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Game and Grammar of Cut-Off in UPSC Prelims and Mains (Part 1): Blog by Manoj K Jha

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  • Published
    11th Jun, 2020

IAS Prelims Cut-Off Marks

Since the Prelims Exam also regarded as an elimination step, the cutoff of the exam always remains a topic of hot discussion and speculations. Many of the aspirants remain in constant panic after the exam about the cutoff as they play on margin. Usually, UPSC clears aspirants 12 to 13 times of vacancy for writing Mains Exam, however the cutoff of the prelims exam also varies as per difficulty level of the paper. Thus, the overall cutoff is decided by the UPSC depending upon the requirement.

To avoid the panic, it is necessary to secure marks well above the cutoff so that focus can be shifted to the preparation of the Mains Exam. For comprehensive preparation, it is required that the syllabus, trend, type of question asked in the exam, and areas of more weightage of preliminary exam in previous years need to be analyzed and preparation to be done accordingly.

What are the statistics around cut off marks?


Let’s first see what has been the trend of cutoff in the preliminary exam and what changes have been made.

  • In 2011, CSAT Paper (Civil Service Aptitude Test as GS Paper-II) at the preliminary stage was introduced. The CSAT paper replaced the Optional Paper. Thus, the total number of candidates qualifying from Hindi medium background reduced to 15 percent in 2011 which was 42.2% in 2009.
  • Students from the Hindi medium protested and in 2015, the CSAT (GS Paper-II) was made qualifying (33% of 200 marks) without considering it for merit in the preliminary exam.
  • If we analyze the trend since 2015, the cutoff for the Preliminary Exam (based on GS Paper-I) varied from 49% to 58% of total marks. This highlights that securing more than 60% of marks significantly increases the chances of qualifying for the Mains Exam and remain confident for writing the Mains Examination without wasting time after Prelims.


CSE Prelims









98   (49%)








105.34 (53%)








116   (58%)








107.34 (54%)








(Both Papers)









(Both Papers)









(Both Papers)








(Both Papers)








* Cut off for 2019 Prelims exam - not yet released

Understanding which subjects matters more!

 Every year weightage of various subjects varies and there are no fixed criteria for it. If we analyze the papers in 2015 and 2016, the questions were comparatively direct in nature and a lot of question were factual however in 2017 and 2018 the complexity of questions were quite high, very close choices were placed to check students concepts especially in the Polity, Economy, etc. UPSC also combined the static and dynamic parts in various questions. This increased the difficulty level of questions to the new height.

 By reviewing the below table one can understand how the number of questions of different subjects mixed from year-to-year and it can be safely concluded that no significant portion can be undermined in preparation.

How to prepare for Prelims so that aspirants qualify with good marks?

  • It is a tough stage and requires extensive-preparation. Selective study or traditional short-cut methods may not work anymore. What you need is a holistic approach that covers the core areas along with the new areas from which questions are being asked.
  • PRELIMS is not just a test of knowledge. It’s also about problem-solving skills and the ability to memorize facts and eliminate options when you have limited knowledge on a particular topic.
  • Appear in all India Mock Test Series to judge your level of preparation, understanding, and competition level. Understand the pattern of your marks in MOCK Tests. If your marks are consistently above 100, you are competent to qualify Prelims. But keep revising and never be complacent.
  • Overall it can be concluded that the cutoff of the Preliminary Exam depends upon the vacancies in the given year, level of difficulty of the paper. Aspirants should make their preparation comprehensive so that they can face the unpredictability of this paper and manage to in a safe zone. This can be achieved through the understanding syllabus, analyzing previous year papers, making fundamentals strong, and do a lot of practice with self-analysis and improvement.

 GS Mains Cut-off Trend

 We can make our preparation more accurate by looking at the trend in the Mains Exam over the years. All the topics given in the Mains Exam Syllabus are not equally important as the weightage of all the topics are not the same. Thus, by assimilating the trend properly, we can give the right direction to our preparation and identify the areas that we have to invest more time. The last 5 years analysis of paper and topic wise trend is given below:

General Studies-I

  • Most of the questions in history are static in nature. The questions are mainly related to the Art and Culture of India and Modern India. The trend of the primacy of questions of Art and Culture over Modern India has been seen in the last few years.
  • Questions from Society come from almost all the topics covered in the syllabus.
  • Most of the questions in Paper 1 are asked from Geography. Also, every year about half of the questions of Geography are related to Current Affairs.

General Studies –II

  • The importance of Polity in this paper has increased dramatically in the last five years. More than 50% of the questions of Paper 2 are from Polity. Even in Polity, 50% of the questions are asked from Constitutional, Statutory, and Regulatory Bodies. Current Affairs and static questions have been given equal importance.
  • Under Governance, 5 to 6 questions come from both Current Affairs and the static part.
  • Almost all questions under International Relations are from Current Affairs.

General Studies –III

  • Under this, 4 to 6 questions are taken from the Economy, most of which are from Current Affairs, including Budget and Economic Survey questions.
  • About 4 questions are asked from Agriculture. It is important that every year at least 1 question is related to crop pattern.
  • 4 to 5 questions are asked from the Environment, out of which most frequent questions are asked from Conservation and Disaster Management. Questions are more of a static nature.
  • About 5 questions have been asked from Science and Technology, which has been dominated by current happenings. There has been more variability in the questions of Science and Technology compared to any other subject. The questions under this are asked every year from different domains.
  • Questions of Internal Security depend heavily on contemporary issues.

General Studies -IV

  • The marking pattern is highly uneven in this paper. Because of the case study, this paper is highly scoring.
  • The questions in this paper are divided into 2 sections.
    • The questions in Section A are related to different aspects of the syllabus. No direct question comes regarding the Philosophers and Thinkers given in the syllabus, but interpretative questions are asked based on their views.
    • Section B contains Case Study related questions. Every year, at least one case study comes in respect of Vulnerable Sections of the society.


  • In recent years topics are more Philosophical. Hence, it has witnessed a wide variation in marking. Some of the highest scorer’s copies are uploaded on iasscore.in.
  • It also consists of two sections, the Philosophical type, and General Studies based topics. Commonly asked themes are – Social Justice, Democratic Values, Media/Social Media, etc.

 The marks (or cut-off marks) of the last recommended candidate in the Mains Examination for the last 5 years has been as follows:

 Things to keep in mind to achieve success in the Mains Examination:

  • Pre-cum-Mains Perspective - It is important that if we mix the syllabus of the Preliminary and Mains examination, about 60% of the total syllabus is common for both. Therefore, it is necessary to prepare such topics with a pre-cum-mains perspective, though their approaches are different.
  • Comprehensive Preparation – Candidates should have a complete understanding of the exam pattern and full control over it. For example, a detailed understanding of all the topics of the syllabus, the type of questions, and the current scenario related to the syllabus. For this, the syllabus and previous years' question papers should be studied again and again.
  • Short Notes – For each topic mentioned in the syllabus, we should have self-made short-cut notes that should be enriched with current affairs and contemporary development from time to time.
  • Revision - The length and breadth of the CSE exam require the regular revision of study materials.
  • Interlinking of Topics - Every subject in CSE is interconnected in one way or another. While writing an answer, aspirants should think of various dimensions related to that particular topic such as geographical, historical, social, political, economic aspects, etc.
  • Understanding the demand of the question - After studying the question papers of previous years, one should try to understand the main demand made in the questions.
  • Practice of Answer Writing - Through the previous year’s question papers and test series, more and more answer writing should be practiced. While answering, the keywords used in the question such as discuss, comment, critically examine, etc. should always be kept in mind.
  • Time Management - Completing every question paper with satisfactory answers in a fixed period of 3 hours is not less of a challenge. Therefore, time management becomes key during preparation to ensure better outcomes during the Mains Examination.

Verifying, please be patient.

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