How to Prepare for UPSC Mains? Tips & Strategy to Crack UPSC Mains

By Aarna Tiwari|Updated : May 30th, 2022

How to Prepare for UPSC Mains is the first question that pops up in the mind of the aspirant who has cleared the UPSC Prelims. The UPSC Mains is the most crucial part of the UPSC Preparation journey as the marks obtained in the Mains exam impact your overall rank in the IAS Exam. The UPSC Mains Exam consists of a total of 9 papers in all, including the two qualifying language papers, one essay paper, four GS papers, and two papers on the optional subject as well. The total of these papers is 1750 marks. A rock-solid UPSC Mains preparation strategy will help the candidates in fetching good marks and even a higher rank.

Usually, as per the timeline of the UPSC Exam, there is a gap of 3 months between prelims and the main examination. Below mentioned is a robust approach to tackle the UPSC Mains exam in a detailed way and also learn How to Prepare for UPSC Mains in 3 Months.

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10 Tips to Prepare for UPSC Mains

The UPSC Mains is a descriptive type paper. Each answer to the questions asked in the UPSC Mains exam demands a different approach. To ace the answer writing skill, one must be well acquainted with the UPSC Mains Syllabus. Once you are well-versed with the syllabus, chalk out a detailed yet approachable plan for the same. This must include several mocks, UPSC Previous Year Question Papers , and daily answer writing practices. 

All papers of the UPSC Mains exam should be proportionately allotted time to cover it all. Always remember to maximize your gains and cut the losses in the UPSC preparation. One must follow the below-mentioned steps to ace the UPSC Mains:

  1. Be well acquainted with the UPSC Mains Syllabus. UPSC provides an extensive syllabus that deals with almost all the subject areas that an administrator needs to know in his daily work-life.
  2. The UPSC Syllabus is open-ended and requires in-depth analysis and understanding of the latest trends and ideas. It is always advisable to club subjects which are related to cover them at a desirable pace and well in time.
  3. The most crucial and deciding factor in the Mains exam is the choice of Optional Subject. The Optional Subject for UPSC should always be chosen on one’s level of comfort and degree of interest in the subject. 
  4. Answer writing practice is crucial for the UPSC Exam. Writing practice is the sine qua non for success. The UPSC Mains need one ability to recall, analyze and express, including one’s own critical thinking aspect.
  5. A candidate who plans to sit for the UPSC Exam prepares his/her UPSC Preparation Strategy at least a year before appearing for the exam. Though the UPSC Prelims Syllabus and the UPSC Mains Syllabus are integrated, it is always advised to follow a Mains first strategy. 
  6. After UPSC Prelims, a candidate hardly has three to four months for the preparation of the UPSC Mains Exam, so it is always suggested to prepare well in advance.
  7. Consistency maintenance over a prolonged period is what the UPSC requires from a candidate. Thus, targets should be micro-managed according to days, weeks, and months. 
  8. The UPSC Preparation is never complete with the Current Affairs. One must religiously and consistently follow the Daily Current Affairs, and suffice it with Monthly Current Affairs Magazine.
  9. Just after the UPSC Prelims, if one is crossing the threshold cut-off, he/she should enroll in the Test Series to extensively practice answer writing. The mocks/test series should always be given in an exam-time environment so that the candidates get the feel of the exam and can manage their time accordingly.
  10. Last, but not least, do not procrastinate. If you have prepared well, have confidence in yourself and you will surely achieve the target.

Paper -Wise IAS Mains Preparation Strategy

The UPSC Mains is relatively easier than UPSC Prelims in the sense that it’s more certain. If prepared well with adequate answer writing practice, excellent marks can be obtained. The task at hand of the candidate is to answer 20 questions of 7 papers (leaving two qualifying papers) with good quality content and not aim to write that one perfect answer. 

In this section, we will be breaking down the strategy paper-wise, so that a candidate can follow them without wasting time. Before diving into this vast ocean, always keep in mind these points:

  • Before beginning the preparation, prepare mentally and physically for the examination. Set goals and devote time effectively. A timetable is a must, which makes the preparation streamlined.
  • It is also important to read the Economic Survey, Union Budget, and monthly magazines such as Yojana, Kurukshetra, and EPW to understand issues in detail and link the same in the essays or in the answers.

How to Prepare for UPSC Mains Compulsory Paper?

The UPSC Mains consists of 2 compulsory language papers which are qualifying in nature. One is a compulsory English language paper and the other is an Indian language paper, where the Indian Language is selected from the languages mentioned in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Both papers comprise 300 marks each. The minimum qualifying marks for both papers is 25% i.e.75 marks in each paper.

The objective of the language paper is to test the candidate’s ability to read and understand serious descriptive prose and to express his/her ideas articulately. The papers have sections divided into Short Essay, Precis Writing, Reading Comprehension, and Usage and Vocabulary. The best reference for these sections is a matriculation-level language book that contains all grammatical concepts.

The Indian Language Compulsory Paper is not compulsory for candidates hailing from the States of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Sikkim. 

Failure in the language papers will lead to non-disclosure of scores in the other 7 papers of the UPSC Mains Exam.

How to Prepare for UPSC Mains Essay Paper?

The Essay Paper in the IAS Mains Exam consists of two sections with four topics in each. A candidate needs to attempt one essay from the sections. The essays are 125 marks each and have a word limit of about 1000-1200 words. Section- A has topics based on quotes while Section B has essays related to administration or ethics. 

The Essay plays a pivotal role in the final selection and ranking of the candidate. It helps to assess the personality and attributes of a candidate. To approach the Essay Paper, one must always follow these steps:

  • Choose the topic you know about.
  • Ponder and brainstorm on the topic selected.
  • Utilize the rough space and structure your essay in points.
  • Flow, coherence, and multiple dimensions in an essay are what is needed. Have societal, political, economic, environmental, cultural, legal, international, and historical aspects while writing an essay.
  • Do not be proactive.
  • Critically analyze the topic, and suggest ways to improve along with your neutral stand. 
  • Conclude nicely.

How to Prepare for UPSC Mains General Studies?

The GS Papers for UPSC mains should be approached analytically, i.e., the focus should always be on understanding the topic and the conceptual clarity. For this, one needs to be exhaustive with the readings of the NCERT Books, as well as the UPSC Books. The answers for Mains should be approached holistically, covering what, why, and when- along with the solution to the issue. The Mains Exam tests the candidate on his mental ability and capacity to interrelate things. 

If one has practiced the Previous Year Questions repeatedly, writing and understanding the demand of the question asked will be a cake-walk for the candidate. The key to writing a good answer in Mains is to:

  • Write in simple language.
  • Have a proper introduction and relevance to the topic.
  • Try writing in bullets, incorporating mind maps and flowcharts. 
  • Try relating the answer to recent scenarios or Current Affairs. Include Government policies, data, and initiatives in the answer.
  • Attempt all questions asked, even if you have a vague idea about any topic asked.
  • Conclude your answer in a way that summarizes your answer well.

The GS Paper-4 or the Ethics Paper is more about the application part and needs to be dealt with a little differently. Seeing the past trends it can be concluded that this paper requires an understanding of ethical matters. The theory part of the Ethics section should be studied from the Ethics Books for UPSC, keeping in mind its application.

How to Prepare Optional for UPSC?

In the UPSC Mains, Optional Subjects play a significant role in the final selection of the candidate. Therefore, a rational decision should be made in choosing the Optional Subject for the IAS Exam. This Optional Subject of the UPSC Mains is divided into two papers, 250 marks each. Mostly, Paper-1 of the Optional Subject covers the theory and concepts part of the syllabus whereas Paper-2 covers its application. To tackle the Optional Subject, one must keep in mind the following points:

  • Prepare Optional Subject in-depth, it is the game-changer. 
  • Always devote ample time to it, there are no shortcuts to success.
  • Use quotes, data, and speeches wherever needed in the answer.
  • Practice mocks and enroll in test series.
  • Use diagrams in answers; diagrams break the monotony in the answers. But do not overdo them.

How to Prepare for UPSC Mains in 3 Months?

Though it is always advised to prepare a year in advance, clearing UPSC Mains in 3 months is also quite possible. One needs to follow the right strategy, a disciplined approach, and give maximum efficiency. There is a 3-month gap (100-120 days) between the UPSC Prelims and UPSC Mains exam. Dividing the days strategically will surely help in answering the question of How to Prepare for UPSC Mains in 3 Months. Try making a plan for the next 100 days and keep aside 20 days just for revision. Go through all NCERT Books, UPSC Books, and notes made by oneself.

Following this, one may certainly clear the UPSC Mains in 3 months with flying colors.

UPSC Mains Preparation Books

The UPSC Syllabus is vast and to cover it all, a lot of books are to be read. Out of the numerous study materials available both online and offline, it is crucial on the candidate's part that one selects the Best Books for UPSC IAS Preparation. 

We have tried to provide you with an extensive list of books that are needed for the UPSC IAS Exam preparation. 


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FAQs on How to Prepare for UPSC Mains?

  • The NCERT textbooks are essential for the IAS exam, but not sufficient. For covering the entire UPSC Exam Pattern, one needs to refer to various other resources to complete their preparation. Some of the basic NCERT Books to refer to are India and the Contemporary World, Themes In World History, Contemporary India, Fundamentals of Physical Geography, Fundamentals of Human Geography, Indian Constitution at Work, Politics in India since Independence, to name just a few. Other than this, one can refer to Indian Polity by M. Laxmikanth, India's Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra, Certificate of Physical Geography by GC Leong, and Indian Economy by Ramesh Singh, etc.

  • UPSC Mains Exam is tough as far as the UPSC Mains Syllabus is considered. The diversity of subjects demands more determination and long study hours. Having said that, it’s extremely hard for anyone who isn’t willing to put in the time, patience & dedication it takes to crack the exam. But if a dedicated regular student is willing to put in the work it takes, it isn’t as hard as people assume it to be.

  • To crack the UPSC Mains Exam in First Attempt, here are some tips that you can follow: 

    • Read NCERT textbooks to get your basics right.
    • Go through the previous year's test papers to understand the pattern.
    • Quality over quantity; decide on a few books and stick to them.
    • Read one or two good newspapers to keep yourselves up to date on current affairs. 
    • To cover the vast UPSC syllabus, you must plan your day, your week, and your month. Have daily or weekly goals and strive to achieve them.
    • Revision of the entire syllabus at least twice before the UPSC Prelims and UPSC Mains is necessary. With well-made notes, you could revise the whole syllabus.
    • Attempting mock papers can give you an idea of the type of questions asked by the UPSC and helps you assess your preparation level well in advance.
    • Finally, you must work hard with passion and perseverance and think of your dream.
  • One year is more than sufficient to crack the UPSC Exam if prepared with complete devotion. If one follows the right strategies, does the smart work, and learns what is asked and needed, the UPSC Mains exam can be cleared very easily. Ideally, one must start preparing well in advance for this exam, but there are many successful candidates who have cleared it in 6 months or even 3 months. Sincerity, dedication, commitment, and perseverance play a pivotal role in this exam.

  • Having good answer writing skills is as important as the preparation for the UPSC Exam. No matter how much one has read and studied and practiced, it is what one has written in the mains answer booklet that matters at the end of the day. In GS papers, one should have a good understanding of the concepts which he/she can present multi-dimensionally, whereas on the other hand, in optional, a candidate should have a deep understanding of topics and the same should reflect in answers. One will excel in Mains Answer Writing only when one practices again and again.

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