In-Depth Jobs

Issue no: 02, 8-14 April 2023

IAS (Prelims) Examination

The Right Approach


S B Singh


Every year the UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) publishes its notification for the Civil Services Examination which also includes three prestigious services, viz; the IAS, IPS, and the IFS, apart from number of allied central services like the income tax, customs, audit and accounts and many more. Getting a government job has always been a preferred choice for the youth in India due to the social prestige, job security, good perks attached to these jobs. Lakhs of candidates from all kinds of educational backgrounds-humanities, engineering management, agriculture, and medical science, apply for this examination conducted by UPSC every year. The whole examination process consisting of three stages of exam, i.e., prelims, mains, and interview, is completed in fifteen months from the date of UPSC notification. The eligibility criteria has been kept very simple with a view to ensure participation by large number of candidates and making the exam inclusive in nature. Any graduate in any discipline with just 35% marks is eligible to apply. The age criteria is also very liberal. For general category candidates, it is 21-32 years with a maximum of six attempts while for the OBC it is 35 years with nine attempts. For SC/STs, the upper age limit is 37 years with unlimited attempts.It is to be noted that appearing in the prelims will be counted as an attempt irrespective of your results. Also, if you fail at any stage of the exam, you have to start the race from the beginning. This makes the civil services exam very demanding and takes its toll in terms of mental and physical health of the candidates. This has been pointed out by the latest report of a parliamentary committee on civil services examination which has recommended reducing the time consumed in completing the entire examination process from the existing fifteen months to six months. The point is; this is not just an exam of knowledge, but also of your patience, perseverance and attitude. It is impossible to succeed in this exam without the right attitude. Just covering the syllabus is not the only demand this exam places on the students. All your qualities of courage, optimism, patience are put to test. This is so because, given the tough nature of the exam, it takes more than one attempt (barring rare exceptions) to finally make it. Only those who are mentally and psychologically prepared to withstand the pressure can kiss success at last. During the run from the start to finish many challenges viz; disappointments, depression, mental and physical fatigue are bound to challenge you. Keeping in mind what all it takes to make it to the civil services is, thus, the first good step taken towards success. It is pertinent to understand the different stages of the civil services exam and prepare as per its purpose. The preliminary examination is a qualifying test for Mains to filter out a few thousand candidates from a crowd of lakhs of applicants. It is a qualifying exam because you just need to achieve the cut off marks to be eligible for the main exam and its marks are not counted in your final success. Your final success and rank will be based on your performance in the main exam and the interview, not the preliminary exam. But it is the most crucial part of the exam in the sense that it opens the door for you for the next level of exam. Under the existing scheme of exam, the prelims consist of two papers. One is the CSAT (Civil Services Aptitude Test) paper which comprises English comprehension, verbal reasoning and numerical ability. In order to fetch the minimum 33% marks in this paper; one has to familiarise with all the three sections of its syllabus rather than relying on only one or two. The second paper is known as General Studies (GS), which is made up of a number of disciplines. The core disciplines in the GS paper comprise: history, polity, geography and economy. In addition, there are questions on science and technology and current affairs. Here again, one has to have command all the sections rather than covering the syllabus in a lop sided manner. The preliminary examination has increasingly become the toughest and most unpredictable part of the exam for a variety of reasons. First, out of five-six lakh candidates appearing for it, only tentwelve thousand qualify in the prelims. Second, the CSAT paper, which tests English comprehension and reasoning and numerical ability, though a qualifying paper requiring just 33% of marks to qualify, is becoming a hurdle for many candidates nowadays as the difficult questions have been increased. Earlier, CSAT was taken for granted by most candidates. Third, the nature of questions in the GS paper is difficult to predict because, UPSC continuously experiments with the questions and brings new types of questions every year to take the candidate by surprise. Fourth, the negative marking makes the prelims highly risky. If you do not use prudence and go on attempting all the questions, chances are that you will get very low marks because of the negative marking. Finally, time is a big constraint in the prelims exam as you have to attempt 100 questions in the GS and 80 questions in the CSAT paper within two hours allotted to each of these two papers. Thus, you get just a little more than one minute for attempting one question which includes some very long questions also.


How much time should be devoted for prelims exam preparation? For the first timers, the safe period to command the prelims syllabus is 8-10 months. This is so because, one has to read some core, standard books for five six disciplines, make notes, revise the syllabus at least twice and then to appear in multiple mock tests. One should never appear in the prelims exam without complete preparation which is bound to take 8-10 months. However, for those who have already appeared in the prelims exam, earlier, the preparation period obviously gets reduced to 3-4 months as they have gone through the entire syllabus in their previous attempt. Such candidates should focus more on the mains rather than reading what they already know.


How to read and what to read? : It is always good to read from standard books and authentic sources rather than blindly following unverified material flooding in the market and cheaply available online Without self- reading of important text books, you can never develop a clear understanding of the basic concepts. The online sources or the materials flooding in the market largely fail to deliver on conceptual aspect and emphasize on information overload which is not required at all. Therefore, you have to be very selective in choosing what you are reading and what the reliability of these sources is. The same is true of the selfstyled experts who have mushroomed in the market. Unless you are sure of whom they are, what their proven academic credentials are, you cannot rely on them on their face value. You must be sure that your mentor is capable, devoted to your cause and a man of integrity. As for reading style, you must define your boundaries and never go for indiscriminate reading as it would become a never ending exercise. In other words, you must have the knack to decide what to read and what to leave on a topic, because neither you have the time to read everything available, nor it is required. Once you have known the basic fundamentals of an issue, you have to stop there and move to the next one. Or else, you will never do justice to the entire syllabus. Making notes is utterly important while reading. These notes will become handy during revision. You may keep adding new information to these notes if you come across any. Finally, you must read very close to the prescribed syllabus rather than exceeding its boundaries. UPSC has given the contours of the prelims syllabus in its notification and you must follow it. In fact, you should make a detailed syllabus of your own as the one provided by UPSC is only indicative in nature. For this, the best way is to peruse last years' questions asked on a particular area and then to include those areas in your preparation. A dynamic, intelligent approach to the syllabus is what is going to work for you.


How to prepare current affairs? : Current affairs constitute the backbone of the civil services exam. They have a bearing on all the three parts of the examprelims, mains and the interview. The real challenge for a candidate is how to command current affairs that includes everything under the sun. The simple answer to this question is: read and read from a variety of sources such as national newspapers, journals, magazines, government sites, sites of organisations such as UNO, WTO, G20 and so on. In every static portion, current affairs will count. In geography and environment, you must know the latest news on earthquakes, climate change, pollution etc. In economy, you must know about the budget, export imports and so on. In polity, you must know about the latest Bills, Acts, Supreme Court judgments etc. Emphasis on current affairs must be given from the very outset and on daily basis. Again, the compiled materials on current affairs are of least relevance as they fail to make you grasp the events and issues in their entirety. It is therefore, highly recommendable that you should grasp current affairs from direct sourcesnewspapers, magazines etc.


Success mantra for prelims: Since the prelims syllabus is made up of a variety of disciplines, it is prudent to take up one discipline at a time. Therefore, you should take up one subject, say polity, and read it intensively in all respects within a time frame. For beginners each of the discipline will require two months of intensive preparation preferably under a competent, personal mentor. However, simultaneous preparation of current affairs is required as it is newspaper based and you cannot neglect daily reading of news. Previous questions of UPSC are available on its website. You should solve at least last 15 years' questions asked in prelims exam. This will be more helpful than an outside test series because, this way, you will be answering questions of UPSC type, not imaginary type often set in the market which often does not meet UPSC standards. Each area of the prelims syllabus requires separate analysis, which will be covered in the forthcoming articles.


(S B Singh is an academician and an IAS mentor. He can be reached at his email: Views expressed are personal.