How do I prepare for the UPSC exam?

You must start by reading the exam notification in detail. You will be aware of the scheme of the examination, syllabus, qualification criteria, etc. This has to be done by the aspirant on his own. You must also choose your optional subject for mains by going through the options available and their syllabus. You can take the guidance of seniors while choosing optional

It is important to choose the right sources from where you would study the aspects in syllabus. I will mention some good sources here. This is not an exhaustive list. I referred to other sources too apart from the below list but only as secondary sources. But even if you prepare only from these below mentioned sources,you will be able to get a good rank. Remember that your book collection and rank are not proportional.

Current affairs: Read newspaper daily. Don’t depend on The Hindu alone. Read Hindustan times, Times of India etc. PT 365 by vision IAS during prelims, Mains 365 during Mains. These are current affair compilations which are arranged subject-wise. Current affairs are important for all subjects. So even when I specifically don’t mention current affairs in subjects below, take it as said.

Polity: Indian polity by Lakshmikanth , PRS India legislative research website for information on current legislations.
Geography: NCERTs, Physical geography by G C Leong.
Art and culture: Indian art and culture by Nitin Singhania
Ancient history: visionIAS material
Medieval and modern history: NCERT, 11th and 12th class Tamilnadu state textbooks, A brief history of modern India by spectrum.
World history: VisionIAS material. Focus on key aspects and don’t try to memorise everything. Your understanding is more important here than event dates.
Economy: Indian economy by Shankar Ganesh, Economic survey, Union budget.
International Relations: Focus on current affairs, watch Big picture debates on RSTV. This show covers international relations well.
Environment: Shankar IAS academy’s Environment book. Take the latest edition.
science and technology: Focus on current affairs
Ethics: ‘Lexicon’ book for ethics, integrity and aptitude. You need not read static content regarding thinkers. It’s not being asked. Focus on key terms such as integrity, aptitude, ethics, values, morality, qualities needed for public service, 2nd ARC report recommendations etc. Practise case studies. Your writing ability counts more than your preparation in ethics paper.
Security: Read about current security threats and develop understanding of multiple security threats to India including cyber threats. NIA,UAPA amendment acts and such security related legislations.
Disaster management: Sendai framework, National Disaster management plan. Focus on recent disasters across India and the world.
Optional (Sociology): Essential sociology by Nitin Sangwan is a good source . NCERTs of Sociology help you in basics.
Note: Preparation for prelims and mains overlaps. So I mentioned sources subject wise rather than compartmentalising them into prelims/mains or even paper wise in mains. It is important to address the question asked from the knowledge you gained. Do not worry about where you have read it from. Aspects you read in one subject might be very helpful in answering a question in a different paper as well. Your preparation must be holistic.

Also, some subjects are part of prelims and are not present in mains. Vice versa.You need not read world history, ethics, society, international relations for prelims but are present in mains. You will have to read ancient,medieval and modern history for prelims but only modern history is present in mains.

Exam Strategy:

Prelims,Mains and Interview need three different strategies. Each stage is unique in what it demands.Have a look at the prelims, mains question papers of 2019 available on UPSC website.

Prelims strategy:

Objective in prelims must be to score a comfortable score of at least 110 to 120 in the prelims GS paper.

One must not aim to answer questions which he/she has no idea of. There will be at least 10 such questions out of the total 100. They are better left unanswered to avoid negative marks pulling down your hard earned marks in questions that you know for sure. You can take an intelligent guess in few questions that you are aware of.

Being thorough in current affairs will fetch you good marks in prelims. Also questions from current affairs are the ones that you can mark at one go without wasting time on second thoughts. Be careful while marking with pen as a bubble once marked cannot be changed. You will also have to bubble your roll number on the OMR sheet with caution.

Prelims is dynamic with weightage to each subject changing every year. But good preparation will surely make you qualify the exam.

Coming to strategy to prepare, it’s good to write sectional tests in prelims before taking any grand tests. Finishing a section of syllabus, say, ancient history and then writing test in it is what I would suggest. This way, you will be able to finish the entire syllabus with greater single minded focus. By the time you finish all the sectionals, you will realise that your scores in grand tests improves drastically.

Paper 2: The second paper in prelims consisting of logical reasoning, Quant, English must be easy for most aspirants. The qualification criteria here being just 33 percent marks out of 200. But i suggest you take this paper too seriously and write few mocks, to ensure your preparedness in it is same as you think. You can work on areas in this paper where you can improve.

Mains strategy:

Answer writing is crucial for marks in mains. Mock tests help you in improving ability to address the question well. Write answers with a free mind. Do not try to just reproduce what you have read. Your answer must be coherent, well reasoned and a meaningful presentation.


Common mistake which most aspirants do is that they neglect essay paper. They think that their knowledge in general studies will help them write a good essay in the exam hall. This is a flawed approach.

Preparing notes for essay is crucial. Common essay topics such as education, health can be prepared beforehand. Making note of relevant examples, facts, current issues, government initiatives, quotes, figures, international experiences and comparisons will improve the quality of the essay.

Choosing the right essay to write in the exam is also important. Choose an essay that you are most comfortable with. Make use of the choice that the essay paper is offering you.

General studies papers:

It is important to give enough time to all the 20 questions in GS1,2,3 and 19 questions in ethics. With right preparation and approach, it’s an easy task. I feel very happy that in mains I was able to present everything that I wished to, within the stipulated time of 3 hours.

GS paper 1:

Focus on understanding the big picture rather than detail. Especially true in world history. Will explain with an answer I wrote in the 2019 mains exam. It’s on how American and French revolutions changed the world. Rather than mentioning any specific events and dates, I explained how ideas such as All men are born free, no taxation without representation, concept of written constitution etc of American revolution and rule by people, equality-liberty-fraternity and rights of man of French Revolution changed the world forever.

It is important to be thorough in basic concepts of geography such as climate, landforms. In modern history, tamilnadu textbooks of 11th and 12th give a concise and easy way to cover syllabus. Newspaper reading helps in answering questions on society. Be well aware of various art and culture aspects by listing down at least one example that you can quote relevantly.

GS paper 2:

International relations must be focused apart from Polity. Big picture debates on RSTV with former ambassadors and High commissioners sharing their expertise is the perfect learning source, as the questions are dynamic. I did not miss a single debate. Mains 365 of IR must be read as if it’s a textbook.

In Polity, concentrate on current legislations and issues rather than static. PRS legislative research website is a wonderful source for current legislations tabled or passed by the Indian Parliament. I even made notes out of it.

GS paper 3:

By going through the GS paper 3 question paper this year, you will realise how important it is to have answer writing ability. It helps in answering well, questions that you don’t usually expect.

Economic survey part 1 must be read well. You can start with reading the summaries of all chapters given at the end of each chapter. Part 2 mostly has figures, statistics in most chapters. Summary of budget is presented in PRS website. Current issues in Environment, security, S&T, Disaster management must be focussed.

Ethics,Integrity and aptitude:

This tests your answer writing ability to the best as there is low scope to reproduce what you memorised. You must keep track of time too in this paper as one might spend time in thinking about the answer to present. Practise will make it easier.

Practical, feasible and legal solutions must be given in your answers to Case studies. For questions in part 1, making notes of quotes, current issues and examples will help.

Optional (Sociology):

Optional and essay are crucial for scoring well. In sociology, I primarily followed Essential sociology book by Nitin Sangwan. I also did M.A in sociology through distance mode while I was working in IT.

It is important to take feedback on your answers from faculty by writing test series. Rajitha madam of Shankar IAS helped me a lot in my answer writing. I wrote sociology mock test series in Rajitha madam’s guidance and it greatly improved my answer writing ability. Madam would give me personal feedback through Skype video call after evaluating my script as I was in Hyderabad.

Personality Test:

Prepare on your DAF 1 and 2. While one cannot predict the questions that they might ask, being well prepared for the interview helps us in presenting ourselves better. Give honest, well reasoned, polite answers. Mock interviews help. Do one to one mocks with peers.

My interview which was supposed to be on March 31, 2020 happened on July 30,2020 due to COVID. I kept preparing on current affairs and DAF.

Having good sleep before the day of interview is important. I had a relaxed, proper sleep. Eat well before you go to UPSC building. If you are hungry, it would reflect in your voice, expressions, energy etc. In interview, remember that how well you reason the answer is more important than the answer itself.

Right strategy and preparation will surely give you success.

All the best!

reference – Suryateja Mallavarapu IAS, IAS,2020 batch | AIR 76, UPSC CSE 2019

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