The Basic Strategy to Cracking the CS Mains Examination

The Civil Services (Main) Examination is your ticket to your dream post and your dream cadre. The interview process has much lesser marks and is rather unpredictable. Mains is more predictable, as you face a relatively objective uniform process (notwithstanding the vagaries of your fate in the hands of the examiner). Your best shot at securing a good spot on the final list lies in CSM. Here’s how you should secure it.

What does UPSC want?

UPSC is looking for future officers to run the country. They need people

  • who are understand and are knowledgeable about the culture and society they’re going to serve,
  • have a good command over their language,
  • can express themselves properly so as to articulate their thoughts,
  • who think rationally and practically within certain constraints
  • who can analyse situations and come up with solutions
  • etc.

The way they can look for these things is through the Main examination (1750 marks written) and the interview (275 marks for the personality test). The very lopsided allocation of marks makes it amply clear, that your future would be decided primarily at mains.

How to prepare for Mains?

Preparation for mains is ideally done as an integrated process, wherein you prepare for both prelims and mains in tandem. The syllabi for both similar. If one prepares for mains, they can easily tackle the GS paper of prelims. However, you also need to prepare for CSAT in prelims.

The preparation process starts with a thorough study of the syllabus. The syllabus can have minor variations form year to year. You should download a copy of the notification for the Civil Services Examination of the relevant year, from the UPSC website ( Look through the pages to find the syllabi for General Studies and your Optional Subject of choice.


Subsequently you need to gather your books. Individual GS papers and books would be discussed in detail in individual posts on the Mains index. For the optional, search the forum for book-lists. Here is a representative book-list. We are currently attempting to collect strategies from toppers for their optionals. The links would be available on the index page (above).

When it comes to book-lists, please remember that these are not hard-and-fast. Consider them to be your browsing lists. Go over to a book shop with your list and flip through the books. See which ones you find more comprehensive and easier to read. Certain books and notes are widely recommended. Do go through them, if possible, before you buy.

One book that you must buy is a book of past questions. These come in many sizes and shapes. Browse through the lot to pick your favourite. It would be helpful if you get one such compilation where the questions (till the latest exam) are sorted out by topic.

The Study Method:

This is a general study method that you can use for any subject / topic. It goes like this :

  1. Start by getting a printed copy of the syllabus. You need to keep it with you and tick off items that you have competed. UPSC goes for as wide a coverage of the syllabus, as possible. You cannot afford to leave things untouched. Finishing the syllabus is practically mandatory.
  2. Start from which-ever topic you’re comfortable with.
  3. Read the index of the book/note you chose. Browse through the headlines and subheadings to get an idea of what the section contains.
  4. Scan through the past questions on the topic to understand the level and nature of questions being asked. This exercise (steps 3 and 4) will help you understand exactly what to study.
  5. After that, you have to actually pick up your book/note and study. There is no other way out than actually studying.
  6. Once you have completed a section of the syllabus, try and solve a few exam questions from your collection.
  7. Do this for all sections.
  8. In the interim, join some test series. Writing practice is essential. You have to write a lot and that too under time pressure. Unless you practice, it would be difficult to think fast and write so much.
  9. Recently, the trend of questions has shifted from static sections to current affairs. Your primary focus should be on current affairs. (see separate post under the index).
  10. Read about individual papers separately.

» Index of topics on preparing for Civil Services (Main) Examination.

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