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Strategy for UPSC IAS Mains Examination

  • Categories
    Strategy for UPSC Mains
  • Published
    19th Jul, 2021

UPSC CSE Mains exam is the actual test of one’s knowledge analytical ability and wisdom. UPSC Prelims is the first elimination round of the Civil Service Examination. After clearing the first obstacle of this coveted exam the real battle begins. This phase is considered as the most vital phase of your preparation as this phase proves to be a game-changer that could land you in trouble if you don’t take it seriously. Also a little distraction can affect your ranking drastically that spoil your dream of becoming an IAS officer. Hence, it is imperative you devise a rock-solid UPSC Mains Strategy that will boost your score and enhance your chances of getting a good rank. The first step towards it to find a rock solid approach that will ensure your selection in the exam. The beginners or the candidates having no previous background of civil services often face crises regarding strategy, planning and resources for the mains exam. Most of the candidates often lose their first attempt because they remain blank after prelims exam. In Most instances, they often seek the answers to their questions regarding preparation methodology or strategy for beginners. This entire process begins just after prelims exam that exhausts their precious time and hence at last they have no option but to follow the age old approach of finishing up the syllabus in a short span of time that remain impossible. This often leave them spellbound and helpless in examination hall due to lack of practice and proper revision. This article will discuss the UPSC Mains Strategy in detail that will help both beginners as well as experienced candidates.

Structure and Syllabus of the Exam:

This step remains the most crucial step as it helps you assess the nature of exam. Also it helps you to delve deeper into the examination process and planning by looking at the previous year papers and UPSC syllabus in detail. A thoroughly scanned syllabus is must to kick start your preparation as it helps you to stay focused and avert any kind of distraction. The previous year question papers can be a better source to understand the nature of questions.

As far as the structure of the exam is concerned the following table can be referred to understand number of subjects and papers:




Total marks

Paper A

Compulsory Indian language

3 hours


Paper B


3 hours


Paper I


3 hours


Paper II

General Studies I

3 hours


Paper III

General Studies II

3 hours


Paper IV

General Studies III

3 hours


Paper V

General Studies IV

3 hours


Paper VI

Optional I

3 hours


Paper VII

Optional II

3 hours


The subjects which are covered by the General Studies Papers in Mains Exam are:

General Studies I

General Studies II

General Studies III

General Studies IV

Indian Heritage and Culture




History and Geography of the World


Economic Development






Social Justice


International relations

Security and Disaster Management

The literature of any one of the following languages: Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Odia, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu and English.

Books and Resources:

For mains exam too NCERT books are the Holy Grail. The books have been written in lucid and simple manner that invoke interest while reading. The NCERT books are not only necessary for strengthening your foundation and basics but they are also helpful to develop perspective that further help you to write answers and analyze the things. After thoroughly reading NCERT one can go for the standard textbooks mentioned below:



General Studies-1

General Studies-2 

General Studies-3

General Studies-4

Choosing Optional:

  • The most vital element of the UPSC Mains syllabus is the optional subject. The choice of optional subject should be as per your own level of comfort with and degree of interest in the subject. 
  • This decision must not be misguided by any sort of false speculations of 'which is the most scoring optional'. It's not the optional subject per se, it's your preparation and presentation (answer writing) that makes it scoring. 
  • There are many optional subjects that are popular among the aspirants owing to their scientific nature, overlapping with general studies and concise syllabus. These optional subjects are chosen by most of the IAS aspirants and help them to qualify UPSC Mains strategy. Public Administration, Geography, History, Sociology, PSIR are few optional subjects that have been chosen by most of the toppers in last years.  

Strategy to prepare for Mains Exam

To prepare for IAS mains exam the following steps need to be followed:

Consistency in Preparation

  • The most significant advantage that the early beginners have, is the advantage of extra time. However, there's also a problem. When the time is sufficient, it's not the 'time management, rather your 'consistency maintenance over this prolonged period of time' that requires more attention. 
  • It is essential to develop a habit of self study for at least 7-8 hours daily and make daily targets to accomplish them.

Sufficient Time Allocation

  • Given the sufficiency of time, it is important to adopt the 'mains first' strategy' which means that you should start your UPSC preparation by devising the UPSC Mains strategy.
  • After prelims, a candidate gets hardly three to four months for the preparation of mains. The schedule is further tightened by the requirement of answer writing and essay writing practice. Thus, it will be an intelligent move to prepare for the mains part first.

Daily Answer Writing

  • Developing a habit of daily answer writing helps you to consolidate your concepts and learning and help you to be efficient in answer writing during mains exam. Daily answer writing also helps you to memorize the facts and figures and enable you to use them in your answer in an effective manner. It also targets the grey areas that needs to be improved and helps you to maintain speed and accuracy in your answers.

Make Proper Study Plan

  • An equal allocation of time should be made for all the subjects and optional papers so that no area lag behind or left alone. It is important to formulate a plan that will help you to fetch more marks than completing the UPSC syllabus alone. There are few topics that should be focused more as they can help you to improve your score as they can be easily covered in lesser amount of time. It is advisable to go through the previous year papers and mark those areas that are highly potent and more frequent.
  • Allocate the months and schedule your days and weeks well in advance, ensuring that by November - December, you finish the UPSC syllabus for the four General Studies papers and Optional subject. It is indeed possible to complete the UPSC Mains strategy only if you plan your time with perfection.

Follow Daily Current Affairs To Keep Yourself Updated

One important, in fact, decisive, part of the preparation is to religiously and consistently follow the newspaper daily. The candidate should always be updated with all the important national and international events. You can follow one or two magazines and government sources like Yojana, Kurukshetra, PIB, PRS, etc. Also, if time permits, you can start with your initial answer writing practice after you are done with the UPSC mains syllabus once. Try to get it evaluated by some senior or teacher.

One thing that must be kept in mind, is that the UPSC syllabus of mains and prelims is not completely compartmentalized. There is, in fact, a significant overlap. Thus, while preparing for UPSC Mains strategy, a significant portion of Prelims also gets covered. For the remaining portion, one can get into 'prelims-focused' mode from January or February onwards. From this point onwards, the golden trinity of 'revision, consolidation, and assessment', must become part of the preparation.

Preparation for UPSC Mains after Prelims

Follow these five steps to effectively revise the syllabus after the Prelims is over.

Step 1: Give Yourself A Break After Prelims

It is very important to give yourself a break after prelims. You might have been preparing continuously for a year or more, so it’s important to take some time off of your studies. Take rest both physically and mentally for at least 10 days. Read newspapers or take a small vacation and prepare yourself for another 3-4 months of exhaustive preparation. Contemplate about how your exam was, there might be three cases,

  • You are 100% sure you will qualify for the prelims. Devise a suitable UPSC Mains strategy to ensure your success in Mains as well.
  • You are unsure whether or not you’ll not qualify for the Prelims. Don’t get disheartened by the result. You can still get to start afresh as Prelims is qualifying in nature.
  • You are 100% sure that you would not qualify for the Prelims. Don’t get discouraged. Reflect on your mistakes, try to learn from them, and devise a year-long strategy to follow for next year.

During this time, also read a lot about UPSC Mains strategy that can help you plan the best one for yourself. Take inspiration from your seniors or peers, toppers, or mentors who can guide you best in the most crucial phase of your UPSC Mains strategy.

Step 2: Make A Detailed Study Plan For UPSC Mains Strategy

Once you’ve relaxed completely, come out of that zone, and devise a detailed study plan for your mains preparation. As you might already know that UPSC Mains strategy consist of 9 theory papers of which 2 are language papers that are qualifying, 2 are your optional subject papers, 1 is essay paper and the other four are general studies paper. So, you should have a clear-cut strategy on how to go about revising each of the subjects and preparing the ones you’ve not even started hitherto.

Step 3: Schedule The Time You Need To Invest In Each Paper (Here Is What Our Experts Say)

Now, most fresh aspirants get confused about how to revise everything in 2-3 months that they get between Prelims and Mains. Here’s what you can do:

  • Have a monthly goal, weekly goal, and daily goal. Stick to that and ensure that you complete each goal. Make small targets so that they seem achievable.
  • Even if your preparation get’s disturbed for 1-2 days, don’t wreck the whole plan, rather, divide the portions you have missed across the week.
  • Always keep 2 hours for revising what you’ve read daily. Also, keep the weekends free for answer writing practice revising what you’ve learned in the week.

Now, mostly the aspirants get confused with the time allocation. How much time is too much time to allocate for each of the General Studies papers? Let’s find out what our experts believe:

Paper Name

Stipulated Time (Recommended by Experts)

Optional Subject

30-40 Days

Essay Paper

Prepare 4-5 topics each week

General Studies Paper 1

10-15 days

General Studies Paper 2

10-15 days

General Studies Paper 3

15-20 days

General Studies Paper 4

15-20 days

Step 4: Enhance Your Answer Writing Practice

Since the Mains paper is descriptive in nature, it is important that you give due time to answer writing in your UPSC Mains strategy. Whatever that you read, try to summarise in your own words at the end of the day. Dedicate an hour each day to answer writing practice. Get your answers evaluated by your mentors or seniors to get a fair bit of idea of where you stand. Don’t fret about writing bad answers in the beginning. Practice does make one perfect, hence practice answer writing as much as you can.

Step 5: Give Regular Mock Tests.

Now, mock tests are important because it gives you an exam-feel, it prepares you to write your best answers in a stressful-exam situation. Hence, never take mocks for granted. Think of it as an opportunity to understand the answer-writing process, to write brief succinct answers considering the demand of the questions.

So, this is how to prepare for UPSC Mains using the 5-step UPSC Mains Preparation strategy that we recommend. We have touched upon the UPSC Mains strategy for preparing before and after Prelims. Take inspiration to prepare your own strategy to crack the exam. You can rely on our courses and study material for your preparation. Get in touch with our course counselors to get more information about our courses.


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