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Ultimate Guide: Preparing for UPSC Mains Exam

Updated: Feb 19

Preparing for the UPSC Mains examination is a significant phase in the journey towards becoming a civil servant in India. The Mains examination is a comprehensive test that evaluates a candidate's knowledge, analytical skills, and the ability to articulate ideas on diverse subjects. Success in the Mains is pivotal, as it directly influences the final merit for selection. This phase involves a series of written examinations, consisting of nine papers, each assessing different aspects of a candidate's understanding of various subjects.

UPSC Mains Exam Preparation
UPSC Mains Exam Preparation

This introduction aims to guide aspiring candidates on key aspects such as understanding the exam pattern, structuring answers, utilizing resources efficiently, and adopting effective revision strategies to navigate the challenges posed by the UPSC Mains examination. With meticulous planning and dedicated effort, candidates can enhance their chances of success in this crucial stage of the Civil Services Examination.

Step-By-Step Guide to Prepare for UPSC Mains Exam

When it comes to preparing for UPSC Mains, having a meticulous and well-structured strategy becomes paramount. While the UPSC CSE Prelims marks the initial stage of the Civil Services Examination, it is the Mains phase that emerges as the pivotal and decisive segment in the pursuit of success. Unlike Prelims, which is qualifying in nature, the score in Mains significantly influences your selection and ranking. Therefore, crafting a robust UPSC Mains preparation strategy is crucial to enhance your score and increase the likelihood of securing a commendable rank. This article shares insights into the initial steps of formulating an effective approach for the Civil Services Mains examination.

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Understand the UPSC Prelims Syllabus and Exam Pattern

The UPSC syllabus is extensive, encompassing various subject areas crucial for an administrator. It includes two language papers, four General Studies papers (I, II, III, and IV), an essay paper, and optional papers (I and II).

A beneficial practice is to transcribe the entire syllabus onto paper and affix it prominently in front of your study table. This approach aids in maintaining focus and enhances memory retention, facilitating the connection of syllabus topics to current events found in newspapers, articles, or other study materials. Detailed Syllabus and exam pattern details is provided here

Create a Study Plan

Preparing for the UPSC Mains Exam often involves completing the syllabus once and revising it before starting Prelims preparation. To create an effective study plan for UPSC Mains, consider the following tips:

  • Integrating a UPSC Mains test series into your study plan is highly recommended. Answering questions under time constraints aids in syllabus coverage, identifies crucial topics, and highlights areas for improvement.

  • Grouping related subjects in your study plan can expedite coverage and mitigate monotony. For example, combining history with polity or geography with environment ensures a more efficient approach.

  • Give substantial attention to the Ethics paper, as its significance has been growing in recent years.

  • Aim to cover two subjects every two months with a well-curated booklist, allowing for thorough syllabus coverage in approximately six months.

  • Initiate UPSC Mains preparation in July and strive to complete the entire syllabus by the end of January. This early completion provides an advantage when transitioning to Prelims preparation, and regular answer writing practice during this period keeps you well-prepared for Mains.

Answer Writing Practice

It is crucial to recognize that the UPSC Mains exam is of the descriptive type, requiring candidates to provide answers ranging from 150 to 300 words for each question. Therefore, honing answer-writing skills is imperative, and this can be achieved through the following strategies:

  • Regular Tests and Note Preparation: Engage in consistent practice by taking regular tests and preparing concise yet comprehensive notes. This not only reinforces understanding but also aids in efficient revision.

  • Mind Maps: Creating mind maps proves beneficial in linking sub-topics within a broader subject, facilitating easy recall and retention of key points. This visual aid can be particularly useful during the Mains exam.

  • Current Affairs Note-taking: When making notes from current affairs sources, it is advisable to practice writing approximately 150-300 words for each topic. This practice not only enhances understanding but also ensures preparedness to articulate answers during the exam.

To assess your proficiency in answer writing for the Mains examination, consider exploring the UPSC Mains Answer Writing Practice page. This resource provides sample questions and answers crafted by fellow IAS aspirants, offering valuable insights into the expected standards for responses in the final exam.

How to Prepare for UPSC Mains Essay Paper?

The Essay Paper in the UPSC Mains Exam is divided into two sections, A and B, each comprising four topics, with a total of 250 marks (125×2). Typically, one section features topics based on 'general quotes,' while the other addresses 'administration-related' themes. Candidates are required to choose one topic from each section and write a comprehensive essay of 1,000 to 2,000 words within the allotted three hours.

Here are some tips for effective essay writing:

  • Choose the Topic Wisely: Select your essay topic thoughtfully, considering your familiarity and comfort with the subject matter.

  • Reflect on the Topic: Allocate about 30 minutes to contemplate and organize your thoughts before beginning to write.

  • Note Down Key Points: Jot down all relevant points at the end of a sheet to serve as a quick reference while composing your essay.

  • Create a Structured Outline: Establish a clear structure for your essay, outlining key arguments and supporting details.

  • Maintain Objectivity: Avoid being provocative in your writing and strive for a balanced and objective tone.

  • Offer Reform Suggestions: Provide constructive suggestions for reforms related to the topic under consideration.

  • Conclude Effectively: Summarize your key points and insights in a conclusive manner to leave a lasting impression.

In the final assessment and ranking of candidates, the essay paper holds significant importance. This component is designed to gauge and evaluate the candidate's personality, including their views, ideas, suggestions, values, attitude, aptitude, coordination, and written communication abilities—attributes that the UPSC specifically seeks in aspirants.

How to Prepare for UPSC Mains Compulsory Paper?

The UPSC Mains includes two mandatory language papers, serving a qualifying purpose. One pertains to English, while the other involves an Indian language chosen from those listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

  • Each paper is allocated 300 marks, with a minimum qualifying threshold of 25%, equivalent to 75 marks in each paper.

  • The objective of these language papers is to assess a candidate's ability to comprehend serious descriptive prose and articulate ideas effectively.

  • The papers are structured with sections covering Short Essays, Precis Writing, Reading Comprehension, and Usage and Vocabulary.

  • For optimal preparation, candidates are advised to refer to a matriculation-level language book encompassing all grammatical concepts.

  • It's important to note that the Indian Language Compulsory Paper is not mandatory for candidates from certain states, namely Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Sikkim.

  • Failure in the language papers results in the non-disclosure of scores for the remaining seven papers in the UPSC Mains Exam.

How to Prepare for UPSC Mains General Studies

Approaching the General Studies Papers in UPSC mains requires an analytical perspective, emphasizing a deep understanding of the topics and conceptual clarity. A thorough engagement with both NCERT Books and UPSC-recommended materials is essential for a comprehensive preparation. When crafting answers for the Mains, it is crucial to adopt a holistic approach, addressing the what, why, and when of a given issue. The key to effective answer writing in UPSC Mains involves:

  • Clarity and Simplicity: Expressing ideas in simple language.

  • Well-Structured Answers: Ensuring a proper introduction and relevance to the topic.

  • Utilizing Visual Aids: Incorporating bullets, mind maps, and flowcharts.

  • Relating to Current Affairs: Linking the answer to recent scenarios, including government policies, data, and initiatives.

  • Attempt All Questions: Endeavor to attempt all questions, even if your knowledge about a particular topic is limited.

  • Concluding Effectively: Summarizing your answer in a manner that encapsulates the key points.

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How to Prepare Optional for UPSC Mains?

The selection of Optional Subjects holds considerable weight in the UPSC Mains, significantly influencing the candidate's final selection. Therefore, a judicious decision is crucial when choosing an Optional Subject for the UPSC Exam. The Optional Subject in UPSC Mains comprises two papers, each carrying 250 marks. Generally, Paper-1 covers theoretical and conceptual aspects of the syllabus, while Paper-2 focuses on the practical application of these concepts. To effectively handle the Optional Subject, consider the following points:

  • Personal Interest and Availability of Study Material: Choose an Optional Subject based on your interest and the availability of comprehensive study material, as there is no universally "best" optional subject for UPSC.

  • In-Depth Preparation: Delve into the Optional Subject thoroughly, recognizing its potential to be a game-changer in your overall performance.

  • Devote Ample Time: Allocate sufficient time to the Optional Subject, understanding that success in this area requires dedication and consistency.

  • Incorporate Quotes, Data, and Speeches: Enhance your answers by incorporating relevant quotes, data, and speeches where applicable.

  • Practice Mocks and Enroll in Test Series: Regular practice through mocks and participation in test series can significantly improve your preparation and performance.

  • Use Diagrams in Answers: Integrate diagrams into your answers, as they can effectively break the monotony and enhance the visual appeal. However, it's important not to overuse them.

Current Affairs for UPSC Mains Preparation

In the UPSC Mains preparation, staying abreast of current affairs assumes a pivotal role. It aids in showcasing relevance and awareness in your responses. Infusing recent events into answers provides a layer of depth and context, illustrating your comprehension of real-world implications. Proficiency in contemporary issues fosters a comprehensive viewpoint, enhancing the quality of essays and answers across various subjects. Consistent engagement with newspapers, journals, and analytical platforms is instrumental in developing an informed perspective, thereby enriching responses and elevating overall performance in the examination.

UPSC Mains Preparation Books

Given the expansive nature of the UPSC syllabus, a substantial amount of reading is essential. Choosing the right study materials, whether online or offline, is a critical aspect for candidates. Selecting the best books for UPSC IAS preparation becomes crucial. While there exists a vast array of books suitable for IAS Exam preparation, we have compiled a list of indispensable books for UPSC Mains preparation.

  • India’s Struggle for Independence by Bipin Chandra

  • India After Independence by Bipin Chandra

  • Indian Polity by M Laxmikanth

  • Constitution of India by DD Basu

  • Indian Economy by Ramesh Singh

  • Ethics, Integrity & Aptitude by Subba Rao and PN Rao Chaudhry

  • Class VI-XII NCERT Books

Tips for cracking UPSC Mains

Some tips to crack the UPSC mains on the first attempt without coaching –

  • Familiarize yourself thoroughly with the Mains Syllabus, as outlined by UPSC. The syllabus comprehensively covers the various subject areas essential for an administrator's daily responsibilities.

  • Its open-ended nature necessitates a detailed analysis and a keen understanding of the latest trends and ideas.

  • It is advisable to group related subjects to cover them efficiently and within the desired timeframe.

  • The critical determinant in the Mains exam is the choice of an Optional Subject. Opt for a subject aligned with your comfort level and degree of interest.

  • Answer writing practice holds the key to success in the Mains Exam, emphasizing the ability to recall, analyze, and express one's own critical thinking.

  • A well-planned Preparation Strategy, beginning at least a year before the exam, is crucial. Although the UPSC Prelims and Mains Syllabus are interconnected, adopting a Mains-first strategy is recommended. Given the limited time between Prelims and Mains, early and thorough preparation is advised.

  • Consistency is paramount in UPSC preparation, requiring meticulous management of targets on a micro level, considering days, weeks, and months.

  • Current Affairs must be an integral part of Mains preparation, with regular and diligent follow-ups on daily news and monthly Current Affairs Magazines.

  • Post-Prelims, if meeting the UPSC cutoff, enrollment in a Test Series is essential for extensive answer writing practice. These mocks/tests should replicate exam conditions to help candidates acclimate to the actual exam environment and manage their time effectively.

  • Lastly, avoid procrastination. Confidence in your well-prepared self is key to achieving your UPSC goals.


In conclusion, the preparation for UPSC Mains demands a strategic and disciplined approach. Understanding the comprehensive syllabus, selecting an optional subject wisely, and integrating current affairs are crucial steps. Answer writing practice, regular revision, and consistent performance evaluation contribute significantly. Crafting a well-organized daily timetable and maintaining regularity in studies, particularly in the coverage of current affairs, is paramount. The journey to success in UPSC Mains requires dedication, meticulous planning, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. With a focused and comprehensive preparation strategy, aspirants can navigate the challenges of the Mains examination and increase their chances of success in this esteemed competitive endeavor.

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Note: Ready to tackle the UPSC exam? Try UPSC Unlimited, the best app out there! It's got all the NCERT syllabus and book questions you need to succeed. With simple study materials and fun quizzes, it's perfect for everyone, whether you're just starting or you've been studying for a while. Download UPSC Unlimited now and get ready to ace your UPSC exam!

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