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

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IAS Mock Interviews
  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. MainsDescriptive-essay type questions
3. interview

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

Topics discussedArticle 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 eraBack breakingTM era
TimelineEverything upto 20092010, 2011, 2012…continued
PrelimsMain 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
MainsMain 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

Mrunal recommends

  1. (free) NCERT, NIOS, TN-Books 4 History,Geo,Sci
  2. Indian Polity M.Laxmikanth (Hindi | English)
  3. Spectrum: Modern History (Hindi | English)
  4. Maths: Quantam CAT Sarvesh Kumar
  5. Objective General English SP Bakshi
  6. Word Power made Easy -Norman Lowe
  7. Topic wise Solved Paperset by Disha

768 Comments on “[Strategy] UPSC Civil Service Exam (Part 1 of 5): Exam Trends and Changes”

  1. Sir.kindly advise me which book to study for my management mains exam( upsc) thank you…

  2. Sir, please provide me the list of all sessions of INC with their place, leadership ,year and numbering..

  3. anybody can plz provide me books or notes of criminology for prparation of upsc mains exam,,,,,,,,,, i would be thaknfull for ur this kindness

  4. How to extract material from the hindu newspaper

  5. somebody help me! i want to prepar for ias exam what should i do for that and what should i read i don;t know plsssssssssssss help me………………………………………………………

    1. Dear Rahul sharma,
      First of all i want to say all the best for civil service examination. Firstly start from basic NCERT books from 6 to 12. After that you will automatically require details for any subject like economics, politics, History and Geography.

      Start reading for Indian economy Datta & Sundaram.

      Indian polity M. Laxmikant

      Physical Geography & Environmental Geography Savindra Singh

      News Paper The Hindu, Yojana & Kurukshetra, Indian Year Book, Manorama year Book, And you can read Civil Service Chronicle for current event ;

      For Foreign Policy—– Civil Service Time Book

      Modern India –Spectrum Series

      Start these basic books

      All the best one again

  6. ok tell me 1st that how is ur fmly economic condition …….
    if they r depending on u u carry on in tcs…
    as i tink previously in tcs u have more work to do, but after 2 yr u have at list 3hr to read….its enough to upsc….
    n haan padho magar 3d fig k sath as i do…
    koi dikkat ho to mail karo mereko…

    my intro..
    i m mr. chandan kumar
    pass out from bit mesra(ece) in 2009
    posted in bsnl as a jto from 2009-10

    1. Hello sir … I am right now perpraing for IAS and I have engineering background. And dont know properly that how to study and how to clear the concept . pleas help me out ..

  7. Sir plz help me want to preparation of upsc but I have no idea what I do my medium is hindi

  8. What to read I am not able to join any class?

    1. Dear akshay,
      First of all i want to say all the beat for civil service examination. Firstly start from basic NCERT books from 6 to 12. After that you will automatically require details for any subject like economics, politics, History and Geography.

      Start reading for Indian economy Datta & Sundaram.

      Indian polity M. Laxmikant

      Physical Geography & Environmental Geography Savindra Singh

      News Paper The Hindu, Yojana & Kurukshetra, Indian Year Book, Manorama year Book, And you can read Civil Service Chronicle for current event ;

      For Foreign Policy—– Civil Service Time Book

      Modern India –Spectrum Series

      Start these basic books

      All the best one again

      1. Thanks sir for guidance…. Sir i just want to ask u, what percenta required for IPS, because i only just pass with 50% on my graduation.

  9. study material for history optional and mains

  10. i dont understand ka se start karu pta nahi chal raha hai plz help sir ji

  11. I am beginner so can anyone tell me how to start please???

  12. Doing a gov. job, is it possible to get preparation for civil services

  13. Sir could you suggest me best books regarding Bihar Public service commission (BPSC). I mainly want Bihar general awareness in “English”.

  14. I want to know whether graduation in any literature is required to take that subject as optional subject in upsc. Reply asap.

  15. I want to know whether graduation is required in any literature to take that as an optional subject in upsc. Reply asap.

  16. Great Work. Your Information is very useful for freshers. Thanks for this valuable information, it will help me in my preparation for IAS.

  17. Guys… am planning to join the Insightsonindia teries for 2015 prelims, the cost of the test series is about Rs.5999/- therefore am planning to form a group of around 5-6 members for sharing the cost. Those guys are willing to be part of my team please do reply

    1. hi,
      were you able to form a group?? im interested in forming another such group actually.

      1. Have have you formed the group or still waiting…..??

        Even I want to join the group………

      2. Hi Neha,
        I think it will be a great idea.
        I am very much interested in group study so that we can streamline our preparations and even we can connect on Whatsapp Group or any other Social N/W sites and benefit from them.


    2. I am interested. I can get additional discount as i had enrolled last year. is the group forming process still on.

  18. Dear Mrunal,Any clarity whether 2011 candidates will be able to write 2015 cs exam

  19. sir am i eligible fir IAS csat exam ? my one eye vision 6/24 (-8D glass) one eye 6/6 (-7 D glass)

    1. yes eligible……but not eligible for IPS

  20. Sir,I want to take zoology as my optional for main exam.plz direct me for this.awaiting ur reply

  21. Please guide for 2015 civil services for a working professional

  22. All the best..

  23. sir tell me the study material for art and culture portion of upsc civil services pre and mains.

  24. Sir I am a beginner in civil service preparation so I wanted to know whether it’s enough to read gist of NCERT books or I have to read NCERT books from class 6th to 12th?

  25. rs sir I have completed my 12 in Hindi m & graduate in English m (b.com). and I have a atmosphere of guj m. I also want to take guj sahitya as opt sub .but confuse in selecting a m of writing mains ..please kindly guide me. is there a difficulty in Hindi m in spipa & mamta…… pls guide me

  26. Please tell me about mains optional subject (UPSC) strategy. I have selected sanskrit. Am I right please tell me

  27. sir pl tell me which study material i use for geography mains in hindi medium weating ur reply thanks

  28. I am doing b.sc with maths,computer & management. I want prepare for civil services. Which subjects i will have to take in mains.

  29. hey ! anyone can suggest me the optional subjects for upsc as I m doing my degree in agriculture, related to my degree

  30. What is this ‘GS MANUAL’ mentioned in many posts and articles of you sir?

    1. Priyanka, It refers to the McGraw Hills GS Manual.


  31. Sir/ma’am
    i had cleared my 12 and now i like to take up economics as my owners paper. So please suggest me of what to read, what shall do… So that i shall be prepare to face IAS POST. Thanking you

  32. Hello guys i have graduation in computer sciences …..shall i take pol science and public administration as optional for mains

  33. sir,
    i am fy b.c.a student and my aim and dream to became I.P.S i dont know how to start upsc study….
    plzzzz give me some suggetion

  34. Sir,
    I want application form for AOC Records Secunderabad Recruitment 2015 – 2016 : Army Ordnance Corps Records, Trimulgherry Post, Secunderabad
    Total Number of Vacancies : 14
    Name of the Posts :
    1) LDC : 10
    2) MTS Messenger : 03
    3) Gest-Operator : 01

    No application form mentioned in Advt.sir…..I also surfed in Ineternet

    Sir last date is coming soon……Kindly provide me Thanking u sir,


  35. Hello, I am having doubts in optional subject of Preliminary.How much mark is alloted for optional subject and what is the passing range for it?


  36. Differences between data entry and typing test exam?

  37. My son wants to appear for IPS.
    He is in final year B.Com.
    Pl.suggest how to prepare ips study ?
    Any coaching class at Vadodara; Gujrat

  38. Sir m 4m bsc non medical .. which non science optional subjct is good me for mains … n now m in 2nd how I strt preparing 4 UPSC

  39. Anyone tell me how to start initially

  40. Good morning sir
    My self shaziya, and I am preparing for preliminary sir I have doubt that for science is it enough to go through the ncert books till 10th standard or I have to prefer 11th and 12th standard also?
    Sir plz guide me
    Thank you sir

  41. Dear Sir

    I am a civil services aspirant, suffering from severe asthma. Please advice what services i will be eligible to enter with the medical condition.

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