What is the right strategy to ensure success in UPSC Prelims?

UPSC Prelims is a screening exam with a defined syllabus. Look at the success rate of past few years.

So, about 98 out of every 100 students fail in UPSC Prelims despite reading same standard books and same current affairs. Why it so?

I will tell you how I have analysed this and prepared an objective plan which worked for me every time.

NOTE: This analysis is for SERIOUS Students who actually prepare and fail despite putting efforts. Students who don’t study are bound to fail.

How UPSC tries to make Prelims Unpredictable?

UPSC has worked very hard to earn the tag of Unpredictable Public Service commission. UPSC’s task of screening few 1000 candidates from several lakhs students is very difficult because:

  • Prelims has a defined syllabus which is divided in 5–6 basic subjects and current affairs.
  • Merit is prepared on the basis of only 100 MCQs.
  • Everybody reads same standard books for basic subjects.
  • Everybody reads same current affairs.

So, UPSC adopts following approaches to create difficulty in Prelims paper:

  • Fluctuating weightage of Subjects: Drastically increase / decrease weightage of a particular subject. For Ex. One year ask 10 MCQs from Ancient History and next year ask only 1–2 MCQs from Ancient History and ask 8–9 MCQs from Modern History.
  • Basics Vs Current Affairs: More focus on basic subjects one year with very little (15–20) current based MCQs. Then, next year focus on current based MCQs (40–50) with very tough MCQs from basic subjects. So that students gets confused what and from where to read. For ex. in 2019, 2020 and 2021 Prelims
  • Random Factual MCQs: Ask questions from random topics. For ex. in Prelims 2021 UPSC asked few factual questions based on Sports current affairs.

How students get effected from UPSC’s tricks?

  • Students / Coaching Wallahs often analyse previous 1–2 year papers and prepare as per pattern in these years. UPSC changes weightage of subjects in next year Prelims and most of the students fail.
  • Students waste time on learning facts of random topics. Ex. After 2021 Prelims, every coaching is covering minute details of sports events. UPSC will not ask any question on sports for next few years and will ask random questions from some other topic like space or books writers or person in news. Thus students effort will be zero.
  • Students try to focus more on difficult MCQs and change their preparation based on these difficult Qs. Ex. If a Polity MCQ could not be answered from Lakshmikant, students try to look for other high level books like Bakshi.

So, a knee-jerk changes in preparation strategy results in failure.

What is the right strategy to ensure success in UPSC Prelims?

  • Cover all Basic Subjects completely so that Easy / Medium level MCQs don’t go wrong:
    • No matter how difficult the paper is, still there are more than 50 MCQs which are of Easy / Medium difficulty level. Students should try to get all these correct. If this is ensured. Prelims is passed. Now how to do this?
    • Cover all basic books. Don’t leave chapters or portions if it is not asked by UPSC in past few years. UPSC may ask it this year. I have explained below how to track what is done and what is left in the bottom of this answer.
    • Don’t focus too much on difficult questions. Do not read extra books just because 1–2 questions are from a particular book last year. UPSC might ask from some other book this year. Focus should be to cover to all basics of subject from the standard source.
  • Cover all Basic Current Affairs:
    • Current Affairs should be covered exhaustively for at least 1 year prior to prelims.
    • Don’t leave Current Affairs for last months. Keep reading it regularly.
    • Follow only 1 source which you think is most reliable.
    • Best source is one :
      • Which covers The Hindu, Indian Express and PIB. Nowadays, many websites are doing an overkill of covering 6–7 newspapers. It is not needed in my view.
      • Give regular (Daily, Weekly) updates. You should not rely on monthly compilations as often students lose track of preparation and compilations are left for last month which is not ideal.
    • Don’t focus too much on facts like after 2021 everyone is mugging sports facts. UPSC WILL NOT ask such questions from sports again. So, there is no point in focusing too much on such questions. Target should be that Easy / Medium questions should not go wrong.
  • Track you preparation and revisions:
    • Most of the students don’t cover entire syllabus of a subject . They conveniently leave chapters which they THINK are not important. For Ex. while reading Lakshmikant most of the students leave chapters on Citizenship, Constituent Assembly, Local Bodies. Most of the time is spent of FR, DPSP, Legislature, Judiciary etc. This is not wise as you never know from where UPSC will ask questions.
    • Also, students don’t distribute their time equally. For Ex. They revise few chapters of Polity 8–10 times while they don’t read Art & Culture even once.
    • I too have faced this issue initially. So, being an engineer, I prepared a tool to track my preparation and revisions so that nothing is left behind. This tool (Simple Excel Sheet) forced me to cover everything which proved to be beneficial afterwards.
    • You can download it from this link and modify it as per your need. It includes all NCERTs and Standard Sources for Prelims. I also tracked my time spent on a particular chapter. It is an excel sheet which looks like this
  • Topic Wise Tests instead of Test Series:
    • In my view, purpose of test series is to give you an idea about preparation level. Now, after attempting test series, you generally analyse your scores and then try to improve topics in which you scored less.
    • So, I think it is more efficient to attempt topic wise tests rather than attempting subject wise tests or full length tests.
    • Full Length Tests should be attempted Once a month only or in the last month.
    • Below is a Program which provides Tests on 350+ Topics of Prelims Syllabus.
  • Reducing sources to minimum:
    • Student often waste time and energy in reading multiple books for same subject like Lakshimkant + Bakshi for Polity, Ramesh Singh + Sanjeev Kumar for Economy etc. As suggested above, decide on the sources for each subject and don’t change them later on.
    • You can analyse 10–15 toppers suggested book lists and choose the books which are common to most toppers. One book for 1 Subject (Apart from NCERTs). You can download the list of sources that I followed here.
    • Only one Website / Source should be followed for Current Affairs.
  • Don’t just Study. Study and Test yourself:
    • See, Prelims is a competitive exam. It is not a knowledge gaining exercise. No matter how much knowledge you gain while preparing for UPSC, it is of ZERO value if you are not able to clear Prelims.
    • So, read a topic and test your self by attempting MCQs from that topic.
    • I have helped prepared a program to tackle this issue. This program gives you daily targets which tells you which chapters to read from NCERTs/ Standard books and in the evening get a test of 10 MCQs from these very chapters. After attempting this test, you will be able to analyse what is lacking in your approach. You can check it here.

So, these are few things which in my view ensures success in Prelims.