Print Friendly, PDF & Email

[Must Read] Analysis of Prelims – 2019 (Paper-1) and Hidden Syllabus – UPSC Prelims (And Important Tips to Ace Prelims in 2020)


 Analysis of Prelims – 2019 (Paper-1) and Hidden Syllabus – UPSC Prelims

DISCOUNT: Subscribe to InsightsIAS Prelims Test Series 2020

Download PDF of this article HERE



UPSC Civil Services (Preliminary) exam is not so predictable and uncertain elements keep popping up year after year, we all realize this, but note that it is not the wild-wild west as many believe it to be! A halo of uncertainty has been fashioned around this exam, and it has become almost a fad to curse the examiner coming out of the examination hall.

To an experienced mind, such an exercise might seem as conventional myth-making. The exam does seem bizarre at first but it starts to make sense and feel more familiar as you look to the past. Why are we saying this? Understand that a teacher or an examiner, say here at Insights, looks at a paper quite differently from the way you do. Wider knowledge and experience allow them to draw observations that often do not occur to aspirants.

It is this experience that allows us to contextualize the UPSC Civil Services (Preliminary), 2019 question paper within a familiar pattern based on the past year papers of UPSC. Please note that this article is not a mere comment or an analysis of this year’s paper, which might seem redundant at this point given that so many of its like would have been published till date. The article rather gives you a way ahead to prepare for next year Prelims examination so that you can avoid the mistakes you have committed earlier. You may be stumped by what you find ahead, if you had not discovered it earlier. The article is rich in information and quite dense. The central motivation behind writing this article is to help you push your marks up in next year Prelims. Please read the article carefully and patiently, and take note of important pointers as they appear.

This article picks up some of the tastes and habits of the UPSC examiners that could be observed from the past year papers. These habits and tastes may or may not change next year, and if they don’t (and they haven’t despite the seemingly erratic papers of UPSC), you will be at an advantage noting and exploiting them. Moreover, the examiners at UPSC operate under certain guidelines and limitations, and it is important to understand these limitations since they prevent this exam from becoming a game of the wild west!

To those who feel that UPSC plots against the material devised by institutions like us, we would like to comment that, for now, it remains as a fiction, and had it been the case, not even a single question would have appeared from our test series or website in the last 3-4 years, including this year. Truth is clearly to the contrary.


The constants

We have often mentioned in our articles thatthe weightage of static portion will go down considerably as UPSC exhausts its traditional base of questions and moves to more dynamic sources” (See here in the article on ideal UPSC paper). What is important to note that even as this conventional base has been exhausted, there remains a core hidden syllabus which has not changed much over the years, perhaps because it was never revealed and remained un-assumed for an average aspirant. We are not including either the traditional static questions (polity/economy/geography/history) or the questions on national parks, tribes, endangered/endemic species etc. in this core hidden syllabus which are well known areas. If you remember, UPSC had revealed a detailed 5 page syllabus for Mains examination in 2013; a syllabus that fitted within a single page previously. They revealed a lot of topics that kept appearing in Mains examination, but were never revealed by UPSC until 2013. Analogy is similar here, UPSC has not revealed the entire Prelims syllabus, but there are a set of guidelines with the examiners which perhaps include this hidden syllabus. Hopefully, they may be made more explicit in the coming years.  

If you note, right from 2011, questions from some areas have been constants in this exam, i.e. they keep coming year after year or every alternate year. Some of these include:-

  • Alternative energy sources and materials (e.g. H-CNG, bio-fuels, shale gas, photovoltaics, fly ash)
  • Bio-technology – Hybridization, new developments such as DNA (genetic) engineering/alteration techniques (CRISPR, RNAi), use of important microorganisms (e.g. blue-green algae), symbiotics etc.
  • Nano-technology and developments – e.g. Carbon nanotubes
  • Astrophysics (e.g. neutron stars, gravitational waves, black holes), Higher physics (e.g. general theory of relativity), space-missions
  • Polar regions – Issues, bodies and treaties related to Arctic and Antarctica, new developments such as seed vault
  • Diseases in India – Outbreaks, pandemics, eradicated diseases, WHO or MoHFW guidelines
  • Patents (issues and developments) – Evergreening, Patents Act, IPAB, WIPO
  • Emerging technologies (especially communication)– Li-Fi, Wearable technologies, Internet of Things etc.
  • New Banking regulations/developments – For e.g. Banking correspondents, payments bank, Core Banking Solutions etc.
  • Planning in India– for e.g. objectives of 12th Plan, goals of other FYPs, bodies related to planning, Finance Commission
  • Agricultural policy in India – Pricing and issues related, major missions and initiatives, regulation of agricultural markets
  • Wetlands – Conventions, wetlands in India, benefits and issues
  • Biodiversity/National parks – Almost every year there is a question since 2011

These are some of the hot favorite topics of UPSC and in a given year you may expect more than 15-20 questions from these topics alone like in 2019 Prelims. Therefore, they form a crucial part of your prelims preparation and due care should be taken that you read at least all the major news articles associated with these topics that have appeared in the last 1-2 years.

For instance, go to the “news” section of Google search and type emerging technologies. The search will lead you to major websites like Nature, Science Daily, MIT and NASA where you will find updated articles on the same. Make sure you review such articles quickly and makes notes. Regular reading of newspapers, like the Hindu and Indian Express, is also extremely helpful. Given the dynamic nature of these topics, many aspirants often skip preparing them and end up leaving these questions in the examination.

Below, these topics and all the questions appearing from them between 2014-19 have been categorized. This is an exhaustive account of the appearance of these topics in Prelims. As you would note UPSC keeps repeating topics (for e.g. gene silencing in 2014 and RNAi, which employs gene silencing, in 2019). So, the list below is EXTREMELY important. You should save this list, do some research on each of these topics and make notes for there is a high chance of repetition. Moreover, it is important to study these areas independently; some of the sources will be mentioned below in the article.

insightsias analysis of prelims 2019

Prelims analysis 2019

prelims 2019 analysis, prelims 2019 paper 1 analysis

2019 IAS prelims paper analysisupsc prelims 2019 analysis, cutoff prelims 2019 paper 1

upsc prelims 2019 paper 1 analysis cut off, prelims 2019 cutoff
Please note that we are not including general questions on environment and sciences for the document would become too voluminous. Questions on national parks, conventions, species should also be prepared thoroughly alongside this hidden syllabus.

There is another emerging part of the syllabusregulatory bodies, e.g. PGNRB, commissions or committees that assist in regulatory functions – in 2019 Prelims. Other regulatory bodies like TRAI, CCI etc. should also be prepared.

OBSERVATIONS from the above table and SOURCES to prepare

  • There were about 22 questions from this hidden syllabus in CSP 2019!! About 12 of these 22 were from emerging technologies and bio-technology!
  • On an average, agriculture forms the biggest chunk of this hidden syllabus, and perhaps one of the most neglected amongst aspirants. There were 10 questions alone from agricultural developments in CSP 2018! (We conducted a separate test on AGRICULTURE under module wise test series that we launched just before Prelims-2019). Use, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare website, FAO, IFPRI, and latest updates at PIB, The Hindu and Indian Express to prepare for these topics.
  • Minor areas receive disproportionate attention sometimes, for e.g there were 6 Qs alone from Wetlands in CSP 2014! You need to be careful not to ignore any part of the syllabus. MoEFCC’s website, Ramsar convention, ENVIS portal, WWF, IUCN and Wiki are good sources to prepare.
  • Questions from bio-technology (genetic engineering etc.) have always been technical are likely to remain so. You should be conceptually clear with regards to the basics and new developments. You should prepare them from the initiatives section in the website of the Department of Bio-technology (, Nature, Science Daily and newspaper readings. You will often need to research the basics of a topic.
  • RBI’s website (what’s new section, press releases section, Functionwise and notifications) is very important to cover the banking section of the syllabus, apart from newspaper readings.
  • While emerging technologies are difficult to cover from any particular source, keep your eyes and ears open, the questions are most likely to be asked from familiar terms (like Organic LED tvs, 3D printing etc.). Alternative energy sources are easier to cover – Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s website and newspapers are the best sources.
  • It has been our observation for several years that some questions appear from Ministry and official websites irrespective of how erratic the paper is. These sources are safe for an examiner since they are officially released, error-proof, relevant to governance and updated on a regular basis.
  • Not merely to promote our test series, but we cover these topics every year (right from our 2016 test series and more prominently in 2019 test series) and if you have solved Insights Prelims Test Series you will know what are talking about. Needless to say, the students reap the benefits since we get a decent hit-rate every year. If we miss a question, it is not because UPSC had picked up an entirely different branch of the syllabus, rather that UPSC picked up a slightly different topic than we picked, for e.g. we picked bio-CNG in the tests instead of H-CNG. Some years we are very lucky, some years not so lucky, but our approach has always worked.
  • Also, there were at least 15 questions in CSP 2019 that were based directly or indirectly on topics covered in past year UPSC papers. Topics appearing this year and the (topics they were based on are mentioned from previous years):
    • Ease of Doing Business index, Wearable Devices (Internet of Things), Extended Producer Responsibility (E-waste management), Service Area Approach (Lead Bank Scheme), Remote sensing, Economic Cost of Food grains (MSP management), Social Capital (Human Capital asked several times), vegetable oil imports (edible oil imports asked already), definition of liberty, Forest Rights Act and Fifth Schedule provisions (asked several times), Environment Protection Act, 1986, Digital signature (asked in Mains once), RNA interference (based on gene silencing), anti-biotic resistance could have been easily solved had someone researched on the topics appearing in past year papers sincerely.
    • UPSC papers from 2011-19, if done well, can fetch you some bonus points in the exam. Understanding this, we have been covering them right from our 2016 test series, and there are a few lucky hits each year. Even if the pattern is erratic, at least some questions would appear, if you are luckier there will be many more, like in 2019. We cannot emphasize how important is it to solve past year papers and research the topics mentioned in them.


Concluding remarks

These are some of safe harbors to stick to even in the most unorderly situations and these areas of coverage are important because they are emerging as important threats and opportunities to governance. The hidden or implicit syllabus may nor may not be made explicit by the UPSC (like it did in Mains 2013), but you should be prepared nonetheless.

No administrator can afford to ignore developments in important fields such as bio-technology and space sciences and it is perhaps this that the UPSC has been wanting to remind aspirants, time and again, who are comfortable sticking to a bunch of old NCERT books and newspapers. The pattern may have changed, but the habits of a lot of aspirants remain unchanged, and they keep referring to the same old sources.

It may be crucial to read and revise the same few sources multiple times from the point of view of Mains examination, but Prelims is a different ball game altogether. You need not limit your sources for Prelims preparation and the wider you read (within the syllabus), the better are your chances of being selected.

NCERT books have not become irrelevant but the way you should use them has changed. A mere reading of these books will not suffice, for the examiner now picks up keywords from these books, goes to the internet, designs a well-researched question and puzzles you in the exam hall. This tells you that you should start to use internet research more frequently than before.

Basic strategies remain the same, and are unlikely to change. The more well-read you are, the luckier you will find yourself in the examination hall. If this year was tough for you, you should not feel disappointed and brace yourself for a more calibrated effort for next year. Put all the hard work you can. All the best!