Prelims & Mains GS Strategy and Booklist

Anand Vardhan

Rank-7, CSE-2016


The Preliminary examination is the first and the most important of all the stages of the examination. I say that it is the most important part, due to two primary reasons:

  1. The margins are extremely narrow and silly or small mistakes might also cost you heavily.
  2. Majority of the aspirants are eliminated in this stage. If one fails to clear the first stage itself, it is a huge dent on one’s confidence.

I have taken the preliminary examination four times, and cleared it each time. Twice I have cleared when CSAT scores were also counted, and twice without CSAT. The point being that one must adapt his preparation according to the needs of the examination.

UPSC itself declares that the preliminary exam is meant to assess the expanse of knowledge of a candidate. Having said that, everything under the sun may be asked in the Prelims exam, as has often been the case. Often students are stumped by truly random or obscure facts: the probability of remembering them in exam environment is near zero. However, one needs to understand that the examination is not about knowing everything, but proving that you are a serious candidate and are eligible to write the mains examination.

I have always been conservative to slightly offensive in attempting the GS paper. In my four attempts I have never attempted more than 77 questions. In the 2016 attempt I attempted 77 questions and scored 130 marks. Of course, one’s strategy may differ according to one’s inclinations and preparation level. But I have always felt that at least 20-25 questions in the exam are extremely difficult to get right, and it is best not to invite negative marking by attempting them.

However, strategies differ. I know people who always attempt 90 or more questions and make it each time too. The point is, you need to find your line of action yourself. How to do that?


Mock tests are extremely essential in giving you a feel of the examinations. All the books you have read will go to waste if you haven’t practiced questions. There are many test series available to aspirants. Choose wisely. Do not overload yourself with too much stuff.

Do not just attempt a mock. Analyse, strategize. This is war. It is all about strategy. Look out for the sections in which you have scored less. Look at your accuracy: how many attempted, how many correct. After a length of time a pattern will start emerging. You will know if you are better off being offensive or being slightly defensive as myself.


The booklist is an often asked question.  I can only provide an indicative list, since UPSC manages to surprise each time.

1.  History & Culture: 

Bipin Chandra, Spectrum: Modern History

Nitin Singhania (notes/book), Class XI NCERT culture, Ancient India old NCERT: Culture

Ancient and Medieval India old NCERT: Ancient and Medieval India

May refer to TN Board class XI textbook if one has time.

2.  Geography

GC leong, NCERT class XI and XII

3.  Economics   

Economic Survey, Budget, classnotes.

4.  Science and Technology

No specific preparation as such, stuck to current affairs mostly. But one may refer to NCERTs from class VI TO X.

5.   Environment

Shankar IAS book for environment

Current affairs and mock tests

6. Polity

Laxmikant and class notes. One may read selected chapters from DD Basu (Like Fundamental Rights) if one has time.

Apart from the above sources, pay a close attention to current affairs too. Whether it be your own notes or through monthly supplements, keep a track of the news, as most of the questions will be directly or indirectly derived from the news itself.


The mains exam determines everything: whether your name will be in the final list or not, and where. One must prepare oneself thoroughly for this. The people who write mains will generally be well prepared, serious aspirants. Hence the competition is tougher, even though the selection ratio is higher (about 20%).

The mains is a vast territory, but there is only one method to this madness.

Answer writing

Mains is answer writing and answer writing is mains. One may not hope to achieve any significant progress with this part unless one writes answers and practices. I would like to say here that I was very comfortable with the English language, never had to prepare for Essay or the compulsory papers (Hindi+English), and I still lost out on two mains. Why?

Because I wrote answers only in the mains. Never before.

Answer-writing is a challenge in itself, but after these years of preparation, I must summarize the three concrete points with respect to answer writing:

  1. STRUCTURE: No structure, no answer. As simple as the Intro-body-conclusion paradigm looks, it is difficult to implement it consistently over all of the papers. Never leave out the conclusion. You will lose more marks than you think.
  2. CONTENT: More content, more marks. There is very limited time and space in the paper, but this is what you have to train for in your mocks. Write fast. There is no time. Fit in as much relevant content as you can. It is not about filling pages, but an answer with more content with definitely stand out.
  3. CONNECT: UPSC is not looking for rote learners. It is looking for people with a broader vision. An overall scheme of things. The birds-eye view. Try to interlink the syllabus and the facts in your answer. See how the National Nutrition Mission and the Skill India program may be connected. As a generalist, you are expected to be the connecting link among all things disparate.

I have scored 470 marks in GS this time, and I would like to offer a breakdown of the things paper-wise:


This has been my weakest portion for a long time, as the syllabus in this part is quite large. The sources for History and geography remain the same as for the prelims, with a few additions:

World History: NCERT Arjun Dev

Post independence history: India After independence (Penguin India)

Social Issues: NCERT Class XI and XII (Sociology)

Apart from this, I had solved many mocks for GS-1 to ease my nerves in this part. This helped my achieve a database of questions especially for History and Geography. I revised these questions again and again.

Here, making a few diagrams may be beneficial, especially in the geography portion. But I would suggest not to over do it, because there is limited space and you are better off delivering quality content than diagrams.

GS-2 & 3

For these parts, I relied solely on current affairs. My knowledge of GS-2 was good owing to my optionals (Public Administration and Political Science), and I banked upon them by spending lesser time in these papers.

I revised my notes again and again to get a firm grip on the content. There are many resources available and one may choose the one that suits him/her best.


This is one of the interesting portions in the exam, as students are often unable to gauge what may be the right material or approach to this paper. My advice? Be frugal, be inventive, be indigenous. There is no good source for this part. I had referred to Lexicon book but found it to be of limited utility. It may be good to pick up a few keywords and keep a track of the syllabus.

I think the more important aspect in the paper is that of the case study and how one approaches it. Please understand that even though this is an ethics paper, an administrative or a governance angel to your answers will be appreciated too. For example, in a case where violence against women has occurred, you may quote the National Commission for Women or Articles from the constitution on Equality. Use your knowledge of GS-2 in this part and write a complete answer, giving practical suggestions and clearly fixing responsibility as to which body should do what. (Eg. Panchayats should take up awareness campaigns).

Also, while solving the case study I relied on a few SWOT charts and inserted keywords like inclusive development or women empowerment in them. This lets the examiner know that you are taking an overall view of things. This approach helped me score 98 marks last time (2015) and 124 in CSE 2016.

All in all, be calm, be very fast and hone your thinking and writing processes well before the exam. The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.

Role of ForumIAS

Also about the support I have received from ForumIAS:

1. Being an observer during the anxious moments of waiting for the results has helped me throughout my prep. Forum has been the source of inspiration and support. I have loved being here and would love to remain connected with you guys.

2. The Forum has some exemplary personalities that reaffirm my faith in the future of this country. The articles by Neyawn, for example are class apart and have helped me be rational and reason better and adjust my strategy accordingly.

3. I have also participated in your Prelims Tests Series.

I would say you guys are doing a great job and the Forum will remain an oasis in the desert of UPSC preparation.


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