[For beginners] Practical step by step guide to UPSC Prelims

Because, merely suggesting booklist and strategy is necessary, but not sufficient.

This article will walk you through detailed strategy
quoting questions asked in UPSC Prelims.

Reading this detailed article is worth the time and effort.

UPSC Prelims is the most unpredictable stage of Civil Services Examination. There are numerous examples wherein a candidate gets IPS in one attempt, and fails to clear Prelims in the next attempt. Such setbacks are relatively less in Mains and Interview. This is not to scare you; a candidate should take Prelims seriously. Just because its marks are not considered in final selection, it should not be relegated aside.

Step 0: Laying mental foundation for UPSC preparation
Suppose you have just decided to jump into UPSC Preparation. You have no knowledge about what kind of questions are asked; what to read; how to practice etc. First of all, it is perfectly okay. Actually it’s good in a way. It is easy to learn something with a blank mind, rather than unlearning what you already know, and relearning the right thing.

UPSC preparation requires you to sit in your study room for long hours. For this to  happen you might need to make the right ambiance. Click here to explore stuffs you might need for your study room.

Step 1: Previous year questions are the best guide/friend
You know why many aspirants think joining a coaching is the first step for UPSC preparation?

Because they rightly think they will get GUIDANCE from coaching classes. I urge you to think a step further. Coaching classes frame their ‘guidance’ from previous year questions. You, too, can do it, may be in a better way.

Let’s take a question asked in UPSC Prelims 2014.
Which of the following organizations brings out the publication known as ‘World Economic outlook’? Answer: IMF

After this question was asked, all coaching institutes started teaching about reports released by different national and international institutions. This is what the world calls ‘guidance’. The point is – it is completely possible to prepare for UPSC Prelims on our own. This is not to say that coaching institutes are not required at all. Analyse your strengths and weaknesses and decide accordingly. Please get hold of previous year questions of UPSC prelims. Go through last 5 years questions multiple times. Observe the pattern of questions being asked. Develop your own appreciation of these questions.

For example, let’s look at this question asked in UPSC Prelims 2018:
In the Federation established by The Government of India Act of 1935, residuary
powers were given to the
(a) Federal Legislature
(b) Governor General
(c) Provincial Legislature
(d) Provincial Governors [Answer: b]

Ideally, you should look at this question before you read Government of India Act of 1935. This would help you realise what facts/data/analysis you should focus on while reading a particular topic. The trick: Suppose you read provisions of residuary power in Government of India Act of 1935 being given to Governor General. You should also think about other competing authorities who were NOT given this power – Secretary of state, provincial legislature etc. This is possible only when you are abreast with previous year questions. Once you read with this approach, you would be in a position to answer all twisted questions sourced from a particular topic.

Step 2: How to use this question bank for best outcomes?
First reading – Go through last five year questions of all topics. It will give you a rough idea of how questions are framed from a particular topic. Do you need to memorise facts? Is it possible to apply common sense to eliminate options? Does preparation for Mains help in answering Prelims questions? You will get a rough answer to these questions if you go through previous year questions.

Step 3: Start reading standard sources
These sources are bare minimum requirements – please do not avoid them at any cost.

  • NCERTs: These are the crux of UPSC preparation. If you come across someone who cleared UPSC without NCERTs – ignore them. If you come across some teacher who tries to wean you away form NCERTs – you are being brainwashed. These are must haves for any UPSC aspirant. Their analysis, facts, paragraph formation, flow of a chapter, daily life examples are a boon for both Prelims and Mains. Do get old NCERTs as well – history and geography are useful.

Click here to get NCERTs

Answer to this question asked in UPSC Prelims, 2018 could be found in Class 6 NCERT
Which of the following leaf modifications occur(s) in the desert areas to inhibit water
1. Hard and waxy leaves
2. Tiny leaves
3. Thorns instead of leaves [Answer: All 1, 2 and 3]

  • Polity by Laxmikant: If you come across any negative review about this book, please do yourself a favour – just ignore the review, and continue reading the book. This book is so relevant! Also, DO NOT buy new editions. Continue with the edition you have – you have marked important sections in this book; your eyes know where to look for a particular topic. So, instead of buying a new book, you can get xerox of newly added sections. Click here
  • Environment by Shankar IAS (click here): You must have observed increase in weightage of Environment questions since 2011 when Prelims stages of IFoS (forest service) and CSE (civil services) were merged. If we know the reason behind a particular trend, it helps us prepare better. This book is one stop shop for almost everything in Environment section. You may also read last unit of Class 12th Biology Alternatively, you can refer to NIOS environment material. It is also comprehensive. I have an inclination towards government sources.
  • Economy by Ramesh Singh (click here): The beauty of this book is – despite its critics, it offers the best return on investment. This book is authored by Ramesh Singh who himself teaches UPSC aspirants. Hence, a serious effort has been made to include only UPSC-related stuffs in this book. There might be a few spelling mistakes here and there – please ignore them. Economy is a dynamic section – you may go for latest edition of the book every year. Supplement this book with Economic Survey, Budget, Current affairs, Sriram economy booklet (printed) etc.
  • Art and Culture (click here): The underlying reason behind asking art and culture section in UPSC is – given the diverse culture of India, it is difficult to govern an area without knowing its art and culture. The idea is to develop an indigenous appreciation of art and culture, not an entirely western perspective. For instance, if you read about Khajuraho temple, you must not relate it with obscenity. You, being a civil servant, should try to figure out the root cause – declining fertility in the region around Khajuraho in those days. You may read this book by Nitin Sighania. Alternatively, you can go through CCRT, NCERT, NIOS etc. They are equally good – just that you would need to filter out irrelevant stuffs.
  • Atlas (click here): There are some direct map based questions in UPSC prelims.

    This question asked in UPSC Prelims 2018 was taken directly from Atlas

    Among the following cities, which one lies on a longitude closest to that of Delhi?
    (a) Bengaluru         (b) Hyderabad        (c) Nagpur            (d) Pune [Answer: A]

Additionally, Atlas has detailed depiction of many Geography topics (e.g. Ocean currents), Environment and Ecology (e.g. Biosphere reserves in India), Culture (e.g. famous dances of India) etc. How to use Atlas for UPSC examinations deserves a separate article – it has such vast relevance for UPSC Prelims.

  • Current Affairs: Stick to one source – Vision/ Insights/ Never go for multiple sources. Multiple revisions is a must. I would recommend attempting tests and reading current affairs of the same institute. There can be counter arguments to this – it’s your call eventually.

These are not exhaustive sources. These are bare minimums. You would need additional resources like Economic Survey, Budget, internet research etc. Please do not click on irrelevant links while you surf internet. They spend crores of Rupees in researching how to smartly place links that are difficult to resist. Additionally, read only those sources which you can revise. This is smart energy and time management.

Step 4: Revisit Step 2
It is now time to revisit previous year questions – first reading was done in Step 2. After you are done with first reading of the above mentioned mandatory sources, it is time to take test of previous year questions. Vision IAS has uploaded topic wise tests of previous year questions online. You need to create a free account and login to access the tests. Some answers may be incorrect – please crosscheck them.

I am emphasizing PREVIOUS YEAR QUESTIONS time and again because it is the most important requirement to clear UPSC Prelims. There are numerous cases of people struggling to clear Prelims, and once they clear it, they make it to the final list in the same attempt. Multiple revision of previous year questions will help you gain an insight into WHAT GOES ON IN QUESTION SETTER’S MIND when they frame questions. This is something that is difficult to express in words – you will realise it after going through the questions repeatedly.

Step 5: Mains preparation is useful in clearing prelims comfortably

Let us take this question asked in UPSC Prelims, 2018.
Consider the following statements:
1. In the first Lok Sabha, the single largest party in the opposition was the Swatantra Party.
2. In the Lok Sabha, a “Leader of the Opposition” was recognised for the first time in 1969.
3. In the Lok Sabha, if a party does not have a minimum of 75 members, its leader cannot be recognised as the Leader of the Opposition.
Which of the statements given above is/are correct?
(a) 1 and 3 only                                  (b) 2 only
(c) 2 and 3 only                                  (d) 1, 2 and 3 [Answer: B]

Source: NCERT 12th – Politics in India since independence (Chapter-2) This book is actually recommended for UPSC Mains – GS 1

Let us take another question from UPSC Prelims, 2018.

What is/are the consequence/consequences of a country becoming the member of the ‘Nuclear Suppliers Group’?
1. It will have access to the latest and most efficient nuclear technologies. [Correct]
2. It automatically becomes a member of “The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)”. [Incorrect]

A question on impact of NSG membership was asked in Mains Test Series of a reputed institute. The question bank of any serious institute is more or less the same. The point is, if you have prepared for Mains, you have an edge in Prelims as well. Anyway, there is not much time left after Prelims. So, you must be done with GS Mains syllabus before Prelims exams.

Step 6: Take tests in exam-like environment

If this is your first attempt, please join a test series formally. Purchasing test series from xerox shops and attempting it at home is not recommended at this stage. Join a test series whose questions reflect UPSC standard. Do NOT join a test series only because they are cheap OR because your friends have joined it OR because it is close to your place of stay. Their standard of questions should be the only determining criterion.

Once you have joined a test series:

  • Follow their schedule RELIGIOUSLY.
  • A complete attempt of one test would take around four hours – 2 hours for the test, 30 minutes for going through incorrect questions, 15 minutes for going through correct questions, remaining time for going through the model answer.
  • Underline important parts in model answer and revise them repeatedly.
  • Write down your areas of improvement on the first page of question booklet. Revise these  feedback before attempting the next test. This will prevent repetition of the same mistake. REPEAT the steps until you clear Prelims. You may make a consolidated list of IMPROVEMENT AREAS in a separate notebook/ diary.

If you have cleared prelims once, you may practise tests on your own. Make sure you stick to the 2-hour deadline, no disturbance, no distraction – i.e. it should be attempted in actual exam-like atmosphere.

Some candidates attempt the test, and throw the test paper away. Merely attempting questions without reviewing your performance, without knowing your strengths and weaknesses is job half done. So, reviewing your performance is a must.

Step 7: Strengthen the weak links, because a chain is as strong as its weakest link
Suppose you have started attempting full-length tests. While reviewing your performance after a particular test, you find out that you need to work on Economy section. Make sure you revise the standard sources before attempting the next test. Knowing one’s areas of improvement is a satisfying experience, believe me. Because life is all about endeavoring to improve ourselves every single day.

Step 8: The week before UPSC Prelims

  • DO NOT attempt test series
  • DO NOT read any new book/material etc.
  • Revise whatever you have read
  • Re-revise whatever you have read
  • Spend time with PREVIOUS YEAR QUESTIONS – think about them, chew them, check them, play with them – in short, be obsessed with them!

If you follow the above steps, you need not blame yourself for not doing enough. Attempt the actual exam with optimum level of confidence – neither too high, nor too low. After Prelims, start preparing for Mains without wasting much time [you can waste one week :)] over the silly mistakes you did in exam, that note which you could not revise , that one day you wasted with your friend/boy friend/ girl friend etc. Because whether you clear this prelims or not, you, anyway, have to prepare for Mains.

Must read books as mentioned above:

Useful stuffs for your study room | UPSC Preparation

This article presents an exhaustive insight into UPSC Prelims preparation. If you still have a doubt, feel free drop an email to musmuna95@gmail.com 

If your optional is Sociology, join our Telegram channel: https://t.me/sociologyAndSocialIssues

May you succeed,

Related posts:

Do you need to modify your strategy for UPSC Prelims, 2019?

[Books] UPSC Sociology & GS : Previous years’ questions

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