Preparation Strategy for UPSC/IAS Mains Exam?

The distinction between CSE Prelims and Mains lies in their respective demands: Prelims necessitates broad knowledge and recognition, while Mains requires deep understanding, analysis, and articulate expression. Focused study, aligned with chosen topics, is crucial for Mains. Understanding the open-ended syllabus, divided into core and peripheral areas, is essential. Core areas build the \”Mains vocabulary\” and should be prioritized, while peripheral areas can be studied later. Thoroughly studying the core areas and, at minimum, covering the basics through relevant NCERTs is vital. Peripheral areas can be explored in free time or after core areas are mastered.

Exam Pattern

Given below is a table of the exam pattern:

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How to Begin?

UPSC MAINS STRATEGY FOR BEGINNERS – Get Clear with the Basics of Mains

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Step 1: Be Consistent with Your Preparation:

Maintain consistency over a prolonged period.

Pre-schedule targets for each day, week, and month.

Imprint the entire syllabus in your mind for focused preparation.

Step 2: Sufficient Time Allocation:

Adopt the \’mains first\’ strategy and prioritize mains preparation.

Utilize the extra time available before prelims for comprehensive mains preparation.

Answer writing and essay practice require ample time, so start early.

Step 3: Choose Your Optional Subject Wisely:

Select an optional subject based on your comfort and interest.

Don\’t fall for speculations about the most scoring optional.

Success depends on preparation and presentation, not just the subject.

Step 4: Make a Proper Study Plan:

Start preparation right after choosing the optional subject.

Plan and allocate time well in advance to complete syllabus by November-December.

Effective time management is crucial for successful mains preparation.

Step 5: Follow Daily Current Affairs:

Stay updated with national and international events through newspapers and magazines.

Follow government sources for reliable information.

Begin answer writing practice and seek evaluation from seniors or teachers.

Remember, there is an overlap between mains and prelims syllabus. As you prepare for mains, a significant portion of prelims is covered. Focus on revision, consolidation, and assessment from January or February onwards to prepare for prelims.

By following these steps and maintaining a disciplined approach, you can master the UPSC mains and increase your chances of success.

STEP 2 – Mastering the Mains

Understand the Syllabus and Aim for 250-Word Answers

Carefully read the syllabus and ensure content for each topic to write a 250-word answer

Analyze Past Question Papers for Guidance

Review the last five years\’ question papers to grasp question patterns and importance levels

Utilize Books and Internet for Knowledge Gain

Use books and the internet extensively, especially for Science and Tech topics

Strive for knowledge acquisition through both mediums

      2. Incorporate Current Affairs in GS-2 and GS-3

Superimpose current affairs over subjects, particularly GS-2 and GS-3

Evernote can be used to organize and highlight internet-based content

 A. Dedicate Ample Time for Revision

B. Allocate sufficient time for revision to retain and recall learned information

C. Prioritize revision during mock tests and the actual exam

Practice Answer Writing to Demonstrate Skills

    • Avoid the common mistake of excessive reading and revision without practicing writing
    • Focus on learning, practicing, and perfecting answer writing skills

Prepare for Endurance through Prior Practice

    • Build endurance by practicing writing for 6 hours daily for several days
    • Prevent mental and physical fatigue by preparing adequately before the final exam

Maintain Balance across GS Topics

    • Avoid excessive focus on one subject and maintain a fine balance across all topics
    • Gain minimum sufficient knowledge across diverse subjects

Write Generic Points When Clueless

    • Even with limited knowledge, provide generic points for questions
    • Demonstrate an understanding of the topic to secure some marks

Develop Speed Reading and Map Drawing Skills

    • Speed read reports and highlight important lines for efficient revision
    • Utilize India maps for effective illustration in GS papers

Take Test Series Seriously

    • Treat test series as mock exams with strict time limits
    • Dedicate full attention and adhere to time restrictions during practice tests

Overcome Reluctance and Procrastination

    • Avoid the temptation to endlessly read without writing answers or skipping tests
    • Make a conscious effort to overcome reluctance and complete tasks in a timely manner

Prioritize Completion Over Perfectionism

    • Avoid excessive reliance on multiple sources or seeking perfection in notes and tests
    • Focus on attempting all questions with varying levels of quality and improvement over time

Evaluate Material\’s Value and Trust Your Sources

    • Assess the value of coaching material and ensure its contribution to your preparation
    • The source of material is not crucial; understanding concepts and mastering the syllabus matter

UPSC Mains Subject-Wise Weightage (2015-21)

GS Paper-1 Mains Topics

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GS Paper-2 Mains Topics

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GS Paper-3 Mains Topics

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GS Paper-4 Mains Topics

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Complete Booklist for UPSC GS Mains

GS Paper-I

Indian Art and Culture

  1. An Introduction to Indian Art – Class XI NCERT
  2. Chapters related to culture in Ancient and Medieval India NCERTs
  3. Centre for Cultural Resource and Training (CCRT) material
  4. Heritage Crafts: Living Craft Traditions of India -NCERT

Modern Indian History

  1. A Brief History of Modern India- Spectrum Publications
  2. India’s Struggle for Independence – Bipan Chandra (Read selectively for topics not covered in the Spectrum book)

India’s Post Independence History

  1. India Since Independence by Bipan Chandra

World History

World History: Patterns of Interaction by McDougal Littell. For UPSC, read from Chapter 22 to Chapter 36


  1. Fundamentals of Physical Geography XI NCERT
  2. India: Physical Environment XI NCERT
  3. Fundamentals of Human Geography XII NCERT
  4. India: People and Economy XII NCERT
  5. Certificate Physical and Human Geography: GC Leong
  6. PMFIAS (Excellent resource for understanding complex topics)
  7. Google and YouTube

Indian Society

NCERT Sociology Std XI and XII.


Polity, Governance and Social Justice

Static Portion:

  1. Laxmikanth
  2. Second ARC Report

Current Affairs:

  1. The Hindu
  2. Sansad TV Debates
  3. PRS India for latest legislation
  4. All India Radio – Spotlight
  5. Current Affairs Magazines

International Relations

  1. NCERT XII (Contemporary World Politics)
  2. Current Affairs Magazines
  3. International Relations by Pushpesh Pant



Static part:

  1. Indian Economy by Ramesh Singh
  2. articles
  3. Macroeconomics – NCERT Class XII
  4. Indian Economic Development – NCERT Class XI
  5. Budget & Economic Survey Gist
  6. The Hindu Economy Page
  7. Internet for understanding concepts (Arthapedia, Google, Youtube)

Current Affairs:

  1. The Hindu
  2. Sansad TV Debates
  3. PRS India for latest legislation
  4. All India Radio – Spotlight
  5. Current Affairs Magazines

Indian Agriculture, Land reforms, PDS, Food Processing, LPG, Infrastructure

  1. The Hindu
  2. Sansad TV Debates
  3. PRS India for latest legislation
  4. All India Radio – Spotlight
  5. Current Affairs Magazines
  6. articles


  1. Challenges to Internal Security of India by Ashok Kumar
  2. Current Affairs Magazines
  3. Internal Security book by TMH publication 
  4. Internal Security by M. Karthikeyan
  5. Internal Security of India and Disaster Management Syed Waquar Raza

Disaster Management

  • Fundamental reading: CBSE book
  • Prepare concise notes on NDMA (structure, functions, rules etc), international agreements such as Sendai Framework, latest current affairs from newspapers, internet and coaching material.
  • Draw diagrams to illustrate concepts like river embankment, land zoning, watershed management etc.

Environment and Ecology

  • Environment by Shankar IAS Academy
  • Efforts Towards Green India (Environment & Ecology) by Arihant
  • Environmental Ecology Biodiversity and Climate Change by Pratiyogita Darpan
  • Environmental Studies: From Crisis to Cure by R. Rajagopalan

Science & Tech

  1. 1.The Hindu
  2. Sansad TV Debates
  3. PRS India for latest legislation
  4. All India Radio – Spotlight
  5. Current Affairs Magazines


  1. ARC 4th report.
  2. Ethics in Public Administration – Patrick Sheeran.
  3. Ethics, Integrity & Aptitude: G. Subbarao.
  4. NCERT Psychology book Class XI & XII: Selected chapters.
  5. Citizen Centric Administration – ARC Report.
  6. Lexicon for ethics, Integrity, and aptitude- Civil services chronicle.
  7. Ethics, Integrity, and aptitude – McGraw-Hill education – M.Karthikeyan.
  8. Harvard lectures by Michael Sandel.

Subject wise Approach towards UPSC Prelims

GS 1

Indian Art and Culture

  1. Sequential Approach: Beginners should tackle Art and Culture after gaining familiarity with other GS topics.
  2. Analytical Insight: Understand the historical context to effectively answer analytical questions, combining factual knowledge with analysis.
  3. Visual Engagement: Watch visual and performing arts online to enhance understanding and aid memory recall.
  4. Diagrams for Clarity: Use simple diagrams to illustrate key concepts accurately, focusing on content rather than artistic skill. Multiple revisions are essential for mastering Art and Culture.

Modern Indian History

Mastering questions on Indian history is crucial for every serious aspirant. Solid prelims preparation is sufficient, but practice answer writing to excel in this topic. Don\’t underestimate its significance.

World History

Focus areas are the Enlightenment, American and French Revolutions and the World Wars.


Prepare important geographical phenomena with special focus on Human Geography.

Focus on Important Geophysical phenomenon – Earthquakes, Tsunami, Landslide etc in news.

Indian Society

  1. Content Challenges: Sociology questions can be vague and philosophical, requiring concise presentation within word limits. Focus on structure and style.
  2. Foundational Reading: Study NCERT Sociology Std XI and XII to grasp the basics. Create comprehensive notes covering definitions, statistics, government schemes, criticisms, causes, historical/current examples, societal impact, and suggestions.
  3. Additional Resources: Consider coaching materials or references like internet sources, ARC 2, or committee reports for valuable insights.
  4. Structured Answers: Provide a well-structured response with subheadings, covering multiple dimensions of the topic to score well. Access my notes for reference.

GS 2

Polity, Governance and Social Justice

  1. Utilize Constitutional Articles: Begin your answers with relevant Constitutional articles, such as Art 153 for questions on the Governor or Art 312 for Civil Services, to establish a strong foundation.
  2. Incorporate Supreme Court Judgements: Create a list of significant historical and current Supreme Court judgements to quote and support your answers, enhancing their credibility.
  3. Present Both Sides of Debates: Address debatable topics by presenting arguments for and against the issue, utilizing subheadings and maintaining a balanced perspective. Include the views of authoritative committees for a well-rounded conclusion.
  4. Seek Reliable Sources: For miscellaneous topics, refer to trusted coaching materials for comprehensive content. Stay updated with newspaper articles, selecting sources that provide a contrarian and balanced viewpoint.
  5. Support with Statistics and Reports: Memorize relevant statistics on areas like health, employment, women, education, and poverty. Quote reports from reputable organizations like Lancet, Transparency International, UNICEF, and FAO to strengthen your arguments. Conclusion: Conclude with committee or commission recommendations, observations, or references to key documents like the Punchhi Commission, Law Commission, NCRWC, Sustainable Development Goals, Preamble, or DPSP.

International Relations

  1. Historical Context: Understand the historical background of India\’s relationships with other countries before focusing on current events. Bilateral issues often trace back to historical agreements and disputes.
  2. Comprehensive Understanding: Look beyond specific incidents or crises. For instance, in India-China relations, grasp the larger context of border disputes and agreements like the Simla Accord of 1914.
  3. Thorough Examination: Explore comprehensive aspects of each bilateral relationship or global grouping, including strategic, defense, technology, education, cultural, diaspora, trade, investment, and cooperation in global fora.
  4. Map Illustrations: Use rough maps to visually demonstrate geopolitical situations, such as India-Iran relations and the significance of the Chabahar port.
  5. Miscellaneous Topics: Utilize reliable coaching materials for miscellaneous topics like diaspora and international institutions.

GS 3

Agricultural Issues

  • Prepare time tested areas like Farm subsidies, MSP, Irrigation etc.

Macroeconomic issues that are ‘in the news’ including issues on infrastructure like waterways, railways and ports

  • Prepare topics like Monetary Policy, RBI’s role in the economy, Employment viz. skill training, Economic Survey Vol. II, 25 years of LPG subsidy, Civil Aviation Policy etc.

Science & Tech.

  1. Current Affairs Focus: Most S&T questions in UPSC exams are based on current affairs, requiring a general understanding of topics. Concentrate on areas like New Technologies, India\’s Defence and Space program, Medical Science, Nanotechnology, and Biotechnology.
  2. Note-taking Strategy: Maintain a dedicated book to jot down scientific terms and technologies frequently mentioned in news. Research and understand these concepts through explainer videos, especially on platforms like YouTube.
  3. Fundamental Knowledge: Learn essential terms and technologies used in Space, Nanotech, Nuclear Research, Defence, Biotech, and Communication. Comprehensive material from coaching institutes like Vajiram can be helpful.
  4. Conceptual Understanding: Emphasize grasping the concepts, the reasons for their presence in the news, practical applications, potential threats, and future benefits.
  5. Comprehensive Coverage: Address each S&T topic with consideration of its relevance, practical implications, and long-term prospects to confidently tackle questions in the final exam.


  • Prepare exclusively from current affairs but also study the science behind the facts. For example, topics like CAMPA Bill or the man animal conflict viz. culling etc.

Disaster Management

  • Prepare from current affairs keeping an eye out for policy frameworks. Topics like Urban flooding and water crisis, Drought and Farmer’s suicides, Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the National Disaster Management Plan should be prepared.

Internal Security

  • Traditional topics connected with current affairs is the way to go. For example, Cross border terrorism and Mob lynchings , AFSPA, Money laundering viz. Fugitive Absconders Bill, NRC and Assam Accord etc.


  1. 2nd ARC Reports: Focus on reports like Ethics in Governance, Promoting E-gov, RTI, Citizen-centric Administration, and Personnel Administration. Memorize only the recommendations from these reports.
  2. Comprehensive Material: Utilize coaching printed material for topics like moral thinkers and corporate governance. Create personalized notes for certain topics.
  3. Clear Definitions and Examples: Define each term in the syllabus with simple and concise language. Use real-life examples to illustrate concepts. Use flowcharts and schematics when appropriate.
  4. Demonstrate Personal Ethics: Showcase your ethics through personal experiences and examples from your life, childhood, education, and professional career. Historical examples from great leaders can also be used.
  5. Case Studies and Time Management: Prioritize both Section A and Section B equally. Focus on realistic and practicable solutions for case studies. Manage your time by aiming to complete at least 80 marks worth of questions per hour.
  6. Mental Toughness: Stay mentally strong during the exam, especially after writing three previous GS papers. Push your limits and maintain a positive mindset to endure the rigorous three-hour writing session.

Effective Answer Writing Strategy

  1. Clarity and Time Management: Plan the time for thinking and writing each answer. Spend a few minutes to understand the dimensions and structure the answer before writing it.
  2. Coherence and Continuity: Ensure there is a logical flow and connection between different parts of the answer.
  3. Addressing the Question: Focus on answering the specific question rather than going off-topic or providing excessive information.
  4. Presentation and Content: Maintain neat handwriting, use headings and subheadings, underline key points, and include diagrams or flowcharts where appropriate.
  5. Balancing Perspectives: Include personal viewpoints along with technical jargon, research studies, and expert opinions.
  6. Conciseness and Thoughtfulness: Write concise and well-framed sentences that convey meaningful information. Pay attention to the specific requirement indicated by concluding words like \”discuss\” or \”critically examine.\”

Embark on your answer writing journey with determination and a positive mindset. Focus on improving your structure, enhancing your content, and gradually increasing your speed. Consistency is key; practice every day to refine your skills and build confidence. When it comes to the actual mains exam, prioritize speed, content, and structure in that order. Embrace revision as an ongoing process and don\’t neglect the practice of answer writing.

Remember, writing your first answer may be challenging, but push through it. Your answers don\’t have to be perfect; what matters is clarity and coherence. Stay committed to your test series, ensuring consistent effort and timely completion. Stand out by enriching your content with references to committees, reports, surveys, and other relevant sources. Utilize visuals like flowcharts and diagrams when appropriate.

Adaptability is key during the actual exam. Understand the question\’s demand and avoid rigidly reproducing memorized information. Acquiring answer writing skills takes time and effort. Discover a strategy that works for you, playing to your strengths while addressing your weaknesses. As you embark on this journey, remember the powerful quote on my whiteboard: \’Brick by brick we will build this castle.\’
Believe in yourself and take small steps towards conquering the GS paper.

May this article on UPSC Mains preparation and GS answer writing tips guide you on your path to success.!!!

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