Note: My book, Fundamentals of Essay and Answer Writing is now available both in paperback and e-book versions. It’s a comprehensive guide that helps you write better Essays and Answers in the UPSC Mains Exam. You can know about the book here.
In this article, I elaborate on my preparation strategy for UPSC Civil Services Exam (Mains) exam, particularly General Studies (GS).
With 1000 marks spanning across four papers in Mains, GS feels like one giant, insurmountable mountain. The point of this article is to convince you that those fears are unfounded.
I’ve written this post assuming someone who had already read the foundational books for GS Prelims. If you haven’t read them as yet, you should first read my post on GS Prelims. At the end of this article, I embedded download links to my complete GS notes and answer copies. There I had marked two particular answer booklets that accurately represent my writing style in Mains. I hope aspirants who are struggling with answer writing find them useful. I had also written previously about the Essay preparation and Essay writing.
As you start reading the books I mention here for GS mains, please keep the following points in mind:
- Along with these books, get a printout of the syllabus and read it carefully. Your final aim must be: for each topic mentioned in the syllabus, you should have enough content to write a 250-word answer.
- Go through the past five years’ question papers to understand the breadth and depth of questions UPSC usually asks. It’ll give you a good perspective of what’s important and what’s not.
- Use the internet extensively, especially for topics like Science and Tech. Your target must be to gain knowledge, be it through books or through the internet.
- For all subjects, you have to superimpose current affairs over it, especially for GS-2 and GS-3. For both these papers, current affairs form the nucleus. You will inevitably do a lot of reading on the internet, so use Evernote to organise and highlight content like this.
- Give adequate time for revision. Without it, you will not be able to recollect whatever you may have read. So please dedicate enough time to it, whether you are giving a mock test or the actual exam.
- Many aspirants commit one fundamental mistake: they read and revise, over and over, but never practise. Remember that the examiner checking your copy will have no idea about the number of books you’ve read or the number of hours you’ve slogged. Your answers are all that he has to judge you. So it makes sense to learn it, practise it and perfect it.
- Mains exam demands not only our memory and intelligence but also endurance. If you lack prior practice, writing relentlessly for 6 hours a day and do this for 5 days will cause both mental and physical fatigue. The only way to overcome it is to practice enough before the final exam.
- General Studies demands only a peripheral understanding of an expansive set of topics. So it’s important that you try to gain minimum sufficient knowledge over a diverse set of subjects rather than obsessively focussing on one topic. For instance, it doesn’t make sense to read World History for three months at the expense of all other subjects. Always maintain that fine balance between all the topics and don’t get imprisoned in one.
- In GS, there will be very few questions where you will have absolutely no clue. Even if you only have a vague idea, write those generic points. For instance, in last year’s GS-1 paper, for the question on Malay peninsula, I knew no specific fact except a vague idea that Singapore had a partition story similar to India. So I just wrote a generic answer comprising of problems such as ethnic strife, insurgency, and economic collapse. The examiner checking my copy might have given 2-3 marks for it, which I am sure any aspirant would gladly take.
- You must develop the skill to speed read a committee or an organisation’s report on your computer (reading online saves you a lot of time) and highlight important lines as you read along. In the second reading, this highlighted portion is what you need to revise. It should look something like this.
- In GS papers, map of India is your most effective tool for illustration. For example, I drew India maps and labelled relevant parts for questions on river linkage (GS-3), North-East insurgency (GS-3), Inland navigation (GS-1), India’s 18th-century fragmented polity (GS-1) etc. Practise it enough so that you are able to draw and label it under 60 seconds.
- If you are taking a test series, please give those tests with all the seriousness of the final UPSC exam. In the mock test, if you take 10-15 additional minutes to finish the paper, you are cheating no one except yourself. Observe strict time limits.
- You will never feel content with your Mains preparation and there is always a nagging tendency to just keep reading and procrastinate writing answers or skip an upcoming test. You have to overcome this reluctance through conscious effort. Suppose before a mock test if you were unable to finish the syllabus, you can postpone your test by a day or two, but don’t skip it altogether.
- Perfectionism is your enemy. If you keep referring to countless sources to make that “perfect notes”, if you keep postponing your mock tests in order to write “perfect tests”, this mentality will bring you to ruin. Getting a good score in Mains is about attempting all questions to which some answers are excellent, some good and many above average. So instead of waiting for that elusive perfection, start imperfect and then keep improving.
- When you are buying coaching material, always ask yourself: “what new is this material adding to my preparation?” If you can’t answer that question convincingly, then the material probably isn’t really useful.
- Just because I am AIR-1, it does not mean that my notes are the best or that this book list is the last word. If you have been studying some other material, that’s fine, too. To succeed in this exam, the source of material is not important. What’s important is you to understand the concepts, memorise the facts well and have a firm grip over the entire syllabus.
The list of books for GS Mains:
Indian Art and Culture
- An Introduction to Indian Art – Class XI NCERT
- Chapters related to culture in Ancient and Medieval India NCERTs
- Centre for Cultural Resource and Training (CCRT) material
- Heritage Crafts: Living Craft Traditions of India -NCERT
- For someone who is starting just now, this topic can overwhelm them. So I suggest beginners read this section after they get acquainted with other GS topics.
- In Art and Culture, questions asked by UPSC in recent years are more analytical— which requires both the factual content and good analysis to answer the why and how. You can answer such questions well only when you understand the historical background in which such art was produced. This is why it’s important that you read NCERT XI Ancient India for it gives you that historical context.
- For instance, don’t just memorise features of say, Sangam literature or Chola architecture, but understand the social, political, religious and economic context in which such grand art was produced. They will form the analysis part and will help you write great answers.
- Make good use of the internet to watch both visual and performing arts to understand how they actually look in real life. You will be able to recollect such visuals more easily. They will help you write a decent answer for questions which you only have a vague idea about.
- Wherever relevant, draw diagrams to illustrate your answers. For instance, you can draw a rough sketch to show the features of a Stupa, Dravida, and Nagara style architecture, Paleolithic art, Folk arts such as Warli, Harappan pottery etc. You don’t need to be a Michelangelo for this, but you must ensure that the fundamentals are correct. For example, in Warli art, human bodies are represented by triangles, heads by circles and hands by simple lines. Just get these basics right. Link to download diagrams is given at the end of the article.
- Art and Culture requires a ton of memorisation and there’s really no shortcut to mastering it except through multiple revisions.
Modern Indian History
- A Brief History of Modern India- Spectrum Publications
- India’s Struggle for Independence – Bipan Chandra (Read selectively for topics not covered in the Spectrum book)
- Questions on Indian history are something that every serious aspirant will answer well, so you really cannot afford to let go of these questions. If you had done your prelims preparation for this topic well, that is good enough. You just need to practise answer writing.
India’s Post Independence History
- India Since Independence by Bipan Chandra
- For certain topics, I made notes from this book. Download link is given at the end.
- I prepared entirely for this topic from this outstanding book called World History: Patterns of Interaction by McDougal Littell. For UPSC, read from Chapter 22 to Chapter 36: You can download the book from this link: Download
- Since revising this big book before the exam was difficult, I prepared concise notes from it. I also practised maps to demonstrate major world historical events.
- Link to download my notes and maps is given at the end of the article.
- The study plan is the same as for prelims, which I’ve explained here.
- This is a generic, nebulous topic with no style or structure. Questions are sometimes vague, philosophical and the challenge we face is not so much in lack of content as in presenting it concisely in 200 odd words. To understand the basics, read NCERT Sociology Std XI and XII. Make concise notes on each topic that includes: a crisp definition, latest statistics, govt schemes, criticism of these schemes; causes of issues such as communalism and regionalism, historical and current examples, their impact on our society, and your suggestions as the way ahead. (you can get these suggestions from the internet or ARC 2 or some committee report). In case if you find good coaching material for these topics, that’ll do as well.
- For this topic, a generic answer with proper structure and subheadings that cover multiple dimensions is good enough to fetch you marks. You can find my notes at the end of the article.
Polity, Governance and Social Justice
- Polity Notes (this will provide analytical content. Download link is given at the end of the article)
- ARC 2 (One of the best reports ever written for the government. It’s been more than ten years since the reports were published, but the content is still priceless. Read complete reports, memorise only recommendations)
- The Hindu
- The Big Picture on RSTV
- CivilsDaily current affairs material
- I also referred to Insights/ForumIAS current affairs material for topics not covered well by CivilsDaily
- PRS India for latest legislation
- All India Radio – Spotlight (used to listen during my commute to the office)
- Open your answers with Constitutional articles. Question on Governor? Art 153 must be there in the first line. Question on Civil Services? Art 312 is where you begin. If there’s a technical term like ‘Parliamentary Sovereignty’, ‘Political democracy’ or ‘Social Audit’ — define them in your introduction telling the examiner what you understand by those terms.
- Supreme Court judgements are very important. Make a list of important judgements (both historical and current) and quote them to substantiate your answer. For example, when you are answering a question on Free speech, quoting SC judgement in Shreya Singhal vs Union of India case will add tremendous value to your answers.
- For a debatable topic, always write both sides of the issue even if not explicitly asked in the question. Example: A question might ask: Do you agree that Civil Services is in need of drastic reforms? For this, explain under a subheading why drastic reforms are needed. And in the next paragraph, counter by saying why drastic reforms are harmful. In the end, you can add the view of ARC 2/Hota/Surendranath committee to convey your view and end on a balanced note.
- For miscellaneous topics like the comparison of Constitutions, RPA Act, SHG, e-Governance etc refer to any good coaching material to have 200-word worth content. Source latest examples and issues from newspapers and quote them in your answers.
- Prepare thoroughly on Govt policies and bills. PRS India is an excellent resource for all the latest legislation in the offing and The Hindu for policy criticism. But the newspaper is patently leftist and they publish articles incessantly and nauseatingly ranting on policies they don’t like (Eg: Aadhar). But as someone aspiring to be a civil servant, you need to be more dispassionate. This is why you must actively pursue articles with a contrarian and balanced opinions like this and this.
- Cram latest statistics pertaining to health, employment, women, education, poverty etc. Also apart from committees, you may quote authentic reports from reputed organisations such as Lancet, Transparency International, UNICEF, FAO etc to substantiate your point. I made notes on important statistics that can be used for all papers of GS and essay. Download link is given at the end of the article.
- Conclusion: Wherever possible, end with a committee/ commission recommendation or observation. For instance, a question on Centre-State relations should invariably end with Punchhi Commission, a question on death penalty with Law Commission and a question on Indian Constitution with NCRWC. Referring to Sustainable Development Goals, Preamble, DPSP is also another good way to end your answers.
- Any good book that adequately covers the historical aspect of India’s bilateral relations.
- Current affairs: The Hindu, India’s World on RSTV, CivilsDaily or Insights or ForumIAS depending upon the topic.
- Questions on IR will be almost, always be about the current happenings in the world. But before you run after the Hindu or some other latest magazine for this section, it’s important that you understand the historical background of India’s relationship with other countries. This is indispensable because every bilateral issue that you see in the news can be traced back to history. Once you understand this historical context, this topic becomes uncomplicated.
- For example, let’s take India China relations. Don’t merely focus on Doklam crisis and troop positioning, but understand the larger context of our border dispute with China, the agreements we had signed starting with the Simla Accord of 1914. For India-Sri Lanka, don’t just concentrate that India voted for or against Sri Lanka at the UN, but understand how India always championed peace between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, the 1987 accord, its fallout, Sri Lankan civil war and what India did during these times. When you have that bigger picture in mind, each part of the puzzle becomes easier to fit in.
- For miscellaneous topics like diaspora and international institutions, refer to any good coaching material.
- Draw map wherever relevant. Example: for India-Iran relations, you can draw a rough map to show how the Chabahar port helps us to bypass Pakistan and reach Afghanistan. Act East policy can be demonstrated with arrows pointing from India and showing our specific relationship with Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Australia and ASEAN, MGC, BIMSTEC etc.,
- Each bilateral relationship or a global grouping is multi-faceted. To make your answers comprehensive, always write a multidimensional perspective that includes: the strategic dimension, defence co-operation, technology, education, culture, diaspora, trade and investment, co-operation in global fora etc.
- Standard resources I already mentioned in my prelims post
- Budget (any coaching material compilation)
- Economic Survey (gist)
- Niti 3-year Action Plan report (a good resource for policy recommendations that come in handy while you write conclusion)
- The Hindu
- I referred to Insights/ForumIAS current affairs material for topics not covered well by CivilsDaily
Indian Agriculture, Land reforms, PDS, Food Processing, LPG, Infrastructure
- Vision IAS
- The Hindu and CivilsDaily for current affairs
- You need to remember that for GS-3, questions revolve around current affairs and there is no dearth of material. It may sound counter-intuitive, but the trick is to restrict yourself to material that’s good enough for you to write a 250-word answer for all topics. It’s very important that you don’t get sunk under the heap of current affairs and coaching material.
- So for each topic mentioned in the syllabus, make concise notes from the resources mentioned above. I also found Niti Aayog’s 3-year Action Plan report really helpful for this paper. And just as I had mentioned for GS-2, statistics and committee reports are very important.
- Vajiram and Vision IAS material
- The Hindu and CivilsDaily for current affairs
- Prepare crisp and clear definitions of technical terms such as cybersecurity, terrorism, organised crime, money laundering, left-wing extremism etc.
- For questions on border security, draw India map to illustrate.
- Fundamental reading: CBSE book
- Prepare concise notes on NDMA (structure, functions, rules etc), international agreements such as Sendai Framework, latest current affairs from newspapers, internet and coaching material.
- Draw diagrams to illustrate concepts like river embankment, land zoning, watershed management etc.
Environment and Ecology
- Shankar IAS book
- The Hindu and CivilsDaily for current affairs
- My handwritten notes (Download link given at the end)
Science & Tech
- The Hindu
- Vision IAS Mains 365
- This topic terrifies many aspirants, and for good reason. There’s no single book or resource to help one navigate this section and it all feels like one big haze. But there’s good news: the questions asked in S&T are mostly from current affairs and you are expected to have only a general understanding of the topics.
- During my preparation, I used to note down in my book whatever scientific term or technology that’s frequently talked about in news. For instance, these days we repeatedly encounter terms such as Artificial General Intelligence, Blockchain, Machine Learning, Cryptocurrency, CRISPR-CAS9 in news and on the internet.
- Note down all such scientific concepts that are in news and then scour the internet (especially Youtube) to understand them. There are many explainer videos on Youtube that explain the concept so well that even a school student can understand it. For instance, take this excellent video on blockchain technology. Once you see it, it’s impossible for you to miss a question on blockchain and its practical applications.
- Apart from the above, you need to learn fundamental terms and technologies used in Space (PSLV, GSLV, Cryo Engine etc), Nanotech, Nuclear Research (Fast breeder reactor, Uranium enrichment, Nuclear fission and fusion etc.), Defence (Cruise missile, Ballistic missile, Stealth Bomber etc), Biotech (Gene editing, Stem Cells, GM food etc), Communication (LIDAR, RADAR, LiFi, 5G etc). Any comprehensive material of a coaching institute will be sufficient for this (I referred to Vajiram printed notes).
- Whatever S&T topic you are learning, always focus on the concept, why is it in news, practical applications, potential threats, benefits far into the future etc. Just do this and you will easily handle this topic in the final exam.
- 2nd ARC reports: Ethics in Governance, Promoting E-gov, RTI, Citizen-centric Administration, Personnel Administration. Read all ARC reports completely, memorise only recommendations.
- For moral thinkers, Google them to read about their major contributions and for misc topics such as corporate governance, I referred to Vajiram printed material. I also prepared some notes for certain topics (download link at the end of the article)
- I went through the syllabus and tried to define each term in clear words and simple sentences. I found this exercise very useful because these definitions inevitably formed the introduction to most of my answers. For all of ethics paper, the essence can be distilled as just this: a clear and simple definition of the term and a real-life example to illustrate the concept. You can draw flowcharts and schematics wherever apt.
- It’s important to understand that each question is an opportunity to display your ethics. This will be best demonstrated by the actions you did or some other personalised/ real-life examples you quote. Reflect on your childhood, school life, college time, professional career etc and glean examples that are simple, unpretentious and at the same time bring out your ethical values clearly. For some questions, you can also quote historical examples from the lives of great leaders.
- For case studies, my aim was not so much in writing ingenious, extraordinary solutions, but to write something that’s realistic and practicable and finish the paper no matter what.
- I always started with Q1 and not with case studies because I could not see how one mark in Section B (case studies) is superior to one mark in Section A. I gave equal importance and dedicated equal time to both the sections.
- Rest of the GS papers have 20 questions each, Ethics has only 14. But don’t let that number 14 fool you. I’ve always found GS-4 to be the lengthiest paper of all. Every question in Section A has many subparts that drain an inordinate amount of your time. In fact, if we go by the absolute numbers, we write more words in GS-4 than in other papers. So to manage your time well: Abide by the rule that you must complete at least 80 marks worth of questions in each hour, irrespective of whether you start with Section A or Section B.
- Just before GS-4, you would have had written three stressful GS papers that would put your body condition under severe mental and physical strain. But it’s important to stay mentally tough during this crucial period and push your endurance limits so as to survive another 3 hours of relentless writing. Remember that it’s all in the mind— it can be your biggest enemy or your greatest strength.
- World History Textbook
- World History Notes
- World History Maps
- Art and Culture Diagrams
- India Since Independence
- Geography – Resource Distribution
- Indian Society
My GS Answer Copies
I hope this article on UPSC Mains preparation and tips for GS answer writing helped you.
GS may look insurmountable at first, but remember that it’s always the small steps towards the summit that count. Through effective planning and adequate practice, anyone can conquer it.
Note: My book, Fundamentals of Essay and Answer Writing is now available. It’s a comprehensive guide that helps you write better Essays and Answers in the UPSC Mains Exam. You can know about the book here.