A Guide for Prelims + Some Revision Techniques by IRS Officer ( 4 Times Prelims Cleared )

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We never met @mitochondria or spoke to him until we had to address a query on changing Optional to Anthropology from a particular ForumIAS Member.

For those of you who are new to the forum – @mitochondria ( screen name on the forum ) , aka Vikas Jakhar, was very instrumental in guiding others preparing for Civils in the early days of the Forum – before there was an explosion of free stuff on the Internet and there still existed  a culture of self help.

We spoke to him last week, and asked him if he could write a Guide on Preparing for Prelims Examination. He obliged us.

Given that he cleared Prelims 4 times, with a good margin, plus he always scored well in the Prelim in those days, we asked him to identify principles in particular that need to be followed.

So before you read, We ask you to keep two things in mind.

  1. Do not change your sources right now. You must have frozen your sources by now.
  2. Understand the gist of the message and not just the literal meaning. Everyone has their own way of cracking prelims. You can focus on getting some key rules out of this.

We got to know each other’s real names sometime back, and here is his piece.

A bit of introduction first

Hello Everyone,

I though of sharing a few ideas with you for those of you appearing for the Prelims. Given the uncertainty brought in all walks of life, thanks to Covid 19, I think we are going to have a little more time to prepare for Prelims this year.

Let us begin with trying to understand Prelims exam. So prelims is an Objective type exam where you need to choose correct option out of the given answers. You gain marks for correct answer and loose some marks (one-third negative marking) for wrong answers. Firstly let us see how does preparation for Prelims exam differs from Mains exam.

Mains is a test of your thought-process and maturity of your expression along with test of your knowledge. Prelims on the other hand is a test of your knowledge and common sense. Knowledge you gain by reading the standard text books and common sense of solving questions you gain by practicing test papers.

My prelims strategy and booklist

So let us begin with how to go about the syllabus of Prelims exam. So here I am listing the basic books required to cover the syllabus of Prelims subject-wise. ( You may follow what you have been following till now, and need not change your source. You can, however, adopt some of the strategies and basic rules put up here )


SubjectSources followed
Ancient History


R S Sharma NCERT textbook
Medieval History


 Satish Chandra NCERT textbook
Modern History


Spectrum Modern History and Bipin Chandra “India’s struggle for Independence”


11th and 12th class NCERT


Shankar IAS book
Art and Culture


Nitin Singhania or S Baliyan
Science and Tech


Current affairs and 6th to 10th NCERT


EconomyEconomic Survey /Sriram IAS notes / Economy book by TMH

So two important things to remember regarding study material:

Firstly don’t get confused by different people/toppers suggesting different books. To clear Prelims, you need around 55–60% marks. So different people have different approach on how to get those 60%. So choose one source and stick to it, no matter what.

Don’t be a hoarder and collect study material of 5 different coaching institutes. It won’t make you wise, it will only confuse you. And even if you learn something extra out of a different source, analyse the Cost-benefit scenario of that extra knowledge.

For some little extra “edge” over others, you spend so much of your time, the cost of time is too high since you also need to revise everything.

Also when you begin preparation, you take it slow, you go meticulously through each and every concept, but remember you need to plan your study in a way that not only you complete syllabus well in time but also give at least five revisions to everything you have studied.

You can give so many revisions only if you plan well and you limit your sources to a few standard and comprehensive books.

Secondly don’t be a book collector if you want to be a District collector. As I have clarified above that key to crack Prelims is multiple revisions.

Multiple revisions are possible only when you limit your sources. As you can see in the sources mentioned by me, I have only suggested one or two sources for a subject. Hence you should avoid buying multiple books on one subject.

How to go through the syllabus, step by step guidance

So you have got your books, now let us start studying them. So we have to plan multiple revisions for everything we study. Here is my plan of 5 revisions:

First reading: Understanding and Sieving

Second reading: Memorizing

Third reading: Preparation before giving a Mock test

Forth reading: Revision in month prior to the Prelims exam

Fifth reading: Revision a day before the Prelims exam

Before we understand each let us understand why so many revisions are necessary. You need to realise that the syllabus of Prelims is humongous.

There is just too much information which we need to store in our mind but our mind has a limited storage capacity. Whatever you will study, you will forget in short span of 15–20 days.

In order to keep a memory we need to refresh it again and again so much so that it becomes obvious to us.

Appreciate this forgetting curve above. Without 5 revisions whatever you study is as good as not studying at all. With each revision your retention time as well as retention quality improves. I have heard many people complain that I studied everything but forgot in exam. They think that you need to be a bright student to remember so much information, however the key to retention is multiple revisions.

So let us begin with stages of reading.

#1 First reading: Understanding and Sieving

While you do first reading focus on grasping the concept. For example in your first reading of Monsoon understand the science and logic of ITCZ movement. Don’t be bothered by facts and information like you don’t need to recall the dates of arrival of Monsoon but you should understand the concept. Once you understand something, then your mind is able to retain it for a longer period.

Secondly you should focus on Sieving. You know your mother uses a sieve to separate course grain from the wheat flour in kitchen.

You are going to do something similar here. You are going to separate the important part out of the non- important part. This is can be done in multiple ways like notes making, underlining, side-margin notes etc

Now i think we need to understand why Sieving is important. As I have mentioned earlier that we need to do five revisions.

You need to plan it in a way so that your time revision decreases with each reading. Say you take 15 days to complete Laxmikant in first reading, then you go to 7 days in second reading, 3 days in third reading, 1 day in fourth reading and a few hours in 5th reading.

This is possible only if with each reading you go on to decrease your effort by sieving out important part out of the non- important part. Remember that a day before the exam you have to revise the whole syllabus, this is possible only if you have sieved out the important parts earlier.

Having established the importance of sieving let us try to understand the ways to do it. Most popular way is to make notes.

Notes can be digital or manual according to your comfort but I personally prefer digital notes on Evernote due to ease of their management. Question arises when and how to make notes?

You need to understand that notes should contain information in such structured manner that they should ease your efforts of revision. But note making is a time consuming process.

So you should make notes for only those books or study material where the cost of spending time on note making is outweighed by the benefit of ease of revision. Take for example a book like Laxmikant for Polity which has already been written in form of notes with Headings, sub-headings and bullet points.

Effort in note making out of Laxmikant will not give you much output, it is better to just make side margin notes or underlining in the book itself. On the other hand you can make notes out of a book like Bipin Chandra for Modern India which has been written in a prose form and was not actually targeted for UPSC aspirants.

Another way of sieving is underlining or highlighting. I am personally a fan using multicolored highlighters.

I use a system of three colors highlighting system- Yellow for anything which is worth reading again ( approx 50% of the text), green for key words ( approx 10% of the text) and red for important names and terms. Here are excerpts of Economic Survey 2020 as highlighted by me:

This I did in my first reading. So next time I will revise, I will only read the highlighted part which reduces my effort by 50%.

In my fourth or fifth revisions I only read the green and red highlights which are the key terms so that I am able to complete my revision in a few hours for a book which initial took me a week to complete. This type of structured underlining help in quick revisions without hassles.

#2 Second reading: Memorising

Second reading should ideally be done in 15–20 days of the first reading. You have understood the concepts in first reading, now it is time to memorize it. For this cram all the important definitions, diagrams, data, examples etc.

When there is too much information then it becomes difficult to memorize, so use mnemonics techniques. Mnemonics is a study of way we memorize information.

Technique of mnemonics invovle using acronyms like what is the order of arrival of Westerners in India in post-mauryan period- GSPK – Greek, Scythians, Parthians and Kushanas.

Other technique is to make relatable sentences like I say sitting behind a table ( मेज़ – Maize) makes people lazy ( अकर्म – AKARM). So Maize grows in A – Andhra Pradesh, KA- Karnataka, R – Rajasthan and M – Madhya Pradesh. By using such techniques you can remember large pieces of Information.

#3 Third reading

Having gone through two readings you should prepare to give one subject-wise mock test. After second reading you are able to memorize important concepts. In third reading you should focus on those areas which are still weak for you. After this revision give mock tests.

Mock tests should not be given just to test your knowledge but to add further knowledge. Given the open ended nature of the Prelims syllabus it is not possible to cover all aspects of a topic by textbooks.

Here, mock test come into the picture. The questions you are not able to attempt in mock tests should be studied carefully and the answers should be understood and memorized.

Similarly some concepts become clear when you give wrong answers in tests since wrong answers get imprinted in your mind and you don’t commit same mistake again.

Therefore it is important that you carefully study those questions which you do wrong or those you could not answer. Revise these question papers again in the month before the Prelims exam .

Also while solving mock tests, develop understanding of using methods of elimination and odd-one-out in solving objective question papers.

#4 Fourth reading

Month prior to Prelims exam should be solely reserved for revision. Revise all the study material as well as mock tests in these 30 days.

#5 Fifth reading

This is just the last brushing up of important terms. By this reading you already remember all the concepts and facts. You just need to glance at the important terms a day before the exam. This will give you confidence on day of the exam.

Remember that Prelims exam requires breadth of knowledge while Mains exam requires depth of knowledge. It means that in prelims preparation cast your net wide, try to leave no stone unturned. These days the question paper is highly unpredictable. This requires that you take special precautions in attempting the Prelims paper.

How to attempt the paper on the D-Day 

Questions in the prelims paper can be divided in four categories.

First are the one in which you know the answer with more than 90% certainty. Attempt these questions first.

Second are the questions where you are able to eliminate a few options and are confused between two options. Reserve these questions for second priority. Once you are done with first category questions, you put some thought into such questions and mark the answers which seems more probable to you.

Third are the questions where you know about the issue but options are difficult. In such questions you should bite the bullet where you are even 50% sure of a particular option.

Reason being that since negative marking is only 33.3% hence statistically it benefits you even if you are correct 50% times. These days .Any aspirants are attempting as high as 95% questions.

Though I don’t support blind flukes but I still recommend to attempt at least 80–90% questions so that you are still in the race for cut off. In order to increase your attempt, you should try to take risk in a few questions.

Last category is that of the questions which are completely alien to you. You need not attempt such questions.

With respect to filling bubbles, my recommendation is that don’t fill bubbles since the beginning as you might want to change your options later in doubtful questions. It takes 10-15 minutes to fill bubbles of 100 questions. So you can start filling the bubbles in last half an hour of exam.

Keep a clock watch handy during exam and try to complete the questions of Category 1 and 2 in 1 hour 30 minutes. Devote 15 mins to bubble filling. In last 15 mins try to do the risky Category 3 questions.

I hope this post helped clearing your doubts regarding the preparation strategy for the prelims examination.

All the best.

Vikas Jakhar is a member of the ForumIAS Community with the username @mitochondria. He is currently posted as Assistant Commissioner, Income Tax, New Delhi.

ForumIAS presents mistakes Not to Make in Prelims 2020 + Some Best Practices Click to watch →
Worried about covering current affairs efficiently ? Note making taking a lot of time ? Read about approach for Current Affairs for Prelims 2020 + Classes by ForumIAS Available Online. Click here for details .
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