How to Prepare For UPSC CSE Prelims and Mains Examination?

A word to the wise: I have cleared this exam but not suddenly gained insights that people who didn’t make it are not privy to. Prelims stumped everyone, despite all the talk of internalising UPSC’s unpredictability. Marking this year across GS, Essay and optional has bewildered anyone for whom this was not their first mains.

By Dhananjay Singh Yadav

How to Prepare For UPSC CSE Prelims and Mains Examination?

Today, I am going to tell you about the journey of Dhananjay Singh Yadav in UPSC CSE 2018 and we will also discuss How to Prepare For UPSC CSE Prelims and Mains Examination? by analyzing his strategy. Read it carefully as you are going to get so much knowledge which you had not.

How to Prepare For UPSC CSE Prelims and Mains Examination?

Dhananjay Singh Yadav Rank 95 in UPSC CSE 2018. This was his first attempt and his optional subject was Political Science and International Relations.

He graduated from Shri Ram College of Commerce with a Bachelor of Commerce (Hons.) in 2014. He then worked for 3 years with Reckitt Benckiser, a British consumer goods company, in sales and marketing. He worked there till June 2017 and then quitted his job to prepare for Civil Services Exam 2018. He decided to prepare from home, utilising the abundant resources available online. In this journey, blogs and articles of people who took this exam before him were immensely helpful for him. Today I will share his story which will push you a step further towards your goal.

With just 2% selection rate, prelims is rightly considered the most dreaded stage of this exam. He, personally, consider prelims to be a different exam altogether; it’s a mere coincidence the syllabus for prelims and mains is the same. The approach for reading anything like newspaper to books from prelims perspective is a sea change when reading it from mains/interview perspective. This is not a feeling which he developed after clearing this exam, but he always considered prelims to be the final boss of this game which is ironically the first one we have to battle.

Note: DO NOT feel underprepared or over-preparedif you have done things differently because at the end selection in UPSC is more important than strategy. For Example: Some people clear the exam without taking a single mock for prelims or never having made any notes. All you need is dollops of confidence. So, continue with your strategy and be confident when you walk into the examination hall. Everyone has their own approach towards this examination, this was his method in this madness.

Let me divide his prelims preparation strategy largely under three pillars: current affairs, static, mocks. I’ll additionally cover what he did in last 3 months before prelims and CSAT.

Current affairs

After a bit of trial and error lasting over a month, he settled on the following routine every morning:

  • The Hindu (July 2017 onwards)
  • Insights daily current affairs (covered from January 2017 onwards)

He did these two things every day until mid-April 2018. This ensured he was on top of current affairs the entire time, had concise notes topic wise, and had developed a strong knack for informed guessing.


He was in a habit of giving a mock almost every Sunday, revising the syllabus along the way (twice, as there would be a revision test after 3-4 mocks) till I complete it. He didn’t follow the timetable to the point and made adjustments wherever necessary:

  • He covered the following NCERTs  – class 6-12 (history, geography, but not all in civics), class 11 (art & culture) + selective NIOS, class 6-8 + couple of chapters from class 11-12 (science). Also, TN state board history (class 11 & class 12, till medieval) to get a linear timeline, which is missing in new history NCERTs. He also googled and added notes wherever he felt the need.
  • He skipped certain books that were part of the reading list (such as GC Leong, World History NCERTs; he did Arjun Dev after prelims) as I was determined to keep my sources few and revisions many ( he followed only 4 additional books – Ramesh Singh for Economy, Spectrum for Modern History, Laxmikant, Shankar).
  • He made short notes of all the NCERTs and when he did the first reading so he don’t have to keep going back to them. This meant he subsequent revisions were faster. He kept all the information that he felt could be asked in prelims.
  • Like most aspirants, he maintained maps for some crucial information such as rivers, endangered species, Ramsar sites, mountain ranges etc.
  • Make your own by spending some hours on it. He took almost half a day, googling each of these sites individually. Two revisions of two hours each, and there’s little chance of getting a Pakke tiger reserve type of question wrong.


Since he skipped certain books that he found on internet less useful, which eventually allowed him to get ahead of his schedule and finish the syllabus by late February itself, which gave him almost 3 months for revisions before prelims. This meant he was not 100% punctual with the Sunday mocks but he caught up with all of them by mid-April (he must have taken 11-12 mocks on consecutive days).

However, know this: no amount of reading and revising will help you if you do not play this game by UPSC’s rule. And UPSC has nothing but one rule for prelims: unpredictability. To counter the unpredictability, he decided to focus on these three aspects:

  • Getting good at informed guessing
  • Increasing his number of attempts
  • Handling pressure and difficult papers

Mocks were the backbone of his preparation for the D-day. He would not have been able to realise the sweet spot of the number of attempts he need, to consistently cross a 105+ threshold, without the help of mocks. Over the course of 30+ tests (and daily quizzes) which he gave, he also got significantly better at informed guessing. He would eventually made a tactical mistake and which was going to overkill his actual prelims instead of what he had internalised, but he was still confident of a 110 after the exam.

UPSC is not going to stick with the syllabus it has given nor it is going to ask easy questions from the syllabus. The sooner you get used to it, despite seeing some low scores, the better it will be for you.

He tried being as punctual with mocks as possible. He must have been on track about 80% of times until he decided to go deviate from their schedule (schedule of his online coaching) to finish the syllabus by February end (this meant that he was maybe two months behind mocks). He ended up catching up with the test series in April when he took a mock every single day for 11-12 days. This also meant that his revision and test syllabus were not in sync. However, he didn’t let that bother him too much because he would face something similar on 3rd June 2018. He was not in the habit of revising his mocks (which is otherwise recommended) and had deferred them to a pre-prelims revision blitz.

Note on mock scores: People with a consistent 120+ in mocks may not clear the exam. People with consistent 80s may clear it. Do not have unrealistic expectations from any test series because its purpose is to prepare you for the D-day . It will not guarantee the score you will get when you attempt x number of questions. My advice to you all is that try to achieve a level of consistency (number of attempts/accuracy) and work upwards.

3 months plan before prelims

He wrapped up his syllabus for the first time by late February. He had completed all the basic books and followed current affairs till this point. He was doing alright in mocks but was behind 2 months (from what I remember).

He aimed to finish two rounds of revision and catch up with mocks by mid-April. He largely succeeded in this by speed reading areas where he was comfortable (geography, economy, current affairs), and reading every line where he was weak (culture, environment).

For the last 45 days, he wanted an in-depth reading without rushing through any area and still finish the revision a week before prelims. He had stopped reading the newspaper by now. This is what his day usually looked like:

  • IASBaba 60-day static quiz . He used to write answers in a notebook and add any worthwhile points on the same page. This is what it looked like. He revised it a couple of days before prelims and on the way to the centre.
  • Revising his own current affairs notes (He would aim for 3-4 days for one broad topic he had created).
  • Revising static portion (He aimed to finish, say, Laxmikant in 6-7 days, Shankar in 6 days, Spectrum in 5 days, Geography NCERT in 5, and so on).
  • He then revised mocks he had taken so far. He started from the very first one, he would end up spending ~3 hours every night before sleeping. He added any information that he felt he needed to retain in another page he had created. He had revised these points in the last week.
  • By end of April, he had reached full syllabus tests (FLT). Every Sunday, he would take FLT at 10 am to noon and CSAT from 3-5 pm. He would generally not schedule anything else on that and have a relaxed evening. He also took printouts of OMR sheets and did the FLT+CSAT by filling up the bubbles along with marking on the computer. Filling in wrong bubbles is a reality.


He had taken a couple of half-hearted attempts at CAT right out of college. Quant is my Achilles’ Heel; otherwise, he was reasonably good at verbal and reasoning. He scored 85-95 in all of the mocks.

Initially, he was not concerned as he was crossing 70 but closer to prelims he got worried. Hence, he took out past 3 years’ UPSC prelims CSAT and solved them on FLT days. He easily touched 150 as quantitative/aptitude paper was much easier than in the mocks. He stopped worrying about it after that. Before you panic due to marks in mocks, do solve past years’ CSAT papers. Then mark your weak areas. Read more and practice more (I am sure there’s some great CSAT material out there), there’s no other way here.

Things you already know, but a reminder

Do not read anything new in last month. Understand things you already know better. You are not going to know most questions in the paper, internalise that feeling and prepare yourself accordingly.

You’re going to need nerves of steel on the day of the exam. All your hard work is for naught if you panic in the exam hall because if you will conquer your nerves then you will succeed. Do not make wild guesses in the exam (or even in the mocks) instead try to make calculated guess and leave those questions about which you have no idea.

Revise, revise, revise, revise, and when you’re about to quit, one last revision

I do not know what worked for me. I would have been clueless about my “strategy” being right or wrong if I hadn’t cleared the exam. All I can do is detail out everything I did during my preparation. Knowing the unpredictability of this journey, I believed that hard work can make me luckier. Beyond that is just intricacies of working of the cosmos. Maybe that babaji who accosted my mother many months ago for just Rs.100, with an unsolicited prophesy that her son is going to become adhikaari, really set things in motion.

By Dhananjay Singh Yadav

Mains Strategy

He hadn’t written a single answer before prelims for two reasons – first, he was focused on clearing prelims; last 7-8 months had been dedicated to it. Second, he felt that he didn’t have enough knowledge to deliver a good answer (he knew he could write hundreds of bad ones). He needed to enroll with a mains test series but decided to work on answer writing basics till the time prelims result were declared. He couldn’t possibly imagine writing 20 answers in 3 hours at this point.

He knew that he only need to write average or above average answers. This was critical in helping him keep the following as mains answer writing pillars:

  • He need to finish all the papers, come hell or high water. Speed was going to determine whether he will clear the mains or not.
  • The examiner must like what he has written. Content is going to ensure that he is in the top 10% of the people writing mains.
  • Presenting the answer with a clear structure, repeat with diagram/flowchart/map, will help him to get extra 0.25-0.5 marks across 80 questions of GS papers.

Deciding on a structure

He decided to work on them in the reverse order. In hisfirst few answers, he would fix his answer writing structure, improve content as he go, and not obsess over time as of now. In actual mains, he would prioritise speed over content, and content over structure. He downloaded the answer sheets that UPSC rank holders had shared, and came up with a rough checklist to write a UPSC-level answer:

He decided to work on them in the reverse order. In first few answers, he would fix his answer writing structure, improve content as he go, and not obsess over time as of now. In actual mains, he would prioritise speed over content, and content over structure. He downloaded the answer sheets that both aforementioned rank holders had shared, and came up with a rough checklist to write a UPSC-level answer:

  1. An introduction to begin the question – define the terms, quote facts or figures, articles of Constitution, committee reports/2nd ARC/Economic Survey/even NITI Aayog’s 3YAA. This works across all GS papers. You can, with practice, quote Economic Survey, 2nd ARC, or 3YAA, pretty much on any question on GS-2 and GS-3.
  2. A flowchart or map. He made it when it made sense to do so; but did manage to do it for at least 1/3 of answers in any given GS mains paper.
  3. Read the demand of the question again.
  4. He would almost always divide the main body into 2 sub-parts. He wrote in bullet points, and tried to keep sentences crisp.If the question is in two parts, he would address demand of each part. He would also include any critical analysis he have within that subheading.If it’s an explain/examine/discuss/analyse/evaluate: he devoted first part to provide arguments for, evidence, or plain facts (and include examples). The second half was devoted to write about counter view, challenges, or issues faced (and include examples).If he could not think of innovative subheadings, he stuck with a generic one with keywords from the question so that examiner (and Dhananjay) both know what is to be written about.
  5. He would conclude with an opinion/pragmatic way forward/a quote (GS-4)/government catchphrases, or just a generic conclusion if he was out of time and ideas.

How this worked in actual exams? For example, in GS2 2018 question on tribunals:

  • Opened by referencing 272nd Law Commission report on Tribunal Framework
  • He Don’t remember if he made a flowchart for this answer, most likely did not
  • First subheading – gave points on how tribunals have helped in reduction of court backlogs, tribunals can adjudicate better (e.g. DRT), and mildly agreed that courts’ jurisdiction has been affected but for better
  • Second subheading – Article 323A and 323B respectively for administrative matters and other matters, and how they function wrt SC and HCs. Regarding competency, wrote about how appointment of members is plagued by power tussle between judiciary and executive, multiplicity of tribunals and how Finance Act 2017 dealt with them, issues with judicial independence.
  • Concluded with need of political will and executive-judiciary alignment as way out; and implement reforms suggested by 272nd report

Picking up the pen

But let’s go back to mid-June when he was still struggling to get to the table and write his first answer. After much dilly-dallying about which pen to write, what colour ink, and which GS paper questions to begin with, he wrote his first answer (15 marker GS2 2015) after a year of starting CSE preparation. It was bad.

  • He felt like giving up after writing 5 lines
  • He thought that he needed to read more to answer this question
  • Somehow forced himself to finish it, took almost 20 minutes

However, He knew that these were going be the growing pains. He started taking out an hour every day for answer writing in the evening. Initially, he could write 3 terrible answers in that hour. Within the next week, he had the structure in place in mind he could blindly follow (discussed before). He practiced answer writing across past years’ GS papers.

Simultaneously, He realised that he had been obsessing over prelims for so long that he had forgotten most of the GS syllabus for mains.

  • GS syllabus finally went up on his wall (from his desktop), and he started ensuring his notes were sufficiently covering each topic of syllabus.
  • He spent next few weeks reorienting his notes to tackle mains as well. Now, notes were added/updated (as he revised them) from mains perspective.
  • Also, he started to maintain sticky notes of constitutional articles, excel sheet of Law Commission reports, memorising SC judgments, etc.

All this was to improve his content. He was trying to improve the quality of his answers, and still not bothered about speed.

By the time prelims results were declared, he could write 5 15-markers of average quality in around 65-70 minutes. He had shortlisted beforehand a few test series he could subscribe to. His parameters were simple: (a) had to be online (b) Essay + GS mocks (c) at least 3 full length mocks (12 GS papers; He was ready to write more if needed) He ended up choosing Insights as he was satisfied with their prelims test series, evaluation was to be done in a week, mock tests fit his revision schedule, and was priced quite competitively. Time had come to work on speed.

How to utilise mocks

There is only one way to ensure that you finish the paper on time, in 3 hours: resoluteness. You have to keep looking at the watch and reminding yourself of the time being taken per question. Do write 4 GS papers on 2 consecutive days, as it gives you a great practice for what is going to come.

He idealised a 11/7 minute split. This meant 110 minutes for 15 markers (he used to start with these) and 70 minutes for 10 markers.

  • First mock essay he wrote and it took him almost 3:45 hours (spent way too much time creating the skeleton, paused way too much while writing)
  • Next were two 125 marks GS-4 papers, took him 2 hours and 1:45 hours.
  • He brought down the next essay to 3:15 hours, by forcing himself to start writing after 15 minutes, and timing myself per page. He would finish all subsequent essay mocks in time.
  • In August, 6 GS papers averaged around 3:15, even finished one in 3:05 hours. He was taking ~120 minutes for 15-markers and rest for 10 markers.
  • In the last set of mocks (mid-Sep), he pledged before sitting down that he will push himself and finish these on time. He held on to that spirit from the first answer itself, and wrote as furiously as possible and managed to finish all but one on time.
  • This provided him with enough confidence to walk into the mains exam hall and hope to give his best. He also realised that if he had to achieve his dream, there is no option of messing up even one of those seven papers.

This is what his stack of answer writing looked like, after the 3-month writing.

In mains, he skipped 1 question in GS-3 (Bose-Einstein) and couldn’t conclude one in GS-4. Below is his mark sheet: you will see he haven’t aced any of the papers. But he received enough across allseven written papers.

dhananjay singh yadav marksheet

Note on Hindi language paper

He always considered his Hindi to be decent (ever since his 10th board marks!). Also remember, UPSC doesn’t want you to fail here. He went through the Hindi paper before mains and did this:

  • 40 marks for grammar section. Got Arihant’s Samanya Hindi two weeks before the exam and read through synonyms, idioms, etc.
  • Read through a bunch of essays (it’s worth 100 marks) in the book and by googling. Do prepare for some generic topics – Indian economy, women empowerment, India as a superpower, environment etc.
  • Comprehension and summary constitute 120 marks. Even if you use the words given in the question and you should get some marks here.
  • Rest is translation, comprehension, et al. 40 marks, didn’t bother.

Even if you are scared of this paper, you should focus more on maximising yield from grammar+essay marks. Be smart about the comprehension/summary+translation section – unless Hindi is not your mother tongue. You should be able to get 30% marks easily here. Read the Hindi news for a few days, this will help you knowing some key words in Hindi and not struggle with translating recognise to Hindi. Try solving a couple of past years’ paper. Time and practice are great teachers. Finally, do not slack during the paper; it could become a challenge to finish it on time.

Summing up

  • Prepare your structure, improve your content, work on your speed – in that order as you begin your answer writing. Practice every day, this consistency will make you better.
  • While writing mains the reverse should be priority: speed, content, structure. You can finish the paper if you are hell bent on finishing it.
  • Revision never stops. But do not use that as an excuse to not practise answer writing.
  • Writing the first answer will be hard, get it over with. You can clear this exam without writing “beautiful” answers.
  • Be very consistent with the test series. Do not slack, do not postpone.
  • Content will make your answers stand out – make it better by referencing committees/reports/Survey/ARC/3YAA/Law Commission etc. Use flowcharts, maps, diagrams where necessary (but don’t do it in every answer).
  • Do have basic NCERT Books knowledge. You can download them from here. Just download it and learn from them.

NCERT Books For Classes 6 to 12 – Free PDF Download

  • The actual mains paper will require you to think on your feet and adapt answers to the demand of the question. Read the question carefully and do not aim at reproducing verbatim information just because topic is same as your notes.

No one was born with answer writing skills. You can acquire them with blood, sweat and tears. I do not know whether reading this will help you directly, but I hope it does help you figure out a strategy that works for you. Play to your strengths, and do not forget your weakness.

I’ll end with what I wrote on my whiteboard “Brick by brick we will build this castle and will crack UPSC”.

You can read the strategy of IAS Anu Kumari from here.


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