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How to Prepare for UPSC Civil Services: Complete Preparation Strategy & Guide

How to Prepare for UPSC Civil Services

The UPSC Civil Services Exam is one of the most challenging and prestigious exams in India. It selects candidates for top government services like the IAS, IPS, and IFS. The exam has three stages: Prelims, Mains, and Interview.

StageDescriptionKey Components
PrelimsObjective-type test to screen candidates for the Mains.General Studies, CSAT
MainsDescriptive type test to assess in-depth knowledge and understanding.9 papers including Essay, GS I-IV, Optional I-II
InterviewPersonality test to gauge candidate’s suitability for civil services.Personality Traits, DAF-based questions


This is the first step and the first hurdle in your attempt to become a civil servant. It has two papers: General Studies (GS) and Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT). Both are objective types. UPSC holds the same prelims exam for both Forest Services and Civil Services. But once the results of prelims are declared, different UPSC Main exams are to be attempted by the aspirants for each.

Format of Prelims

General Studies Paper-I200Merit RankingMarks counted for merit ranking to qualify for Mains examination.
General Studies Paper-II (CSAT)200QualifyingCandidates need to score at least 33% to qualify for the Mains exam.

Prelims consist of two papers, each of which plays a crucial role:

  1. General Studies Paper I: This is the game-changer and includes topics like Indian Polity, Economy, History, Geography, Environment, Science, and Current Affairs. It has 100 questions with a total of 200 marks. Each question carries 2 marks, and there is a negative marking of 1/3rd for each wrong answer (i.e., -2/3 marks for each incorrect answer). This paper decides if you’ll move to the Mains, as it’s the only one counted for the cutoff, subject to the fact that you have acquired 33% marks in Paper II.
  2. CSAT (Civil Services Aptitude Test) or General Studies Paper II: This paper tests your analytical skills, comprehension, logical reasoning, and basic numeracy. It has 80 questions, also for a total of 200 marks. This is a qualifying paper, meaning you need to score 33% to pass, and the marks won’t be added to your prelims total. However, failing this paper means failing the whole prelims altogether, no matter how well you have performed in Paper I.

Syllabus for UPSC Prelims

Before starting your preparation, you must be well-versed with the syllabus for UPSC Prelims.

Syllabus for UPSC CSE Prelims Paper I (General Studies)

  • Current events of National & International importance.
  • History of India & Indian National Movement.
  • Indian & World Geography – Physical, Social, Economic Geography of India & the World.
  • Indian Polity & Governance – Constitution, Political System, Panchayati Raj, Public Policy, Rights Issues, etc.
  • Economic & Social Development – Sustainable Development, Poverty, Inclusion, Demographics, Social Sector Initiatives, etc.
  • General issues on Environmental ecology, Bio-diversity & climate change – that do not require subject specialization.
  • General Science.

Syllabus for UPSC CSE Prelims Paper II (CSAT)

  • Comprehension.
  • Interpersonal skills including communication skills.
  • Logical reasoning & analytical ability.
  • Decision making & problem solving.
  • General mental ability.
  • Basic numeracy (numbers & their relations, orders of magnitude, etc.) (Class X level), Data interpretation (charts, graphs, tables, data sufficiency, etc. – Class X level)

Key Points to Remember for Prelims

  • Cut-off Marks: Your aim in Paper I is to score above the cut-off mark, which varies each year. Paper II just needs to be qualified.
  • Current Affairs: This is a very dynamic part of your syllabus. The questions are not just direct current event questions but can also be linked with static parts of the syllabus like history or polity. Regular reading of newspapers and monthly magazines can help.
  • Conceptual Understanding: Rather than rote learning, focus on understanding concepts, especially in subjects like Economy and Polity.
  • Mock Exams: Take regular mock exams to get a feel for the actual UPSC Prelims and manage your time effectively.
  • Revision: Regular revision is crucial, as the syllabus is vast. Plan revisions and stick to the timetable.
  • Elimination Technique: Sometimes you may not know the right answer, but you can often figure it out by eliminating the wrong ones. Practice this technique as it can be quite helpful during the exam.
  • Stay Calm: It’s a test of your knowledge as well as your nerves. Staying calm can make the difference.

In essence, the Prelims is not just about what you know; it’s also about how you apply what you know within the strict time limit. It’s important to strike a balance between speed and accuracy, and practicing with mock tests can greatly help in this regard.

How to Prepare for UPSC Prelims?

Preparing for the UPSC Civil Services Preliminary examination requires a strategic and focused approach. Let’s break down the preparation into actionable steps:

  • Understand the Exam Pattern: First, familiarize yourself with the pattern. As I mentioned earlier, there are two papers: General Studies (GS) Paper I and CSAT Paper II. GS Paper I is scored for the merit ranking, while CSAT is qualifying.
  • Syllabus Breakdown: Break down the syllabus for both papers. Know each topic that needs to be covered. UPSC provides a detailed syllabus; stick to it.
  • Timetable and Planning: Create a realistic timetable. Dedicate more time to areas you’re less familiar with, but ensure all topics are covered.
  • Book List and Resources: Identify and collect all necessary books and resources. Standard books for each subject are a must (like Laxmikanth for Polity). Supplement with NCERTs for basics.
  • Newspaper Reading: Start with at least one standard newspaper, such as ‘The Hindu’ or ‘Indian Express,’ for current affairs. Make notes of important news.
  • Basic Concepts and NCERTs: Build your foundation with NCERT books from classes 6-12. Focus on History, Geography, Polity, Economy, and Environment.
  • Move to Advanced Books: After NCERTs, move on to advanced books for each subject. For example:
    • Polity: M. Laxmikanth’s “Indian Polity”
    • Economy: Ramesh Singh’s “Indian Economy”
    • History: Bipan Chandra’s books for modern history
  • Regular Revision: Regular revision is key. Make short notes and revise them often. This reinforces memory.
  • Practice Mock Tests: Mock tests help in two ways: assessing knowledge and improving time management. Join a test series if possible. Analyze your performance in these tests to identify weak areas. Work on them.
  • CSAT Preparation: Don’t neglect CSAT. Practice basic math, reasoning, and comprehension daily. Previous year question papers are a great resource for practice.
  • Prioritize Areas: Prioritize high-yielding areas (discussed later in this guide), areas from which questions are frequently asked.
  • Stay Updated with Current Affairs: Use monthly compilations of current affairs from Rau’s IAS. Compass, Rau’s IAS’ YouTube channel and Rau’s class notes are more than enough for revising the whole syllabus, including that of Current Affairs. Yojana and Kurukshetra magazines are also helpful.
  • Peer Discussion: Discussing with peers can open up new viewpoints and insights that you may not have considered.
  • Stay Healthy and Stress-Free: Finally, maintain good health and take breaks. A stressed mind can’t learn efficiently.
  • Additional Tips:
    • Environment: Create a study-friendly environment at home.
    • Online Resources: Utilize online resources, videos, and articles for diverse perspectives.
    • Answer Writing: Practice answer writing even for objective questions to better retain information.
    • Stay Motivated: Keep yourself motivated by engaging with the UPSC community, following toppers’ strategies, and remembering why you started.

Remember, the key to cracking the Prelims is not to read multiple sources but to read a few recommended sources multiple times. Consistency, perseverance, and a smart approach to the syllabus will steer your ship through the sea of UPSC preparation.

High-Yielding Topics for UPSC Prelims

High-yielding areas in the UPSC Civil Services Preliminary Examination are those from which questions are frequently asked or which cover a large portion of the syllabus. Here’s a list of such areas:

1. Indian Polity and Governance

Read: Indian Polity Notes

2. Economy

  • Basic Economic Terms and Concepts (like GDP, Inflation)
  • Five-Year Plans and Economic Planning in India
  • Economic Reforms & Liberalization
  • Budget & Economic Survey Highlights
  • Government Schemes & Policies
  • Banking and Monetary Policy
  • Agriculture & Rural Development Initiatives

3. History and Art & Culture

  • Modern Indian History (especially the freedom struggle)
  • Ancient and Medieval Indian history
  • Art and culture, including Architecture, Paintings, Dance, Music, Religion, and Festivals

Read: Modern History Notes | Art & Culture Notes

4. Environment and Ecology

  • Biodiversity Conservation
  • National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries
  • Environmental Pollution and Degradation
  • Climate Change and International Conventions
  • Sustainable Development & Environmental Impact Assessment

Read: Environment & biodiversity Notes

5. Geography

  • Indian Geography including Rivers, Mountains, Soils, Flora, Fauna
  • World Geography including Earth, Solar System, Physical Geography
  • Human Geography (Population, Urbanization)
  • Disaster Management related concepts

Read: Geography Notes

6. Science and Technology

  • Space Technology
  • Biotechnology
  • Information Technology
  • Nuclear Technology
  • Recent developments in science and technology relevant to India

Read: Science & Technology Notes

7. Current Events of National and International Importance

  • Significant events affecting India and/or the world
  • Issues in the news related to the above-mentioned subjects

8. General Science

  • Basics of Biology, Chemistry, Physics
  • Scientific Phenomena, Laws, and Theories
  • Health and Disease related topics

9. Indian and World Geography

  • Physical, Social, and Economic Geography of India and the World

10. Social and Economic Development

  • Demographics
  • Poverty, Inclusion, Social Sector Initiatives

Remember, questions are often designed to test not only knowledge but also the ability to apply this knowledge to different scenarios.

Thus, understanding concepts and practicing their application is vital. In addition to focusing on high-yielding areas, one should be adept at linking topics and thinking interdisciplinarily, as UPSC tends to frame questions that connect different subjects.

If You are preparing from Home:

  • Understand the Syllabus: Know what to study. The syllabus is your roadmap.
  • NCERT Books: Start with these books from classes 6 to 12 for a strong base in History, Geography, Science, and Economy.
  • Current Affairs: Read newspapers daily. The Hindu or Indian Express are good choices.
  • Standard Books: Get books like Laxmikanth for Polity, and Spectrum for Modern India.
  • Practice Tests: Take mock tests. Analyze your mistakes and learn.

If You are preparing from Classrooms:

  • Coaching Materials: Use the notes and materials provided.
  • Regular Classes: Attend all classes and participate in discussions.
  • Test Series: Join a test series offered by the coaching center.
  • Peer Learning: Study with friends to share knowledge and strategies.


UPSC MAINS: How to Prepare for UPSC

After clearing the Prelims, you’ll write the Mains. It has nine papers, including Essay, GS papers, Optional subjects, and Indian languages.

Mains papers assess your depth of understanding, analytical capabilities, and writing skills.

Here’s how you can prepare comprehensively for the UPSC Mains:

Understanding the Structure

The UPSC Mains examination consists of nine papers, two of which are qualifying in nature and seven that count for the final ranking:

  • Paper-A (Indian Language) – Qualifying Paper (300 Marks): Candidates need to score at least 25%.
  • Paper-B (English) – Qualifying Paper (300 Marks): Candidates need to score at least 25%.
  • Essay Paper (250 Marks)
  • General Studies I (Indian Heritage and Culture, History, and Geography of the World and Society) (250 Marks)
  • General Studies II (Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social Justice, and International relations) (250 Marks)
  • General Studies III (Technology, Economic Development, Biodiversity, Environment, Security and Disaster Management) (250 Marks)
  • General Studies IV (Ethics, Integrity, and Aptitude) (250 Marks)
  • Optional Paper I (250 Marks)
  • Optional Paper II (250 Marks)

Step-by-Step Preparation Strategy

1: Understanding the Syllabus

  • The syllabus is your best guide and helps in filtering relevant information from irrelevant material.
  • Go through the detailed syllabus for each paper and literally memorize it. This can help you while you are making notes, revising them and even when you are writing answers.

2: Reading and Notes Making

  • Read standard books for each subject area. For example, Compass Notes from Rau’s IAS, Laxmikanth for Polity, G.C. Leong for Geography, etc. For optional, use books that are error-free and from trusted writers.
  • Make concise notes for each topic. These should be clear, comprehensive, and easy to revise.

3: Answer Writing Practice

  • Start practicing answer writing early in your preparation.
  • Work on structuring your answers with clear introductions, content-rich bodies, and succinct conclusions.

4: Essay Paper

  • Practice writing essays on diverse topics, including philosophical, issues-based, and abstract themes.
  • Focus on articulation, coherence, and logical flow of thoughts.

5: Optional Subject

  • Choose an optional subject wisely, preferably one in which you have interest and prior knowledge.
  • Read in-depth and develop expertise in your optional subject.

6: Regular Newspaper Reading

  • Read a good newspaper daily, like ‘The Hindu’ or ‘Indian Express’, for current affairs coverage relevant to the GS papers.

7: Writing Mocks

  • Enroll in a test series for simulated exam practice.
  • Analyze your performance in these mocks to understand your strengths and weaknesses.

8: Answer Enhancement

  • Learn to enrich your answers with diagrams, flowcharts, and maps wherever appropriate.
  • Quote reports, indices, and data to substantiate your answers.

9: Time Management

  • Practice full-length papers within the same time constraints as the actual exam.
  • Develop the skill to complete all questions within the given time.

10: Revision

  • Revise your notes and previously read materials regularly.
  • Do multiple revisions as this is the key to retaining information.

11: Ethics Paper

  • For GS IV, study the theories and concepts thoroughly.
  • Write answers and case studies by incorporating these ethical concepts and terminologies.

12: Peer Review

  • Engage in group studies and peer reviews of your answers.
  • This could provide you with new insights and feedback for improvement.

13: Stay Updated

  • Keep abreast with the latest reports, government policies, and bills passed in Parliament.

14: Previous Year Question Papers

  • Solve past years’ question papers to understand the nature of questions and to get comfortable with the pattern.

15: Physical and Mental Health

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle, exercise regularly, and ensure proper sleep.
  • Mental health is crucial; engage in stress-relieving activities.

Additional Tips

  • Understand that quality matters more than quantity. It’s better to write fewer points well than to write more with less clarity.
  • Develop a multidimensional perspective on issues by analyzing them from various angles like social, political, economic, environmental, etc.
  • Balance your preparation for both GS and the optional subjects. Do not neglect any paper, as each contributes equally (250 Marks) to the final score.
  • For language papers, practice translation exercises and work on basic grammar and comprehension skills.

Lastly, preparing for the Mains is like preparing for a marathon. It requires stamina, persistence, and continuous improvement. Adaptability and calmness during the preparation journey can significantly boost your performance.

If You are preparing from Home:

  • Answer Writing Practice: Write answers daily. Focus on structure and content.
  • Optional Subject: Choose an optional wisely. Study it thoroughly.
  • Time Management: Practice completing papers on time.
  • Study from Multiple Sources: Use books, online resources, and magazines for various viewpoints.
  • Revision: Keep revising what you’ve learned to remember it during exams.

If You are preparing from Classrooms:

  • Expert Guidance: Take advice from teachers on answer writing and structuring.
  • Model Answers: Analyze model answers provided by coaching.
  • Seminars and Workshops: Attend these for enhanced learning and exposure to different strategies.
  • Study Groups: Discuss topics with study groups to deepen understanding.

Subject wise approach:


interview 1018333 640

The UPSC Civil Services Interview, often referred to as the Personality Test, is the final hurdle in the Civil Services Examination process. It carries 275 marks and can make or break your chance of securing a top rank. The interview tests the personality traits of a candidate rather than their knowledge, which has already been tested in the Prelims and Mains.

How to prepare UPSC Interview?

Here’s how you can prepare for UPSC Interview:

Understanding the Purpose of the Interview

  • The panel assesses qualities like mental alertness, critical powers of assimilation, clear and logical exposition, balance of judgment, variety and depth of interest, social cohesion, leadership, and intellectual and moral integrity.


  • Start with a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats).
  • Reflect on your background, including education, hobbies, work experience, and areas of interest.

Detailed Application Form (DAF)

  • Your DAF is the most crucial document. Expect most questions to arise from here.
  • Be ready to talk about your educational background, place of residence, hobbies, work experience, and service preference.

Mock Interviews

  • Attend a few mock interviews to get a feel of the actual interview situation.
  • Mocks help in receiving feedback and improving body language, confidence, and communication skills.

Current Affairs

  • Stay updated on current affairs until the day of your interview.
  • Read newspapers and follow credible news portals for the latest happenings.

Clarity of Concepts

  • Have clear and articulate opinions on key national and international events.
  • Be prepared to answer questions on the Constitution, polity, economy, social issues, and international relations.

Hobbies and Interests

  • Be well-versed with your hobbies and interests as mentioned in the DAF.
  • Engage in your hobbies actively during the preparation period, as this will also help to alleviate stress.

Communication Skills

  • Work on your communication skills. It’s not about showcasing vocabulary but clarity and simplicity in expressing thoughts.
  • Practice speaking in a structured manner, ensuring coherence and logic.

Mock Sessions and Feedback

  • Reflect on the feedback given in mock interviews and work on the areas of improvement.
  • Do not take criticism personally; use it constructively to better yourself.

Personal Grooming

  • Dress professionally and comfortably for the interview.
  • Ensure your appearance is neat and tidy as it is a part of the first impression you make.

Body Language

  • Positive body language speaks volumes. Practice sitting straight, making eye contact, and listening attentively.
  • Avoid fidgeting or negative body gestures.

Politeness and Courtesy

  • Always maintain a polite and courteous demeanor throughout the interview.
  • Address the members of the interview board respectfully.


  • If you do not know the answer to a question, it is better to politely admit it rather than guessing.
  • Honesty reflects character and is appreciated by the interview board.

Stay Calm and Composed

  • It’s essential to keep your nerves in check. A calm and composed mind responds better.
  • Practice deep-breathing exercises or meditation to manage stress.

Last-Minute Preparation

  • The night before the interview, relax and revise your DAF.
  • Get a good night’s sleep to ensure you are rested for the interview day.

On the Day of the Interview

  • Reach the venue ahead of time to avoid any last-minute rush.
  • Carry all necessary documents as specified in the call letter.


  • Do not dwell on what could have been answered better. It is a learning experience for life beyond UPSC as well.

Remember, the interview is a conversation and not a cross-examination. The board is looking to understand you as a person and your suitability for a career in the civil services. It’s about how you think and react to situations. So, be yourself, be honest, and let your personality shine through.

If You are preparing from Home:

  • Mock Interviews: Practice with friends or mentors. Record yourself to improve speaking skills.
  • Dress Rehearsal: Dress formally and simulate the interview environment at home.
  • Hobbies and Interests: Be ready to talk about your hobbies and interests, as these are often discussed.
  • Stay Updated: Keep up with current events till the last day.

If You are preparing from Classrooms:

  • Professional Mock Interviews: Enroll in mock interviews conducted by former or serving civil servants.
  • Feedback: Take feedback from experts seriously and work on your weaknesses.
  • Personality Development: Workshops on personality development can be beneficial.
  • Current Affairs Classes: Some coaching institutes offer classes to discuss current affairs which can help in the interview.

Remember, this exam requires a mix of hard work, smart study, and consistency.

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