UPSC IAS Exam Preparation Strategy

By Arpit Kumar Jain|Updated : February 22nd, 2022

UPSC stands for Union Public Civil Service Commission, it is authorized to conduct various examinations as enlisted in the 'UPSC CSE Notification'. Preparing for UPSC makes an opportunity to choose and get into the umbrella of services offered. Civil Services include various categories, the most prominent one is IAS-Indian Administrative Services, IPS- Indian Police Services, IFS-Indian Foreign Services, IRS-Indian Revenue Services, and IFoS- Indian Forest Services are also one of the most sought-after jobs. Like that, there are various exams, and multiple fields are offered to venture into. All these are considered a part of civil services preparation!

Table of Content

Why UPSC Civil Services?

Originally, the pattern of selection of bureaucrats was introduced by the Britishers and was named as 'ICS Examination'. Initially, the exam was not open to Indians, but in the later phase, they allowed Indians to appear. The details you would know when you start the preparation in-depth. In contemporary times, the civil services offer a broad canvas for the officers to operate upon. Through public services, one gets a chance to be a part of the policy formulation machinery and plays an important role in implementing them. The officers selected through this examination are regarded as 'Public Servants'. At the top management level (when promoted), they assist ministers in policymaking.

If you look for becoming a bureaucrat and aspire to bring a meaningful contribution to society as an administrator, then you are at the right spot. Stay tuned; we will explain all aspects of the UPSC Civil Services Examination. Preparing for this exam requires some of the intangible aspects such as mental endurance, time management, etc. other than tangible items such as UPSC IAS books and resources. If you are aware of them, then it will help ensure the preparation direction with the correct strategy. Let us unfold them one by one.

The purpose of the article is to help aspirants who are thinking of preparing for this exam. If the strategy is not right, it may take years to crack this exam. Some clear it in the first attempt and some even after many attempts unable to crack it.

Through the BYJU'S Exam Prep platform, we wish to give you some preparation tips and guidelines to form a strategy that helps to excel in this endeavor. Before directly discussing the roadmap and strategy, let us address a few of the frequently asked questions.

When to start the UPSC CSE Preparation?

Many aspirants often inquisitively enquire about the right time to start the preparation, i.e. while pursuing the graduation, or after the graduation grab a job with parallel preparation or in early education days like in Class XI and XII. It is advisable that while pursuing graduation or in school days, one should focus on the curriculum. Those are the formative years of one's personality, so one should focus on that part as personality and enhancement of the knowledge pool is necessary to qualify the exam. The knowledge that one acquires in these years will help clear the exam ultimately. With a focus on the curriculum of graduation with a broader focus on the goal will eventually lead to success.

How to start UPSC Exam Preparation?

As the IAS syllabus is very vast, one finds it overwhelmingly vast. At BYJU'S Exam Prep, we will guide how to navigate through the syllabus.

Few essential tips are:

  • Time period: Be aware of the time period that this exam requires. The exam cycle itself is very time-consuming, i.e. a minimum of one year is necessary to get through all the stages: Prelim, Main, and Interview. So, from starting the preparation to the exam cycle up to the time, one goes to the academy takes around two years. The time period, i.e. a minimum of two years, which can go up to 3-4 yrs, one needs to keep dedicated efforts and the momentum going. If you are willing to put these many years, then only kick start the preparation. Do not get influenced by peer pressure or succumb to social pressure (such as from parents) and jump into the preparation. The motivation should come from within, then only chances of success can be assured.
  • Determination: Everyone knows that the success rate of the exam is very less, i.e. 0.1%. Lakhs of candidates every year appear in this exam, and only a few get selected. So, a ruthless determination is required to crack the exam.
  • No space for mistakes: there is no space for committing mistakes either in strategy or in preparation, as that might cost you a precious year, which could be utilized productively. There are instances, where a candidate appeared for the interview and upon not qualifying, when appeared in prelims in the very year could not qualify the prelim. So, what is the moral of the story? Does knowledge alone play a role to get selected? No, apart from knowledge, mental alertness and the right strategy for each stage is important. Every stage requires sincere preparation, revision, and a diligent attempt with the presence of mind. Understanding this is crucial to qualify the exam.
  • Mental endurance: The exam is a long process and inevitably sometimes despite the best efforts, one does face failure, not because he/she did not prepare well, but because someone else performed better. So, keep in mind this is a competitive examination and not like any certificate or degree examination, wherein a minimum score if achieved, then declared qualified. The limited number of seats makes it challenging to qualify. Resilience is the key; without that, you cannot excel in all the stages. Remember it is not sufficient just to secure your name in the merit but also score high to get the desired service and the cadre. The rank of the candidate is the deciding factor. If the score is not appropriate, then one might get stuck with the service and cadre which he/she has not opted for and spend the rest of her life there.

IAS Preparation Strategy for Beginners

Check the detailed stage-wise strategy for self-preparation for IAS Exam below

Stage I:

  • Cover the NCERTs: It is very important to cover them thoroughly as they make the base of the critical concepts asked in the exam. Understanding all subjects such as History, Polity, Economy, Social Science, etc. is essential for effective governance. Read the UPSC Books thoroughly so that concepts can be applied while solving the questions asked in the exam.
  • Role of Coaching Institutes: In the start, coaching does help to give direction to the preparation as the UPSC syllabus is very vast. In this examination, it is necessary to know what to study and what not to study! Diligent segregation and selection help a lot in saving time, effort as well as the attempt. But if one has a mentor, guide, senior, or alumni who know the process and can help save efforts without wasting crucial time and energy. Right guidance and strategy is the key for this exam to qualify.
  • Optional selection: Very important step! Choose the UPSC optional subject Ultimately, one’s selection in the merit list is very much decided by the marks scored in the optional along with the General Studies paper.
  • The main reason behind choosing the optional should be the interest of the candidate. Candidates should go for the subjects that interest them, and UPSC also gives flexibility while doing so. As the Commission does not make it compulsory for the candidate to choose the subjects that were there in the graduation.

Also, check How to choose optional for UPSC CSE?

Note: Do not worry about the prevailing trends such as X, Y, Z optional is not doing well, or how many candidates opt for so and so optional... One must focus on the interest and if familiar and comfortable with the kind of questions asked in the previous years, then practice enough to get a good hold. Therefore, interest, familiarity, comfort, and the resources available should be given priority while selecting. Remember a candidate has to spend the preparation years with the subject, so select accordingly.

  • Integrated Study: Never do segregated study except for a few months before the prelim examination, where one needs to practice mocks and revise multiple times. Preparing first for the prelim and then thinking of dedicating time for Main is a very wrong strategy as there is hardly sufficient time to prepare for all the 9 subjects for which one has to write in the exam. It certainly does not work!
  • When NCERTs are covered, join optional coaching. If confident about self-study then no need. At least for four months club General Studies and Optional subjects parallelly. Syllabus and IAS previous year papers are very, very important. For around 1-2 months, one must analyze the previous year's papers and syllabus. They will give an idea, what UPSC is asking and what is the demand of the UPSC exam. The easier for a candidate to understand this, the easier it will be the journey of the preparation.
  • When to start with current affairs?

For the initial four months, when one starts the preparation should not focus much on newspapers or answer writing. One should not read newspapers for a long time, as it is more likely that time is wasted in newspapers, without knowing what to emphasize more on. Just for the sake of reading, one should spend time on headlines but do not indulge much for at least the initial four months.

  • After the candidate is done with NCERTs + GS + Optional reading, i.e. after spending 4-5 months covering these. Now is the time when the role of current affairs and newspapers become essential. By then, a fair understanding is developed as to what to read and what not to read!
  • After the first reading of GS and Optional, which is very important, focus on other areas also. So the next four months can be spent with the second reading of the optional and GS and get hold of current affairs. Also, focus on Ethics and Essay papers. Now one would understand the demands of the essay when a proper understanding of GS and optional is acquired. In this period, only second reading should be done, as revision is very, very important.
  • Restrict the sources and do not go for extra books or magazines. A candidate should focus on convincing the notes and revise them multiple times. In this period, develop a habit of note-making that is very, very crucial. Note making will help in both Prelim as well as Main.

In a nutshell, the second revision of GS + Optional should be done, and ethics (case study) and essay paper should be practised regularly.

  • 3 months before the Prelims Examination
  • Now when three months are remaining for the Prelim examination. Dedicate them only for the prelim. Until now one had an integrated study focused on prelim and Main. Strictly focus on prelim is highly recommended. Focus on books that have objective parts such as Spectrum for History, Laxmikant for polity Books like these are a reservoir of minute facts that are asked in the prelim exam. Revise them again and again.
  • Get a good hold on CSAT, though qualifying, but the level of questions is such that many candidates find it difficult to qualify.
  • To solve as many IAS test series as possible and revise the concepts, facts, and current affairs multiple times. Solving test papers is very helpful as it will give an idea of what kind of questions and in how much time frame can the questions be attempted. It provides a good insight into effective time management and performance under exam pressure. Understand one has to manage time in the exam hall.

Stage II:

  • When the IAS prelim exam is over, candidates should start the Main preparation from the very next day of the exam itself. Do not waste time in waiting for the Prelim result to declare, as precious time is lost. UPSC takes around a month to 40 days to announce the result, so when declared qualified, one has already lost time that could have been utilized for the Main preparation, and covering up nine papers becomes difficult.

Check UPSC Books for Mains Exam

  • What to focus on, in these months?
  • The candidate's primary focus should be answer writing. Understand that if one does not understand and write, conceptual clarity will not be there for the Main exam. Writing is an essential part of the Main exam. Write a set number of questions every day, join a 'Main test series', work on the feedback to perform and score better. Discussing in a peer group helps develop perspectives and opinions about the ongoing issues. Remember, it does not matter how much one knows, what, and how he/she expresses in the exam counts and becomes the deciding factor!
  • one should join the 'writing program', and continuously upgrade in managing time for the given number of questions to be attempted diligently without compromising on the quality of the answer. The time given is 3 hours and 20 Qs to be written. So how one finishes them becomes very important. Writing performance will ensure the merit of the candidate (prelim is qualifying, and marks are not counted) and so is the service and cadre allotted.
  • Current events and Notes: Whatever issue is coming up in the news, one should link it with the syllabus and should make notes on that topic. That will help in the effective preparation of the Main. Practice thoroughly; one must have written answers in the test series or while making notes on the prevailing issues. And yet be ready to formulate answers, if taken by some surprise questions asked in the exam hall. In such situations, one should be able to derive the answers in a short span. Be aware that there is hardly any time to ponder in the exam and someone else would get an edge to perform. So diligently express yourself on the paper.

In a nutshell, for Stage II, the focus should be on Answer Writing, Practice of Main test series, Current affairs notes, and the revision.

Stage III

After the Main exam is over, do not wait for the Main result. UPSC takes around two months to declare the Main result. One should start the interview preparation.

  • DAF preparation: The interviewer mainly asks questions from the DAF. One's educational background, place of work, hobbies, etc. should be thoroughly known.
  • Read the newspaper thoroughly during this time
  • Should make an opinion on various issues particularly debatable ones
  • Appear for mock interviews, the feedback helps one improve the verbal and non-verbal aspects. These will help refine one's personality.

With this information, we intended to give a fair idea about the basic preparation strategy. It is upon the individual's strength how he/she makes most of it.

UPSC Preparation Books

Check the UPSC Books list for the prelims & mains exam below. 

SubjectUPSC Books
  1. India’s Struggle for Independence – Bipan Chandra
  2. Indian Art and Culture by Nitin Singhania
  3. NCERT XI (Ancient & Medieval)
  4. NCERT XII (Modern Indian History)
  1. Certificate Physical Geography – G C Leong
  2. NCERT VI – X (Old Syllabus)
  3. NCERT XI, XII (New Syllabus)
  4. World Atlas (Orient Black Swan)
Indian Polity
  1. Indian Polity – M Laxmikanth
  1. Indian Economy by Nitin Singhania
  2. Economic Development & Policies in India – Jain & Ohri
International Relations
  1. NCERT XII (Contemporary World Politics)
  2. Current Affairs
  1. Tata McGraw Hill CSAT Manual
  2. Verbal & Non-Verbal Reasoning – R S Aggarwal
Solved Papers
  1. IAS General Studies Prelims Solved Papers – Vishal Publications

Check the General studies books for the UPSC Mains exam below. 

SubjectUPSC Books
History, Indian Heritage & Culture


[GS Paper 1]
  1. Indian Art and Culture by Nitin Singhania
  2. India’s Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra
  3. India after Independence by Bipan Chandra
  4. History of Medieval India by Satish Chandra
  5. Ancient India by R.S Sharma


[GS Paper 1]
  1. Geography of India by Majid Husain
  2. World Geography by Majid Husain
  3. World Atlas (Orient Black Swan)
  4. Certificate Physical and Human Geography – G C Leong
  5. Fundamentals of Physical Geography NCERT Class 11
Polity & International Relations


[GS Paper 2]
  1. Indian Polity by M. Laxmikanth
  2. Introduction to the Constitution of India by DD Basu
  3. International Relations: Pushpesh Pant


[GS Paper 3]
  1. Indian Economy – Nitin Singhania
  2. Environment and Disaster Management – Tata McGraw Hill
  3. Challenges to Internal Security of India – Ashok Kumar


[GS Paper 4]
  1. Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude for Civil Services Main Examination by Subba Rao and P.N. Roy Chaudary
Solved Papers
  1. IAS General Studies Prelims Solved Papers – Vishal Publications


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  • Usually if prepared in a comprehensive and well-structured manner, UPSC CSE preparation can be done in one year. You must begin with going through the syllabus and start your preparation as a whole for both Prelims and Mains. 

  • You must study and prepare for the IAS exam as per your capability and syllabus. You must focus on completing the UPSC CSE syllabus in a comprehensive manner and ensure that you revise it multiple times. You should figure out the time required as per your study plan. Aspirants usually give 10-12 hours of study time in day. 

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