UPSC Mains

Chapter 7: The Real Battle: UPSC Mains Examination

Chapter 7: The Real Battle: UPSC Mains Examination

The Main Examination is intended to assess the overall intellectual traits and depth of understanding of candidates rather than merely the range of their information and memory.

The nature and standard of questions in the General Studies papers (Paper II to Paper V) will be such that a well-educated person will be able to answer them without any specialized study. The questions will be such as to test a candidate’s general awareness of a variety of subjects, which will have relevance for a career in Civil Services. The questions are likely to test the candidate’s basic understanding of all relevant issues and ability to analyze and take a view on conflicting socio-economic goals, objectives and demands. The candidates must give relevant, meaningful and succinct answers.

The scope of the syllabus for optional subject papers (Paper VI and Paper VII) for the examination is broadly of the honors degree level i.e. a level higher than the bachelors’ degree and lower than the masters’ degree. In the case of Engineering, Medical Science and law, the level corresponds to the bachelors’ degree


The aim of the paper is to test the candidate’s ability to read and understand serious discursive prose, and express his ideas clearly and correctly, in English and Indian Language concerned. The pattern of questions would be broadly as follows:

  • Comprehension of given passages
  • Precis Writing
  • Usage and Vocabulary
  • Short Essays

Indian Languages:

  • Comprehension of given passages
  • Precis Writing
  • Usage and Vocabulary
  • Short Essays
  • Translation from English to the Indian language and vice-versa.

Note 1: The Papers on Indian Languages and English will be of Matriculation or equivalent standard and will be of qualifying nature only. The marks obtained in these papers will not be counted for ranking.

Note 2: The candidates will have to answer the English and Indian Languages papers in English and the respective Indian language (except where translation is involved).

Compulsory Papers: Marks Counted

Paper Number Paper Name Marks
Paper-I Essay 250
Paper-II General Studies I 250
(Indian Heritage and Culture, History and
Geography of the World and Society)
Paper-III General Studies II 250
(Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social
Justice and International relations)
Paper-IV General Studies III 250
(Technology, Economic Development,
Bio-diversity, Environment,
Security and Disaster Management)
Paper-V General Studies IV 250
(Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude)
Paper-VI Optional Subject-Paper 1 250
Paper-VII Optional Subject-Paper 2 250
Sub Total (Written test) 1750
Personality Test 275
Grand Total Total Marks 2025


Paper Number Paper Name Topics Covered
Paper-I Essay – Writing essays on multiple topics – Effective and exact expression
Paper-II General Studies I – Indian culture, art forms, literature, and architecture – Modern Indian history – The Freedom Struggle – Post-independence consolidation and reorganization – World history – Salient features of Indian Society – Role of women, population, poverty, urbanization, globalization – Social empowerment, communalism, regionalism, secularism – Salient features of world’s physical geography – Distribution of natural resources – Geophysical phenomena – Changes in critical geographical features – Effects on flora and fauna
Paper-III General Studies II – Indian Constitution – Functions and responsibilities of the Union and the States – Separation of powers – Comparison of Indian constitutional scheme with other countries – Parliament and State Legislatures – Executive and Judiciary – Ministries and Departments – Pressure groups and associations – Salient features of the Representation of People’s Act – Constitutional posts – Statutory, regulatory, and quasi-judicial bodies – Government policies and interventions – Development processes and the development industry – Welfare schemes for vulnerable sections – Social Sector/Services – Governance, transparency, and accountability – Role of civil services – India’s neighborhood relations – Bilateral, regional, and global groupings – Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries – International institutions, agencies, and fora
Paper-IV General Studies III – Indian Economy and issues – Inclusive growth – Government Budgeting – Agriculture and related issues – Food processing and industries – Land reforms – Effects of liberalization – Infrastructure – Investment models – Science and Technology developments – Achievements of Indians in science and technology – Awareness in IT, Space, Computers, etc. – Conservation, environmental pollution, and degradation – Disaster and disaster management – Linkages between development and extremism – Role of external state and nonstate actors in creating security challenges – Challenges to internal security through communication networks, media, and social networking – Security forces and agencies
Paper-V General Studies IV – Ethics, Integrity, and Aptitude – Essence, determinants, and consequences of Ethics – Human Values – Attitude – Aptitude and foundational values – Emotional intelligence – Contributions of moral thinkers – Public/Civil service values – Ethics in Public administration – Probity in Governance – Case Studies on ethical issues
Paper-VI & VII Optional Subject Papers I & II – Candidates can choose any optional subject from the list of Optional Subjects


Navigating Post-Prelims Uncertainty

In the aftermath of the preliminary examinations, a cloud of uncertainty often looms over aspirants. This phase is characterized by a mix of hope and apprehension. It’s a critical juncture where the outcome of the prelims, still unknown, can lead to a dilemma: should one start preparing for the mains or wait for the results? This conundrum is not just about decision-making; it’s a test of resilience and foresight.

Winston Churchill’s words, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts,” capture the essence of this phase. Success in the prelims is not a guarantee of overall success, and similarly, stumbling at this stage is not the end of the journey. The true test here is the willingness to keep pushing forward, to maintain momentum in the face of uncertainty. This period demands a mindset shift from aspirants, seeing it not as a time of passive waiting but as an opportunity to advance their preparation.

The Art of Moving Forward

Transitioning from Prelims to Mains

The period between prelims and mains requires a strategic shift in preparation. One crucial aspect of this phase is the ability to filter out distractions, especially the proliferation of “market rumors” – speculative discussions about cutoffs, question patterns, and predictions about the upcoming mains. These can lead to unnecessary stress and divert attention from what truly matters – focused study.

Instead, the emphasis should be on consolidating and building upon the knowledge base. This is the time to delve deeper into subjects, understand nuances, and broaden perspectives.

Developing Writing Skills and Regular Essay Writing

A significant part of mains preparation is honing writing skills. Writing is not just about putting words on paper; it’s about articulating thoughts in a coherent, concise, and clear manner. It involves structuring arguments logically, presenting ideas effectively, and weaving facts and opinions into a narrative that resonates with the reader.

Regular essay writing plays a pivotal role in this. It’s not merely an exercise in writing but a process of learning to express complex thoughts clearly. It’s about learning to build and deconstruct arguments, to analyze from multiple perspectives, and to present a well-rounded view on diverse topics. The practice of writing essays regularly helps in developing these skills, which are crucial not just for the mains examination but for the overall journey of a civil services aspirant.

Deep Dive into Main Exam Preparation

Building a Strong Foundation

  1. Importance of Current Affairs and Traditional Knowledge

The landscape of civil services exams is such that it demands a robust understanding of both current events and historical context. Merging these two realms is not just beneficial; it’s essential.

    • Current Affairs: Staying updated with current events shapes a well-rounded perspective, essential for papers like General Studies and Essay. It’s like painting a picture of the present world, where each news article adds a stroke of understanding. Regularly reading reputable newspapers, following credible news websites, and listening to news podcasts can build a strong foundation in this area.
    • Traditional Knowledge: This refers to the academic and cultural knowledge that has been built over time. It provides context to current affairs and enriches your understanding. Delving into subjects like history, geography, and polity through standard textbooks and scholarly articles offers a deeper insight into how the past shapes the present.
  1. Utilizing Diverse Resources

Leveraging a variety of resources ensures a comprehensive preparation strategy. Here’s how you can do it:

    • Newspapers: Daily newspapers are indispensable. They not only cover current events but often provide critical analyses that can help in understanding various perspectives.
    • Government Websites and Reports: Official websites like those of the Government of India offer authentic information and data. Regularly visiting sites like PIB (Press Information Bureau) and reading government reports and publications like the Economic Survey can prove immensely useful.

Effective Study Habits

Case Studies of Successful Aspirants

  1. Aspirant A: Integrated Approach
    • Technique: This aspirant combined traditional handwritten notes with digital tools like online courses, educational apps, and videos.
    • Execution: They would start with a concept from the syllabus, write down key points, and then supplement these notes with online articles, videos, and interactive quizzes.
    • Interlinking Concepts: Crucial for subjects like history and current affairs where events are interconnected. For example, understanding colonial history’s impact on modern geopolitics.
    • Outcome: This approach led to a robust and multi-dimensional understanding of topics.
  2. Aspirant B: Time-Blocking Method
    • Technique: Dedicated specific time slots to different subjects, creating a structured daily routine.
    • Application: For instance, mornings were reserved for current affairs, afternoons for optional subjects, and evenings for revision.
    • Flexibility: While keeping a core schedule, they stayed flexible to adapt to more demanding topics as needed.
    • Outcome: This method ensured comprehensive coverage and consistent progress in all subjects.
  3. Aspirant C: Group Studies
    • Technique: Collaborated with a small group of fellow aspirants for collective study sessions.
    • Engagement: These sessions involved discussing complex topics, debating different viewpoints, and solving practice questions together.
    • Peer Learning: Benefitted from diverse perspectives and knowledge areas of each group member.
    • Outcome: Enhanced understanding of topics and exposure to a variety of viewpoints, which is particularly beneficial for papers like Ethics and Essay.

Finding One’s Study Rhythm

  1. Identifying Peak Productivity Times
    • Understand your circadian rhythm – are you a morning person or a night owl?
    • Experiment by studying at different times and gauge when your focus and retention are at their peak.
  2. Experimenting with Study Environments
    • Some find the structured silence of libraries conducive, while others may prefer the mild buzz of a café.
    • Changing environments can also prevent monotony and stimulate the brain.
  3. Balancing Studies with Personal Commitments
    • Create a study plan that respects other aspects of your life – family, hobbies, health.
    • Remember, a worn-out mind is less efficient. Include breaks and leisure activities in your schedule.


Each aspirant’s journey is unique, and the essence of these case studies is not to provide a one-size-fits-all solution but to offer a palette of strategies from which you can paint your own path to success. The key is finding what resonates with you, aligns with your lifestyle, and keeps you motivated and engaged in this challenging yet rewarding journey.

Enhancing Answer Writing Skills

Mastering the Art of Answer Writing

Mastering answer writing for civil services exams is akin to walking a tightrope, balancing two critical aspects: brevity and comprehensiveness. This skill is not just about pouring knowledge onto the paper but presenting it in a clear, concise, and structured manner.

  1. Balancing Brevity and Comprehensiveness Within Word Limits:
  • Crafting Concise Answers:
    • The key is to be succinct yet thorough. Imagine you’re explaining complex concepts to a friend who’s smart but not an expert in the field.
    • Use simple, direct language. Long, winding sentences can cloud your main points.
    • Prioritize your points. Start with the most important information, followed by supporting details.
  • Covering All Angles:
    • Despite the word limit, ensure you touch upon all critical facets of the question.
    • Think of each answer like a miniature essay – it needs an introduction, a body where you discuss various viewpoints or aspects, and a conclusion that ties it all together.
  1. Structuring Answers Effectively:
  • Introduction: Setting the Stage
    • Start with a brief introduction that outlines your understanding of the question. A well-crafted introduction sets the tone for the rest of your answer.
    • You could open with a relevant fact, a brief definition, or a statement that reflects the essence of the question.
  • Body: The Core of Your Answer
    • Organize the body of your answer in a logical flow. If there are multiple parts to the question, address each part systematically.
    • Use paragraphs to separate different points or subtopics. This enhances readability and shows that your thoughts are well-organized.
  • Conclusion: The Final Impression
    • Conclude with a summary of your main points or a final thought that leaves an impact.
    • Your conclusion should reflect back on the introduction, creating a cohesive narrative.

Practical Tips for Answer Writing:

  • Practice Regularly: Like any skill, answer writing improves with practice. Write regularly and seek feedback.
  • Analyze Previous Years’ Papers: Understanding the pattern and expectations of the exam can greatly improve how you structure your answers.
  • Time Management: Practice writing answers within a set time limit. This will help you gauge how much you can write and think under exam conditions.
  • Mock Tests: Participate in mock tests. They provide a real-exam scenario and help in fine-tuning your writing skills under pressure.

Filling the Mains Examination Form: DAF (Detailed Application Form)

  1. Accuracy in Personal Details
    • The DAF serves as the first impression you make on the interview board.
    • Minor errors in personal details can lead to unnecessary complications or misrepresentations.
    • Double-check entries like your name, educational qualifications, and work experience for accuracy.
  2. Reflecting on Your Journey
    • The DAF is not just a formality; it’s a narrative of your journey.
    • Your educational and professional experiences often become talking points during the interview.
    • Be prepared to discuss any aspect you mention in the DAF, from your hobbies to your job roles.

Choosing the Language Medium

  1. Expression Clarity
    • Opt for a language that allows you to articulate your thoughts most effectively.
    • Your ability to convey complex ideas simply and clearly can be more impactful than the language itself.
  2. Resource Availability
    • Assess the availability of study materials, mock tests, and coaching in your chosen language.
    • Limited resources in a particular language could mean more self-study and independent research.
  3. Strategic Decision
    • Language choice can influence your comfort level, affecting your performance in written and oral exams.
    • It’s not just about proficiency but also about how well you can think and respond in that language.

 The Final Countdown

As the civil services mains examination approaches, a strategic revision plan becomes indispensable. The key is to revise smartly, not just extensively. This means focusing on high-yield topics, and areas where you feel less confident, rather than trying to cover everything. Here’s how:

  1. Selective Revision: Instead of revisiting every topic, prioritize subjects based on their weight in the exam and your personal strengths and weaknesses. Concentrate on topics that are historically significant in the exam pattern.
  2. Summarized Notes: Utilize concise notes made during your preparation. These should be brief bullet points that trigger a fuller recall of the topic.
  3. Mind Maps and Flowcharts: Visual tools can help in quick revision and better retention. They’re particularly useful for interconnected topics and when reviewing complex concepts.
  4. Mock Exams and Past Papers: Practice under exam-like conditions to enhance recall and time management. This also helps in understanding the pattern of questions.
  5. Stress Management: Regular exercise, meditation, or any form of physical activity can significantly reduce stress. Remember, a relaxed mind retains and recalls information more efficiently.
  6. Healthy Routine: Ensure adequate sleep and a balanced diet. Avoid drastic changes to your daily routine as this can unsettle your body’s rhythm.

Exam Day Protocol

Navigating the Exam with Confidence and Calmness

Walking into the examination hall, it’s essential to maintain a sense of calm and confidence. This mindset can significantly impact your performance.

  1. Before the Exam: Arrive early to avoid last-minute rushes. Take deep breaths to steady your nerves and maintain focus.
  2. Reading Questions Carefully: Spend the first few minutes reading the questions carefully. This helps in understanding what exactly is being asked and how best to structure your answers.
  3. Time Management: Allocate your time wisely. Keep track of time but avoid constantly watching the clock as it can increase anxiety.
  4. Question Prioritization: Begin with questions you are most confident about. This not only ensures that you secure these marks but also builds momentum and confidence as you proceed.
  5. Balanced Approach: Avoid spending excessive time on a single question. If stuck, move on to the next question and return to the difficult ones later.
  6. Answer Presentation: Write legibly and structure your answers well. Underline key points to make them stand out.
  7. Staying Hydrated: Keep a bottle of water handy. Staying hydrated helps in maintaining concentration.
  8. Staying Positive: Maintain a positive attitude throughout the exam. If a section is challenging, remember that it’s likely challenging for other candidates as well.

The final leg of your preparation journey and the exam day itself are as much about mental and emotional readiness as they are about academic preparation. It’s about harnessing your knowledge, managing time skillfully, and keeping stress at bay to perform your best. Remember, as Yeats said, the best time to act is not when conditions are perfect, but when you’re ready to make them so.

Summary of Key Learnings

Key Topic Essential Learnings
Overall Approach The mains examination assesses intellectual traits and depth of understanding, requiring a well-educated person’s general awareness and analytical skills.
Exam Structure Comprises General Studies, Essay, and Optional Subjects, with a focus on testing analytical and comprehensive abilities in various domains.
Qualifying Papers Papers on English and Indian Languages test comprehension, précis writing, usage and vocabulary, short essays, and translation skills.
Main Papers Essay: Writing essays on diverse topics with clarity and precision. – General Studies: Covering a wide range of topics from Indian heritage, governance, technology, ethics, to international relations. – Optional Subjects: Advanced level study in a chosen subject.
Navigating Post-Prelims Phase – Maintain momentum and focus on mains preparation regardless of prelims outcome. – Embrace a mindset of resilience and continuous effort.
Preparation Strategy – Shift focus from prelims to mains-specific studies. – Enhance writing skills through regular essay writing. – Build a strong foundation in current affairs and traditional knowledge.
Study Techniques – Utilize diverse resources like newspapers, government reports, and digital tools. – Employ different study methods like integrated approaches, time-blocking, and group studies.
Answer Writing Skills – Balance brevity and comprehensiveness within word limits. – Structure answers with clear introductions, logical bodies, and impactful conclusions. – Regular practice and analyzing past papers are crucial.
Detailed Application Form (DAF) – Ensure accuracy in personal details. – Reflect on personal and professional experiences as they may be discussed in the interview.
Language Choice – Choose a language medium that ensures clear and effective expression. – Consider resource availability and comfort level in the chosen language.
Final Revision Techniques – Practice selective revision focusing on high-yield topics. – Use summarized notes, mind maps, and flowcharts for quick revision. – Mock exams and past papers for practice.
Exam Day Strategy – Manage time effectively, read questions carefully, and maintain a calm and positive mindset. – Prioritize questions and present answers neatly and structured.

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