UPSC Prelims

A lot of people have found the approach I shared for UPSC Mains very helpful, and I’ve received requests to write something similar specifically for the Prelims and Interview.

That page is already too long, so I’ll put it here.

This section contains:

  • My Study Approach
  • Guessing Strategy based on Common Sense
  • Mock Test strategy
  • Tips for the day of the exam
  • What to do after the exam

If you’ve already prepared well, you can probably skim or read quickly since you might be familiar with most of the stuff here.

1. Study Approach

Prelims is a game of return on investment (ROI) and guessing.

ROI is how you study before the exam. Guessing is how you answer many of the questions on the day of the exam.


ROI means that what you don’t study is as important or even more important than what you do.

β€œI consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

Understand these simple facts.

  • The material to read can be infinite (if you don’t know what you’re doing)
  • Your memory (and time, energy) are limited
  • Not all facts are equally important.

I’ve used the same idea in life, applying it to everything I do, so it was natural to use it here. Don’t do things that don’t add value. Time is precious, you are here on Earth for a brief period and then you’ll go back to the soil. Spend your time as you spend your money – consciously.

Every time you pick up material to read, ask yourself: “Is this adding any value?” If you’re reading something you already know, or something you don’t think is relevant, why keep doing it?

I found that many books didn’t benefit me – I dropped them in a few minutes. For some, I didn’t bother with a replacement – I just left that and googled if I needed to know anything specific

Where should you spend your time?

To identify what’s important and worth giving time, I used these 3 attributes.

  1. Reward – Reward is how many questions usually (you can’t be sure) come from this topic. How do you know this?
    1. Previous year papers. I’ll mention some of the things I recall, but every year this will change as new papers come, and you’ll need to do some work by yourself too.
  2. Probability- How likely is it that this topic comes in the exam? This is your best guess (you cannot be 100% sure).
    1. Don’t confuse this with reward.
    2. Example: World Map, monetary policy questions –
      1. Low reward – rarely does more than 1 come from here
      2. High probability – almost always comes every year
  3. Cost – How much effort is this going to take me? Effort means time and energy. This depends on you
    1. For example, history, polity were simple because I enjoyed them,
    2. Geography, particularly the fact based part, was dull -which glacier is in which river (asked in Prelims) or which mountain range is the highest etc always seemed pointless. If I ever wanted to know, I’d google it, so I skipped a lot here. (It did not have high reward or high probability so I could leave most of it easily)

If you understand this, you can try to divide the Prelims syllabus into 3 Buckets : A, B and C.

  • I studied for perhaps 150-160 marks in prelims. This is Part A of prelims. I did not study for all 200 marks.
  • 30-40 marks I “skimmed”
    • I read quickly but did not put too much effort to try to memorize everything because
      • the material was huge and fact based – probability that the question would be based on the same fact I had read was almost zero.
      • Reward is not particularly high – only a smaller number of questions come from here.
      • This is Part B of prelims. (2019 Paper: Ranyo Ashoka question, name of a specific city in Harappan civilization, matching glaciers to rivers – I’m sure these were in some book, but I didn’t know them because I never studied for them)
  • Rest anywhere from 5 (if lucky) to 20 (if unlucky) marks are Part C.
    • This I left to God. Either I would eliminate options and guess or skip the question entirely.
    • 2019 Paper: Tansen question – could be guessed (shown later), while the question on Saint Nimbarka I left (I could not guess).

So everytime I read anything – a book, news compilation – I would read the words and also classify it as A/B/C.

Approach for Parts A, B C:

  • Part A
    • Needs conscious effort to retain in your memory –
    • Understand the idea wherever possible (history, Science & Tech),
    • Or try to remember the fact (such as Article 142 – SC can pass orders to do justice).
  • Part B:
    • Come here after Part A is covered decently.
    • Look at the material carefully, try to make a note of it, and move on.
    • If you can retain it in your mind, it’s good. If you can’t, don’t worry about it.
    • You can still try eliminating options
    • I tried a different way to recall them – when I see the “correct” option I would remember reading it somewhere – that option sticks out. So I didn’t try to forcefully remember it – only enough to recognize the right option when I saw it
  • Part C:
  • Ignore. These are outliers. They are traps to suck your time and energy.
    • Guess if possible, else leave entirely. Questions such as on Tansen, and Saint Nimbarka are here (try memorizing every singer/saint’s life and you probably won’t clear the exam).

Classifying Material as A, B, C

So, the question is – where to spend your time? Most of it should be Part A.

Part A

  • High Reward – whether cost is low or high, probability is low or high doesn’t matter, you must focus here.
  • High Probability – I would recommend studying for this too. One or two at most come from here, but they almost always come every year, so why let them go?
    • World Map -question on matching sea/country came in 2019
    • Monetary Policy – money multiplier came in 2019, (previous years I think impact of raising interest or money supply came)
    • Reports published by UN, WB, WTO, WEF
    • Topics like National Parks/Wildlife sanctuaries I found dull – memorizing facts – but they have high probability so I didn’t leave them. Still, you can make it more interesting in your own way – I used the maps I found here to make it easier
    • Again, keep in mind cost to benefit ratio – I didn’t bother learning all mountains, ocean currents in the world because it had high cost for me (not particularly interesting) – only art & culture maps, wildlife sanctuaries, and only important lakes and important folk dances.
      • One question on wildlife sanctuaries did come (Agasthyamalai), and it was a hard one but I could guess the answer because I’d done maps
  • Low cost – this means a subject you find easy / interesting (depends on you).
    • If it’s a subject which is low reward or low probability, study it whenever you’re bored of the above two sections.
    • If it’s high reward/high probability – then you’re set, you will study it anyway- but don’t spend all your time here either.

Low cost, High reward, High Probability is obviously the best. But you will want to focus on high reward or high probability topics even if the cost is high.

Some Generalizations

These are my own observations. They will change over the years, and you will have your own observations too which might have something I have not written here. If these help you, make use of them. These are general guidelines only – broad subjects to focus on.

Part A

  • Environment – always important since prelims is also for forest service
    • Acts, international agreements (Stockholm convention, UNFCCC etc) and major organizations
    • small notifications (a very specific question on bamboo came) fit here.
    • I’d also consider questions like the one on forest cover % in states to be here.
    • It’s a very broad term – plastic/hazardous waste rules, ocean microbeads, even renewable energy (HCNG – part science, part environment) – all came in 2019).
    • Just take a glance at the papers in recent years – I think for prelims I spent more time here than any other topic.
  • “Agriculture” is a very important topic, and not very distinct from environment (2019 Questions: the biggest rice exporter, which crops are indigenous, Kharif crops cultivation area)
  • Art and Culture/Ancient history – If you’ve prepared seriously, you must know that dynasties and kings don’t matter that much (save a few).
    • You won’t be asked which king married which princess, and even questions about which dynasty defeated which are highly highly unlikely.
    • Even when they do matter, it’s usually related to art and culture (Jahangir – portrait painting in prelims, Krishna Deva Raya question in Mains one year)
    • It seemed to me that Ancient, and even Medieval history are almost nothing but art and culture. See the past questions – the works of Kalidasa, who was preaching when Babur took over – these are about literature, religion.
      • The questions this year – portrait painting, saints, Ranyo Ashoka, Kalyana Mandapa, Tansen – these are almost all about art, dance, architecture, religion (one question on Harappan sites does not fit here though).
      • These are also hit or miss – either easy (portrait – Jahangir), or ridiculously specific facts (Saint Nimbarka was a contemporary of Akbar/Saint Kabir was greatly influenced by Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi) which I had no clue about.
      • You don’t really study with the hard questions in mind. The easy ones you should not miss – anyone who has done basic reading of medieval would know Shah Jahan is associated with architecture, Jahangir with portrait painting. The hard ones – either guess (like Tansen – I’ll come to it later), or leave (like Saint Nimbarka – they are part C).
    • Extremely important topics like Buddhism, Jainism must be done with detail – they have high reward and high probability.
      • When I say Buddhism, I don’t just mean Buddhism – I consider Ashoka/Mauryan empire, Harsha & Xuanzang, Megasthenes, Gandhara/Mathura/Amaravati art, Ajanta & Ellora – everything with some connection to Buddhism is important, even if the connection is faint.
      • Similarly, if you break ancient/medieval down – topics like Maurya, Gupta empires, Harsha, foreign travellers, Indus valley civilization are high reward and high probability, but Satvahana, Chalukyas, Hoysalas and smaller kingdoms are not (except where they relate to art, culture – such as Vesara temples, Buddhist or Sanskrit inscriptions). Same for Medieval -Bhakti saints, Turkish sultanate, Mughals, Vijaynagara, Mysore, EIC conquest are important; which king won which battle with how many soldiers, who betrayed whom at Plassey are not.
      • For Modern history (after 1757), most of it is important – it’s worth spending time here. Same for Polity. Static books are worth the time – they help in Mains and Prelims both. I used Spectrum and Laxmikant (use any book that benefits you). These are high reward and high probability for Prelims and Mains, don’t neglect them – do them fully, for it’s very hard to predict what can come from these two.
      • These are very static (even in polity, the same issues like Anti-defection act, Article 142 pop up every year – these are not really dynamic)
    • Science and Tech is also high reward, high probability – digital certificates, gene editing, new sources of energy, AI will only keep increasing every year.
      • It’s either definition or application in most cases that matters. Who made it is typically irrelevant.
      • Those comfortable with science will find that logic can help you guess.
    • Economics – there’s usually one conceptual question on monetary policy, and the remaining are factual – but the facts are usually linked to current affairs (covered below separately)
    • Geography – specific topics like cyclones/earthquakes/crop types and examples/forest covers from NCERT for prelims.
      • Mechanisms of volcanoes and other conceptual topics (PMFIAS explained well) – help in mains.
      • Most of NCERT I found to be irrelevant- NCERT geography facts like baccoliths/dykes, dunes, landforms – I didn’t see in the recent 5-7 years, they seemed to come long ago only, and again, I found it to be high cost (very boring) to mug such facts so I skipped this.
      • Similarly, I took one look at GC Leong which I was recommended by several sources online and ignored it – too much text and facts, too fat a book and too little benefit to be worth it I thought. Use it if it helps you – don’t use it because someone said you should, don’t reject it because I said I didn’t use it.

These are “guesses” – you can never be 100% sure, but it’s highly likely that these topics will cover a huge chunk of the paper. I thought Space would be a high probability topic but it wasn’t (gravitational waves came, but I’m talking about fact based questions like Gaganyaan, Aditya L1, Mars Rover etc). Conceptual questions like gravitational waves, applications of inventions I prefer to put down as S&T – this was a high reward (and for me, low cost since I preferred reading it).

Don’t get fixated on any book. I saw everyone uses Nitin Singhania but I didn’t like it for some reason, so I used the notes of Nitin Sangwan. It doesn’t make a difference, there’s no prescribed syllabus. Use the one you think is benefiting you. How do you know it’s benefiting you? Look at your scores in mock tests, they will tell you.

But don’t use more than one book per topic – unless you think it is benefiting you. The reason is simple. When you read the first book, 90% of things are new, and every hour you will learn a lot.

When you read the second book – assuming the first book was good and you read it seriously – hardly 10-20% things will be new, if that. So the return on your time is very poor. If you must read more, make sure it is for the high reward, high probability subjects – reading international affairs or state dances/festivals from 3 books is terrible use of your time.

Part B

This is topics like

  • Buildings/temples, folk dances and other state/region specific facts (excluding what I mentioned above) in art and culture. Such as which state has which dance and so on.
  • Medieval/Ancient history facts – such as the question on officers like “Amil”, “Mil Bakshi” in 2019 (these facts are not to do with art and culture)
  • “Extra” facts about Part A topics –
    • A question came on which national park lies completely in the temperate alpine zone – I’d studied national parks locations, I didn’t know these additional details about most parks (save the very obvious ones like Loktak lake, Kaziranga etc)
      • There are thousands of such minute details you can go into for every park, every dance/festival, every ancient empire. I figured all my time and energy would go into that so I didn’t spend too much time here
  • Very, very specific facts of Part A topics like environment, agriculture – jowar being cultivated more than oilseeds in the last 5 years (who really tracks this) and so on

Part B is not what you leave completely (that’s Part C). Part B is what you usually read in a newspaper (if you read one), or in whichever monthly compilation you follow (I used insights for prelims, visions for mains – it won’t matter which you use, choose the one that works for you). It’s up to you if you read a newspaper – I would skim it while eating because I get bored otherwise. Honestly, it didn’t add much value – especially for prelims – but if you do read the paper, don’t spend a lot of time on it unless you feel it’s really helping you.

It’s also those very specific details you see in history (Turkish Sultanate officers, Maratha minister titles) – usually those that are very long and cumbersome (Ranyo Ashoka sculpture – I didn’t know, since I hadn’t made a list of every sculpture, and the question on Harappan sites – I hadn’t memorized any site, only knew the major cities).

These are facts which you might have read somewhere. I don’t think it’s worth spending all your energy memorizing them – they are just so many, you’ll almost never know the fact that actually comes in the exam (they could ask any of the Mauryan sculptures, any city from Harappa/ Mauryas/ Guptas or other empires.

So if you read them, make a note of it in your mind, and go forward. Maybe you’ll remember it, maybe you won’t – but don’t spend a lot of time trying.

Part C

This is the outlier. The questions on Tansen, Saint Nimbarka or anything that most people wouldn’t specifically know or even read. It’s there in Mains too – something like the question on CyberDome project.

If you know it, you’re lucky, but if you don’t – I don’t think it’s a great idea to try to prepare specifically for these questions.

Don’t see these in previous year questions and assume that the topic has become important. Just because a question on Tansen was asked does not mean next year there will be one on Abdul Rahim Khan, another of Akbar’s navratnas.

This is a very low ROI – you’d cover huge amounts of material, hoping that one or two random facts come from it – and you probably wouldn’t even recall it because you read so much.

Current Affairs

I’ve put this separately because I’ve gotten so many questions about where to read current affairs from. And because current affairs is perhaps the most important thing for prelims.

Current affairs is the Part A of Part A – if you see the paper, most of the high reward, high probability questions (environment, economics, science and tech, agriculture) come from current affairs.

In 2019: Waste management rules, gene editing, largest exporter of rice in 5 years, Kharif crop cultivation trends, bank board bureau, inter-creditor agreement, even H-CNG – these are all current affairs.

The rest of part A is static – polity, modern history, art and culture (what I mentioned previously), and major concepts,agreements and institutions in environment, agriculture which are the base on which current affairs builds on (so Paris Agreement would add on to UNFCCC, Stockholm agreement, Kyoto Protocol).

There also isn’t really anything called “current affairs”. That’s just the name given to the newspaper and news compilations.

If you really look at it – what is “Current affairs”? It’s just drawn out from the same topics – environment, S&T, agriculture, polity. Even History (anniversary of WW1 can become “current”), Geography (the Meghalayan age, for instance).

But current affairs is the most important – because if you see the questions on environment (Compensatory Afforestation Fund, amendment to Indian Forest Act for bamboo, Solid waste management rules etc) and economy (inter creditor agreement, banks board bureau) and even other acts – these all fit in current affairs also.

Why I’m telling you this is that when you read current affairs, keep your Part A, B, C in your mind. Focus on the high reward, high probability news. Ignore the low value news. Monthly compilations are one or two hundred pages of densely packed text- you can’t remember everything, and you shouldn’t even try.

Don’t treat current affairs as a separate subject where everything has to be remembered – you can always break it down and focus on the more important sections.

How recent is “Current”?

Don’t assume “1 year” or “2 years” is the extent of current affairs. That makes no sense – an issue like the New Education Policy or the Inter creditor agreement doesn’t “begin” one day and end.

An example: The Plastic Waste Management rules were notified in 2016. It was current at that time. They were amended in 2018. It was current at that time also. A ban on single use plastic raised a lot of attention, and so did the commitment to phase out single use plastic by 2022 – it’s going to be “current” for at least a couple of years, probably longer. So an act made even a decade ago can still be “current” (it came in 2019). Bank Nationalization happened in 1969 – on the fiftieth anniversary (2019), it was current – so were issues related to it like Priority sector lending (Lead Bank scheme came in the paper).

So the changes to EIA going on as I write this in 2020 mean that the original Environment Protection Act of 1986 and the old EIA are also current for 2020. The New Education Policy means that the Education Policies of the past such as the 1986 one are also current now.

The year has little to do with it – you need to put the news in perspective. Identify whether it is important (Part A or B or C) and the topics it relates to. It’s not as hard as it seems because 1) Most news is irrelevant and 2) There is a huge overlap every month – you’ll come across the same issue for months.

“News” like anniversaries – Gandhi Jayanti, Independence Day and so on aren’t “news” – they come every year. Skip them.

A lot of editorials are written by specialist researchers (Note : Specialist, not generalist) – you don’t need to remember the results of a random study by any university or researcher. For statistics, it’s better to rely on more reputed organizations – UN, World Bank, Niti Aayog and so on instead of these – if statistics come in prelims, it’s from here, and if you want to mention figures for mains, it’s better to mention a source the examiner has heard of.

And stats related to forest cover, agricultural crops are more important than others (they’re part A – both questions came this year). But that doesn’t mean every little discovery or study coming in The Hindu’s science page is worth spending time on – it’s usually the major reports, especially by GoI – like the Forest Survey Report – that matter.

When you do the world map, current affairs should be covered here too – Crimea, Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya – you should know the places in the news. You don’t need to read in depth for this if you don’t want to – a glance at a headline is enough to know the name of the place (for example, Idlib in Syria was in the news for the push against IS).

Again, the news can help you – if Belarus is in the news, you should know where it is in the map – especially that it touches Russia, Ukraine, Poland and 2 Baltic states, and that Minsk is the capital – you should not care what the President’s name is or how long he’s been in power (personalities don’t matter in current affairs).

Don’t chase trivial facts. It doesn’t matter whether the repo rate is 4.75% or 3.25% , whether GDP growth rate is 3.4% or 5.9% – it’s highly unlikely to come, since these facts change every 2 months/quarter. Instead, learning the concept of how repo rate controls inflation, what the components of GDP are and the method of estimating GDP is more useful for economics. Keep in mind trends – GDP growth rate trends, inflation trends – whether they’ve been increasing or falling – these are a little important but not much (and watch out for the word “steadily” or “continuously” in such questions – I’ll explain later)

Lastly, you must use your own judgment about many of these things. The subjects I found boring could be interesting for you or vice versa. Or you might feel that you need to study for more marks, say 180 or 190, rather than 150-160, to achieve the cutoff. This is something only you can answer.

Again, these are assumptions based on what I felt is worth spending time on. Everyone makes assumptions – no one can possibly read every single thing. Whatever you assume, be aware of your assumption – don’t blindly read new material and don’t blindly skip material.

2. Guessing

I’ll briefly mention some guessing techniques, since most of them you might be aware of. You should read this blog by Abhijeet Sinha if you haven’t already.

Extremes are generally wrong (it’s a paradox to say extremes are always wrong, that’s an extreme itself). Meaning “only”, always” particularly, and sometimes even “first”, “last”.

I’ll also tell you that words like steadily, continuously – are very extreme and hence likely to be wrong. “Steadily/ Continuously Decreased” implies that there hasn’t been any increase at any point of time – very unlikely (see example 6 below)

Language tells you a lot, especially for space. Cassini Huygens – Cassini has the ring of an Italian name – Italy and in fact Europe were involved here. Sputnik is always going to be Russian. (Mentioned in the blog above)

Most of all, common sense can be your friend. This gets easier with practice. I’ll illustrate how common sense can help you solve some questions.

I’ll go to some examples, since that’s the best way to show how you can guess. These are all from 2019

Example 1
  1. With reference to Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), consider the following statements
    1. AIIB has more than 80 member nations.
    2. India is the largest shareholder in AIIB.
    3. AIIB does not have any members from outside Asia.

I’m sure most of us could guess this. Option 3 is extreme – that could give you the answer – why would AIIB (and China, always hungry for influence, not let outsiders in? But let’s imagine we’re stuck between Only 1, Only 2, 1 and 2 – eliminating option 3 isn’t enough.

Ask yourself two things- would China let India be the largest shareholder in a bank based in China (if you’ve studied for the exam, you must surely know something about AIIB)? Unlikely. Secondly, shares are based on how much wealth you put up- and remember that China has very deep pockets.

Example 2
  • What was the purpose of Inter-Creditor Agreement signed by Indian banks and financial institutions recently?

(a) To lessen the Government of India’s perennial burden of fiscal deficit and current account deficit

(b) To support the infrastructure projects of Central and State Governments

(c) To act as independent regulator in case of applications for loans of Rs. 50 crore or more

(d) To aim at faster resolution of stressed assets of Rs. 50 crore or more which are-under consortium lending

Inter-Creditor. Creditor. To give credit is to lend, creditors are usually banks and institutions that give loans. Inter. Inter means between or among, so international is inter + national meaning between nations. Inter creditor is between creditors – between banks.

Now, ask yourself: Why would creditors lessen GoI’s deficit? They have nothing to do with deficits – that’s not their job, even for PSBs, forget private banks. Option 2 is also not hard to eliminate – creditors don’t support infrastructure projects, they just want their money back from borrowers. Option 3 is even easier- the creditor can’t be the regulator (can a batsman or bowler be the umpire?) Option 4 – the word lending should be the biggest hint – is the right answer – creditors only want their money back, they just want to resolve stressed assets fast.

Example 3
  • Consider the following statements:
    • Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board (PNGRB) is the first regulatory body set up by the Government of India.
    • One of the tasks of PNGRB is to, ensure competitive markets for gas.
    • Appeals against the decisions of PNGRB go before the Appellate Tribunals for Electricity.

Why would PNGRB be the first regulatory body? A newly independent country would have more pressing concerns, especially one whose economy is not based on petroleum. Option 2 is reasonable, option 3 is hard to guess – in this case, eliminating one was enough.

Example 4
  • Which one of the following is not a sub-index of the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business Index’?

(a) Maintenance of law and order

(b) Paying taxes

(c) Registering property

(d) Dealing with construction permits

EODB is a buzzword you should be aware of, though knowing all the sub-indexes might be too much. This was in part B – I’d read it, and had a decent idea. But “maintenance of law and order” is a very vague term – no index would measure such a thing reliably, and especially not a business one. It’s not a very hard guess if you think about it.

Example 5
  • With reference to India’s Five-Year Plans, which of the following statements is/are correct?
    • From the Second Five-Year Plan, there was a determined thrust towards substitution of basic and capital good industries.
    • The Fourth Five-Year Plan adopted the objective of correcting the earlier trend of increased concentration of wealth and economic power.
    • In the Fifth Five-Year Plan, for the first time, the financial sector was included as an integral part of the Plan.

Select the correct answer using the code given below.

(a) 1 and 2 only

(b) 2 only

(c) 3 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3

If you’ve prepared decently, you should know the 1st FYP focused on agriculture (a food deprived country has to eat) and the next one on industries. That’s all I knew in this – that the first sentence was right. And it’s hard to imagine that for 20 years the financial sector wasn’t included in a FYP – eliminating option 3 is not too hard.

Example 6
  • With reference to the cultivation of Kharif crops in India in the last five years, consider the following statements:
    • Area under rice cultivation is the highest.
    • Area under the cultivation of jowar is more than that of oilseeds.
    • Area of cotton cultivation is more than that of sugarcane.
    • Area under sugarcane cultivation has steadily decreased.

Which of the statements given above are correct?

(a) 1 and 3 only

(b) 2, 3 and 4 only

(c) 2 and 4 only

(d) 1, 2, 3 and 4

Steadily is an extreme word – it means that there has been no break. It’s very rare for any increase or decrease to be steady – especially an important crop like sugarcane. Option 1 is the best guess. Plus, rice is the major crop of India – statement 1 should be right (so b, c are eliminated).

Example 7
  • With reference to Mian Tansen, which one of the following statements is not correct?

(a) Tansen was the title given to him by Emperor Akbar.

(b) Tansen composed Dhrupads on Hindu gods and goddesses.

(c) Tansen composed songs on his patrons.

(d) Tansen invented many Ragas.

I picked this example because it’s an outlier – most people wouldn’t know about Tansen. And because it’s an example of simple sense. Most of us would know Tansen was a singer – what’s so hard to believe about options b, c and d, especially if you know about Akbar and his patronage for all faiths? a seemed to be the only option that could be not correct among these.

3. Mock Tests

Since someone asked how to use mock tests, I’ll mention what I did.

Mock tests are for 3 things I feel

  • Learn how to guess the answer when you’re not sure – by practising guessing in the mocks
  • Decide your strategy of attempting the paper and practice in advance – you don’t want to make mistakes on the day of the exam
    • Some people bubble the OMR for the questions they know immediately, others wait till the end (I did this) – whatever you do, try to attempt your mock tests the same way
    • I would mark on the question paper – whether I knew it, if I could eliminate any option, or if I should guess / leave it
      • This meant I’d finish the paper in 90 minutes and leave 30 minutes for bubbling – because ultimately it’s what you bubble that counts.
  • Last – Use mock tests to increase your knowledge, but very selectively
    • Most tests give gigantic solutions – the question asks about X, but the solution covers A – Z. You’ll spend hours reading through it.
    • If the question is of Part A, make an effort to remember it (not the whole solution, only what you consider important). Otherwise just see the solution and note it in your mind (Part B), or ignore it if it’s a stupid question (Part C – and I found most tests had a lot of these)

Don’t get disheartened by your scores. A lot of tests are made hard by asking obscure, and often idiotic questions. I’ve had scores from 80-90 in one and the next day between 130-160. Just try that the number of low score tests reduce over time, and try to figure out your attempting strategy – whether you aim for accuracy or you attempt as many as you can (I did the 2nd one, because if even one in 4 guesses is right, you break even).

If your scores are consistently low – then you’ll need to put extra effort. But this effort must not be blind. Your scores are data; data always tells you something.

Break down the paper – place each question in its category, such as economy/ environment / modern history. If you want, go even further and classify it as static or dynamic.

Find out where you’re performing worst – meaning (your marks) divided by (total marks) is the lowest- spend time there, especially if that topic is in Part A. And it probably will be in Part A because that’s where most questions come from – if you do badly in Part B or Part C, your score won’t be affected that much.

4. Day of the Exam

When you give the exam, don’t get flustered when you see questions from Part B and Part C and realize you don’t know them. This was the plan – you probably didn’t study for 200 marks. For example, in the 2019 paper, there was a question about matching glaciers to rivers – something I’d ignored. I’d advise you to skip it if you can’t guess immediately and move on – don’t waste time on questions you don’t know and miss out on ones you do. Instead, come back to it at the end after you’ve bubbled everything. If you let them affect you, you’ll make mistakes on those questions you know.

Realize these facts

  • 100 questions in 120 minutes – on average, 1 minute per question (20 minutes for bubbling)
  • Bubbling is everything – if you knew the answer and didn’t bubble, it’s useless. If you bubbled it right by a fluke, it’s as good as knowing it.
  • A bubble once bubbled can never be undone.
    • If you made an error – accidentally bubbled the wrong option or you realized after bubbling that your answer was wrong – move on.
    • What has been done cannot be undone – don’t let it affect the remaining questions, nor your morale.
  • Fact 1 is irrelevant once you’ve bubbled the questions you know (near the end of the exam).
    • Yes, 1 minute per question is a good standard, but at the end of the exam you might have 5-10 minutes left and perhaps 3-10 questions unbubbled – these are the ones you have no idea about
    • It doesn’t matter if you spend 4 or 5 of these minutes on one of these questions – anything at this point is a bonus. Try to give all your focus on just getting that last 1 or two guesses – it can make a big difference.


I didn’t do anything for this. I can only give you a rough guide to know if you should prepare for it. Solve a previous year paper in exam-like conditions and see your score.

  • If you get 130+ (2x qualifying marks) – you probably don’t need to.
  • If you get 100-130 – Give a couple of previous year papers, maybe read a bit for whichever topic you’re losing marks in (but don’t spend too much time here)
  • <100 – Find out which topic you have problems in, consider buying a book online and solving it
  • <66 – Prepare seriously for CSAT

Just before Prelims

Finally, as Prelims nears, use your time well. Keep in mind ROI – don’t spend hours on things you know very well or that are highly unlikely to come (outliers)

  • If you’re confident, you can probably focus on mains or just relax a little now so you won’t need much of a break after prelims. Depends on you.
  • If you’re not confident – it’s probably better to focus on
    • Part A – the high scoring topics
    • Those topics you aren’t doing well in (if they are in part A, otherwise don’t spend a lot of time here)

The number of mock tests you do depends on you (since many people keep asking this). You should know when you’ve have enough and any additional tests are only a burden, not any help to you.

Just after Prelims

One last suggestion – after your exam, if you’re anywhere near the cutoff (even if you think there’s less than 1% probability of qualifying) – ignore the answer keys and either take a break if you need one or start studying for mains. What’s done is done; nothing is going to change the bubbles you made in the sheet and the cutoff, so why waste the time you have on things you can’t control? And assuming you plan to appear again if you don’t make it, the preparation for mains won’t be wasted. And even if you won’t appear again – would you rather study needlessly for 1 month, or appear for Mains with one month less preparation? It’s Pascal’s wager – just as people often have more to gain by believing in God than not, you have much more to gain by believing you’ve qualified.

All the best.





Hello Sir, First of all Congratulations! Every toppers are saying that do analysis of previous year question papers. But No one has mentioned that how to do analysis of previous years papers?

Do we purchased a separate book for each subject’s previous year paper or Do we just downloaded previous year paper and try to solve?

Please write one dedicated answer on how to analyse previous year papers and baded on that how to decide which topic is important or not, also when do we analyse previous year papers, before completing Syllabus or once the syllabus complete?

My humble request to you to write one dedicated answer on this.

Subhro Pattnaik

Hello Pratyush!

My optional is also Sociology, can you please write a post about your sociology preparation. A detailed one like the way you wrote about prelims preparation and mains framework.

When you exactly decided to prepare for CSE? I mean there are people who tell that they prepare after graduation but actually they do their basics in their final year itself. Did you prepare for mains after Prelims I. E. When you joined mains test series?

Don’t forget to write about Sociology Optional. Like when you started, what should be done. As teachers suggest that we should read big books written by sociologist like Giddens, Harlambos etc. And we need to do sociological analysis of different topics. So please put some light on this. πŸ˜ƒπŸ˜

Upasana Kumar

Hey! A very interesting take on CSE. What would your strategy be if you were giving this exam during a pandemic?


Thanks a lot for explaining time and energy management in addition to prelims strategy. πŸ™‚


Can you please link the appropriate sections to the list (which you provided in the beginning and said what you will be covering in this page) so that when I click on link, it takes me to the appropriate section. Eg- when I click on “Tips for the day of the exam”, it takes me to that section. (I have read the whole page but I want to come back to specific sections again, it would be easier if don’t have to scroll that much ). Thank you.


Will do in the near future.
Till then please try Ctrl+F


Absolutely loved the whole thing and I’m sure this blog is going to play a pivotal role in my preparation. Thank you! Truly grateful for all the efforts for us πŸ˜‡πŸ˜‡

Anand Kumar

Hi pratyush sir
I read and revised whole prelim syllabus 2x times but when I gave full test series than marks below 50 again and again and negative more why this happened?
What can I do for reach 120 marks?
Please sir tell me way forward I also read your prelim strategy post.

For prelim which test series series you join?
Are you give always sectional test or full test?
Which is more beneficial?

Are you sir made notes for prelim?

I hope sir you will give me reply my all doubts in order wise and very comprehensive manner please so I can understand well.


I can’t tell you why. Look at the questions you lost marks in and see which topics you need to focus on. Negatives mean too many blind guesses.

I did vision / insight – full test.
Do section ones if you struggle in some topics.

Books (see the sources I mentioned on another page) /monthly news compilations (insights) mostly. And the test series solutions.


Hello , so you just went for one round in prelims paper ? What about the question in which you could eliminate just one option? Did you mark it at first go or came for it after bubbling ? You going for just one round means you won’t think about a question again even if it’s 50:50 type question?? Please elaborate on your in exam hall paper attempting strategy or way ?


No. I did multiple rounds, just marking on the question paper itself.
First the ones I was sure, then the ones I could eliminate an option, then the rest.
Any is fine – mark it or come later. I would mark on question paper first.

You need to find what suits you – everyone has their own style


sir can u plz share ias4sure environment material u mentioned? were u talkin about current afirs one they release?


i think it was this –

Not current affairs as such – more of treaties/ organizations.


Sir, can you please share your segregation of topics into 3 buckets, you mentioned above, for prelims and 4 categories you mentioned for mains. Though not the same, at least we will get some idea.. please sir, please, please

Anu tiwari

Hello vi want to talk to you on insta or on social site ….I hope you ll give me an opportunity to contact you. I got to know about you from my brother he is going to take admission in your collage iit Kanpur So please


I today tried mapping Biosphere Reserves and figured out that there are too many Parks, Sanctuaries, Connecting Rivers under them. And literally felt that learning all of them will be time consuming. How did you make a note of the Important ones? Do you mean the ones which come under Current happenings are important?


Hi Pratyush,
As you mentioned Nitin sangwan sir notes is Old right, can we use it now prilims and Mains as well ? it seams very easy to read and handy as well, but a small doubt could you clarify this ,mostly for Economy and culture, bcoz im going to appear in 2021.


Sir, I couldn’t get the answer for the first time asked this question, may be you didn’t notice my question. can you please share your segregation of topics into 3 buckets for prelims and 4 categories you mentioned for mains. Though not the same, at least we will get some idea.. please sir, please, please


Mains is different from prelims – you don’t need to remember so many facts and details.

Segregation is hard because the questions aren’t always straightforward – even if you know agriculture or economy is important, you can’t tell what will be asked.
Instead of segregation learn to remember points on broad topics (gender/caste justice, PRI, China/US/Russia relations, Disaster management lifecycle etc) and use these in questions.


the efforts you had put in understanding the exam can be clearly seen from your blogs…..thankyou so much for sharing all this.


Can you share tushar anshu’s sociology notes, I couldn’t get it anywhere


DOUBT – (From the blog you mentioned)

In the below mentioned question even the option 1 has 2 names(1-boy n 1-girl)
Q. Which one of the following books of ancient India has the love story of the son of the founder of Sunga dynasty? ( 2016 )
(a) Swapnavasavadatta
(b) Malavikagnimitra
(c) Meghadoota
(d) Ratnavali
How to dedice in this case??????
Thank u in advance….

Palakh Garg

We should be confident during preparations, but there are some days when we feel low and failed. But, after reading your blogs, I feel like, you’re so sure of getting through prelims & mains without doubting yourself. Here, you’re talking about getting 80-90 marks one day and 130-160 another day, but why it is so hard for us to score even 80-90 someday.

Rivet Joint

Plis don’t get married yet. I
m gonna crack UPSC and I’m gonna pursue you! -_-
Currently in 2nd year in NSIT, Delhi.

Kalyan Kumar

Hello sir, I am your junior(Y16) from IITK and probably in the IIM too. Can you let us know how did you manage to prepare for UPSC while pursuing MBA as i heard that the curriculum in IIM is tightly packed and it is not possible to prepare for CSE parallel to semester.


Bhai, in same boat (term 3). If you get Pratyush to throw some light on how he managed acads in ‘A’ with CSE prep, then pls do share over here>>