[Strategy] UPSC Civil Service Exam (Part 1 of 5): Exam Trends and Changes

MK Pandey Fast track to objective arithmetic
  1. Prologue
  2. Act I: Mindset of the Enemy
  3. Prelims GS
  4. Prelims Optional
  5. Mains: 90s Era
  6. General studies (mains) of 90s Era
  7. Optional papers: 90s era
  8. Literature optionals: 90era
  9. The Back-breakingTM era (2010 onwards)
  10. BackbreakingTM  era: Prelims
  11. BackbreakingTM era: Mains (General Studies)
  12. Adaptation


  • There are lot of tips scattered in various articles, but for a new person it is sometimes hard to follow what is going on here.
  • So this is my attempt to combine and consolidate everything onto five part series on prelims cum mains cum interview approach for General Studies for UPSC Civil Service Exam.
  • If you’re following this site for many months, you will find repetition of ideas and tips in this article, so apologies in advance for any boredom caused.

War on Terrorism UPSC, consists of three battles

1. Prelims (CSAT) Multi choice questions (MCQs)
2. Mains Descriptive-essay type questions
3. interview

This strategy is divided into five articles, click on the appropriate links:

Topics discussed Article link
  1. In Act I, We shall try to understand the mindset of our Blood Enemy (UPSC)
Discussed in this article itself.
  1. In Act II: The weapons required to defeat him. (Booklist, art of Note making, How to use Yojana,Kurukshetra etc)
Click ME
  1. In Act III: We shall see how to effectively use those weapons and wage the war(Topicwise strategy for General Studies Prelims, Mains)
Click ME
  1. In Act IV: How to conquer your own brain, before conquering UPSC (cleansing the doubts of coaching classes, working professionals, Hindi Medium etc)
Click ME
  1. In Act V: We shall see how to retreat from the war, if victory is not achieved. (Career Backup plans)
Click ME
  1. 6th PArt (updated on March 2013): This is latest update in the strategy, with respect to, new modification introduced in UPSC 2013.
Click ME

Act I: Mindset of the Enemy

We can classify Bollywood movies into eras- tragedy ridden 50, musical 70s and so on.

Similarly UPSC question papers too have gone through evolution.

To keep it simple, I would classify this into two phases

90s era Back breakingTM era
Timeline Everything upto 2009 2010, 2011, 2012…continued
Prelims Main areas
  1. History
  2. Geography
  3. Current Affairs
  1. Environment
  2. Science
  3. History/Polity
  • Older NCERTs
  • Std.Ref Books
  • Competitive Magazines
  • New NCERT
  • Std.Ref Books
  • Newspapers
Mains Main areas
  • History
  • Geography
  • Polity
  • Diplomacy
  • Diplomacy
  • Yearbook
  • Environment
  • Sci-Tech
  1. Standard Reference books
  2. Coaching class notes
Mostly Newspapers, your own notes.

So how was the 90s era?

  • Most people did not have internet or computer. Internet was prohibitively expensive. Even cybercafés were hard to find. There was hardly any information on internet, about how to prepare for this exam.
  • And whether information/booklist was available was mostly jingoistic and impractical in nature. (will be discussed in Act II “List of Not recommended Books”)
  • Those who could afford to goto Delhi for coaching, had distinct advantage over others. Because they knew what to prepare, from where to prepare and what to skip. (Nowadays situation has drastically changed).

in those days, Prelims had two papers

  1. General Studies (150 marks)
  2. Optional Subject (300 marks)

There existed a proportional representation system rule. Crudely speaking it means

  • Suppose 2 lakh students appeared in prelims and 20,000 had History optional. (10%)
  • And UPSC wanted only pass 10,000 students for next stage –mains exam. In that case, UPSC would need to reserve 1000 seats for candidates with history optional. (10%)

Prelims GS

By and large the structure for prelims was like following

  1. There would be about 20 questions on History. You had to Mugup old NCERT + any coaching notes regarding location of Harappa sites and other boring trivial things.
  2. There would be 30-40 questions on Geography (including places in news): so you had to prepare old NCERTs + competitive magazines + TheHindu accordingly.
  3. About 40 questions on science: NCERT + GS manual.
  4. Prelims GS questions used to be current affairs heavy : Almost 40 questions on persons/places in news, books-authors, sports, awards, science-tech etc. so competitive magazines (chronicle wizard etc) and coaching class material on current affairs compilation were precious.
  5. Remaining was filled up with polity, aptitude etc questions to make a paper with total 150 questions.

Prelims Optional

Let’s consider the case of Public Administration. The topicwise breakup was pretty much identical every year. Basically you had to mugup following books religiously and you would clear the prelims (even without coaching or great command over GS).

  1. M.Laxmikanth’s book on Public Administration
  2. Prasad and Prasad
  3. Mohit Bhattacharya
  4. Sharma n Sadana (or Avasthi or Fadia)

But in those years, if you lived in a small town, there was no internet and nobody to tell you those books were important. So you had to join a coaching class in Delhi, just to figure out the damn booklist (or worst- fail in first attempt and learn from mistakes).

  • Overall, The nature of prelims questions was such that you’d need to mugup lot of data on solar planets, PSLV missions, metal-alloys, location of Harappan sites, winners of lawn tennis, Shanti-Swaroop Bhatnagar awardees and other boring things like that.
  • Same for your optional subjects. (for Public Administration you had to mugup quotes-who said what, books and authors, timelines etc.
  • Because of the proportional representation rule, in the preliminary exam you were only competing with the people from your optional subject group.
  • And thus Senior player had distinct advantage over first timers. Because optionals were worth 300 mark, and he had rock solid command over facts because of revision.
  • The victory rule was straight arithmetic:
  • If Someone revised above cited Public Administration books for 15-20 times (I’m not kidding) then he was riding a Tata Sumo @90 kmph.
  • If a newguy had barely read them 5 times, so he was riding a desi Atlas bicycle (used by postmen,).
  • Now imagine what would happen if these two clashed?
  • Same was the situation in  General studies paper.

And as I told earlier, there was no internet or awareness outside Delhi. So most of the “small-town, self-preparation-no coaching and no relative in civil service” type candidates would fail in their first attempt, because

  1. they did not have idea on what to prepare, what to skip.
  2. They could not memorize as much as a senior player did, because of timelimit.

So they’d fail in first attempt, learn from their mistakes, and clear prelims in second attempt (i.e. when they too become  senior players).  But then they might fail in mains exam for the same reason (lack of right direction), so they’d again rectify mistakes in third attempt and with God and goodluck willing, they’d get selected. Ofcourse there were exceptional cases, but by and large, this was the situation and hence there exists a perception in the society that

  1. You cannot clear IAS exam on first trial.
  2. You cannot clear IAS exam without going to Delhi for Coaching.

But that was the 90s. Things have changed now. Many toppers have defied above rules. Cleared the UPSC on first attempt: Shah Faisal, Karthik Iyer, Neeraj Singh, Mohd.Safi to name a few.

Anyways let us continue discussion on 90s era- moving to the Mains

Mains: 90s Era

General studies (mains) of 90s Era

Questions often rephrased and repeated, so if a coaching class sir dictated the answers for previous papers / or provided notes, then all you had to do was religiously mug it up and reproduce the same in your answer sheets.


  1. 3 books of Spectrum: Modern History, Freedom fighters and Culture
  2. Bipin Chandra

In those years, UPSC would ask 2 markers on freedom fighters (total 10-12 marks) every year. So you had to mupup 150+freedom fighters from Spectrum’s book + coaching material if any. Again, senior player had distinct advantage because he would have gone through the same data atleast 5 times. He can easily recall freedom fighters compared to a new guy.

Indian Geography

  • Again questions were repeated and rephrased for example
  • “explain monsoon mechanism in India” and “why xyz part receives less monsoon” etc.
  • So a coaching class sir would just need to consolidate good stuff given in Spectrum book/Majid Hussain /Dr.Khullar’s book and provide question answers for old papers. That’d be his “coaching class readymade material” and  you did not even need a book, just mugup those class notes, and you’d get full marks.


  1. Sometimes directly lifted statements on DD Basu, other times merely rephrasing old question.
  2. Again same as above, coaching notes would save the time and effort.

International affairs, Economy

  1. You had to just mugup V******’s material and whatever was dictated in the class.
  2. Statistics was also pretty easy and conventional.
  3. There were clichéd questions on computers every year like write a note on RAM or email.
  4. Same for science-tech.
  5. And whatever Misc. current affairs was left, you could rely on Wizard’s special book on mains current affairs + Hindu.

Optional papers: 90s era

I’ve already talked about that in the Public Administration strategy article. Anyways the success formula was

  • Re-mugup the same books you used for prelims.
  • Get some fodder material from Yojana Kurukshetra. (or Readymade notes of H******** S**** etc.) and use it elaborate or spice up the answers with so called ‘case studies’.
  • Questions were static, direct from the SRBs, repeated, rephrased. coaching sir would dictate the answers, Class notes would save the day.
  • Similar things for History, geography, psychology etc.

Literature optionals: 90s era

  • In the GS and Public Administration, UPSC  atleast showed the decency to rephrase the question while repeating it next year.
  • but for literature was so totally clichéd, even Saas Bahu serials look genuine.
  • If you just studied the last 10 years paper, you could set your own guess-paper for the fourth year and upsc’s actual paper would 90% similar to your guess paper!
  • For Pali or Maithali litt. All you had to do was join a coaching class or get some Arts professor to dictate you the answers of last 10 years’ papers. That’s all, mug it up and you’d get more that 300/600 marks (+ scaling system favored litt.optionals)

In short, first timer/no-coaching type player had almost 0% chance of getting decent marks in mains.

And among the senior players, if Senior Player A and Senior player B. Both had revised notes for 20 times. Who would be successful?

Well, questions like I said rephrased repeated every year. Mains Questions are of two types: analytical or direct.

  1. For analytical questions (Critically analyse India’s policy towards Afghanistan), you had ready-made notes dictated by coaching class sir, you just needed to recall and write the points. And Suppose Mr.A solely relied on that note while Mr.B upgraded his note further with fodder material from library book or retired professor or newspapers, then Mr.B would get more marks. Therefore quality of notes =important.
  2. For direct questions (like powers of the Pres of India or explain the budget making process)….in that case whoever could write more points (Mr.A or B) would get more marks. Therefore memorization skill=important.

The Back-breakingTM era (2010 onwards)

  • So far we saw that in 90s era, A small town candidate without coaching or tips from seniors/toppers/IAS relatives, could rarely succeed.
  • And By small town I mean every place except Delhi. (Same way for IIT entrance exam, everyplace except Kota, Rajsthan, is a small town.)
  • Anyways, suddenly UPSC wakes up and realizes the problems faced by first timers and small towners.
  • So UPSC starts taking certain reformative measures in the exam process to prevent coaching classes and senior players for gaining much advantage.
  • This is phenomenon is referred as BackbreakingTM move of UPSC.
  • The exams conducted in 2010, 2011, and 2012 are examples of that move. Now let’s try to understand what was changed during this era?

BackbreakingTM  era: Prelims

  1. UPSC removed Optional subjects were from preliminary exam (2011 and onwards) it introduced a new thing called Civil Service Aptitude Test (CSAT). It had two papers GS+Aptitude. Both papers have same marks. So there goes the advantages associated with proportional representation, 300 marks of optional subject MCQ paper.
  2. Even in Aptitude, from 2012 It reduced questions from conventional Maths: to prevent Engineers/IIT/MBA types from gaining advantage.
  3. UPSC  introduced new topics in the syllabus such as environment and biodiversity, rights issue.
  4. In GS prelims, it stopped asking trivial current affairs stuff (person/places in news, awards etc.) for example I’m copy pasting certain questions from 90s era

Which of the following organization won the CSIR award for S&T innovation for rural Development, 2006?

  1. CLRI
  2. NDDB
  3. IARI
  4. NDRI

Which city has been the venue of Asian Games for maximum number of times from 1951 to 2006?

  1. Delhi
  2. Tokyo
  3. Bangkok
  4. Beijing

Match the following

  1. Bhanu Bharti
  2. Mike Pandey
  3. Mohd.Zahur Khyyam
  4. Vinda Karandikar
  1. Music composer
  2. Poet
  3. Theatre director
  4. Wildlife film maker

To solve such questions you had to constantly follow current affairs magazines (or the readymade current affairs notes of coaching class). But Nowadays such questions don’t appear much in prelims exam.

  1. UPSC  changed the nature of questions from History and Science. For example here are few from 1999’s paper

Q1. Match Following

  1. 1775
  2. 1780
  3. 1824
  4. 1838
  1. 1st Anglo-Burmese war
  2. 1st Anglo-Afghan war
  3. 1st Anglo-Maratha war
  4. 2nd Anglo-Mysore

Q2. Volcanic eruptions donot occur in

  1. Baltic Sea
  2. Black Sea
  3. Caspian Sea
  4. Caribbean Sea

Thankfully UPSC  stopped asking such questions nowadays. So you don’t have to mugup a lot of data like in the 90s.

For Prelims, Nowadays most of the questions are 4 Statement True or False (4TF) type. So you’re given one term/phenomenon and 2 or 3 or 4 statements. Your task is to identify the correct statements. Ofcourse it does require memorization, but they more aimed at checking your basic understanding of a topic rather than your mugup skills (like in above questions from the 90s) for example here are some questions from 2012’s paper

Q1. Mahatma Gandhi undertook fast unto death in 1932, mainly because :

  1. Round table conference failed to satisfy Indian political aspirations
  2. Congress and muslims league had differences of opinion
  3. Ramsay macdonald announced the communal award
  4. None of the statements (a), (b) and (c) given above is correct in this context.

Q2. Consider these factors

  1. Rotation of the earth
  2. Air pressure of wind
  3. Density of ocean water
  4. Revolution of the earth

Which of the above factors influence the ocean currents?

  1. 1 & 2 only
  2. 1, 2 & 3
  3. 1 & 4
  4. 2, 3 & 4

To get more idea on this, read following analysis of 2012’s CSAT (preliminary) paper CLICK ME

BackbreakingTM era: Mains (General Studies)

For mains exan, UPSC stopped asking conventional direct stuff from History, Geography   Instead emphasis was given to public health, environment, sci-tech, yearbook and current affairs from newspapers.

To get more idea on this, read following analysis of 2012’s General Studies (Mains) paper click ME


And while writing all ^this, I donot mean even an ounce of disrespect to any senior player or his success. No one becomes senior player by his conscious choice, everyone wants to clear UPSC in first attempt- But things don’t turn out that way for many, So, he is a victim of circumstances created by the (supervillain) UPSC. And life and society is very cruel to him, as you’ll see in Act IV and V.

Initially UPSC had the upper hand in this war. When UPSC significantly changed the question style in 2010′s preliminary paper, most senior players were shocked and caught unguarded. But UPSC can’t trick them everytime. They’re fighting for their life and career. In 2011, 2012 they changed their preparation strategy accordingly and adapted to this uncertain environment. So question papers are not as ‘shocker’ for them as UPSC expects.

Similarly coaching classes have been trying to adapt. UPSC keeps an eye on all the study material released by prominent coaching classes of delhi, to make sure no questions are asked from such material. So coaching classes too have came up with new ideas, for example

  1. Nowadays ‘good stuff/ ultra-important topics ’ are not given in their printed study material but mostly dictated during the lecture. (Because printed material usually get pirated by Xerox centres of Delhi hahaha)
  2. They intentionally released their current affairs material very late (just 15-20 days before the exam) to prevent UPSC from changing the papers.

This is like a game of chess, you have to constantly keep moving your pawns and adapt to the moves made by the enemy, same way UPSC too keeps coming up with new ideas and new back breakingTM moves every year.

  • In the end, competition is tough and exam is not friendly to anyside, anymore, whether you’re a coaching/no-coaching/first timer/senior player…you too should adapt and study hard else you’ll get massacred like an innocent bystander in the action movies.

This concludes Act I (Part 1 of 5). Here are the links to the Remaining articles of UPSC strategy:

Remaining Parts of the UPSC Strategy

Lucent General Knowledge Objective English

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अब तक 524 कमेंट्स लिखी गयी

  1. komal k says:

    i have always heard that if u are preparing for upsc than u can definitely clear the mppsc exam. is that true sir?? is approach to both the examinations are same ,?
    i am preparing for upsc and i also have filled up form for mppsc …before i had less time to prepare for mppsc but now its date has been extanded to 29-6-2014, so sir please advice how to prepare for both prelims.
    thank you .

    • Manoj Singh says:

      This is not true

    • Anindya Acharya says:

      I think a common preparation always there..

  2. shrinivas deshpande says:

    sir I have a doubt regarding making notes how do I prepare notes for mains point of view

  3. harshita singh says:

    hello sir,
    i want to start preparation for IAS exams in hindi medium.i am b.tech graduate and want to attempt exam in 2015.can u plzz tell me best books in hindi so that i can start
    preparation in right way….

  4. PR says:

    Mrunal sir, can you suggest me the better online test series between ias100(CST) and forum ias..

  5. PR says:

    Mrunal sir, I hope that you will suggest me the best online test series. I am eagerly awaiting your piece of advice….

  6. pankaj mishra says:

    i want to know about a intial preparations plan for ias………..

  7. monika says:

    Sir tell me some good book for sociology preliminary for HCS

  8. sudharsan says:

    Im basicly tamil medium student sir how can I start my preparation while I m reading hindu paper it takes much time to understand the meanings so plz give me the tips to improve my reading habit

  9. amit says:

    sir i visited your site first time and i want to ask you that can i give MPSC and UPSC both ??i am from mumbai and can student from outside Maharashtra give mpsc ???

  10. Neelam says:

    where is your article on CSAT 100 days??? i need it i cant able to find that. help me

  11. kusum says:

    sir, I want to start ias preparation in English medium, I m mathematics graduate…and I m also in work in stste bank of india.i don’t have any idea about main exam for ias,and specially about optional subject.i want to join online classes or weekened. plz guide me…

  12. Ravi says:

    Hi All

    I am trying to register on http://www.upsconline.nic.in since last 5 days but every time it displays an error ‘Password should be of length between 4 to 10 and it must contain at least 1 character and 1 number’. I have tried almost all possibilities but of no use. If anyone of you can help me in this regard?


  13. Anindya Acharya says:

    I’m here to know more and more about the IAS , which i want to crack in recent future. Hope i will be updated with good information from my friends.

  14. devendra says:

    sir i am student in b.tech biotech 2nd year how to preparing i, e, s . exam……

  15. SWET V PATEL says:

    Sir, how many trial for General Catagery in UPSC IN NEW PATTERN ?

  16. dipjyoti says:

    Can you tell me which books are good to prepare for geography mains exams

  17. Rishabh negi says:

    sir ,, can i take tourism as my optional subject for cs mains.

  18. aditya jha says:

    tell me about the best books which will be useful for cast Prelims
    and taking which paper as optional will be most favourable.

  19. RAKESH PATIDAR says:

    Hello sir! I have started preparing for UPSC from end january 2014,i have visited your site n also noticed n adapted the preparation strategy,currently i am studying with the basics i.e. NCERTs ,just want to know,upto what extent should i read the ncerts? once,twice,thrice?? i mean my que is upto what extent would they b useful in such a preparation??

  20. Sumit Kumar says:

    Do You still need to read old ncert books for pre and mains respectively ?
    or Doing the New Ones is Enough for the sake of the preparation ?

  21. RAKESH PATIDAR says:

    what is this subscription on part 1 of 5????

  22. GUNJAN YAdav says:

    Sir,can you suggest me how to prepare for IES (Engineering)

  23. GUNJAN YAdav says:

    Sir,can you suggest me how to prepare for IES (Engineering) electronics and communication.

  24. bhunesh charan says:

    Dear sir,
    as to become an ias officer is my childhood dream.. i got 82% & 68% marks in 10th and 12th but only 54% in B.sc PCM.. I have lost my all confidence due to my bad profile.. Will anyone will say something to boost up my confidence plzz?? Can i still become IAS officer???

  25. bhunesh charan says:

    Dear sir,
    as to become an ias officer is my childhood dream.. i got 82% & 68% marks in 10th and 12th but only 54% in B.sc PCM.. I have lost my all confidence due to my bad profile.. Will anyone will say something to boost up my confidence plzz?? Can i still become IAS officer???

    • Tarun says:

      Never give up my friend….i want to share one line here,which i always read when i stuck in a situation like yours.

      “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
      -Henry Ford

      may be it helps you..:);)

      • bhunesh charan says:

        Hi!!! Thank you my friend… Really these words filled my with a new energy.. Thank u very much

  26. MANU RISHI says:

    http://www.ppsc.gov.in/pdf/pscscce2013/apre/qpaper1.pdf sir iska bhi analysis kariye thoda..I have never seen such State PSC exam..

    • rahul says:

      i hope mains is level ka no ho.

  27. gnanprakash k solanki says:

    Sir I am new comer in upsc exam, can you please provide me some information about the materials, which kind of material can be useful for success in upsc exam, can you tell me the what exactly material would be useful for preparing the upsc exam?

  28. jasmine says:

    sir i m in second year in engineering i want to crack upsc exam plz tell me how would i start my preperation.

  29. S.P.Sharma says:

    sir,i have to give cse exam in hindi medium ,i have a doubt that can i use some english words in that exam

  30. S ANIL says:


    i am applied for CBI public prosecutor in UPSC last year 2013 but still neither received any all ticket nor exam date . plz give me inform about CBI exm when it will be .

  31. srawan says:

    please guide me for environment and rights n issues books

  32. Request - CSAT Test Series Help says:

    Hi All Frnds,
    I am looking for CSAT – Paper 2 test series. Can anyone suggest which one I should go for or which coaching institute’s test series i should join in PUNE ?

    A quick and helpful response from anyone/all will be very helpful.


  33. sun says:

    hy friend i am totally loosing confidence as i not selected ibps and acio exam
    hence want to give up this struggle

    Hy friend can any one give idea about preparation of csat second paper preparation
    i will highly grateful to him

  34. sun says:

    Hy friend can any one give idea about preparation of csat second paper preparation
    i will highly grateful to him

  35. RUPI PANDEY says:

    plz sir…suggest me some books for both upsc & spsc..plz…

  36. RUPI PANDEY says:

    plz ,,sir ……suggest books 4 upsc & spsc

  37. vikrant says:

    Hello sir,
    I Wanted to ask u the proper books to study for upsc mains syllabus plz can u give me the reference

  38. vikrant says:

    Hello sir, I want to know which books should I refer for mains examination

  39. MOHIT KUMAR says:


  40. nitin says:

    Where is the 2nd part of it .

  41. Nik says:

    I agree with you “Shame on you Carlos”. This is absolute nonesense. No body knows what circumstances has the other person gone through and making fun of a fellow aspirants shows the worst attitude.
    If you can’t help others then it is better not to make fun either.
    My suggestion Carlos, don’t be much proud of your intelligence (I hope you have some), because if you have read Ramayana, nobody can forget what happened with Ravana.

    All the best for your future endeavours.

  42. Amit Chaudhary says:

    Agree with Nik!

  43. siva sankar says:

    Im preparing for engineering service exam. How to tackle general ability paper and get good score. Since two times i lost my selection at the final interview stage because of very low mark in gs in both the times.

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