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UPSC Prelims Strategy: How to Score 150+ marks?

upsc ias prelims strategy

The post is contributed by Aishwarya Raj, AIR 28, Indian Forest Service


I wanted to convey my heart-felt thanks to ForumIAS for making such an amazing platform that has been extremely helpful for clearing all types of doubt-clearing for aspirants.
I have been a regular Test Taker at ForumIAS and have appeared for nearly all the Open Tests.

While I have gained a lot from the discussions and daily current news sections, I would want to contribute my bit by sharing my strategy/booklist for UPSC CSE/IFoS Prelims since could score a fairly decent 150+ in CSE Pre 2016.

Following is the Strategy to Score high marks in UPSC Prelims Exam:

Here is the strategy and book-list for UPSC Preliminary stage  (1st round) of the UPSC / IFS examination ( will come up with next stages soon).  I am sharing this as beginning contours for you since I could score in the range of 150-160 out of 200 in GS paper 1 (Cutoff range expected 110-115 for CSE , 132-138 for IFS ). But eventually you will have to end up having your own unique plan, depending upon your strengths and weaknesses (post taking atleast 10-15 Mock tests). I had devoted 3 months fully to Prelims last year , and with June 18 being the date of exam this time, you should be up to speed already by now. Remember here you are competing with close to a million folks, so stakes are much, much higher than Mains and Interview. In prelims, UPSC will brutally reject candidates, reducing them from 1000000 to 15000 , so get the drift that daily Mains answer writing can wait a bit for now . While Prelims is more knowledge-based and Mains focuses on testing your critical and social-thinking, that doesn’t mean UPSC will always keep it that way ;). So be prepared for any scenario, is what say the wise !

After analyzing the past few years’ papers (if not please do so, atleast from 2010 onward), you would have realized that current-affairs based questions have spread to even “Static topics” like History and Geography. So smart study and Googling would be of great help while preparation. eg. if you read an article on drought, connect it to historical, indigenous water-related solutions basis harvesting, baolis, tankas etc.

Remember these key ideas all the time:

  1. Minimum sources, maximum revisions. To give an idea, revising THRICE whatever you have read is essential for retention and assimilation. So minimize the sources, else it will be chaos at the end. And PLEASE don’t fall prey to the millions of “Must Read” Booklets in the markets that are released 20 days before exam to scare aspirants all over ! Trust yourself.
  2. Spending more time analyzing the mock tests than the actual time spent on taking  tests !
  3. Critical thinking and ‘joining the dots’ . Try to enjoy the learning process. In my case, making fortnightly visits to National Museum / National Gallery of Modern Art / Humayun Tomb / Old Delhi/ nearby sanctuaries etc were welcome and refreshing learning tours .I credit National Museum majorly for understanding and completing substantial portion of Art and Culture + Ancient India syllabus !
  4. Coaching dilemma ? Well , to each his own. I didn’t do any coaching for GS or optional subjects, but registered for Online Test Series.

My Booklist for each topic :

I) Current events of national and international importance.

  1. The Hindu, Indian Express ( pick up only those things which are not covered in Hindu). Also, I avoided note making for papers,
  2. If you end up being lazy some days, fret not ! Just put those backlog papers aside and read ForumIAS Daily Current Affairs summary online.

II) History of India and Indian National Movement.

  1. Ancient India – Old 11th NCERT + BBC Documentary on Story of India 
  2. Medieval India – Old 11th NCERT . Would suggest don’t fret much here. Remember concept of ROI ?
  3. Art and Culture – 11th Fine Arts book is a treasure trove. But don’t make the mistake of reading it just once or twice. Each word is crucial. To be read 4-5 times and related aspects googled (esp the monuments, and it is interesting too) .
  4. Art and Culture – Nitin Singhania old notes ; New one is a lot more bulky, so I avoided it. Also , a visit to National Museum if in Delhi would be useful .
  5. Indian National Movement – Bipin Chandra’s Struggle for Independence + Spectrum for Revision. Gave “Plassey to Partition” a reading but can easily say you may avoid it.

III) Indian and World Geography – Physical, Social, Economic Geography of India and the World.

  1. Class 11th and 12th New NCERTS (old ones seemed very depressing, I skipped completely)
  2. GC Leong for Physical Geography
  3. Your wall should typically resemble this:
  4. wp-1490364235512.jpg

Consolidate trivial information into one or two pages maximum ! Sample below – Rivers of India and their tributaries ( This helped me get 2 questions right )


IV) Indian Polity and Governance – Constitution, Political System, Panchayati Raj, Public Policy, Rights Issues, etc.

  1. Laxmikanth as the primary source
  2. DD Basu for specific topics like local governance, scheduled areas, salient features etc.
  3. Download any Constitution app on your phone. Glance through in metro rides or with relatives around !

V) Economic and Social Development Sustainable Development, Poverty, Inclusion, Demographics, Social Sector initiatives, etc.

  1. Economic Survey. But please do read it once fully before using any XYZ summary notes .
  2. Budget 2017-18 Summary ( I preferred listening to Mr. Jaitely’s speech and taking down notes :D)
  3. Class 12th NCERT for Macroeconomics basics . If not, refer to ppts
  4.  Investopedia/Arthpedia for understanding any economic term you have issues with
  5. Yojana – 1 to 2 chapters from each month’s copy. Others get repetitive.
  6. Other books Kurukshetra etc etc  AVOID.

VI) General issues on Environmental Ecology, Bio-diversity and Climate Change –

  1. Google “Environmental organizations” and open the Wikipedia page. The list there from A-Z should be casually read over a period of 2 weeks . Be curious. But don’t go overboard.
  2. Ministry of Environment Website. It has crazy amount of information. But quite useful. Be wise and have an eye on previous year questions to know your limits of searching !

VII) General Science

Google Alerts on Science, Physics, Chemistry, Biology ! Rest don’t waste much time here. Trust your common sense.

That’s that viz book-list .

I think what works for anyone has to be a blend of hardwork, smartwork, presence of mind and some calm.

The 2016 UPSC Prelims paper was highly current affairs based but had covered most of the subjects. Consider a question which asked the meaning of eripatti about which I had no clue. But it clicked that since eri as a water management structure in TN was mentioned in a Yojana piece, and patti relates to land, the statement given was correct. Many questions also required basic common sense even if we had no clue before. Eg the inland port question, AP and Karnataka were easy to eliminate as they are coastal states, while Chattisgarh’s topography would make it tough to have a navigation connected to sea, therefore answer should be Rajasthan (which was correct) ! And yeah, even movie review buffs were gifted 2 marks with the question on Hollywood flick based on Ramanujan !

Some General Observations and Suggestions:

1) Integrative study has to be the way forward, since no silos exist between subjects now as well as current affairs.
2) For basics, ‘N’ number of materials won’t work. Same holds true for current affairs.
3) Economic survey is compulsory beyond doubt. Neem-coat statement was a direct ripoff. And almost all economy questions found a basis in this survey . All schemes asked in the exam (the objectives i.e) were mentioned as one liners here which were asked.
4) Meditation helped. And it always does help. Waking up on 7th August with a 15 minute meditation/yoga had the highest ROI. Not to forget picking tenets of being a Karma Yogi through Bhagwad Gita ?
5) Test series are a must, but again unless atleast 15-20 papers revised, wont really stick on. Here , I maintained a diary of errors, wherein all my errors/ doubtful questions were jotted down.  Last one week before exam, my work was only to revise that one diary ! Sample below:

6) Structured Timetable-making is necessary. But even more important is “Mid policy reviews” of the same ? ; I had 7 iterations for July 2016. Because I missed out something or the other in the first 6 each time !
7) Having faith in your efforts. Somewhere, someone is watching your efforts ! I had zilch previously and struggled at 100. This time scored >150 !

Finally, make sure the people who care for you are given their due importance even when you are studying. Avoid the naysayers and those ‘suggestion-based’ people who love to make off-the-tangent remarks, but make sure meeting close family and friends does not stop. They will be your support and strength while sailing through this long-arduous journey ?

Run, laugh, smile and be happy. It will all be fine someday , if not today ! And that is when the sweet smell of success will be truly of worth. Public Servants ought to have the quality of patience after all ?

Note: UPSC Prelims Recommended Booklist


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