How to write a great essay for the IAS Mains?

This article has been written by ForumIAS Member Arun Raj selected  with a rank 34 in the CSE 2014. It is intended to be a guide about how to write a great essay in the Mains examination.

Essay is the first Paper you will write

The IAS Mains Exam usually starts with the Essay paper in the first session. So, Essay is effectively the first paper you handle in the Mains. Consequently, it may lead to some stress on the morning of the exam for beginners. Don’t worry, though. You will soon get used to the rigour of  attempting 3 hour papers.

Change in Pattern : 2 Essays in 3 Hours

An important change brought out by the UPSC from 2014 onward is to ask candidates to write two essays in 3 hours rather than write a single essay as was the case before. This calls for time management. Equal time should be spent on both the topics. It should not be the case that you spend two and a half hours for writing the first essay and scribble something down for the second one.

This change in pattern from asking a single question to two questions is a good one. Previously the range of marks in the essay varied hugely. Say, from 40 marks to 160 marks out of the total of 250. This year the essay scores seem to have stabilised and the huge variation has reduced. This reduces the luck factor too. If an examiner holds a contrarian view to your first essay and is inclined to award you lesser marks, the second essay on a different topic may appear better to her and so the overall marks do not slide down too much.

A key thing to keep in mind while writing an essay in the Mains exam is that UPSC is not testing your skill as an essayist. They are trying to test whether you will make a good administrator by reading your essay. This can be shown by generally adopting an optimistic view on major issues and by taking an ethical stand. So it does not matter if you do not have a rich vocabulary and a great command over English. You can still get a lot of marks in the Essay paper if you follow some of the tips below.

Points to Remember while writing the Essay paper:

1. A Great Introduction
2. A Great Conclusion
3. Usage of day-to-day examples
4. Usage of personal anecdotes
5. Quoting famous personalities
6. Small paragraphs
7. A neat handwriting
8. Usage of Sub-Sections
9. Usage of Current Affairs

If you manage to grab the reader’s attention in the introduction. half the job is done. When an examiner is correcting thousands of copies if your introduction stands out (in a good way that is), her job becomes easier as she will now look favorably through the rest of the answer paper.

How to grab the reader’s attention in the introduction?

You can present:

– An interesting fact
– A piece of knowledge that is surprising
– A very intriguing quote
– A short personal anecdote
– Provoke the reader through a question
– State a paradoxical situation

Most of the times, the examiner reads the introduction and the conclusion fully, but simply skims through the body of the essay. It is not a disadvantage. You just have to use this in your favour.

And how to have a great conclusion?

If you just restate the ideas which you have already mentioned in the body of our essay, the conclusion may feel flat. A memorable and lasting impression should be left on the reader. Hopefully, we should write something that stays on in the reader’s mind long after she has finished correcting your essay. A graceful exit is required. For this you can:

– Try to create a powerful image in the mind of the reader
– End with a thought-provoking quotation
– Talk about what action can be done
– End on an interesting twist of logic

You can quote nationalist leaders of India like Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedakar and the like depending on your personal preferences. But the quote should be in keeping with the theme of the essay. And not something you have twisted somehow into the context of the essay. Also, the exact words of the original quote must be written. And not some reproduction in your own words. It leads to you losing credibility in the eyes of the examiner. Especially if the examiner has encountered the quote before, which she most probably has.

As regards the body of the essay, keep these points in mind

Analyse the topic from various perspectives; historical, geographical, economical, geopolitical, ethical viewpoint etc. It should be a multi-pronged essay. You are aiming to become a generalist administrator and your essay too should show you as one: Not delving too deeply into any esoteric topic but handling a variety of different topics.

Do not use any advanced term which you learnt while preparing for your optional or your college graduation subject. Like if you have psychology as your optional, do not use any terms in the essay which only a psychologist would know. Or, if you have done economics in your graduation, you should not make the entire essay too economics-oriented and start using complex terms (even if they are with explanation) which only an economist would have encountered before.

Write in a very simple manner. The essay should show your analytical side, yes. But not so analytical that the examiner will have to read an “Introduction to Psychology” handbook before she has to correct your essay. She will just give the minimum marks possible if she is not able to understand what you have written.

Use short sentences. They are easier to read and comprehend. Long winding sentences would get you nowhere.

Have a solid thesis statement before you start writing the body of the essay. And mention it in your introduction. The essay must have consistency in thoughts and continuity in presentation. All the arguments which you put forth in the body of your essay should have a single aim. To convince your reader of the central thesis of the essay.

For example, in the UPSC 2014 Essay paper there was a question on whether tourism had great potential in India. So your central thesis could be that you believe that tourism is definitely a high-potential sector in India and with adequate investment in infrastructure it will fulfill its potential. After that every single paragraph in your essay should be about convincing the reader of the validity of your thesis statement. But from various perspectives. Say medical tourism, spiritual tourism, cultural tourism etc.

Do not adopt an unnecessarily negative tone about any topic. If you are pessimistic about any issue, suggest ways by which you can overcome that problem. Also, it is not advisable to criticize the Government. If you have to absolutely it should be constructive criticism. But generally, refrain from doing so.

Use short paragraphs. No one likes to read long winding clumps of words. You can occasionally use single-line paragraphs for writing a sentence of impact.

Give real-life case studies and day to day examples to drive home the point.

Topic selection

As for topic selection for your essay, there will be some tough topics and some relatively easy ones. I do not want to pronounce some categorical statement that certain topics (like philosophical topics) do not give very high marks, so do not write them. Choosing the topic depends on your interest and a basic idea of what your strengths are. Devote the first 10 minutes of the exam to think and choose the topic which you want to write an essay on. It will be worth it. It is a very bad idea to change the topic of your essay during the middle of the exam.

The best way to prepare for the Essay paper is by writing mock essays. Say around ten. Pick the last five year UPSC essay papers. Choose two essays from each paper. And write the two essays in exam conditions by shutting yourself away in a room. Devote exactly three hours to the paper. Then get it evaluated from a trusted teacher or friends or by people who have already cleared the exam. Incorporate the suggestions given in your next exam. Practise and perseverance are the keys to cracking not just the Essay paper of the IAS exam but entering the IAS itself. 🙂

ForumIAS Gyan Articles are written by experienced ForumIAS members and are aimed at guiding aspirants. They may be original articles or may be picked up from comments posted in on ForumIAS.com/Discussions.
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