How to Ensure that You Clear UPSC IAS Mains Exam

The preparation for the Civil Services (IAS) Examination involves an integrated study for both Preliminary Exam as well as Mains examination. So, finding your name in the final merit list involves a dedicated effort that encompasses all the aspects of the syllabus. However, there are certain measures that you can take to make sure that while the preliminary examination is taken care of, IAS Mains too doesn't prove to be a hurdle in your goals.

Understanding the Syllabus

Be thorough with the syllabus. The exam is said to consist of a never-ending list of topics. This is a common myth. UPSC has specified what it will focus on, in clear bulleted points in the CSE notification that is released each year. Take a print out of the syllabus and pin it to your study area. Whenever you encounter a new topic in the newspaper or in the book, first try to connect it to one of the points on the IAS mains syllabus and then go ahead if it fits the description. Remember, that it is very easy to go off on a tangent while preparing for this exam. To know what to read and what to leave, the syllabus is the only guide.

This is especially important for Essay paper in the IAS Mains as well. The given notification clearly defines what UPSC expects the candidate to write and how should the candidate formulate his/her essay. So, before you begin first go through the syllabus.

Choosing Your Optional Subject

Next, is the choice in your optional subject. You can choose one among 48 subjects as your optional. There are two papers out of a total of 9 in the IAS Mains that are from your optional subject which gives it a weightage of 500 in the total. Though, the weightage may seem less in the face of the maximum, however, based on scoring potential the weightage is significantly more. This is illustrated by the fact that usually, the maximum marks awarded in one paper of general studies are in the 125-130 range. For an optional, this range is 160-170 or even more! Thus, there is greater scoring potential in the optional papers. Toppers score above 350/500 in their optional papers. Hence, the choice of optional is quite crucial. Here are a few guidelines that you can use to choose an optional subject:

  1. The subject can be the subject of your graduation or post-graduation. This is especially helpful as you have studied it for 2/3/4 years (depending on the degree) and you can rely on your learned knowledge to tackle the optional papers. However, if this factor is the dominant one in your decision, keep the general studies syllabus insight as well and see how comfortable you are with the GS syllabus.

  2. You should have an interest in studying the subject for you will be spending months on it. Interest cannot be sustained if there is no drive from within. So, do not follow the herd and choose a subject that you genuinely like.

  3. Look for the extent of overlap with the general studies syllabus. This requires caution as the general studies syllabus is quite comprehensive and touches on almost all subjects (Except the literature and engineering subjects). Moreover, the tone of general studies is quite different from that of the optional papers.

  4. Analyse the scoring potential of the subject. Science, engineering and literature papers often score 300+. Though this is tempting, it has several risks as well. You need to consider other points in the given guidelines too.

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Answer Writing Practice

This is the most stressed on, yet the least followed the practice. There are a number of reasons that answer writing practice is crucial for your preparation:

  1. It helps you determine the structure of the answers based on the demand of the question. In the exam, you will find that you are ill-equipped to deal with this side of answer writing under the psychological stresses that work in that duration. It is thus better to be prepared beforehand.

  2. Second, answer writing practice shows you the difference between answers in optional and general studies papers. The optional answers are the purist (pertaining to the subject) while the general studies answers are usually generalist. The ignorance of this basic difference is the cause of several lost opportunities in the Geography optional each year.

  3. The writing of the IAS Mains exam itself is a massive exercise. You write nine papers over seven days. That might not seem much but, the schedule is intense. Thus, it is essential that you be prepared for the rigours before going for the final examination. The following picture will give you a better idea:

IAS Mains Timetable

An answer a day will help you build towards a proper understanding of the structure, the content requirement as well as speed to complete the exam. As a matter of fact, speed is a deciding factor on D-Day! This is why subscribing to a test series too is essential so that you can face the exam atmosphere before the exam itself.

"The one who doesn't practice and waits for exam day is either a genius or an idiot. I would rather find my place on the merit list than be either."

Do Not Neglect the Compulsory Language Papers

Based on statistics released by the UPSC a few years ago, nearly 10% of the candidates who do not qualify the IAS Mains exam, do so because they fail to clear the cut off of the compulsory language papers (Indian language and English). These people failed to meet the 25% marks criteria in the 300 mark language papers (each). It may have been due to lack of practice - we know that a lot of you may be writing the language of your choice for the first time after school! Hence, it is essential that you practice well for this. For the students who do not write their exam in English, it is recommended that you do at least Grade 10 level English grammar to be able to attempt the English paper.


Plan Your Studies with the IAS Mains in Focus

As mentioned at the start, the civil services exam requires an integrated preparation that covers both the objective (prelims) as well as the subjective (Mains) aspects. Thus, your study plan should involve all aspects, especially your optional. A tentative annual study plan with broad targets is as follows:

Comprehensive timeline for IAS Mains Preparation

The plan can be suitable adjusted to suit your own targets. However, it is best suited to bring out your best performance during the examination. For daily plans refer to our blog for the daily timetable formation strategy.


As we have seen, the preparation for IAS Mains requires that you cover a variety of factors. If all these are kept in mind while devising your strategy, there can be no doubt that you will ace the mains exam. Keep these factors at your fingertips and continue working hard.
All the best!

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