How to Prepare for Prelims Examination – A Beginner’s Guide

How to Prepare for UPSC Prelims Examination

About Myself: I have appeared in Civil Services Examination of 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, and cleared Prelims Examination in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Through my experience of facing Prelims Examination in recent years, I have tried to create a road map for Beginners to help them in developing strategy to prepare for prelims examination.

Exam Pattern:
Civil Services Examination consists of three stages:
First Stage:       Prelims Examination (to be held on 07th August 2016)
Second Stage:  Mains Examination (to be held on 03rd December 2016)
Third Stage:      Interview Examination (to be held in April 2017)

Paper Pattern of Prelims Examination:

UPSC Prelims Examination would consist of two papers named as General Studies and CSAT.

Paper-I (General Studies)

  • Total Marks – 200
  • Time duration – Two Hours
  • General Studies paper would have questions related to Indian History, Geography, Polity, Indian Economy, Environment, Science and Technology, Environment and Current Affairs.
  • This paper would be counted for qualifying to the Mains examination.

Paper-II (CSAT)

  • Total Marks – 200
  • Time duration – Two Hours
  • CSAT paper would have questions related to Comprehension, Logical Reasoning, Decision-Making, Basic Mathematics and Data Interpretation.
  • This paper is qualifying in nature, with 33% as the passing percentage and Marks of CSAT would not be counted to qualify for Mains Examination.

Syllabus of Prelims Examination:
Syllabus for Paper I-(Total Marks-200 marks, Duration-Two Hours)

  • Current events of national and international importance.
  • History of India and Indian National Movement.
  • Indian and World Geography – Physical, Social, Economic Geography of India and the World.
  • Indian Polity and Governance – Constitution, Political System, Panchayati Raj, Public Policy, Rights Issues, etc.
  • Economic and Social Development – Sustainable Development, Poverty, Inclusion, Demographics, Social Sector initiatives, etc.
  • General issues on Environmental Ecology, Bio-diversity and Climate Change – that do not require subject specialization, General Science.

Syllabus for Paper II-(Total Marks-200 marks, Duration: Two hours)

  • Comprehension
  • Interpersonal skills including communication skills;
  • Logical reasoning and analytical ability
  • Decision-making and problemsolving
  • General mental ability
  • Basic numeracy (numbers and their relations, orders of magnitude, etc.) (Class X level), Data interpretation (charts, graphs, tables, data sufficiency etc. – Class X level)

Strategy to Prepare for Prelims Examination:
Prelims examination is a test of diversity of knowledge, which is a mix of traditional and contemporary issues. For preparing the prelims examination, it is essential to know the paper pattern of Prelims Examination.

Step 1: When to Start Preparation:
There is no ideal time to start prelims preparation; it varies with the ability of Individual aspirant.

  • For Beginners:Ideal time to start preparation would begin by March/April. As, comprehensive coverage of General Studies syllabus would require ideally 6 months especially aspirants with poor Mathematics and Analytical Ability would require to focus on CSAT as well.

(They can utilize their time till March to prepare Optional Subject of Mains Examination and General Studies for Mains Examination. More focus should be on the optional subject as General Studies for mains examination is more current-affairs based, which can be prepared after prelims examination as well.)

  • For Experienced Aspirants: As they have already covered General Studies syllabus before, ideal time would start by May.

As they can utilize this time to prepare their optional subjects, which plays pivotal role in selection during Mains Examination.

Step 2: Identification of Strong and Weak Areas:
A comprehensive strategy based on strengths and weakness of individual would be essential to ensure success in prelims examination. For, beginners who are appearing for the first time, need to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

E.g. – B.E./B.Tech./MBA/CA students are mostly comfortable with Logical Reasoning, Basic Mathematics, English Comprehension whereas they are not familiar with traditional general awareness like History, Geography, Polity. Therefore, they need to focus on Traditional Subjects as CSAT examination is only qualifying in nature.

But, aspirants who do not have background of mathematics can practice Logical Reasoning and Mathematics on regular Basis.

 Step 3: Time Management
Division of time on different portions of General Studies Paper 1 is essential to ensure that comprehensive coverage of Syllabus has been done. Time should be divided based on aspirant’s strength and weaknesses. But, following points should be kept in mind while dividing time slots for different subjects in prelims.

Note 1:Inclusion of Indian Forest Service Examination with Civil Services Examination has resulted in increased focus on Environment, Ecology and Geography. Therefore, major focus should be on the preparation of Geography, Environment and Ecology.

Note 2: Traditional Portions like Polity, History, Geography, Economy have fixed domain, and their scope is limited. Most of the students prepare these sections comprehensively. Therefore, comprehensive coverage of traditional portions ensures our standing at equal footing with senior aspirants.

Note 3: While preparing for History, focus should be on Modern History, especially Indian Freedom Struggle. Whereas, In Ancient and Medieval History, focus should be on preparation through perspective of Culture, Administration angle as UPSC do not ask factual questions like Battles, Wars, Dates and Kingdoms now-a-days.

Note 4: Favourite topics of UPSC in Prelims examination, which must be prepared comprehensively as they are mostly part of General Studies Paper.

  1. Buddhism, Jainism, Indus Valley Civilization, Vedic Period
  2. Sufi and Bhakti movements
  3. IUCN List – Extinct Species, Critically Endangered Species, Endangered Species (Especially Indian Species)
  4. Ramsar Sites, Biosphere Rerserves, Bird Sanctuaries
  5. Various Acts and Charters of British Rule – E.g. Govt. of India Act, 1909.
  6. In Geography – Monsoon, Agriculture
  7. In Constitution – Fundamental Rights, Directive Principles of State Policy, Fundamental Duties, Chapter of Parliament, Constitutional and Non-constitutional Bodies.
  8. Government Schemes – Flagship programmes like MGNREGS, Jan DhanYojana, Skill India Mission.

Step 4: Elaborate preparation of Subjects:

For General Studies Paper 1: 

[Note: If you have read that topic already from a standard book, then revise the same book instead of reading from the source given below.]

1. History:
(Books Recommended – NCERT, Spectrum)
History preparation should be divided into three parts, and they should be prioritized accordingly.

First Preference – Modern Indian History (Can be prepared by Spectrum) Focus should be on Indian Freedom Struggle, Acts and Legislations during British Rule, Development of Press, Role of Revolutionaries, extremists, moderates, Tribal, Foreigners, Women, Revolt of 1857, etc.

Second Preference – Ancient Indian History (Can be prepared by Spectrum, some data can be collected from Lucent as well) – (Mainly Art and Culture angle)

Focus should be on Indus valley civilization, Vedic Period, Buddhism and Jainism, Culture and Administration during Ancient India, Temple Architecture, Sangam Age etc.

Third Preference – Medieval Indian History – (Mainly Art and Culture angle)

Focus should be on Bhakti movements, Sufi movements, Culture and Administration during medieval period).

2. Geography: (Books Recommended – NCERT, G. C. Leong)
Geography is always the favourite topic of UPSC in prelims examination, which must be covered comprehensively. But, focus should be on Climates, Indian Monsoon System, Agriculture, Population Geography (especially demography dividend).

3. Polity : (Books Recommended – Indian Polity by Laxmikant)

Indian polity is a static subject, therefore comprehensive coverage of Laxmikant helps to cover the subject.

Focus should be on Indian Constitution – Especially Fundamental Rights, DPSP, and Fundamental Duties. Other important topics of Indian polity are Parliament, Election, Constitutional and Non-constitutional bodies.

4. Economy:(Book Recommended – NCERT and Basic Understanding of Indian Economy)

Major mistake committed by aspirants in Economy is that they do not distinguish between Macro Economy and Micro Economy. UPSC always focus on Macro Economy only. UPSC questions revolve around Indian Economy only. Therefore, aspirant should avoid studying Micro Economics.

Focus should be on terms like Repo Rate, Reverse Repo Rate, CRR, Inflation, Stagflation, bonds, debentures etc. and their impact on Indian Economy.

5. Environmental and Ecology:(Books Recommended – Shankar IAS booklet)
Inclusion of IFoS with Civil Services Examination has increased focus on environment and ecology. Shankar IAS booklet is a comprehensive book to cover Environment and Ecology.

6. Science and Technology: (Books Recommended – Basic Science can be covered with NCERT)
As Science and Technology is very vast, it should be prepared after preparing other static subjects. Major focus of UPSC remains on Physics and Biology. Therefore, focus of students should be on Optics, Genetics, and other basic fundamental phenomena of science.

7. Current Affairs:(Recommended Study Material – Self-made notes of The Hindu, Indian Express).

This is the most dynamic topic of UPSC Prelims, Which have been recently on radar of UPSC. Aspirants should have their own comprehensive notes of current affairs.

8. Miscellaneous:International Organizations have been favourite topic of UPSC for a long time, which should be prepared comprehensively by aspirant.

For General Studies Paper 2:
General Studies Paper 2 is only qualifying in nature. Therefore, aspirant should not prepare it comprehensively. But, aspirant should test his capability by gauzing oneself in a mock test of CSAT.

If aspirant is scoring more than 100: He should divert all the attention for General Studies Paper 1 only and last minute preparation of CSAT would be sufficient enough for aspirant. Last minute preparation would consist of facing 2-3 mock tests in the week preceding prelims examination.

If aspirant is scoring less than 100: He should have concern for CSAT paper as well. (Books Recommended – R. S. Aggrawal)

How to Prepare for CSAT: (only for students who are scoring less than 100 in mock tests)
Firstly, aspirant should take a mock test to identify his weak zone.
If aspirant is weak in Comprehension:
He can adopt following process to improve marks in comprehension passage.
First Step: Just read the questions before reading the comprehension passage. It provides a general idea about questions.
Second Step: Start reading the comprehension passage by understanding the main theme of passage, and try to underline the keywords. Usually, answer of first question would be in first paragraph itself. Same process can be adopted for other questions as well.
Third Step: After answering all the questions of passage, recheck the answers whether they are matching with the central theme of the passage.

If aspirant is weak in Logical Reasoning, Mental Ability.
He should practice questions of Logical Reasoning, Mental Ability through the compiled mock tests of either institute. If that does not work sufficient, then he can use the book R. S. Aggrawal to practice Logical Reasoning and Mental Ability.

Step 5: Regular evaluation of preparation (Test Series).
This is the penultimate stage of Preparation of prelims examination. When aspirant completes the syllabus of Prelims Examination, he must evaluate himself by facing mock tests. It would help in gauzing the preparation level of aspirant.

Other Benefits of mock tests:

  • It helps in performing under pressure.
  • It helps to perform in time-bound manner.
  • It helps in identification of strong and weak zones of aspirant.
  • Relative performance in mock tests help to gauze the standings compared to other aspirant.

Some common mistakes committed by aspirants of UPSC:

  1. Missing the syllabus, and reading topics which are out of syllabus. E.g. World History is only part of Mains examination, so it should not be studied for prelims.
  2. Studying wide ranges of book without trying to revise. It is always better to read one book ten times instead of ten books without revision.
  3. Focusing on topics which are least expected which result in poor preparation of static topics.
  4. Devotion to one subject, which results in less preparation of other subjects. It should be always kept in mind that all questions carry equal marks, without any variation among subjects.
  5. Lack of strategy for preparation.
  6. Not checking the preparation at regular intervals.

Hereby, I have tried to provide a strategy for prelims examination comprehensively, which would benefit aspirants to devise a plan to prepare comprehensively for prelims examination.


The article has been contributed by Surbendu Thakur (Allied Services, 2014)

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