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The Ideal UPSC paper – A Note on Recent Trends in UPSC Civil Services Preliminary Exam Paper – 1 and the Way Insights Sets its Papers

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The Ideal UPSC paper

A Note on Recent Trends in UPSC Civil Services Preliminary Exam Paper – 1 and the Way Insights Sets its Papers



We are often complemented and criticized for making Prelims test papers that do not toe the trend. Our papers are at times difficult and contain a large number of unconventional or unseen topics. And, the skewed distribution of topics in the tests sometimes are at odds with the expectations of an ‘ideal’ UPSC paper. The notion of an ‘ideal’ paper has built up over the years due to reading and misreading of UPSC papers. This article intends to examine whether our expectations of an ideal paper are unfounded and whether we are better off shedding such expectations. This discussion lies at the core of our working methodology at INSIGHTS and is crucial to understand why we set the papers the way we do now.


Rapid changes

The UPSC Civil Services (Preliminary) Examination has “evolved” considerably over the last decade. What evolves responds to its environment in a way that makes it more adaptable. If the evolution happens at a slower pace, prediction is not a hard task. But, if the evolution is inconsistent and rapid, outguessing the pattern becomes a challenge. It would be difficult to find better words to describe the change in this exam pattern than ‘rapid evolution’.

Let us draw a short chronology of this exam and see how the pattern has changed over the years. This would give you a fair idea of how UPSC bucks all trends and why we, at Insights, keep trying, if not necessarily succeed, in treading a step ahead.

Dominated by facts and trivia until 2010, the Prelims exam received a major overhaul in 2011. Starting 2011, the weightage of analytical and conceptual questions increased substantially in the paper. This was the time when CSAT was also introduced. The growing complexity in administration, technological changes and globalization demanded a better-equipped bureaucracy and this perhaps motivated a redesign of the examination pattern. Testing a candidate on her analytical abilities was made a priority. 

Papers in 2011 and 2012 leaned heavier on concepts and the difficulty level was considerably revised upwards reflecting a change in the outlook of UPSC. Further, the 2013 paper was considered a very well-framed and balanced paper not only for its range and diversity of questions but also for hitting a sweet spot on the difficult level. Nearly every section, be it polity or ecology was assigned a reasonable proportion with a good weightage of current affairs. Most aspirants felt comfortable with the paper in that it brought justice to their year-long effort and a general consensus emerged that UPSC papers are now going to be even more balanced. UPSC toppers routinely advised that if one strengthened the core portions of the syllabus (polity, geography etc.) with a good enough command on current affairs, one could easily sail through Prelims. The ‘ideal’ UPSC paper was one which consisted of a balanced weightage of all sections of syllabus sprinkled with some national and international current affairs and containing very few surprising bouncers. Needless to say, nearly all institutions designed their test series that reflected this exam pattern, and unfortunately continued to do so post-2013.

Come 2014, and all this was set to be revised, perhaps because UPSC did not feel good about being out-guessed by coaching institutions across India with such an easy availability of information and analytics than before.

The chart below shows how the weightage of different sections have changed radically over the last 8 years in the UPSC Civil Services (Preliminary) examination. You can spot that the erratic movements starting right after 2013, before which at least for three years there was a stable and proportionate weightage assigned to each section of the syllabus. 

insightsIAS prelims test series UPSC paper analysis*Note: Some miscellaneous questions in 2012 have been adjusted evenly among all subject categories. The data may not reflect the exact number of questions asked from each subject in this year.


Unlike in 2013, the 2014 paper bucked all trends. Over 35% of the paper comprised Environment, Ecology and Science. Current affairs, which was expected to have a larger share, covered only 7% space in the paper. Questions from culture were increased to 15%. In all, the portions ‘not so emphasized’ by UPSC before 2013, i.e. ecology and culture formed 50% of the paper in 2014! This was an astounding change in the pattern of the paper in just one year. A number of students were shocked coming out of the exam hall and there was a moment of silence for the die-hard UPSC fans. People could not digest that years of preparation was washed away in a couple of hours! Institutions across India raised the red flag of unpredictability cautioning aspirants against the doctrine of ‘balance’ in papers. The notion of an ideal paper did receive some blow, because what people presume to be an ideal paper is not uninfluenced by the current trend. 

The year 2015 was a moderate year by all these means. The difficulty level was lowered and there was again a noticeable change in the sectional weightages. Ecology and culture took a back seat, and this time more than half the paper comprised of economy, polity and history! Paper was a little more factual than in the previous years, yet nothing undigestible.

In 2016, current affairs and economy together comprised nearly half of the paper. Very few questions were asked from conventional portions unlike the trend earlier. The paper was a lot more factual even compared to 2015. The number of googlies and bouncers increased substantially. Aspirants who did not read widely, neglected current affairs and did not dig deep into facts suffered. Now, a general consensus emerged that one must read widely and should not rely only on NCERTs and other standard books.

The 2017 paper knocked out even this consensus and one can notice a radical shift in the examiner’s outlook. For the first time, UPSC gave a clear indication that it is not interested in the straightforward conventional portion anymore, perhaps because aspirants have trained themselves for all the possible permutations and combinations. There were nearly 33 questions from current affairs alone in the paper and in a lot of questions one needed to dig quite deep into the facts. The questions from conventional portions were not neglected but became application based and required some reflection before one hits the black pen. Unlike the doctrine of ‘balance’ that emerged from the early 2010s, the paper was very unbalanced and it was not uncommon to find aspirants dissatisfied and disillusioned. This year perhaps served the biggest blow to the notion of ‘idealism’ in the paper, and aspirants finally seemed to understand that one cannot rely on a consistency in the pattern of the paper.  

The 2018 paper more or less maintained the trend of ‘inconsistency’. The share of facts and trivia in the unconventional topics and in current affairs surprisingly increased even as UPSC was expected to ask more conceptual questions. Many aspirants felt that the paper did not test the analytical abilities of a candidate, favored muggers and being so unpredictable increased the role of luck in the selection process. Some also felt that the Prelims tests of most coaching institutions failed to predict this change and no longer remained relevant. The extent of disillusionment was quite noticeable in discussion forums. 

The notion of an ‘ideal’ and balanced UPSC paper that had emerged from the early 2010s, and enforced by a selective reading of the 2015 paper was hammered out in 2017 and 2018, and perhaps stands for a bigger blow in 2019. Looking with a critical eye, one cannot help but surmise that such an ideal paper does not exist. The extent of damage inflicted to an aspirant’s future by such faulty assumptions (and preparation) is hard to set right. UPSC papers have become very unbalanced in their sectional weightages; you can expect a question from any topic under the sky and perhaps UPSC’s zeal for surprising students is only increasing every year. It is not to say that UPSC’s paper does not have any pattern, but to accept the fact that only a small part of the paper is predictable. A large part of paper has become very unpredictable. You should not be surprised if next year there are over 15 questions only from Medieval India in the UPSC paper. Just saying!


Our Take

A natural conclusion from the above discussion is that with the changed pattern of the examination, one should engage as widely with the syllabus as possible. When it comes to wide engagement, one of the easiest ways to access such a relevant material is to solve a test series of one or more institutions. If you have neglected something in your preparation, it will be covered by the test series since the examiners have a wider exposure to the syllabus than a single aspirant sitting in a remote corner of India can have. 

If that is the case, a test series is not only a series of mock tests, but a reservoir of some very useful and important information. Therefore, a mock test should not only be designed to fit the exam pattern, but also outguess the pattern and include a lot of such questions that are generally not touched by most aspirants. Such an exercise increases the ‘hit rate’ of these topics in the exam and the aspirants straightaway benefit from having seen these topics/questions already in some or the other test series. A test focused on increasing the hit rate often turns out getting a bit unbalanced and unconventional. This is unavoidable.

Many aspirants just do not seem to accept how important ‘hit rate’ is given the present pattern. Instead, what is clear from several hundred comments received on our test portals and offline discussions is that the aspirants expect an ‘ideal’ paper from us. Any deviations from this non-existent idealism invites skepticism and criticism on the relevance of the paper. Comes the final exam, and being surprised with the UPSC paper, some of them criticize the institution for not having done enough to outguess the trend. Such an asymmetry in the expectations before and after the exam is self-defeating.

As should be evident from the discussion above, aspirants must be willing to digest large elements of unpredictability in the tests even if goes against their perceived notion of an ideal paper or what they believe is important for the exam. If there are 20 questions from Biology in a comprehensive test, it is there for a reason. It should not be seen with a skeptical eye because it does not fit the ideal norm, especially when such a norm does not exist. What is important and what is not, what is relevant and what is not is a job best served by the examiners here. 

Also, there is a tendency by aspirants to judge quality of papers based on difficulty level of test papers. It’s assumed that if one sets very difficult papers, it’s of best quality. Be aware that if someone is setting a very difficult paper it’s to create a perception that their test is of high quality. Because of flooding of such papers – which are basically set to show-off – creates more insecurity and breaks consistency in preparation (because insecure aspirants tend to hop from one test series to another without perfecting any one of these test series). 

In the first note published at the Insights IAS blog for the 2019 Prelims Test Series subscribers, we clearly mentioned in the initial guidelines (“Aligning your expectations”) that:

“With the 2015 to 2017 UPSC Prelims papers, you would have come to realize that the weightage of static portion will go down considerably as UPSC exhausts its traditional base of questions and moves to more dynamic sources. We have always relied on this idea when framing questions, and it has not disappointed us till date.

Little value is served, if we do not include questions in the test that are probable for the coming exam, even if it is at the opportunity cost of traditional revision-based questions.

So, you would keep encountering new questions/topics/ideas in the coming mock tests [even in the full-length comprehensive tests]; be prepared. It is to help you, not us! Don’t be surprised or frustrated. It is better to feel insecure by scoring low in these tests than by a false sense of security with high scores.”

It was important for us to write this article because of the different attitudes and expectations aspirants hold towards this test series. It is extremely difficult to fulfil everyone’s expectations, especially when they are misaligned with the objectives of the test series and with a misperceived notion of an ideal paper. If you understand the purpose behind this test series, you can easily come to terms with the coming few months, which can be exciting even if unsettling.  Testimonies by hundreds of successful candidates on our tests every year show  that our tests ENABLE and EMPOWER candidates to face uncertainties in actual exam.

An ‘awkward’ mock test with a higher ‘hit rate’ is more relevant today that an ideal mock test with a poor hit rate. You have already worked so hard throughout all these months, do not let yourself down by anything that comes in the way. Good luck!