer. However, some such questions can be solved easily by relating the information given to your knowledge base. Aspirants should try to solve questions through this thinking in mocks so that by the time of prelims they have mastered on the art of reading between the lines.

Time management in the exam

Although aspirants do not face time problems in the GS paper 1, many complain about CSAT paper time. To stay ahead of time, aspirants should prepare time targets while attempting mocks. Breaking down the 80 questions into 25 questions-30 minutes, 50 questions-60 minutes, 70 questions-90 minutes, 80 questions-110 minutes and using the remaining time to ponder over any question that one knows but could not solve earlier.

Please remember that this breakup is suggestive and can vary with the aspirant and also that it should not impact the accuracy of the aspirant and thus, should be practised extensively in the mock. A similar strategy can be used by those aspirants who face problems with time management in Paper 1.

UPSC Prelims Golden Rules

General rules

Always keep in mind that there is a provision of negative marking in prelims and hence one has to be careful while marking the right answer in the OMR sheet. It is a time bound examination and thus, one has to be careful with time. Always attempts the questions in order. A strategy for attempting the questions has been provided in the article ‘how to avoid negative marking in prelims’ published on the IAS GYAN website.

Prelims is the first step in a three stage process and the first application of your year-long preparation. So do not spoil it by undue nervousness. Remaining calm and composed is very important.


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