Editorial Articles


Civil Services Preliminary Examination : A Perspective

S. B. Singh

The simple answer to an often asked question as to why  Civil Services  Examination (more popularly known as IAS Exam.) is so immensely popular among lakhs of hard working aspirants from across a wide range of academic disciplines is that a career in civil services provides not only status, prestige, security and comforts of a government job but also lends power necessary to make an impact on people, society and finally, on the nation. If there is so much at stake, it is only natural that this examination. should be the most fiercely contested exam among aspirants. At all the three levels of the contest (i.e., prelims, mains and the personality test), there are challenges. But it is at the first stage of the exam. i.e. the preliminary exam., that this exam is found to be the most challenging. Although prelims is purported to be just a qualifying test to allow a candidate to appear in the main examination, the fact is that it is both scary and intimidating. It is scary because out of a total of 4-5 lakh aspirants appearing, around 15,000 candidates have a chance to get selected at this level. Thus it actually translates into not a qualifying exam but an elimination process and even the most talented among the aspirants run the risk of getting eliminated in the prelims level itself. If one gets eliminated, he/she has to wait for one full year to get another chance to qualify and appear in the mains. It is intimidating because there is so much to study for the exam ranging from the traditional areas like history, culture, geography, environment and ecology , polity , science and technology to current and contemporary issues. Whereas the mains examination seeks conceptual understanding of the issues, prelims seeks both conceptual understanding and factual knowledge which broadens its scope. Viewed in this perspective, prelims preparation is a true test of ones’ nerves, tenacity, persistence, and perseverance.
Essentials of Prelims exam.: There can be no single, fixed way to look at a competitive exam and it can be approached from different perspectives. Yet, its essentials will remain the same. As far as IAS prelims exam is concerned, its essentials can be summed up as given below.
I. It is a test of both your conceptual clarity and factual information base: The main difference between the mains exam. and prelims is that while the former seeks to test your conceptual understanding through writing skills, the latter tests both concepts and facts. For example, if you are studying Buddhism and Jainism in history for your prelims exam, a question may be asked about the concepts of soul , god, transmigration in both the religions which requires a very good clarity on related concepts. Then, questions may also be asked pertaining to facts alone ,e.g. about various Buddhist councils, where they were held, etc.
II. It is a common test for both IAS and IFS ( Indian Forest Service) exams. : Since there is a single prelims exam conducted for both the IAS and IFS, the format of the prelims exam has been modified to do justice to both. Earlier, a large number of questions were asked from traditional areas like history, polity, economics. But now there are more questions on geography, environment, ecology, climate change, forestry in order to evaluate an IFS candidate taking this common test. This new feature of the exam must always be factored in your preparations.
III. Its not just all about NCERT books: Mastering NCERT books is what everyone would suggest to crack prelims. This is largely true. But you can not expect all questions just from NCERT books which, though excellent on concepts, lack factual details asked in the exam. Therefore, you need to consult books beyond NCERT also.
IV. Well known facts count but less known facts also matter: No doubt, you need to know all the well known facts on subjects like history, geography etc., but at the same time, you need to know about less known facts also because UPSC has a passion for setting such questions. By less known facts I mean those ones which are not projected eminently in news or even books . For example, while studying about art and culture, one may cover all the major temples, but there is a temple called Chausath Yogini temple in Jabalpur about which few would know. Its importance lies in the fact that the architectural design of our parliament building is influenced by this temple. This kind of attention must be paid while preparing on facts.
V. Last 15 years UPSC questions must be practiced: I have a mantra for success in prelims. If you solve all GS questions asked by UPSC in last 15 years in
prelims exam, except the current affairs related questions, you will get 15-20 questions easily. Some of the previous years’ questions do get repeated. Apart from these, questions are also taken from previous years’ exams conducted by UPSC for CAPF, NDA. Some questions from SSC exam are also asked. Therefore, rather than practicing questions prepared by commercial coachings and websites, its wiser to practice last years’ questions as they are authentic and they might be repeated.
VI. Strategy for CSAT: CSAT is of qualifying nature now requiring only qualifying marks (i.e. 33% only). It does not make sense to devote too much time for CSAT. The best way of doing CSAT is to identify your strong areas in CSAT syllabus and do well in that area to score the qualifying marks. For example, if you are good in maths and reasoning, make it your strength and it will give you the minimum marks required to qualify. Similarly, if comprehension part is your forte, use it to your advantage in the exam.
Current topics of national and international importance: This constitutes the most challenging part of the prelims syllabus in terms of its wide coverage and diverse nature. The problem here is not the current affairs per se, but the attitude of candidates towards it. Current affairs is to be done on day to day basis, but majority of candidates keep postponing it till the close of the prelims exam and then suddenly get panicky about it. You will definitely find it hard to do current affairs at the last moment because it requires enormous amount of information from diverse fields. Therefore, it should be part of your daily routine. Secondly, the sources should be of diverse nature to collect information on various topics of current affairs. At least 2- 3 newspapers should be thoroughly read and a couple of magazines, including a foreign weekly like The Economist, Time, Newsweek, should also be perused. Events of last one year should be scrutinized in details. Additionally, some important events of two years preceding last year should also be refreshed.
History and Culture: Of late, there is a tendency to ask more questions on art and culture part. This needs to be thoroughly done through books like “The Wonder that was India “ by A. L . Basham,” The Gazetteer of India” etc. Modern India should be given more emphasis because large number of questions are asked from this section of history syllabus. For ancient and medieval India, one can depend on NCERT books , but for Modern India, at least 2-3 different books must be consulted.
Geography: In geography, environment and ecology are also included which makes it a large chunk of the prelims exam. Adequate attention must be paid to geography section as it would carry more marks than any other section. Atlas reading holds the clue to understanding geography. For environment and ecology, websites like ENVIS INDIA, and magazines like Down to Earth will be handy.
Polity: A thorough knowledge of Indian Constitution can take care of the polity section. Any good text book on Indian Constitution can be referred to, but it must be supplemented by reading the articles of the Constitution and their interpretations. For this, I would recommend P. M. Bakshi’s book on Indian Constitution. Needless to add here that the current developments in judiciary, legislature governance issues will also have to be followed along with the Constitutional provisions. I will recommend two websites viz. Live Law and PRS India to update information on polity and law related issues.
Economic and Social developments: Though in terms of numbers , fewer questions are being set on economics, yet, its current affairs component has been increasing. In other words, there are more current economic questions than the traditional questions on economy. This strengthens the case for a thorough knowledge of the Budget, Economic Survey, and careful perusal of economic news appearing in the pink newspapers ( financial newspapers are printed in pink newsprint).
Govt schemes, policies and programs: A good number of questions are asked about various schemes of the govt. For this, you need to access important govt websites especially of the ministries of agriculture, rural development, social justice, women and child development which roll out various welfare schemes. The problem here is that the questions on govt schemes and programs are not of a general nature. The minute details are also asked relating to a particular scheme. Therefore, each govt scheme needs to be followed in its minute details otherwise it will be difficult to arrive at the right option given in the question even though you might know about the scheme.
Science and Technology: For best coverage of this section, a two pronged strategy should be employed. One, basic theories of physics, chemistry and biology must be buttressed by reading NCERT books on science. Two, applied science, ( mostly part of current affairs) must be covered through newspapers and scientific magazines.
Current Affairs:
2.Economic Survey 2016-2017
3.Annual Reports of ministries of environment and forest, tribal welfare, women and child welfare, social justice, rural development, department of science and technology, atomic energy, renewable energy.
4.Newspapers: Times of India, Indian Express, Business Standard, Mint, Employment News
5.Magazines: Frontline, Down to Earth, Yojana, Kurukshetra
1.NCERT: Ancient India( R S Sharma) , Medieval India( Satish Chandra) , Modern India( Bipan Chandra)
2.A L Basham: The wonder that was India
3.The Gazetteer of India: vol . II
4.Bipan Chandra: Struggle for India’s Independence
5.A R Desai: Social Background of Indian Nationalism
6.B L Grover: Modern India
7.R.C. Pradhan: Raj to Swaraj
Art and Culture
1.Basil Gray: The Arts of India
2.Publications Division books on art and culture
3.A. L. Basham : The Wonder That Was India ( chapter on art and architecture)
4.The Gazetteer of India, vol. II: Chapters on art, literature and culture
1.All NCERT books on geography from std. vi to xii
2.ICSE books on geography.. 8th- 10th std.
3.Goh Cheh Leong: Certificate Human and Physical Geography
4.Atlas by Oxford India publication
Polity and Constitution:
1.P M Bakshi : Constitution of India
2.D.D Basu: Constitution of India
3.S.C Kashyap: Our Constitution
4. M P Singh: Indian Federalism
5. B K Sharma: Indian Constitution
1.NCERT: Indian Economic Development
2.Mishra and Puri: Indian Economy
3.Economic Survey 2015-2016
5.Business Standard, Mint newspapers
 General Science:
1.NCERT: Std X books on Physics, Chemistry and std XI and XII books on Biology
2.Magazine: Down to Earth
(The lists are indicative only)
(S.B. Singh is a noted academician and IAS Mentor . He can be reached at his email: sb_singh2003@yahoo.com)
View expressed are personal.
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