Strategy:Aranyak Saikia, AIR 59 (CSE 2019)

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UPSC CSE Prelims is by far the most unpredictable part of the exam. This is also the stage where more than 97% of the candidates are eliminated. UPSC has designed it essentially as an elimination stage designed to weed out most of the less serious candidates. However, in the process, unfortunately a large number of good and sincere candidates are also shown the exit door. Thus, one needs to prepare for the prelims very seriously and meticulously.

Unlike most other candidates who begin their UPSC preparations with Mains and then move to prelims prep about two months before the exam, I started my prelims preparations right from the start – somewhere around the end of 2016. There are a multiple reasons for that, most of them being related to my academic schedule. But one important reason was my fear of being a part of the eliminated 97%.

In this post, I shall dwell on my prelims strategy. I secured 139.34 and 106.66 in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and I am expecting above 130 in 2019. In the last two years, my prelims scores have been well above the cutoff. I can, therefore, safely say that my strategy has been more or less effective.

The Book List and Other Sources

I am putting down the contents of the prelims syllabus here.

  • Current events of national and international importance.
  • History of India and Indian National Movement.
  • Indian and World Geography-Physical, Social, Economic Geography of India and the World.
  • Indian Polity and Governance-Constitution, Political System, Panchayati Raj, Public Policy, Rights Issues, etc.
  • Economic and Social Development-Sustainable Development, Poverty, Inclusion, Demographics, Social Sector Initiatives, etc.
  • General issues on Environmental ecology, Bio-diversity and Climate Change – that do not require subject specialization.
  • General Science.

The syllabus essentially consists of the following major elements: History, Polity, Geography, Environment and Science, Economics, International Relations and Current Affairs.

I am providing a concise table below for a quicker read. For better understanding, one can read what follows immediately.

1. History

Modern India: Spectrum’s “A brief History of Modern India”, Old NCERT “Modern India” by Bipan Chandra. Spectrum should be read at least 3 times, including the appendices, to get a good grasp over the content and memory.

Ancient India, Art and Culture: NCERT’s “An Introduction to Fine Arts” Class XI, CCRT Art and Culture Notes(I made small notes attached here) and History 11th and 12th Class ( Tamil Nadu board) . The Tamil Nadu and NCERT books should be read at least 3 times. A large number of prelims questions can be answered from them.  

2. Polity

There is only one book: Laxmikanth. Reading it at least 4 times is absolutely necessary to master the book. Go through the question papers, previous year questions and mock questions at the back of the book. Do them multiple times, mark the ones you are not able to do and just before prelims, again go through them.

3. Geography

New NCERT Class XI, XII Geography textbooks and GC Leong’s Textbook. The NCERTs are sufficient to cover most of the questions. But in my opinion, GC Leong gives a greater clarity to the concepts. The idea should be to master the concepts, definitions and key terms. Reading them at least 3 times is necessary.

Atlas is equally important for map reading and identification of places. One can read the Atlas everyday for 10 minutes. Each day, choose a new location, say Europe, then go through it thoroughly. Close your eyes and try to recollect the positions of the countries, important cities and important geographical features. Next day, see if you remember them. Repeat this exercise everyday. By the end of 1.5 months, almost every place on the map will be in your fingertips.

4. Environment, Ecology and General Science

This is a very open ended topic. NCERT Class XII Biology Textbook Unit 5 on Ecology is a must read. I had also read the appendices and important environment laws, conventions and organisations of Shankar Environment. Part of the questions are also from Geography too.

There is a booklet published by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, called the Critically Endangered Species of India. I am sharing the link here. One can go through it on the day of the exam itself. Some important questions come from species mentioned in the booklet.

Vision IAS also has an important booklet that provides details of India’s flora and fauna, some important environment laws and conventions, and certain important environmental events such as El Nino and Ozone hole formation.

More importantly, reading the newspaper and being thorough with Current Affairs is necessary for this subject.

5. Economics

This is the area which I prepared the least as it was my subject of graduation and masters. But for beginners, I think a good source is- NCERT Class XI, XII Economics Textbooks, Sri Ram’s Economics, Newspaper’s business and economy section.

NCERTs are good to brush up the concepts, especially macroeconomics. I don’t think any other book is required for prelims.

Sriram provides definitions of important terms like the repo rate, fiscal deficit etc. It also provides a good coverage of important organizations like the Bretton Woods and WTO. Reading it a few times is essential.

Newspaper is essential for daily coverage of important events happening in the economy. It is also a good way to relate to the concepts learnt in NCERT and applying it to real life

6. International Relations and Current Affairs

This I think is the trickiest part of the exam. Almost anything under the sun, including the sun, can come as a question in the exam from this part. My booklist was as follows: Newspaper, Vision IAS Monthly Current Affairs, Vision PT365, Insights PT Exclusive, Insights i-Learning, Yojana, Budget and Economic Survey

For newspaper, I referred mostly to the Hindu and Indian Express. Initially, I had relied on the Hindu, but in my last attempt, I relied primarily on the Indian Express. The Explained section of IE is very informative.

I read Vision IAS Monthly Current Affairs for each month at least 2 times. This gave me a good brush up of the events in the previous month and also helped me memorise the important govt schemes, laws and international events/organizations/disputes in the previous month.

Vision PT365 and Insights PT Exclusives do a full revision of the most important current affairs events, schemes and organizations in the last one year. They come out about 2 to 1.5 months before the prelims and are very comprehensive in their coverage. They are usually distributed topic wise- environment, social issues, polity, economics, etc. I had read them 3 times just before the exam to have a good grasp over current affairs.

Yojana is a good monthly magazine of the government. Every month, there is a topic on which it focusses. The issue covers important government schemes, organizations, laws and issues pertaining to that topic.

Insights i-Learning is again another series of topics, mostly random, which have a high probability of being asked in the exam as they have gained prominence in the last few years, such as semiconductors, Bluetooth technology, AI, IoT etc.

Budget and Economic Survey are again essential. Read especially Volume I of the Survey. For the budget, announced schemes are important. There are good summaries of the budget and survey easily available on the internet. Going through them should be enough.

I am also attaching a list of Reports and their organizations for your reference. UPSC has been asking questions related to these in the last few years

Topic Books/Magazines/Reading Materials Remarks
  1. Ancient: NCERT’s “An Introduction to Fine Arts” Class XI, CCRT website and History 11th and 12th Class ( Tamil Nadu board)  Textbook
  2. Modern:  Spectrum’s “A brief History of Modern India”, Old NCERT “Modern India” by Bipan Chandra
  1. TN Textbook and NCERT to be read 3 times
  2. Spectrum to be read at least 3 times
Polity Laxmikanth Read at least 4 times
  1. New NCERT Class XI, XII Geography textbooks and GC Leong’s Textbook
  2. Atlas
  1. Read NCERTs at least 3 times
  2. Focus on countries, important cities and important geographical features
Environment, Ecology and General Science
  1. NCERT Class XII Biology Textbook Unit 5 on Ecology
  2. Shankar Environment
  3. Critically Endangered Species of Indiapublished by the Ministry of Environment and Forests
  4. Vision IAS booklet
  5. Newspapers and current affairs
  1. Must read
  2. Only appendices and important environment laws, conventions and organisations
  3. Read on the day of the exam
  1. NCERT Class XI, XII Economics Textbooks
  2. Sri Ram’s Economics
  3. Newspaper’s business and economy section
  1. For brushing up topics, especially macroeconomics
  2. Focus on key definitions and structure of economic organizations and conventions
Current Affairs and International Relations
  1. Newspaper
  2. Vision IAS Monthly Current Affairs
  3. Vision PT365
  4. Insights PT Exclusive
  5. Insights i-Learning
  6. Yojana
  7. Budget and Economic Survey
  1. IE or Hindu
  2. Read at least 2 times a month
  3. Read at least 3 times
  4. For yojana, focus on govt schemes and topics
  5. Can read summary of Budget and ES also. But be thorough with the terms, concepts and schemes
Organizations and their Reports Reports and their organizations UPSC has been asking questions on it lately. Focussing on it is important.

Test series

I had subscribed to two test series: Vision IAS and Insights on India. But this does not mean that they are the best or anything. The market is full of test series which are really good. One can choose any one or two of those.

The main idea is to do at least one or two test series. At least 100 tests should be done within those series. The main advantages are threefold:

  1. A good way to increase memory retention as you exercise your mind after reading a particular topic.
  2. Gauge your preparation. Mistakes and all India ranks help you to assess the areas where you need to improve.
  3. Confidence to face the MCQs in the actual exam. You won’t get a bitter surprise in the exam hall.

What I feel about the importance of test series can be summarised by this: you may or may not qualify when you practise test series, but you will surely fail if you don’t practise any.

Intelligent guessing

I think this is the most important part of the exam. It is impossible to know everything in any particular topic, and around 50% of the questions in prelims are from areas or aspects that we don’t know about. But if we decide to not attempt them for fear of negative marking, we might not even clear the cutoff.

In order to understand what intelligent guessing is, we need to understand the two words- Intelligent and Guessing. It is not ordinary guessing. It is not as random as tossing a coin or throwing a dice to decide on the MCQ option. Rather, intelligent guessing involves making use of all the knowledge that you have gained through your UPSC prep to arrive at the answer you think is the most appropriate.

Let me give you an example from Prelims 2017.

An example from CSE 2017

For this question, the correct answer is (b) Kuno Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary. At that time, I had no clue about lions being transferred from Gir. Neither had I heard of Kuno Palpur. But I reasoned like this: Sariska is a Tiger Reserve. Lions and tigers are top predators and unlikely to be in the same territory. Similar reasoning applies to Corbett. Mudumalai is in the Western Ghats with a monsoon type of climate. Gir is in the arid type of climate or maybe a savannah type. So, they are unlikely to be shifted to Mudumalai. The only option left for me was Kuno Palpur.

Thus, by using all my knowledge about lions, national parks and vegetation, and by using a system of elimination, I arrived at the correct answer. I was simply guessing that it was Kuno Palpur, but it was not blind guessing and was based on a reasoned approach.

Now consider another example from Prelims 2018.

An example from CSE 2018

The correct answer is (b) 1 and 2. At that time, I knew just one thing: Thang Ta dance is from Manipur. So, that eliminated options (c) and (d). I now had to choose between (a) and (b). For some reason, Khongjom Parba festival appeared to be Manipuri in origin. I don’t remember reading about this festival anywhere. But reading about so many dances and festivals of NE India must have given me some idea. So, I decided to take my chance and go for option (b).

Again, I was never too sure about the answer. But I had to take the risk. I had only reduced my risk through elimination. I did not completely eliminate it. This is essentially the idea behind intelligent guessing. Using this you can attempt more questions but at a reduced risk. I hope these examples help in developing your own intelligent guessing strategy. It requires a lot of practice. Test series are therefore essential in honing this skill.

I’m not an expert in this skill. I am only reasonably good at it. There are many others who are even better. So, you need to practise as much as you can.

Number of questions

This is a very common question among candidates: how many questions should one attempt in the exam?

There’s always a trade off: the more questions you attempt, greater is the chance of negative marking erasing the gains from the correct answer. If you attempt less, you might get too few questions to be correct and lose out.

Based on my experience, I found attempting 90-95 questions to be the most appropriate number. So essentially I tried to attempt most of the questions. I just left those questions which I had absolutely no clue about- those which I could not even attempt with intelligent guessing. There used to be around 5-10 such questions.

I think this strategy seems to have worked, as I ended up getting relatively good marks in prelims.


This paper is also colloquially called the CSAT- Civil Services Aptitude Test. I have not seen it being mentioned anywhere in the official notification though. Since it is a qualifying paper- only 33% is required- it is not given much emphasis. But I would still urge that some amount of practice is required for solving the math and logical reasoning problems. The english passages are very confusing and tricky. It is better to focus on the math and logical reasoning problems. I had used a Tata McGraw Hill book for UPSC Prelims Paper 2 CSAT. I used to do a few questions everyday in the final one month before prelims.


As I finally conclude, I hope this information has helped you all in increasing your chances of cracking prelims. The strategy I have enumerated above is relevant both for this year and for subsequent years. Those aspirants planning to appear in CSE 2021 can also go through this. I personally feel that prelims requires a long term commitment. Prelims prep should go side by side with mains prep in the initial few months. In the final 3 months before prelims, one needs to focus solely on prelims. It is the most unpredictable part of the exam and can make or break dreams.

Another disclaimer: this is not the only way to crack prelims. Many successful candidates have had completely different strategies. My note here is to help you get an idea in a particular direction. I am certain that you will devise your own strategy as you proceed with your preparations: and that will always be the best strategy for you.

In the near future, I will be writing on my mains strategy as well, which will be posted here as well as on my blog:

All the best!