UPSC Civil Services Mains Strategy
Tips to Prepare Smartly for Mains after Prelims: Think big, start small, learn fast
Hi, I am Dhananjay Singh Yadav. I got Rank 95 in UPSC CSE 2018. This was my first attempt, and my optional was Political Science and International Relations (PSIR).
I recently wrote here how I went about prelims. Following it up with my mains preparation. All the notes I prepared for CSE are here; access is slow as it’s synced on cloud. The detailed GS syllabus and topic wise reading material is discussed here.
A word to the wise: I have cleared this exam but not suddenly gained insights that people who didn’t make it are not privy to. Prelims stumped everyone, despite all the talk of internalising UPSC’s unpredictability. Marking this year across GS, Essay and optional has bewildered anyone for whom this was not their first mains.
I do not know what worked for me. I would have been as clueless about my “strategy” being right or wrong if I hadn’t cleared. All I can do is detail out everything I did during this prep. Knowing the unpredictability of this journey, I believed that hard work can make me luckier. Beyond that is just intricacies of working of the cosmos. Maybe the babaji who accosted my mother many moons ago for Rs.100, with an unsolicited prophesy that her son will become adhikaari, really set things in motion.
I hadn’t written a single answer before prelims for two reasons – first, I was focused on clearing prelims; last 7-8 months had been dedicated to it. Second, I felt that I didn’t have enough knowledge to deliver a good answer (I knew I could write hundreds of bad ones, oh sweet college days!). I needed to enrol with a mains test series but decided to work on answer writing basics till the time prelims result were declared. I couldn’t possibly imagine writing 20 answers in 3 hours at this point.
Within a week after prelims, Rank 1 (2017) wrote a fantastic post on answer writing and linked strategy of Rank 87 (2016) as well which gave me confidence that my answers needn’t reflect the editorial standards of The Hindu. I need to write average or above average answers. This was critical in helping me keep the following as mains answer writing pillars:
- I will need to finish all the papers, come hell or high water. Speed was going to determine whether I will clear the mains or not.
- The examiner must like what I have written. Content is going to ensure I am in the top 10% of the people writing mains.
- Presenting the answer with a clear structure, replete with diagram/flowchart/map, will help me get extra 0.25-0.5 marks across 80 questions of GS papers.
Deciding on a structure
I decided to work on them in the reverse order. In first few answers, I would fix my answer writing structure, improve content as we go, and not obsess over time as of now. In actual mains, I would prioritise speed over content, and content over structure. I downloaded the answer sheets that both aforementioned rank holders had shared, and came up with a rough checklist to write a UPSC-level answer:
- An introduction to begin the question – define the terms, quote facts or figures, articles of Constitution, committee reports/2nd ARC/Economic Survey/even NITI Aayog’s 3YAA. This works across all GS papers. You can, with practice, quote Economic Survey, 2nd ARC, or 3YAA, pretty much on any question on GS-2 and GS-3.
- A flowchart or map. I made it when it made sense to do so; but did manage to do it for at least 1/3 of answers in any given GS mains paper.
- Read the demand of the question again.
- I would almost always divide the main body into 2 sub-parts. I wrote in bullet points, and tried to keep sentences crisp.
- If the question is in two parts, I would address demand of each part. I would also include any critical analysis I have within that subheading.
- If it’s an explain/examine/discuss/analyse/evaluate: I devoted first part to provide arguments for, evidence, or plain facts (and include examples). The second half was devoted to write about counter view, challenges, or issues faced (and include examples).
- If I could not think of innovative subheadings, I stuck with a generic one with keywords from the question so that examiner (and I) both know what is to be written about.
- I would conclude with an opinion/pragmatic way forward/a quote (GS-4)/government catchphrases, or just a generic conclusion if I was out of time and ideas.
How this worked in actual exams? For example, in GS2 2018 question on tribunals:
- Opened by referencing 272nd Law Commission report on Tribunal Framework
- Don’t remember if I made a flowchart for this answer, most likely did not
- First subheading – gave points on how tribunals have helped in reduction of court backlogs, tribunals can adjudicate better (e.g. DRT), and mildly agreed that courts’ jurisdiction has been affected but for better
- Second subheading – Article 323A and 323B respectively for administrative matters and other matters, and how they function wrt SC and HCs. Regarding competency, wrote about how appointment of members is plagued by power tussle between judiciary and executive, multiplicity of tribunals and how Finance Act 2017 dealt with them, issues with judicial independence.
- Concluded with need of political will and executive-judiciary alignment as way out; and implement reforms suggested by 272nd report
Picking up the pen
But let’s go back to mid-June when I was still struggling to get to the table and write my first answer. After much dilly-dallying about which pen to write, what colour ink, and which GS paper questions to begin with, I wrote my first answer (15 marker GS2 2015) after a year of starting CSE preparation. It was bad.
- Felt like giving up after writing 5 lines
- Thought I needed to read more to answer this question
- Somehow forced myself to finish it, took almost 20 minutes
However, I knew that these were going be the growing pains. I started taking out an hour every day for answer writing in the evening. Initially, I could write 3 terrible answers in that hour. Within the next week, I had the structure in place in mind I could blindly follow (discussed before). I practiced answer writing across past years’ GS papers.
Simultaneously, I realised I had been obsessing over prelims for so long that I had forgotten most of the GS syllabus for mains.
- GS syllabus finally went up on my wall (from my desktop), and I started ensuring my notes were sufficiently covering each topic of syllabus.
- Spent next few weeks reorienting my notes to tackle mains as well. Now, notes were added/updated (as I revised them) from mains perspective.
- Also started maintain sticky notes of constitutional articles, excel sheet of Law Commission reports, memorising SC judgments, etc.
All this to improve my content. I was trying to improve the quality of my answers, and still not bothered about speed.
By the time prelims results were declared, I could write 5 15-markers of average quality in around 65-70 minutes. I had shortlisted beforehand a few test series I could subscribe to.
My parameters were simple: (a) had to be online (b) Essay + GS mocks (c) at least 3 full length mocks (12 GS papers; I was ready to write more if needed)
I ended up choosing Insights as I was satisfied with their prelims test series, evaluation was to be done in a week, mock tests fit my revision schedule, and was priced quite competitively. Time had come to work on speed.
I appreciated Insights’ strict window for uploading the test attempt, by 10 am the next day. This ensured one has to invariably attempt the mock on the same day. Evaluation was sometimes on time, but often delayed. I was mostly satisfied with the quality of questions and the feedback. They also released ranks of every test, which was good to know where one stood with respect to competition.
How to utilise mocks
There’s only one way to ensure you finish the paper on time, in 3 hours: resoluteness. You HAVE to keep looking at the watch and reminding yourself of the time being taken per question. Do write 4 GS papers on 2 consecutive days, it gives you a great practice for what is to come.
I idealised a 11/7 minute split. This meant 110 minutes for 15 markers (I used to start with these) and 70 minutes for 10 markers.
- First mock essay I wrote took me almost 3:45 hours (spent way too much time creating the skeleton, paused way too much while writing)
- Next were two 125 marks GS-4 papers, took me 2 hours and 1:45 hours.
- I brought down the next essay to 3:15 hours, by forcing myself to start writing after 15 minutes, and timing myself per page. I would finish all subsequent essay mocks in time.
- In August, 6 GS papers averaged around 3:15, even finished one in 3:05 hours. I was taking ~120 minutes for 15-markers and rest for 10 markers.
- In the last set of mocks (mid-Sep), I pledged before sitting down that I will push myself and finish these on time. I held on to that spirit from the first answer itself, and wrote as furiously as possible and managed to finish all but one on time.
- This provided me with enough confidence to walk into the mains exam hall and hope to give my best. I also realised that if I had to achieve my dream, there is no option of messing up even one of those seven papers.
This is what my stack of answer writing looked like, after the 3-month writing blitzkrieg.
In mains, I skipped 1 question in GS-3 (Bose-Einstein) and couldn’t conclude one in GS-4.
Below is my mark sheet: you will see I haven’t aced any of the papers. But I received enough across all seven written papers.
Note on Hindi language paper
I always considered my Hindi to be decent (ever since my 10th board marks!). Also remember, UPSC doesn’t want you to fail here. I went through the Hindi paper before mains and did this:
- 40 marks for grammar section. Got Arihant’s Samanya Hindi two weeks before the exam and read through synonyms, idioms, etc.
- Read through a bunch of essays (it’s worth 100 marks) in the book and by googling. Do prepare for some generic topics – Indian economy, women empowerment, India as a superpower, environment etc.
- Comprehension and summary constitute 120 marks. Even if you use the words given in the question and you should get some marks here.
- Rest is translation, comprehension, et al. 40 marks, didn’t bother.
Even if you are scared of this paper, you should focus more on maximising yield from grammar+essay marks. Be smart about the comprehension/summary+translation – unless Hindi is not your mother tongue, you should be able to get 30% marks easily here. Read the Hindi news for a few days, this will help you knowing some key words in Hindi and not struggle with translating recognise to Hindi. Try solving a couple of past years’ paper. Time and practice are great teachers. Finally, do not slack during the paper; it could become a challenge to finish it.
- Prepare your structure, improve your content, work on your speed – in that order as you begin your answer writing. Practice every day, this consistency will make you better.
- While writing mains the reverse should be priority: speed, content, structure. You can finish the paper if you are hell bent on finishing it.
- Revision never stops. But do not use that as an excuse to not practise answer writing.
- Writing the first answer will be hard, get it over with. You can clear this exam without writing “beautiful” answers.
- Be very consistent with the test series. Do not slack, do not postpone.
- Content will make your answers stand out – make it better by referencing committees/reports/Survey/ARC/3YAA/Law Commission etc. Use flowcharts, maps, diagrams where necessary (but don’t do it in every answer).
- The actual mains paper will require you to think on your feet and adapt answers to the demand of the question. Read the question carefully and do not aim at reproducing verbatim information just because topic is same as your notes.
No one was born with answer writing skills. You can acquire them with blood, sweat and tears. I do not know whether reading this will help you directly, but I hope it does help you figure out a strategy that works for you. Play to your strengths, and do not forget your weakness.
I’ll end with what I wrote on my whiteboard as I started answer writing in June last year: “Brick by brick we will build this castle”.