Why People Fail to clear Mains? And how not to repeat it next year.

It usually takes the morning after, for the Mains results to sink in.

Sometimes, between 3 to 5 days –  when you actually are able to fully realise the implications of what just happened when UPSC released that damn PDF  on their website that did not have your roll number.

And then you cry. Sometimes in the shower.

( Not if it is the second or third time you have NOT cracked Mains.)

If you are one of those, hear me out.

First, nearly everyone in the Interview List or the Final List has been in your position sometime before. Some of them, will be in your position in the next year. You are not unique, cursed or unlucky.

Second, If you think success will make you happy, you are thinking in the reverse order. When you find success, however, everyone elsethinks you are happy. Sometimes, some people are sad because of your success. And that is quite a joy happinessconsolation too.

Third, You alone are fully capable of changing the outcomes of where you stand next year. This will however, depend on what you actually do, not on what you think you are doing.

It took me a while to write this, nearly a fortnight after the results, so forgive me for this, but I have always had a sense of higher duty towards those who have not made it than those who have – because I think that even If I am not capable of solving a problem, I can share some insights which have can help at least some people build their own solutions. Here are they.

#1 Be Scientific in your approach. Find out what did not work out.

I first met Sachin in 2016, right before his Interview. I gave a talk on “How not to screw up your Interview”. The talk was organised for a friend who had scored 140 minus in a Kilemsungla Board ( who gave liberal marks and made many people a Collector ). I had a sore throat, and could not really take mocks or sessions.

A few months later, when I saw Sachin, he didn’t disclose he had made it to the list. He was diligently studying for Prelims in a classroom in a red t shirt.

And then I met him again for the Interview of CSE 2017. When I asked him, if he knew what he felt did not work out in the first interview, he was able to correctly diagnose the problem. I was elated, because if you know the problem, that is half the solution. We sat for a couple of sessions, we worked, and two months later he secured a Rank 3 in the CSE examination.

When I heard his interview in Rajya Sabha TV ( or DD ) , he spoke so well, and reasoned out so well, I gave him a call saying – This is exactly what was needed for the Interview. By then he didn’t need my inputs. He was already a Rank 3.

A key reason why we fail to improve in Mains / Prelims or the whole process is because we are either not able to identify the problem from where we see it, or we refuse to acknowledge there is a problem in the first place.

I mean we could both looking at the same picture and yet see different things.

So first, you will have to believe in your performance – and the non-performance. Even if the numbers look random to you – you will have to treat them with some sanctity at least as long as you are an aspirant.

By this, I mean to say that if you are getting a score of , let us say 230 in Sociology, and you still cannot figure out where you stand in the crowd – let me tell you have failed.

Most non-humanities candidates – and that number is huge, are not able to see a massive difference between a 70 marks and 95 marks in GS 1, a 85 marks and 110 marks in GS Paper 2, a 87 marks and 115 marks in GS 3 or a 82 marks vs a 115 marks score in GS Paper 4.

Or the massive gap between a score of 230 vs a 280 in your optional subject. Get the facts right. In humanities, even if you do know nothing and write nothing, you will not get a zero. And even if you do a wonderful job that could have won you a Nobel Prize at a podium in Stockholm [0], you will not get a 95%.

Humanities subjects are a little, for the lack of a better word, – Marxist. The gaps between the top and bottom is much less compared to the Sciences or Maths. In other words, the scores concentrate around a certain range – all of them – the good scores, the bad scores and the ugly scores.

You will have to learn to tell yourself – and as early as possible  – that the difference between a 230 and 280 is not a small one – it is a binary score of pass and fail. And even if the gap looks small, you will nearly have to move mountains to get there. You will also have to plan your year ahead according to that.

#2 When should one change one’s optional?

I never played Poker in my College days[1], but I invested in some of the people who won.

And the one thing I learned ( not sure if the players did too ) is that you cannot keep investing in a lost cause just because you have invested a lot of time, energy, money or youth in it. Across all walks of life. Sometime, you have to “stop loss.”

When I meet candidates who have scored constantly low in an Optional – say Geography, I ask them what has been stopping you from changing it? They are two common reasons why people will-waste-five-attempts-but-not-change-optional subject .

Firstly, because they have already spent so much time and money and coaching fee in it that changing an optional would be waste of all the time and money spent.

Secondly, they usually take this decision when the marks come out. By that time it is too late to study a new optional afresh.[4]

I have few things to tell you here.

Just because you have spent so much time in it without benefits does not mean you should put more time in it. This is what people who lose in gambling do. You will have to take a call. Sometimes the decisions we make have to be taken

  • without adequate data / information
  • with some belief in our own ability
  • with some leap of faith

You will never be in a position where you have 100% of the information, conviction, circumstances to make a right decision. We only make decisions – whether they are right or wrong – only time will tell.

Quick Question : Do you think Shri O P Chaudhary’s decision to quit the IAS and join Politics was right or wrong (a) at the time of making the decision (b) in retrospect ? What do you think of Shah Faesal’s decision to quit the IAS ?

I did not want to be wrong here, so I spoke to two people. They have been my students, but I have learnt more from them, than I may have taught them. Anudeep Durishetty, who secured the first Rank this year, said in unequivocal terms –

“I was able to get into IAS only because I left Pub Ad and took Anthropology and it worked for me. And if you have been scoring less then 250 in two consecutive attempts, and if you feel there is nothing you can do, you can consider changing your optional.”

( I remember him say the same thing before he delivered his first public speech , and I did warn him – he would spread panic across people who had already choses the Optional in their CSE Application Form. Also since he is Rank 1, so most people  will not fully try to understand what he is saying – but will just do what he did- the easy things – take the optional he took, join the coaching he joined , etc. )

Suraj Patel, who has been selected for IRS, IPS, IAS and IAS* says that three conditions should be met before one changes optional

First, he should be scoring less that 250 for two or more attempts

Second, he should satisfied that there is nothing at his end that the student can do to improve his preparation

Third, he should have been scoring average / above average marks in General Studies and essay.(  Otherwise, he warns that the candidate may be fighting on all fronts – GS , Essay and now Optionals )

For example in 2017 Mains, a score less than 410 in GS and 145 in Essay is poor marks and there is scope for improvement there itself.

Both these candidates have relevant experience with the examination, and have been able to replicate making it to the final list more than once. Not accidental heroes. So you can trust them, even if you do not trust me.

#3 Its not all luck.

I spoke to nearly a dozen candidates who have been in the list more than two times in the past twenty days. And nearly everyone agreed that it is predictable and 100% possible to get an Interview call , which is not a matter of luck. And 99% of the time, you can also assure a place in the list.

Everyone, however, agreed that where you stand in the list is a matter of luck to some extent.

I also realised that we all think to the point of our deprivations.

People who cannot crack Prelims think Prelims is all about luck. People who crack Prelims think prelims is predictable , manageable ( but not easy ), and Mains is a matter of luck. People who appear for the Interview annually think making it to the list is a matter of luck and Interview Call is manageable with some hard work and technique , and people who are in the list annually think you can make it to the list if you know the technique and do some hard work, but Top Ranks are luck.

So what looks like a matter of luck , totally depends on where you are standing. In fact, I have met some hard working, meticulous, strategic planners and executers from the Forum Community itself that I am inclined to believe that even Top 100 Ranks are not a matter of luck, but yes an-under 5 Rank is matter of luck.

As I said, if I see someone predictably getting a Rank 1 , I will cease to believe in luck altogether.

To be honest, I am often intimidated by such candidates, because they will execute 110% of any good advice and consume 120% of any good resource. In fact I nearly know they will be in Top 10 in the final list. And if they are unlucky, they will be in Top 100. It is just that they do not know it.

Then why do some people still fail to clear the Mains more than once ? What differentiates the two?

For one, a lot of people do not update their content / notes and knowledge base after the first Mains in which they worked the hardest. This is something I have invariably seen over the years. You are nearing thirty or have perhaps crossed it . And you are banking on the notes you first made as a twenty five year old in your first full prepared Mains.

Secondly, you have the feeling that we-know-everything and there is no further knowledge or wisdom that can be gained from any new books / coaching notes / coaching classes / novels ( not related to UPSC but containing ideas that help you write better answers ). You probably have no idea of the content updation that people / students / teachers / websites continuously do for UPSC. I can assure you that everyone who is in the field of UPSC CSE – student or a teacher is constantly reading, innovating and growing. This is not another government examination.

Thirdly, the way you think makes a lot of difference. When you miss the Interview call by 2 marks, 3 marks, 10marks, you cant be giving a typical Banking / SSC/ Railways Recruitment Board / LDC entrance exam excuse that you missed the cut off by 2 marks. That is insane. It is striking at first to notice that a major difference between the people who are able to improve radically and the people who do not is that the people who do – are able to see the gaps between them and the topper correctly.

By this I mean, that when I meet a certain ForumIAS member Kabira – he does not say that he has missed the IAS by 5 marks or 10 marks. He says that he has missed it by 60-70 marks. Not only then he strategises well to bridge the gap, but also ends up with a Rank 10 next year.

#4 Analyse the Toppers Copy correctly. Have the patience to write as crisply as they do.

The key to fully understanding why we are unable to improve is to compare our copies with that of a candidate selected with good ranks is to objectively assess your copy and her copy. If you are able to pin point the commonalities in the writing style of all selected candidates, you have perhaps hit the bull’s eye.

Then the second stage is to develop good writing habits / practices that bring in four things –

  • simplicity –  in language and sentence formation
  • directness – in immediately addressing the question
  • dimensions – the ability to make more than one point  in your answer
  • presentation – that increases the ease of reading your answer, and reflects the effort in writing the answer

This will not be possible without being patient with yourself in brining these changes over a period of time.

We always underestimate what we can achieve in few weeks and months and overestimate what we can do in a day. You will have to give yourself few weeks before you get better at writing better.

#5 Develop Fault Tolerance. You have limits.[2]

An aeroplane does not simply crash when one of its engine fails. It has a second and a third engine. A Boeing 747 has four engines. You will have to admit to your self that you have some weak areas, and those may be your Achilles Heel. And yet, like Achilles, you could be a great warrior for long.

For example, you do not have to be be exceptional in everything. If you do not have Geography Optional, you will always be weaker than a Geography Optional Candidate in both the Prelims and Mains. They key to not study Geography maniacally like a Geography Optional Student, but to be better at Society, Social Justice, or maybe Culture?

You will have limits, and you will have to develop competitive strength in other complimentary areas.

#6 Make a Plan and Believe its impossible to fail.

First begin with identifying reasons what is not working out for you. And if your reasons are too complicated , perhaps they are excuses. So be honest with yourself.  Second, if you have to follow your dreams, learn to say no to all the alternatives. Third , learn to Ignore all that you can. It’s rude, unprofessional. There are people you simply cannot have time for right now.  The world won’t fall apart. The payoff is that you will get done what is important for you. Fourth, do not ever believe that hard work is enough. Hard work has to be in the right direction. Fifthly, the biggest difference between success and failure is total time invested[3]. So if you think you are weak in any particular area, read new text, write some questions and answers on it and get going.

Make a plan, and believe its impossible to fail.

And success will be yours.

Until next time,



( With vital inputs from Anudeep Durishetty and Suraj Patel )

Disclaimer : Views expressed by the author are personal and do not represent the views of ForumIAS.


[0] The Nobel Prize is the highest Civilian Award given out in Stockholm. The Nobel Peace Prize is given away in Oslo, Norway.

[1] Poker is cards game popularly played in several Engineering Colleges. It often involves betting. I do not consider the question of playing poker a moral ethical one.

[2] Only Batman has no limits. Batman is a popular cartoon character, who lives a double life of a masked vigilante by night and billionaire called Bruce Wayne by day. Bruce Wayne is at #6 in the Forbes Richest 15 Fictional character. Scrooge MacDuck is at No. 1

[3] It takes an average candidate about one year or twelve months to prepare for the UPSC Mains Examination. Some people study 3 months a year – between the Prelims and Mains and cover the twelve months of preparation over a period of four years.

[4] I am appalled to notice that the candidates who start studying after a 10-12 days break after the Mains for the next year are usually the ones who have a sibling or parent in the All India or Allied Services!

P.S.if you could do me a favour, please share this article with someone who may benefit from it. Below are the sharing links.

Print Friendly and PDF
Categorized as MOTIVATION

By Neyawn

Neyawn is an anonymous member the founder of ForumIAS. He is a coder Mentor & Teacher by profession, and often writes for ForumIAS. You can buy him coffee , if you really really like his work. He has built ForumIAS - the community - twice. You can say Hi to him or ask him a question on ForumIAS, or follow him on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn . You can also write to him at RxAxVxI@FOxRUMxIAS.COM ( remove the small "x" from the email ).