How To Start Preparation For IAS Mains And Prelims Exam

The Civil Services Examination is considered a tough nut to crack and aspirants must take the right approach to ace the test. Here’s how to prepare for IAS Prelims and Mains in the next two months.

By Sahana Charan

How To Start Preparation For IAS Mains And Prelims Exam

Every year, several thousand candidates appear for the Indian Civil Services Examinations. And, being one of the toughest exams in the country, less than one per cent of aspirants manage to clear the final assessment and get selected.

One of the reasons for such a low success rate is that the exam syllabus covers a wide range of disciplines and topics.

A candidate appearing in the UPSC exam (Union Public Service Commission) is expected to not only have in-depth knowledge of his subject, but also about other disciplines. And, he should also be aware of current affairs, art and culture, traditions and heritage of India, important policies and programmes of the government and so on.

So, to crack the IAS Prelims and Mains, it is important to come up with a structured study plan.

In this article, we give you exhaustive information and expert-backed tips on when to start preparing for the IAS exam 2020, study time management and allocation, and how to prepare each subject well.

IAS exam pattern

The IAS exams are conducted in two stages:

1. UPSC Prelims

  • This exam is for selection of candidates for the UPSC Mains exam.
  • The prelims exam consists of two papers — General Studies Paper-I and General Studies Paper-II (also knows as CSAT (Civil Services Aptitude Test)).
  • Question papers for both follow the multiple-choice format and carry 200 marks each.
  • Two hours are allotted for answering each paper.
  • Negative marking is given for incorrect answers.
  • For Paper-I, the minimum marks required to qualify, also known as the cut-off mark, will be revealed only at the time of publishing the results.
  • For Paper-II, candidates must score a minimum of 33 per cent to qualify for UPSC Mains.

2. UPSC Mains and Personality test

  • Those who clear the UPSC Prelims must file applications for writing the UPSC Mains examination.
  • This exam consists of a written test and an interview.
  • The written test comprises nine question papers, which are in the essay (descriptive) format. Of these nine, two are qualifying papers in which a pass is compulsory.
  • Those who clear the written test are called for the Interview/Personality test.
  • A panel of eminent personalities, including the Chairperson of the UPSC, conducts the interview.
  • The collective marks obtained in the Mains determine the final ranking of the candidate.

Syllabi for the IAS Prelims and Mains

Prelims syllabus

General Studies Paper-I: This includes topics on

  • Current affairs
  • Indian history
  • Indian and World Geography
  • Indian politics and governance
  • Government policies
  • Economics and social development
  • General science
  • Environment and bio-diversity

General Studies Paper-II: This includes topics on

  • Comprehension
  • Communication skills
  • Mental ability
  • Decision-making and logical reasoning
  • Numbers and data interpretation

Mains syllabus

The papers in the UPSC Mains can be divided into two parts:

Qualifying papers

  • Paper A: One of the languages mentioned in the eighth schedule of the Constitution preferred by the candidate (weightage 300 marks)
  • Paper B: English (weightage 300 marks)

Note: It is mandatory to pass both the qualifying papers, although their marks aren’t taken into account.

Papers evaluated for merit

  • Paper I: Essay (write an essay on a specific topic in the language of your choice mentioned in the eighth schedule of the Constitution; weightage 250 marks).
  • Paper II: General Studies I (includes topics from history, geography, culture and heritage of India; weightage 250 marks).
  • Paper III: General Studies II (includes topics from Indian constitution, politics, governance and international relations; weightage 250 marks).
  • Paper IV: General Studies III (includes topics from technology, economic development, environment and disaster management; weightage 250 marks).
  • Paper V: General Studies IV (includes topics on ethics and integrity; weightage 250 marks).
  • Paper VI: Optional Subject (weightage 250 marks).
  • Paper VII: Optional Subject (weightage 250 marks).

Personality Test: Also called the interview, this is conducted by a panel comprising eminent personalities including the Chairperson of the Union Public Service Commission (weightage 275 marks).

When to start preparing for IAS?

How early should one start preparing for the civil services examinations (CSE), depends on the candidate.

Some aspirants, who have always dreamt of joining the administrative services or have family members serving the Indian government, may start their preparations early. Others may begin studying for the exams while doing their graduation or when they finish college.

According to experts, beginning preparations at least one year before writing the IAS exam is ideal. Undergraduates can study the subjects they have taken up in college, while covering the other subjects in their spare time. Professionals can either take a break from work or prepare while working by following a set timetable.

How to prepare for IAS Examination

Overall, an aspirant should allot around 8–10 hours every day for serious study to prepare for the IAS exams.

Students attending college can earmark an additional 4–5 hours daily to cover the CSE syllabus.

Apart for allotting a set number of hours for learning different subjects, the study timetable must also incorporate a schedule for—

  • reading newspapers and watching news, current affairs discussions and debates on television
  • revising topics learnt the previous day
  • doing daily physical exercise and stress-relieving activities like yoga and meditation
  • discussing and exchanging notes with other students/aspirants
“The Civil Services exams are difficult but with a focussed study plan that concentrates on gaining knowledge about a wide variety of subjects, an aspirant has a chance to qualify. Candidates must voraciously read books from various disciplines. Confidence is the key in tackling the IAS exams and this confidence will come from knowledge. That’s why preparing well for the exams is important. Candidates must also be honest about their answers. Many aspirants make the mistake of showing that they have an understanding of a certain topic, when they actually do not. It is always better to be truthful than to pretend that you have knowledge of a subject,” says Amitabh Chandra, former Principal Secretary to the Government of Maharashtra and leadership coach, who has served as an IAS officer for more than 30 years and mentored many IAS aspirants after his retirement.

Here are some more valuable tips given by Amitabh Chandra—

  • Read different newspapers. Go through not just the news section but also the editorial pages, to form informed opinions about various issues. Read about the views of well-known thinkers and leaders on government policy matters.
  • Exchange notes and interact with other candidates studying for the CSE, especially those who have taken up a different stream than yours. For example, if you are a science student, interact with students from the commerce and arts discipline.
  • Read books on a variety of subjects to make sure you are thorough with subjects that are not part of your formal curriculum.
  • Get into the habit of writing regularly. Practise writing essays about issues facing the country or policies introduced by the government and so on. This will help in forming intelligent and structured sentences.

Subject-wise tips to study for IAS Prelims and Mains

How to crack Prelims

General Studies Paper-I

  • This paper includes current affairs as one of the topics. To prepare well, read at least two to three English newspapers and a few news magazines. This way, you will get information on a wide range of topics. Watch news-related debates and discussions on television. Read the India Yearbook and the Manorama Yearbook.
  • For subjects such as history, geography, political science, economics and general science, do an in-depth study of high school NCERT books on these subjects. Also, touch upon relevant topics from reading material prescribed for the under-graduate level. Some recommended reading for this section includes books on ancient, medieval and modern Indian history; books on Indian geography and the world Atlas; books written by eminent scholars on economic concepts and the evolution and state of Indian economy.
  • Read books on politics and governance. Few recommended books include 'India After Gandhi' by Ramachandra Guha and 'Indian Polity for Civil Service Examinations' by M Laxmikanth. Keep abreast of the latest policies and programmes announced by the Government and read about their analysis by experts.
  • Learn about the latest environment and bio-diversity-related issues. Get information on the latest guidelines and policies pertaining to ecology issues. Read up on environment and climate change protocols, declarations and charters, and the literature of important environment groups. You may read 'Environment for Civil Services Prelims and Mains' by D R Khullar to get information on important matters related to ecology.
  • Practise writing mock tests on various general topics and practise answering 100 questions in two hours, as time management is very important during exams. There are many guides available in the market specific to Civil Service Examinations, but instead of brushing through too many books, focus on a few good ones and do an in-depth study of the topics.

General Studies Paper-II

  • For questions related to comprehension and communication skills, it is a good idea to examine the question papers from previous years and attempt to solve them.
  • For logical reasoning, check out the Prelims exam papers of at least the last four years. Also, read books such as 'A Modern Approach to Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning' by R S Aggarwal and 'A New Approach to Reasoning' by B S Sijwali and Indu Sijwali.
  • For subjects like Basic numeracy and Data interpretation (charts, graphs, tables and so on), study NCERT mathematics books from high school and pre-university level. In addition, solve mock test papers and Prelims exam papers from the past 3–4 years.

How to crack Mains

Paper A: Regional Language

  • Choose a language that you have learnt in school, and in which you have good grammar and comprehension skills. Also, you must be capable of expressing your views effectively and clearly in that language. Examine the CSE syllabus for the Indian language paper and study accordingly.
  • Go through UPSC question papers from the previous few years to get an idea of the type of topics given for essay and précis writing. Brush up on high school level reading, comprehension and grammar by going through NCERT books in your chosen language.
  • Thoroughly practise writing skills in your chosen language by writing essays on complex topics. This will help you answer the questions with lucidity. Doing this will also help you spot and correct mistakes in grammar and vocabulary.
  • Read newspapers in the regional language of your preference to improve sentence formation and vocabulary.
  • Pick random paragraphs in English and practise translating them to your regional language. Do the same from the regional language to English also.

Paper B: English

  • Examine the CSE syllabus for the optional English question paper and ensure you prepare the given topics well.
  • Develop a habit of reading English books by eminent authors and English newspapers to improve grammar and vocabulary. Look for difficult words while reading and check their meanings; this will also help you learn new words every day and improve your writing skills.
  • Refer to UPSC English question papers from the previous years to pick topics for essay writing and practise writing comprehensive essays.
  • Study tenth standard and pre-university level NCERT books on English reading and grammar. Work on comprehension skills and grammar-related exercises on a regular basis.

Paper-I: Essay

  • Refer to essay topics given in the UPSC question papers from the previous years and work on writing comprehensive essays on these topics. Ensure you have a definite beginning, middle and end to your essay. Work on writing accurate and concise sentences without deviating from the given topic. It is a good idea to practise writing essays on different topics and consulting someone knowledgeable to read and give feedback. Only with practise can you learn to express your ideas clearly. Also, examiners award more marks to essays that are written in a simple and succinct manner, with ideas clearly expressed.
  • Read the editorial and views pages of newspapers. Go through the essays and in-depth articles written by eminent authors to get valuable ideas on improving your own writing skills. Read relevant books on essays and essay writing such as — 'Essays for Civil Services' by Pulkit Khare and 'Essay Paper for Civil Services Main Examination' by Pavneet Singh and Sonali Bansal; books by eminent authors like Ramachandra Guha, Gurucharan Das and Amartya Sen.

General Studies Paper II–V

  • Examine the CSE syllabus for each of the topics for this section carefully. The questions that are asked are not just based on presentation of facts but are analytical in nature. So, do a thorough study of the notes and reading material while preparing for General Studies Prelims paper, keeping in mind the General Studies papers in the Mains examination, as many of the subjects overlap. Study NCERT books on history and geography from standards 8–12. UPSC expects the candidates to have in-depth knowledge of all the subject matter.
  • Gain in-depth knowledge about Indian art forms, festivals, religion, culture, Indian literature and ancient and modern, Indian architecture. It is not possible to know specific names and minute details about every aspect of Indian culture but you should be able to make analytical observations based on the question asked. Read books and annual reports published by organisations such as 'Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage'.
  • Do an in-depth study of the events that happened before, during and after the Indian freedom struggle and focus on significant events that shaped modern India. Also read about the important aspects of world history, including the industrial revolution, the two World Wars, revolutions in Europe and America, and the effects of colonisation.
  • Learn about the important movements and ideologies that shaped the world, including communism, socialism, capitalism, secularism, feminism, caste politics, globalisation and its effects (specifically in relation to India), social and women’s empowerment.
  • Study world geography with special focus on physical features unique to different parts of the world. Some of the topics you should pay more attention to are — natural resources, sensitive geographical locations, and natural disasters and their effects.
  • Keep abreast of political developments in India, government policies and India’s relation with other countries. Read about the salient points of the Constitution and important laws governing the land, including recent amendments to them.
  • Stay informed about recent economic and technological developments, and latest environment policies and protocols.
  • Read about the lives of great leaders and their teachings. Focus on the importance of ethics, moral values, positive attitude and behaviour in everyday life; and how society and education influence human values. The General Studies paper on Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude tests a candidate’s basic knowledge of relevant issues, ability to take unbiased and morally upright decisions, and analyse any situation with integrity.

Here is a list of a few more books that you should read while preparing for IAS exams:

  • Indian Art and Culture by Nitin Sanghania
  • Mastering Modern World History by Norman Lowe
  • India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha
  • India’s Struggle for Independence by Bipin Chandra and others
  • An Introduction to the Constitution of India by D D Basu
  • Economic Survey for the current year
  • Indian Polity by M Laxmikanth
  • Environment and Ecology by Majid Husain

Optional subject Paper VI–VII

  • For optional subjects, choose one that you have interest and expertise in, preferably one that you studied at the undergraduate level.
  • Focus on an optional subject that you are comfortable to write on and are confident of scoring high marks.

General tips for IAS exam preparation

  • Stick to a specific study plan and come up with a strategy to tackle the exams.
  • Identify the books and reading material for the study plan and ensure you read them thoroughly. Do not keep adding more and more books as you go along, as this will confuse you and add to stress.
  • Solve question papers from the previous few years with a focussed and time-bound approach. This will help you manage your time well.
  • Take mock tests regularly to correct the common mistakes you make and to get an idea of the type of questions and topics dealt with.
  • Practise writing daily to not only improve presentation of ideas but also to do it in an effective and concise way.

We are sure that following our suggestions will help you prepare well for the IAS exams. Also, remember that learning is a life-long process and preparing for the civil service examinations becomes easier when you acquire knowledge as a part of everyday life.

Reference: www.upsc.gov.in and Union Public Service Commission examination notification on Civil Services Examinations dated 12 February 2020.

About the author:

Written by Sahana Charan on 6 February 2020

Sahana Charan is an independent writer and journalist with an interest in writing about health and wellness, environment, urban living and child rights.

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