How to prepare General Studies for UPSC Prelims

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The Civil Services Preliminary Examination consists of two Papers.:-

  • The General Studies Paper consisting of 100 Questions of  2 marks each
  • The Civil Services Aptitude Paper consisting of 80 questions of 2.5 marks each.

This article is a time tested and vouched for by hundreds of selected candidates at for preparaing General Studies (Paper 1) of the Preliminary Examination.

The General Studies for Prelims can be divided into typically 5 parts. has a great post on the Must Read Booklist For Prelims 2015 updated from the Prelims Booklist of 2014, and you must take a look at that.

The Five Pillars of Prelims General Studies

The five sections into which General Studies Prelims Paper can be divided is:-

  1. Art & Culture + History
  2. India Polity questions
  3. Economy & Social Development
  4. Geography & Environment
  5. General Science & Miscellaneous

How to begin Prelims General Studies – Sectionwise

1 A) As far as Art & Culture is concerned, UPSC has been focussing on few areas like Buddhism & Jainism, Schools of philosophy like Sankhya, Charvaka, Vedanta etc . as well Indus Valley Civilisation, from culture point of view  and not from Ancient History point of view. These topics will always be important for Civil Services Preliminary & will be the focus area of GS Test -1. Sangam period from South is again important for UPSC Prelims as well as Mains. From medieval India, the Cultural aspects of Bhakti & Sufi Movement are important. These are the areas which students must prepare.

This part would also cover the foreign travellers who wrote about India and you must read on Megasthenes, Fa-Hein and Hein Tsang.

 Sources for preparing the Culture for General Studies Prelims

Let us be very clear that there can be multiple sources for preparing these topics. A good way to begin would be a preliminary reading of History Textbook of class XI of Tamil Nadu – Rise of Buddhism & Jainism. Those who have TMH’s General Studies Manual, may read the above topics from Indian History part of TMH Manual. A third source can be Lucent’s GK book, you may read selectively these topics for an overview.

If you take a look at questions that have been asked from Ancient History, you will realise that questions have been invariably asked from areas where culture and history interface.

What IAS Rank 1 says about preparing Culture

In the words of Gaurav Aggrawal, IAS Rank 1, 2013

I had history optional last year, so ancient and medieval culture I didn’t prepare specifically for GS. Being an optional student, naturally I had read many books and extracted the culture bits from everywhere into my notes.

Naturally the ancient and medieval culture notes are very deep (prepared from optional perspective) but what is relevant for GS part, I have highlighted in red. Modern was very difficult and I found material by Insight, Nitin Singhania and 2 pdfs titled Compilation of Indian culture and Compendium on Indian Culture very useful.

I tried to memorize all folk songs/dances/drama etc. state-wise i.e. state first and then all its dances because remembering and recalling the name of a random dance was too challenging.

Note: You do not prepare Culture overnight, unlike other subjects. This is because Culture part for Prelims is a high investment (time) and low returns area. You always prepare it incrementally.

Notes making helps a lot in covering and revising Culture since it is relevant for both Prelims & Mains

Preparing History for IAS Prelims

1 B) There are two sources for Indian History – Spectrum’s book & Bipan Chandra. Spectrum’s book covers almost every aspect of Indian History (post 1857). Only few topics need to be read from Bipan Chandra’s book.These include – Peasant Movements & Role of women in Freedom Struggle.

A common mistake student make while reading post 1857 history is that they invest a lot of energy in the initial few chapters like the 1857 revolution, and early part of Indian Revolution.

If you take a look at the past few years question paper, UPSC has invariably focussed on the period after 1900, specifically 1919-1947. Most students work very hard and cover history from the start. Covering history takes time and by the time students reach the period after 1919, a) they either do not have time left as Prelims is near or b) they develop fatigue and do not cover this part.

They pay a heavy price for this subsequently as no matter how well you know the post early modern Indian history, the  focus area of the questions is largely post 1919 developments. If you have not done this part well, you will miss out on a good no. of very easy and direct questions from Indian History.

Hence while you must prepare all of Indian History, focus more on post 1919 part of the Freedom movement.

Mistake to Avoid: Do not begin History with Ancient. Cover Modern Indian History first

Are you bad at History ? Memorising is not your cup of tea?

Some students also feel that they are not good at history. There are two things we want to tell you.

  1. History questions are some of the easiest questions and direct questions asked in Prelims Examination. Please try to score in this segment. Almost 70% of questions asked in Prelims from post 1857 history can be attempted with a thorough reading of Spectrum’s book.
  1. History is, and shall always remain, a subject that requires time. Your knowledge of history will be directly proportional to the time you have given to it. So if you are going to tell someone – I am bad at History, you better say – I haven’t given time to History.

 Preparing Indian Polity for General Studies Prelims

Indian Polity is again a scoring area for Prelims. One of the best books that compiles almost everything is Laxmikant’s. Indian Polity section in UPSC is going to have a mix of difficult questions as well as very easy questions.

So remember that for every one tough question in Prelims, there is going to be one easy question. You don’t crack Prelims by solving the tough questions. You crack Prelims by NOT missing the easy ones.

Read Surbendu Thakur’s Article on How to Prepare Indian Polity for Civil Services Examination ( Prelims )

The four focus areas for Indian Polity for General Studies Prelims

Though you may have to read the whole book, The Indian Polity part of General Studies Prelims examination can be prepared well from exam point of view by  focusing on certain areas:-

  • Focus on part V- The Union with special emphasis on The Parliament
  • The beginning chapters of M Laxmikant’s Books.
  • Constitutional & Statutory Bodies
  • New legislations


The most important areas will be Part V – The Union. This would include:

  • the Union Executive,
  • the Parliament
  • Center State Relations.

This above would be covered under Part II – System of Government of the book.

The second area of focus would be:

  • Constitutional Framework. Topics would include
  • Historical Background,
  • Preamble,
  • Salient Features,
  • Fundamental Rights & Duties,
  • Directive Principles of State Policy.

Questions from this area will be conceptual and will test your understanding, and not merely facts. But it on the foundation of facts, like articles that you would be able to build solid concepts.

A third area of focus for Prelims Examination is Constitutional & Statutory bodies. Constitutional bodies (like Election Commission, CAG, Finance Commission, etc. )are covered in standard books including Laxmikant’s.

For statutory bodies there are two kinds of categories . The first category consists of old institutions like the Planning Commission, National Development Council and Human Rights Commission etc.

The second category of bodies consist of rather new institutions like the Competition Commission of India, the National Green Tribunal, and the recently created Lokpal and now Niti Aayog. Since Niti Aayog is new, there is zero information available about it in books.

Niti Ayog is going to be significant for Mains also, and this website should help you find more about it 😛

While for older institutions, one may find relevant text in standard books, for the newer institutions, you are expected to make your own notes.

Even a 3/4 to one page notes would be sufficient on most of these newer institutions. You may use the internet and visit govt. websites to collect such data and convert it into useful information by making notes. Magazines like chronicle also provide a good compilation from time to time.

Advice: Make Half Page notes of Constitutional & statutory Bodies. It will save revision time and can help you cover the entire section in under 40 minutes, when you are revising.

A fourth area of focus for UPSC in Polity & Governance section has been social sector legislations. Social sector legislations would include acts like the Domestic Violence Act and various Rights based legislation. When you go through The Hindu,  any articles on these must register a bell in your mind, and you must go through them carefully. This should help you prepare in an integrated manner for both Prelims and Mains.

Economy & Social Development For General Studies Prelims

Here one may refer to Indian Economic Development Class XI NCERT & Macroeconomics – Class XII NCERT. However these are just the basic books and must be read once and twice to get some fundamental concepts of Economy. This would be necessary for those of you who are attempting the prelims for the first time AND have no background in Economy.

For those who have studied some level of Economy, a good book to read would be TMH’s Indian Economy by Ramesh Singh. This book can be read as a whole, but students must focus on chapters like:

  • Inflation,
  • Economic Planning & Reforms
  • Indian Agriculture
  • Banking in India
  • Public Finance
  • Human Development.

For basic economic concepts like GDP, GNP, National Income, one may refer to a book most candidates still use selectively – PD Economy.

PD Economy also has a good coverage of International Financial Institutions like World Bank, IMF and WTO. You are going to need this heavily in your Mains Examination.

Questions in this area will be very conceptual and a thorough understanding of concepts is required. This can be done by doing the basics as well as regularly updating oneself with the business section of the Hindu.

Advice: Economy Questions have been derived a lot from Current Affairs. Daily New reading will help you sail through.

Geography & Environment for General Studies Prelims

This can be divided into 3 broad categories.

  • World Geography: This would include Principles of Geography, Map work, and Climatic and Vegetation zones. Classically the UPSC asks at least 1 question from map. This topic would also include climatic phenomena, Earthquakes and Volcanism. A good book to cover these would be Go Cheng Leong and NCERT Class XI Fundamentals of Geography. An Atlas is a must for preparing this area. Vajiram, in New Delhi, for instance recommends you get the Blackswan Atlas. Take your pick.
  • Indian Geography: This would include questions on physical geography of India, including relief features, mineral resources distribution, vegetation and cropping patterns. Students may refer to NCERT for the same.
  • Environment: This section deals with issues like biodiversity, ecology, human geography, climate change and pollution. The preparation for this needs to be done on the basis of issues. One may make one’s own notes for these topics. Monthly magazines also come up with special editions to compile a list of such topics. A list of important topics should be compiled by students and studied. The Hindu provides good coverage of such issues. This section must be studied with a current affairs orientation as well.

For any residual topics in this section, TMH’s general studies manual can be very selectively read.

 Preparing General Science & Miscellaneous

Questions in this area have largely focussed on basic concepts of  Physics, like the electromagnetic spectrum, reflection, refraction and diffraction etc. From biology section, until sometime back, questions pertaining to organ systems used to be asked. Biotechnology & public health and has been the focus area in recent times. Questions under this section are largely asked on something that has been in news, or some mass technology or day to day general awareness that a well read person is expected to know. A usual Question UPSC loves to ask every alternate year is the chances that children are color blind when one parent is so.

Students may begin their preparation by taking a look at previous years question papers. This is the single most effective piece of advice we can give to you. You may list down the topics from which questions have been asked in the previous years. This will give you an idea of what to expect in the examination.

Join a Test Series. Join Any Test Series.

Unless you are going to score very well in CSAT and plan to make your CSAT score weigh 70%+ in your total prelims score, I recommend you join a test series for GS. Helps you keep track of how you are doing.

Do not lose heart if you are not able to perform very well in the first few tests. By and by, your knowledge base shall increase and if you persevere without giving up, your performance shall improve with later tests.

Clearing Prelims examination is not about knowing everything, it is also about how to practice and learn to solve questions by eliminating choices smartly. This will come by devoting time and energy into your preparation.

As you embark on this journey towards a career in Civil Services, we wish you the best.

Note: This article shall be updated from time to time to make it ore relevant. Keep visiting this space for updates. Last Updated: 19th March 2015

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