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How To Avoid Negative Marks In UPSC Prelims

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    13th Sep, 2021

The Preliminary examination for the Civil Services Exam, conducted by The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), is the country’s most coveted exam that is taken up by more than seven lakhs candidates on an average every year. Aspirants are usually told many Do’s and Don’ts related to number of attempts, topics selection and avoidance of negative marking before they attempt for Prelims. Yet, to secure better marks, students often move for guesswork while attempting the paper bringing them into the endless loop of ‘Negative Marking’ in UPSC Civil Services Prelims Examination. The more you guess, more are the chances of negative marking. The situation gets even tougher when you are giving the exam in the examination hall as the candidates have to choose between two very close options. And it’s a toss. Sometimes it becomes difficult for an aspirant to be confident to cross cut off mark seven after attempting a significant number of correct questions.

This mainly occurs due to the following reasons:

Vastness of the syllabus:

The Multiple-Choice Questions (MCQs) comes from a wide range of curriculum and due to this the length and breadth of the topics/subject increases tremendously. Thus, it becomes hard for the students to have a knowledge about everything.

More emphasis on Paper-1:

Further as we all are aware of the fact that CSAT is qualifying, the entire pressure of passing the examination moves to General Studies. To beat the fierce competition, it is very important to attempt at least 70-75 questions in Paper 1 of Prelims. Thus, in order to increase the chances of passing the examination, students get more inclined towards guessing the options to mark the answers as no one can predict cut-off in the examination hall.

Before moving towards the analysis of the Negative Marking in UPSC Prelims Examination, firstly let us try to understand

why the concept of negative marking came up in Civil Services?

Negative marking, in multiple-choice tests, helps in distinguishing between those who really know the subject well and those who don’t. Without Negative marking, on cannot be sure whether the candidate actually knows the answer or it’s just a guess work blurring the different between the serious and non-serious candidates. The concept of negative marking came up to check the entry of non-serious candidates. The scores are more reliable as it discourages random guesses.

It clearly helps in testing candidate’s conceptual clarity and ability to remain focused while in pressure. Slight confusion and lack of concentration in the examination hall may cost the candidate his/her attempt of the year.

This would be advantageous for the candidate who has a thorough knowledge of the subject and helps in eliminating the candidates, who have merely superficial knowledge and want to score by mere guessing.

The toughness of paper keeps on increasing every year in the Civil Services Examination due to changes in pattern of questions, so a slightest mistake can cost the student an entire year. Due to this ever-changing nature, the cut-off marks also keep on fluctuating.

So, the student need to follow the following points to avoid negative marking in UPSC prelims examination:

Hold your nerves:

An aspirant should not loose his/her cool in the examination hall due to the ‘mounting pressure’ syndrome which is quite natural. He/she should read the question and guidelines carefully, such as “select the correct or incorrect statement” properly.

Don’t leave anything for the last minute:

Many aspirants mark the answer with pencil first and then in the last minute blacken the bubbles. In this last-minute crunch, many a time student fails to mark all the answers or mark it incorrectly. So, the student should blacken those question in which he/she is definitely sure at first instance only to avoid the last-minute race. It is very risky to mark options in the question paper first and then into OMR after solving all towards the end of 2 hours.

Do not rush in reading the paper:

Avoid any haste in reading the questions and read all the given options carefully. It is often observed that the candidates read the question in a hurry and do not read it or understand it completely and if they get a hint of an answer in the first or second given options, they do not pay attention to other options. In this case, the answer can be wrong because sometimes more than one or all the options are partially correct and we have to choose the best out of all the options given.

For example, see the following question from CSE 2019:

  1. 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 the above question, two option i.e. (b) and (d) 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 they don’t need to panic and lose their confidence if they face difficult questions at the beginning of the paper and answer those questions with anticipation. There are few difficult questions every year and their order in paper can be different in all sets.
  • It is also seen that due to ignorance and stress, despite knowing the right answers, wrong bubbles are blackened and it is presumed to have marked the right answer. Avoid that.
  • Attempt all the questions in which you are completely sure in one go and then flip the questions second time to move for that questions in which there are confusion between the two options.
  • If you have eliminated 2 options and confused in the remaining two, then you must take a chance and mark one of them.
  • Looking for questions from only one section like all polity or history, etc. at one go must be avoided.
  • There will always be some very easy questions which you can answer by just reading the question and options. It is a crime to not read all 100 questions.
  • Unless one is super confident, attempting too many questions should be avoided. Like more than 90 should be avoided at any cost.
  • You should avoid your attraction towards guesswork completely. Makeup you mind that that you should go for maximum 4-5 guesses only as the risk of negative marking should be kept as low as possible.
  • Avoid any guesswork in factual questions. Like who is the founder of this organisation, where is the sanctuary located etc.
  • There is no penalty for unanswered questions, so, if you are not sure for your answer, leave the question unanswered. However, where a student lack sufficient information about the question asked in the exam,the art of eliminating options can be the key to find the answer.

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

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)

Approach: If the student knows that stable ecosystems have high (not low) species diversity, code (b), (c) and (d) can be rejected immediately as these three codes consist of option 3 which is not the characteristics of a stable ecosystem.

Now we will try to understand various types of questions asked in the preliminary examination and the precautions that need to be taken while attempting them.

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

Explanatory questions: The trend of explanatory type of questions has been seen in the past few years. Although lengthy and time-consuming, these are not very difficult in nature. The right choice has to be selected from the options by reading the detailed information provided on the topic in the question.

Fearing from the length of the question, the candidates should not leave these types of questions, but read these questions more carefully and solve these questions on priority basis because a detailed information of the topic is provided in the question itself and we can identify the most accurate option without doubt.

For example:

  1. 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 the West Indian Kingdom.

Which of the following structures is described above?

(a) Agra fort, Agra

(b) Diwani-khas, FatehpurSikri

(c) Buland Darwaza, FatehpurSikri

(d) Jami masjid, FatehpurSikri


Various types of facts are given in the above question regarding the Buland Darwaza. The correct option can be found from the given information if we read the question carefully. 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:

Two types of questions are asked under this section. 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 

  1. Match the following:

 Lake                                       Location

Ansupa Lake                           1. Sikkim

Rudrasagar Lake                    2. Tripura

Surinsar-Mansar Lake            3. Odisha

Tsomgo Lake                          4. Jammu and Kashmir

Select the correct answer using the codes given below:


(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

  1. Which of the following pairs is/are incorrectly matched?
  2. 69th Constitutional Amendment Act: fixed the strength of council of minister at 10% of total strength of legislative assembly
  3. 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)

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


  • Questions with more than two statements: You’ll observe that more information is given regarding the topic in the questions with more than two statements. So, if you are confident about one or more statements being true or false with whatever information you have about the topic, 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.

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


  • Single or Double statement questions:In recent years, these types of questions have gain much importance in the preliminary examination. There is no possibility of guesswork in these types of questions and elimination method is tough. Therefore, you should attempt such type of questions only when you have sufficient knowledge regarding the topic and statements asked or else you have to be very cautious will attempting such questions. It is recommended that you avoid unnecessary risk to attempt such questions.

Candidates must always read questions very carefully. Some questions 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. They need to be vigilant with such questions. For example:

  1. Consider the following statements regarding formalization of workforce:
  2. All the public sector establishments and those private sector establishments which employ 10 hired workers or more are called formal sector establishments.
  3. 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)

Approach: 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. Both statements seem similar but have very different meaning.

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


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