How to Beat Negative Marking in UPSC Civil Services Prelims Examination

The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) Preliminary examination is the country’s most coveted exam that draws nearly seven lakh candidates on an average every year. Before Prelims, aspirants are usually told many Do’s and Don’ts related to topics selection, number of attempts and avoidance of negative marking. Yet While attempting the paper, students often move for guesswork to secure better marks. This brings them in the vicious cycle of ‘Negative Marking’ in UPSC Civil Services Prelims Examination. More guessing, more chances of negative marking. The situation becomes tougher in the examination hall as candidates have to choose between two closer options. And it’s a toss. Even after attempting significant number of correct questions, sometimes it is difficult to be confident to cross cutoff marks.

This occurs due to the following reasons:

  • Vast syllabus: The Multiple-Choice Questions (MCQs) allow wide coverage of curriculum and due to this the length and breadth of the topics/subject increases tremendously. Thus, it becomes difficult for the students to have knowledge about everything.
  • More pressure on Paper-1: Further due to notification of CSAT as qualifying, the entire load for passing the examination moves to General Studies. To beat the competition, it is important to attempt at least 70-75 questions in Paper 1. Thus, to increase the chances of passing the examination, student get tempted towards guessing the options to mark the answers as no one can predict cutoff in the examination hall.

Before moving towards the negative analysis of Negative Marking in UPSC Prelims Examination, firstly let us understand…why the concept of negative marking came up in Civil Services?

In multiple-choice test, negative marking helps to distinguish between those who really know the subject well and those who don’t know the subject. Without Negative marking, it is not sure that the candidate actually knows the answer or it’s a guess work. This blurs the different between the serious and non-serious candidates. That is why negative marks concept have come up to check the entry of non-serious candidates. It discourages random guesses, and therefore the scores are more reliable.

It clearly tests candidate’s conceptual clarity and ability to remain focused in pressure. Slight confusion and lack of concentration may cost a candidate.

This would give an advantage to the candidate who has a thorough knowledge of the subject and would eliminate candidates, who have merely superficial knowledge and want to score by mere guess work.

 In the Civil Services Examination, the toughness of paper keeps on increasing due to changes in pattern of questions, so a slight mistake can place the student out of the race. Due to this, the cutoff marks also keeps on fluctuating.

 Thus, to avoid negative marking in UPSC prelims examination, the student should follow the following points:

  • Student should not loose hold of their nerves in the examination hall due to ‘mounting pressure’ syndrome which is quite natural. He/she should read the question carefully, read the guidelines such as “select the correct or incorrect statement” properly.
  • Many students mark the answer with pencil and then in the last minute blacken the bubbles. In this hurry many a time student fails to mark all the answers or mark it incorrectly. So, in the questions in which student is sure, he/she should blacken that at first instance only to avoid the last-minute race. Marking options in the question paper and then into omr after solving all towards the end of 2 hours can be very risky.
  • Candidates should avoid any haste and should carefully read the questions and all given options. It is often seen that the candidates do not read the complete question in a hurry and if first or second given options is found to be correct, they do not pay attention to other options. This can cause the answer to be wrong because some times more than one or all the options are partially correct and we have to choose the best answer. For example, see the following question from CSE 2019:

Q. In the context of polity, which one of the following would you accept as the most appropriate definition of liberty?

(a) Protection against the tyranny of political rulers

(b) Absence of restraint

(c) Opportunity to do whatever one likes

(d) Opportunity to develop oneself fully

Answer: (d)

In above question option (b) also seems correct however option (d) seems the most appropriate answer because the Preamble of the Indian Constitution provides for Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship. This can be interpreted as liberty in the context of polity. 

  • Candidates should also keep in mind that if they face difficult questions at the beginning of the paper, they should not lose their patience and should not panic and answer those questions with anticipation. Every year there are few difficult questions and their order in paper can be different in all sets of paper. 
  • It is also observed that despite knowing the right answers, wrong bubbles are blackened and it is presumed to have marked the right answer. This is due to ignorance and stress. Avoid that.
  • The student should attempt all the questions in which he/she is sure at one go and then flip the questions second time to move for that questions in which there are confusion between the two options
  • If a candidate has eliminated 2 options then he/she must take a chance and mark one of them.
  • Looking for only one section of questions like all polity etc at one go must be avoided.
  • Not reading all the questions. Its a cardinal sin to not read all 100 questions. There will always be some very easy questions which you can answer by just reading the question and options.
  • Attempting too many questions. Like more than 90 should be avoided at any cost. Unless one is super confident.
  • The attraction towards guesswork should be completely avoided. Mind makeup should be there that one should go for maximum 4-5 guesses only as the risk of decrement in marks will be less.
  • There should be no guess work in factual questions. Like who publishes the report, where is the national park located etc.
  • If you are not sure for your answer, leave the question unanswered as there is no penalty for unanswered questions. However, the art of eliminating options can be the key to solve those questions where students lack sufficient information asked in the exam.

Let’s see how elimination can be effective through a practice question: 

Q. Which of the following are the characteristics of a stable ecosystem?

  1. Dynamic Equilibrium
  2. Maturity
  3. High inertia
  4. Low Species Diversity

Select the correct answer using the codes given below:

(a) 1, 2 and 3 only

(b) 1, 2 and 4 only

(c) 3 and 4 only

(d) 1, 2, 3 and 4

Answer: (a)

In above question if a candidate knows that stable ecosystems have high (not low) species diversity, code (b), (c) and (d) can be straightaway rejected as these three codes consist option 3 which is not the characteristics of a stable ecosystem.

Now try to understand different types of questions asked in the preliminary examination and the precautions to be taken while attempting them.

The following types of questions are asked in the preliminary examination:

  • Explanatory questions: In the last few years, the trend of explanatory type of questions has been seen. Although these types of questions are lengthy and time consuming, but these are not very difficult in nature. In these type of questions, the information regarding the topic is given in detail and the right choice has to be selected from the options.

Candidates should not leave these types of questions because of their length, but should read these questions more carefully and solve these questions with priority because the question contains detailed information of the topic so that we can identify the most accurate option without doubt. For example: 

Q. It is a fine example of the architectural brilliance of the Mughal Empire that showcases an excellent mix of Hindu and Persian styles of architecture. It took around twelve years to construct this architectural wonder. It was built by Akbar to commemorate his victory over a West Indian Kingdom.

 Which of the following structures is described above?

(a) Agra fort, Agra

(b) Diwani-khas, Fatehpur Sikri

(c) Bulanddarwaza, Fatehpur Sikri

(d) Jami masjid, Fatehpur Sikri

 In the above question various types of facts are given regarding the BulandDarwaza. If we read the question carefully, the correct option can be found from the given information. The most important information in this question that ‘it was built by Akbar to commemorate his victory over a West Indian Kingdom’ is given in the last.

  • Matching and Pair Questions: Under this, two types of questions are asked, one of which is match the following and the other type is to find out whether the pairs are correctly matched or not. These are the examples:

Type 1 Question  

Match the following:

      Lake                                    Location

  1. Ansupa Lake                    1. Sikkim
  2. Rudrasagar Lake              2. Tripura
  3. Surinsar-Mansar Lake       3. Odisha
  4. Tsomgo Lake                  4. Jammu and Kashmir

 Select the correct answer using the codes given below:

   A B C D

(a) 1 2 4 3

(b) 3 2 4 1

(c) 4 2 1 3

(d) 2 1 3 4

 Answer: (b)

 Type 2 Question

 Which of the following pairs is/are incorrectly matched?

  1. 69th Constitutional Amendment Act: fixed the strength of council of minister at 10% of total strength of legislative assembly
  2. 103rd Constitutional Amendment Act: provided constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC).

 Select the correct answer using the codes given below:

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 only

(c) Both 1 and 2

(d) Neither 1 nor 2

 Answer (b)

In the last few years, Type 2 questions are being preferred over the Type 1. Its purpose is to discourage the guess work done by the candidates, because in the first type of question, if candidates know one or two correct pairs, the answer can be obtained through elimination. However, type 2 is little different.

  • Questions with more than two statements: In questions with more than two statements, more information is given regarding the topic. So, if you have some information about the topic and if you are confident about one or more statements being true or false, the correct answer can be obtained using the elimination method. In this regard, an example of the environmental question mentioned above can be observed again.

Due to the possibility of guess work and elimination, the number of questions with more than two statements in the preliminary examination has seen a decrease in the last two years.

  • Single or Double statement questions: These types of questions have been given more priority in the preliminary examination in recent years. These types of questions do not have the possibility of guess work and elimination method is tough. Therefore, such type of questions should be attempted only when you have sufficient knowledge regarding the topic and statements asked. Otherwise you have to be very cautious will attempting such questions. And avoid unnecessary risk to attempt such questions.

Candidates must always read question very carefully. They need to be vigilant with such questions which seem very easy and obvious at first sight, but after studying carefully we come to know that the true meaning of the question is something else. For example:

Q. Consider the following statements regarding formalization of workforce:

  1. All the public sector establishments and those private sector establishments which employ 10 hired workers or more are called formal sector establishments.
  2. In India, woman constitutes larger part of informal workforce.

Which of the statement(s) given above is/are correct?

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 only

(c) Both 1 and 2

(d) Neither 1 nor 2

Answer (a)

In this question statement 2 seems obvious and correct at first sight but in India; men constitute larger part of informal workforce. However, in India most of the women work in informal sector.

A sensible test practice can bring a vast improvement, and one can greatly improve marks by not falling into the traps.


 by Manoj k Jha and Pankaj Dwivedi

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