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MOTIVATION: Strategy for UPSC Mains and Tips for Answer Writing – Kumar Ashirwad, Rank 35 CSE – 2015

MOTIVATION: Strategy for UPSC Mains and Tips for Answer Writing

 Kumar Ashirwad

Rank 35, CSE – 2015

Hello friends,

This is my third article (First Article & Second Article) regarding strategy for Civil services preparation. As mentioned earlier(perhaps an annoying number of times), this is a broad framework. Feel free to tweak as you deem fit.

We’ll divide the article into two parts. In the first part we’ll dwell on the content and strategy needed to ensure a good preparation for the Mains exam. In the second part we’ll focus exclusively on Answer writing. However both these parts are interlinked. You will understand the reason soon enough.

Let’s begin.


a). GS PAPER 1 –  History, Geography, Economics, Environment, Art and culture and Polity – For all these topics in GS paper 1, the prelims material mentioned in the second article should be enough. For additional minor topics such as impact of melting ice caps on flora and fauna etc, read very briefly from the net. For world history, Synergy notes are great till World War- 2. Post WW-II, Norman Baug is the best. But read selective topics only. And during revision focus on subheadings rather than reading the entire chapter again.

b). GS PAPER 2 and PAPER 3 – Here I will not go into each topic individually because that will be neither feasible nor desirable. But a few things are VERY IMPORTANT. Firstly, the monthly news compilations of Vision Ias (primary source) from March/ April/May till November end. Follow this up with monthly news and secure compilations of insightsonindia, but only for those topics which are not given in Vision Ias material. Do not read the same thing from both the places. MOST IMPORTANTLY, DO NOT TRY TO REVISE NEWS CLIPPINGS FROM THE HINDU/INDIAN EXPRESS etc for reasons mentioned earlier (scattered knowledge +time taking). I had followed the latter approach in my 2nd and 3rd attempt and had paid dearly for it. This will take care of the current affairs part very thoroughly and also ensure coherent “in-one-place memory” current affairs, which will make writing answers all the more easier in mains exam.

Secondly go through the solutions given in the mains test series of Vision Ias for all papers except GS 4. There is no need to join Vision Ias test series. Insightsonindia mains test series is superior. But the solutions of vision Ias are in greater detail and contain more matter. So simply read the solutions of Vision Ias test series question papers. It will be around 20 question papers and hence around 400 questions. But the questions are very broad and hence a lot of it will be directly/indirectly related to UPSC questions. This will take care of the static part of GS papers 2 & 3 quite well as well as GS paper 1. Revise the monthly news compilations and the solutions of the test series at least 3-4 times. Revise Secure compilations too. Try to memorize key facts. Also go through questions mentioned on insightsonondia Secure daily. This will take care of the more dynamic part in GS Papers 2 and 3.

c). GS PAPER 4 (ETHICS) – Since past two attempts, I, along with most of my friends who attended Mohanty Sir’s (Synergy) class got between 80 to 84. Last year I came across a beautiful article on ethics paper by Mr. D. K. Balaji ( Rank 36 last year and  Insights student) posted on insightsonindia on how to approach Ethics. I followed his approach along with inputs from Vinay Sir’s suggestions and managed a decent 102 this time around. Go through his article 3-4 times. Incorporate his tips in each of your tests.

The most important and unique aspect of Ethics paper is that it checks “ETHICAL COMPETENCE”, NOT “ETHICAL KNOWLEDGE”. Its criteria for evaluation is radically different from GS Papers 1,2,3.  Suppose a question is asked on “what do you understand by values?” Here if you give the textbook/coaching class notes definition of values, you are demonstrating ethical knowledge rather than ETHICAL COMPETENCE. Your answer becomes ARTIFICIAL. Read about the meaning of values from any place. But write it in your own words. Do not worry about using sophisticated language, high end jargon and aesthetics of your answer. SIMPLE AND FROM THE HEART. Use PERSONAL examples or examples of great people and SIMPLE analogies to  convey  what you understand by values.

Again for Part A as well as Part B (case studies) go through D.K. Balaji’s article. I do not have much to add. The most important point in ethics is that your HONESTY and SINCERITY should be reflected in the paper.

                                                   Another important issue in Ethics paper is its LENGTH. While giving Ethics paper in test series, try to complete the paper around ten minutes before the stipulated time so that you do not face trouble completing the paper in the mains exam.

                                                         Here too STUDY INTELLIGENTLY. For instance many people think they should read the autobiographies of famous people for Ethics paper. This is Person A’s approach. Useless and time consuming (from exam point of view)! Instead simply type “inspiring events in lives of great personalities ” on quora. You will come across many such examples. This will take an hour or so (as opposed to days or weeks spent reading biographies) and you will be able to REMEMBER those examples in the exam hall.  REMEMBER, LESS IS MORE.  

                                                         Feel free to use flowcharts in Part B(case studies). In case studies you should have a “solving the problem” approach. For instance the option that you choose or construct will also have flaws/drawbacks. Elaborate on how you will try to remove those flaws. First state the option you have chosen/constructed. Then in one line admit that certain issues are still left unaddressed. Write your first suggestion to rectify/improve the situation. Draw an arrow and beside the arrow write” if this does not work”. Then below the arrow give your next suggestion and so on. Try to give four to five such suggestions. With practice you will find this quite easy to do. You do not need to give out of the box, extra-ordinary or mind-blowing suggestions. Just simple and elegant ones will work. Go through D. Balaji’s article on ethics for more clarification.

d). REVISION AND RE REVISION:– The importance of repeated revision in UPSC cannot be overstated. If you cannot remember during the day of the exam what you have studied throughout the year, then it is a huge waste of time and effort. Hence READ LESS, REVISE MORE. For example simply going through the Vision Ias mains test series GS papers solutions is not enough. Go through it 3-4 times so that you remember relevant facts that you can use in your answer in Mains exam.


This is perhaps the most neglected but most important part in UPSC preparation. In my first two attempts, I completely ignored answer writing, thinking that good knowledge would automatically translate into good answers. Obviously this did not happen. In my third attempt I joined a test series (Synergy’s) but gave all my tests in a perfunctory, non analytical manner. My number of attempts increased from fourteen to around sixteen questions(out of 20 questions), but there was hardly any improvement in quality. Moreover some answers were very long, whereas the last answers were very short. This is why I have warned in my first article against assuming that simply joining a test series will do. IT WON’T.

                                                                    It was only in this attempt that I improved my answer writing under the expert guidance of Vinay Sir of insightsonindia. I will list the salient points that you need to follow for answer writing:-


You MUST attempt the entire paper. This is ABSOLUETLY NON NEGOTIABLE. For the last 2 questions, you must have atleast 9-10 minutes left. But how? First, check your writing speed in a test. Count the total number of words written in five questions and note down the time taken for those five questions. Arrive at the exact number of words you write per minute. Suppose it is 20 words/minute. In 20 questions, you have 9 mins per question. Remove 1 minute for reading question. So in remaining 8 minutes, you can write around 160 words. YOUR ANSWERS SHOULD NOT EXCEED THIS LIMIT THEN, EXCEPT FOR THOSE ANSWERS YOU KNOW VERY WELL. At the same time also try to improve your speed by giving lots of tests. Also give up the habit of writing very long answers at the start and very short answers at the end of the test. The length of your answers should be uniform. Slightly long answers for those questions you know very well are okay.


 This is another very important and liberating point. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO WRITE BRILLIANT ANSWERS. YOU HAVE TO WRITE REASONABLY GOOD ANSWERS. IF AROUND 80 PERCENT OF YOUR ANSWERS ARE ABOVE AVERAGE AND YOU HAVE COMPLETED THE PAPER(with around 9-10 minutes for the last 2 questions), YOU CAN EASILY EXPECT 375 MARKS IN GS. PERIOD. So do not waste your time trying to write extraordinary, out-of-the-box answers. Focus on writing decent answers and completing the paper.

                                                                    The above two points also corroborate what I have been saying all along. LEES IS MORE. STUDY LESS. Why? Let me demonstrate. You have around 160 words per question. Remove 15 words for introduction and 15 words for conclusion. So you have 130 words left. UPSC questions are quite broad. It will be very rare that you do not have 130 words on an issue/question. Moreover you answer has to touch on a WIDE variety of issues so as to make your answer HOLISTIC. So you do not need to know about any issue in depth. THIS IS WHY I HAD SAID IN MY FRST ARTICLE THAT YOU NEED A BROAD RATHER THAN A DEEP UNDERSTANDING OF ISSUES. You simply do not have the time/number of words to go into any issue in depth. If you do, you miss out on many other vital dimensions of that question or end up not completing the paper. HENCE STUDY LESS.


Reserve 1 minute for reading the question 3 times. Read the question twice before starting to write the answer. In the second reading, circle the keywords of the question. Decide whether you can split up the keywords into subparts. If not decide which subparts(economic/political/legal etc GIVEN BELOW) are best suited for that question. [THIS POINT WILL BE CLEAR WHEN YOU READ SUBPOINT (b) OF POINT 4(STRUCTURE OF ANSWER) GIVEN BELOW]. Only then start answering the question. Mid way between the answer, again read the question and keywords to make sure that you are not deviating from the question. It is a very common mistake to feel that reading the question is a waste of time. WRONG! Do not compromise on the 1minute reserved solely for reading the question.


a). A short introduction (around 15-20 words) is good for GS papers 2,3 and 4. It does not have to be mind-blowing. However try to start with recent current affairs or a relevant piece of data or a quote. Or simply give the context of that question, its importance in today’s times etc. You can also state in you introduction as to which dimensions of the issue/question you will address in your answer. Conclusion is not must for GS paper 1, but should be given for GS papers 2,3 and 4(around 15 words). In conclusion you can pose a question or give a suggestion or state the importance of the issue at hand. Do not waste too much time in trying to come up with a mind-blowing introduction or conclusion.

b). DIVIDE YOUR ANSWER INTO PARTS. WHY? Because it becomes more diversified and holistic and looks more organized. Moreover when you divide the answer into parts, you do not leave out any important dimension. Now the important question. HOW? I broadly followed two ways. Either I divided/split the KEYWORDS of the question into different subparts or divided my answer into dimensions such as- economic, political, legal, constitutional, international, social (health, education etc) security, cultural, administrative etc. THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT AN ANSWER HAD ALL THESE DIMENSIONS. It means that out of these subheadings, I used to choose around 4 DIMENSIONS THAT WERE RELEVANT TO THAT QUESTION AND MADE THOSE DIMENSIONS AS SUBPARTS IN THAT QUESTION.

This approach is very useful for generic, broad based questions; while the first approach ( splitting the keywords) works well for specific, to the point questions. Your answer should have 3-4 subheadings and try to incorporate the positive/arguments and negatives/counterarguments in each subpart (subheading) so that answer becomes BALANCED. It is very important to write balanced answers. Also try, if possible, to make your SUBHEADINGS INTERESTING. For instance, do not write “political aspects” as a subheading. It is boring. Instead you can write” the politics of reforms” or “will politics allow reforms?” or something on those lines.

c). LOGICAL FLOW:– The next part of your answer should flow from previous part. Therefore write a connector sentence/words/phrase after each subpart. For example, after writing on the economic dimension of a question on “ease of doing business”, add a sentence” however a political consensus is must to pass bills related to ease of doing business”. Then move on to the political subpart of your question. This lends a logical flow an organic unity to your answer.

d). RELEVANCE: – Each subpart of the question should BE RELEVANT TO THE QUESTION ASKED. If you feel you know only 120 words relevant to the question, write only 120 words. If you can think of only two relevant subparts, write only those two subparts. In a quest to write a diversified, broad answer do not write irrelevant stuff. Writing only relevant points will also ensure that your answer is short and you cover all the major points.

e). POINTS OR PARAGRAPH:- Do NOT worry about whether to write in point or paragraph format. I and many others who have secured good ranks freely used both. Many times I used both points and paragraph format in the same answer. So do not sweat over this issue. However I personally feel that writing in points saves time and you also remember more points. Feel free to ignore if you are more comfortable writing paragraphs.

f). VALUE ADDITION:- You need to make your answer slightly different from others. Using DATA is a great way to do this. It had been advised to me by Neha Dubey (last year Rank in 26) and it paid off really well for me. Generally in every answer, most people write similar things.  But if can substantiate your answer with a piece of MEANINGFUL DATA, it makes your answer concrete, and the examiner knows that you have a reason for whatever your stand on any issue. So keep noting down important data related to health, education, tribals, women etc. and also India’s ranking in important indices. For instance in this mains there was a question on Arbitration and Conciliation Act. I had not heard about it. So first I decided not to write more than 120 words for that question. Secondly I knew that India’s ranking was in the 180’s on the parameter of business dispute settlement in ease of doing business rankings. I opened the question with this piece of data. So I could expect average or even higher than average marks because of this data. But be selective in choosing which data to note down and memorize. It should be important. Secondly there is no need to remember the exact number in the data. Approximate ranking/percentages are absolutely fine. But write the word “approximately” when doing this. Also revise the noted down data from time to time. Using CURRENT AFFAIRS in your answer has similar advantages. A VERY VALUABLE addition is using DIAGRAMS, MAPS AND FLOWCHARTS. Moreover these diagrams, maps etc do NOT have to be very sophisticated. Simple, crude diagrams etc will do fine. My own maps and diagrams are ugly at best. Moreover there are many more possibilities to use diagrams, maps etc than we normally realize. Let me demonstrate. Suppose there is a question on String of pearls. Here you can simply draw a SIMPLE map of the lower half of India(quite easy) and then ROUGHLY show by circles the location of the ports( the pearls) which comprise the string of pearls and connect these circles by a line(the string). Similarly in a few questions, you can use a SIMPLE flowchart instead of dividing the answer into subparts. A total of 7/8 diagrams/maps etc in one paper should be quite enough.

5). HANDWRITING :- It does not have to be beautiful. JUST NEAT AND EASY TO READ! If you have poor handwriting (as I used to have), try to write vertical letters -it looks neater. Improve upon the individual letters which comes out as the most illegible. Also spacing out your words looks tidier. If you have poor handwriting try blue colour Pilot pen( the 40rs one, not the 60 rs one). Its ink looks really beautiful when it dries up. However in the exam do NOT use a NEW Pilot pen, else it will slow you down because of the roughness of NEW Pilot pens. Use a pen that has already been used and whose nib has become smooth. I know this seems a trivial point but neat handwriting goes a long way.

6). DIRECTIVES:- There is a lot of confusion as to what various directives (discuss, evaluate, comment etc) mean and how do you change your answer accordingly. In my opinion, these directives do not matter much. However there are certain broad guidelines. For” evaluate” and “comment” give your personal opinion in the conclusion. In “critically discuss/comment”, your answer should have more part devoted to the problems/disadvantages involved. In “discuss” try to give a broad holistic answer covering the problems associated, the advantages, disadvantages, importance of the issue involved. A normal tendency is to give solutions in each question. Try to limit this tendency. Again, do not try to fret too much over directives. Focus instead on a holistic, balanced, relevant and structured answer, complete with data, current affairs etc.


                                                      This covers most of what I have to say. I shall be uploading another article on Anthropology as well as some of my answer sheets of insightsonindia test series (as many as I can find). Go through the answer sheets to get a better sense of what I have been trying to convey in my articles. If I feel that I have missed something important I shall put it a separate article. However uploading the answer sheets and Anthropology article will be possible only after 20th June. Please pardon me for the delay.

                                                      I could end this series of articles with saying that if you follow these points and work hard, you will surely clear the exam. Unfortunately this is not true. UPSC is a strange exam. Intelligence and hard work do not necessarily translate into success. There is a huge amount of randomness/luck/Acts of God involved in this exam, as it is in life. So I shall refrain from indulging in false motivation. However I can say with guarantee that if you follow these points sincerely, with MODIFICATIONS wherever you feel so, you will INCREASE YOUR PROBABILITY OF SUCCESS in this exam.

                                                     During your preparation, there will come a number of instances when you will be dejected and hopeless. It is inevitable. It is exactly in times such as these that you need to remember why you are here. You are here to serve the weakest and the poorest. If you give up because of the mental pain associated with failure then you are thinking only about yourself. Always remind yourself that it is not only for your own sake that you are tolerating so much crap during your preparation. You are only one individual. Your decision to quit will affect many more people, especially the weakest and the poorest, who will be deprived of a worthy IAS/IPS officer.

                                                     Another irritant is pesky relatives, family friends blah blah who make it a point to remind you how you have been left behind in life due to your preparation or subtly hint that you are a failure. Remember that these are people who have neither the courage nor the spirit of social service to even attempt UPSC. You are better and braver than them at a very fundamental level. To quote Joey of Friends, their opinion is like a cow’s opinion. It’s a moo (t) point. It simply does not matter. It’s MOO.

Moreover even if in the end you fail, you will have learnt so much and become so strong mentally that it is impossible that you will fail in life, which is a much bigger test than UPSC. Here I feel compelled to quote a few lines by President Roosevelt that I find very inspiring and apt at this point:-

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt.

                                                      I will end this article with two of my favourite quotes. “Success is nothing but a masterful consistency of a few fundamentals. It is really simple. Not easy. But simple”. And secondly,” Life is 10 percent what happens to you, and 90 percent how you react to it”.

So long folks! Cheers!