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[STRATEGY] – Towards smart preparation in Uncertain times – How to Clear UPSC IAS Prelims?



We understand that all of us are going through hard times. We are concerned about the nation’s health, the economy, educational institutions and the larger global situation due to COVID-19. Some of you may have lost access to classes, libraries, reading rooms or even offline tests. Across the World, educational institutions are struggling to grapple with this sudden and unfortunate change. Some have drastically reduced pedagogic activities, some have temporarily suspended sessions, and some have moved online. They have shown resilience to adversity and have adapted to the need of the hour. The situation is evolving and we need to evolve with it as well. Over a course of time, most activities will be moving online, including your preparation for Prelims, and offline spaces will shrink as Prelims moves closer in an uncertain environment. Ours is an institution that will rise to the occasion and deliver even more strongly! If you are reading this, be assured that you will get the best of guidance from us. We are here to support you in this journey! 

We have been planning to write this article for quite some time, and perhaps it comes at a time when it is needed the most – to give you some guidance and some motivational fuel! We have realized that aspirants can be put into categories based on how they respond to an upcoming exam situation. Long-term observation tells us that there are a few mistakes that aspirants make on a regular basis, every year, but fail to realize them even amidst a plethora of evidence. Some really bright candidates fail to clear even the first stage of the examination because of a faulty strategy. This article talks about the preparation strategies of aspirants; identifies the assumptions they make; discusses how the strategy makes a difference to their success in the exam; and shows what measures can be taken to act positively as they are gearing up for Prelims with only about 60 odd days left.  

A tale of two aspirants

Stories and anecdotes are easier to grasp, let’s begin with one? Consider an anecdote of two aspirants – ‘A’ and ‘B’ – writing Civil Services (Prelims), who have developed a strategy over the years. 

‘A’ believes in a simple strategy – “stick to the basics”; a strategy that has come to him as a legacy from 201x toppers. He completes all NCERT books cover to cover; has a good grasp of mandatory readings like Laxmikanth; revises current affairs notes of major coaching institutions and makes notes diligently. He sticks to this traditional approach religiously and completes multiple revisions so that he can master the material. By the last few weeks before the exam, A’s friends tell him that a certain institution’s test series is quite reputable and he must solve it. Paying heed to this advice, A tries to cover about 50 odd tests with thousands of questions and several thousand words of compiled information in just a few weeks of time! Because he doesn’t want to waste his time, he does not attempt the tests in a usual exam setting, but glances through them and solves only those questions that feel unfamiliar or difficult. Short of time, covering as much he can swiftly, he confidently gears up for Prelims! 

‘B’ is an unconventional nut. She realizes that traditions may change in the light of new evidence. She believes in the strategy – “spread from the basics” – read as widely as you can once you’ve grasped the basics. She finishes most of the material that A does, but does not spend all the time doing it. She dedicates a bit more time attempting past year question papers, attempting online quizzes, reading the yearbook, official websites and solving question banks. To ensure that she retains all the material, she also attempts a test series. She takes time and solves each test, with all the attention and gravity it should be given, spending over 4-5 hours with the questions, topics and explanation covered therein. She learns tremendously from the test reading and researching the new topics she encounters, making a note of them and revising them at least twice.    

As it turns out, A ends up mastering a limited amount of material and has a faint remembrance of some of the new topics he saw in the test papers, while B has a better sketchy memory of most things under the Sun since she spent a good time going through a variety of sources and solving mocks as well.  

Comes Prelims 2019 and history repeats! A has written 3 Prelims and succeeded in none. He ends up being a borderline case scoring in the 90s each time. B has written Prelims twice and managed to get selected scoring well above 120 both times. If this imagined anecdote strikes you, a chord of familiarity would not be surprising! Every year, we notice a lot of aspirants falling in either of these camps and it is not hard to predict the outcome given their strategies. It is certainly not a black and white picture, and there are many shades of grey in between, but the pattern remains quite noticeable. 

What went wrong?

Whether you identify as A or B depends on what strategy you adhere to and how you fared in the Prelims examination. A and B might seem on either sides of the border (cut-off), but when you look at the case objectively, they are only 10-12 questions away from each other! And, B’s knowledge of these 10-12 questions could be completely incidental to her wide reading. She happened to come across similar topics and was comfortable marking them in the exam hall even if she did not know the exact answer. She took a few more brave attempts and marked about 85 questions compared to A who only marked 60 questions because that was all he was sure of! B is not necessarily smarter or more hard working than A, but manages to fare better each time because of her preparation strategy.

A spends over 90% of his time in mastering basic material that most aspirants already cover, and spends only about 10% of his time actually solving what he ‘should be’ to face an increasingly unpredictable exam. B choses a 70:30 strategy, where she finishes basic material and current affairs in 70% of the time and devotes the rest of the time solving questions religiously and learning new things from a test series that could potentially be asked in the exam. The pool of information that B goes through and can retain is larger than A’s because of her strategy. It is not that A does not cover this wider pool, but he does so hastily considering it rather unimportant; a mistake that most aspirants make – and a mistake that costs some dearly!   

Some of the assumptions behind A’s strategy makes his selection more vulnerable to chance, whereas B plays over the unpredictability game by borrowing the wisdom of the institutions that put in a lot of hard work choosing important topics and designing their mock tests.  

With a question paper in the exam hall, it all boils down to whether you know it fairly enough or not? If you know it, can you reasonably mark the correct answer; and if you don’t, can you reasonably eliminate the incorrect ones? To be able to do so, you need training, lots of it! 

Inertia and practice

The aspirants who fall in between the categories of A and B do realize that they need to solve more tests and attend question banks, and that this would significantly increase their chances of selection. Yet, they keep procrastinating and don’t take the right step forward at a crucial time. Lack of clear plan, lots of inertia, relative absence of peer pressure and absence of tangible targets are some of the common factors. Days pass by one after another when one realizes that Prelims is only a few months away. In the rush and anxiety, they drop all the plans and start to revise basic material, which takes more than a good month. This leaves them only the last 15-20 days to cover wider material and attending mock tests which could have added to their knowledge base substantially. 

The trend tells us that direct questions in the exam have reduced considerably and current affairs, official websites/reports and fringe topics are coming to occupy a far greater space in the question paper than even before. The margin between success and failure in Prelims is getting thinner and thinner as competition grows. And, the factors that played a minor role in selection earlier, like ability to eliminate questions on fringe topics, are coming to the fore. You might notice that borderline cases, like that of A, are most severely affected by these factors. It is disheartening to see that a lot of highly motivated aspirants fall behind the borderline and do not realize their full potential due to lack of clear guidance and failing to adhere to a plan.  

Way forward

If you are aware of all this, how do you ensure that you do not repeat the same mistake over and over again costing you valuable attempts and a whole year? 

Here is what you need to do. Widen your reading; attend a test series religiously (and not at the last minute), stick to a plan (like our 75 days Insta plan); ensure that you are in touch with your peers (online or offline); have a disciplined study group; and, regularly use an online forum (like Insights), especially if you are studying from a remote or rural area. Most importantly, put through sheer dedication to realize all this and use a strong online ecosystem offered by us to your own advantage. 

insights 75 days plan, focus insta, insta ias 75 days planA study plan enforced by peer pressure and clear targets backed up by a strong online/offline ecosystem goes a long way in ensuring your success. If any of these is missing, you are likely to slack off or fall in the same cycle of going over the same material again and again without covering wider ground.  

Because we realize this, we have institutionalized a system that brings it all together! Given the Prelims timeline, if you feel that you are in a constant state of anxiety or feel fuzzy about your preparation, stick to the Insights Insta 75 days revision plan.   

The plan states that: “Our daily practice question will ensure that you stick to the routine. They act as both motivation and also sources of extra information. Do solve them every day without fail.”

An intense timetable, with 25 MCQs everyday, will “test your limits on a daily basis, both in terms of preparation and effectiveness of your learning and revision”. The MCQs are based on a clear syllabus (which you can find here) that combines revision of basic material as well as new questions/topics to help you face uncertainty in the exam. 

We understand that a lot of you may feel overwhelmed with the plan given your prior commitments and its demands. Its OKAY if you cannot cope up with everything mentioned in the revision plan, even a 70-80% compliance is still significant and immensely rewarding! 

From today onwards, attempt a mock test every 2-3 days (either subject-wise or textbook-based) and attend an Insta test everyday. This way you will be collectively solving over 150 questions every 2-3 days. That is a LOT of practice! Within those 150 questions, you are sure to encounter over 30 new topics because these tests pull out information from a variety of sources. Take a look at this question framed from WWF’s website for our last full length Prelims test:

Consider the following statements. 

For an emissions reduction project generating carbon credits, being ‘additional’ means 

  1. That the project has zero social marginal cost 
  2. That the project is funded entirely by external support, which could include support from environmental agencies, NGOs and international donor agencies. 

Select the correct answer using the codes below. 

  1. a) 1 only
  2. b) 2 only
  3. c) Both 1 and 2  
  4. d) None of the above 

Solution: d) 

Justification: Zero social marginal cost means that production of an extra unit of that good does not cost the society anything (here in terms of carbon units), but this is not the case with such a project. The project is more likely to have a negative SMC if it is entirely renewable. 

Additionality is a term that describes renewable energy generation that is truly new – i.e. additional. For example, companies responsible for financially supporting new, expanding, or developing renewable generation sources, as opposed to buying into what is already available or planned, can claim additionality. These projects have a material impact on displacing global emissions by reducing conventional fossil sources of generation on the grid.

Therefore, being ‘additional’ means that the project activity would not have existed in the absence of carbon market incentives and that the project reduces emissions and/or physically removes carbon from the atmosphere beyond the business-as-usual scenario. Additionality is a core requirement of all projects that produce high quality carbon credits.

In some cases, additionality can also be conveyed through other financial metrics.  For example, in a region with high priced or highly demanded environmental commodities such as renewable energy certificates (RECs), purchase of these commodities may be considered additional.  The same may be true in emerging international markets where demand for environmental commodities creates a powerful signal to the market of the value of renewable energy development and provides an instrumental source of revenue to new projects.

Being able to state additionality emphasizes a company’s commitment to advancing carbon reductions beyond business as usual.

Q Source: 


Or, terms that you may come across in newspapers, but never read about them properly:


Consider the following definitions. 

  1. A “carbon offset” is an electronic and serialized unit that represents one kg of CO2 equivalent that is reduced, avoided, or sequestered from projects applying an approved carbon credit methodology.
  2. The IPCC defines carbon neutrality as “the complete elimination of carbon emissions (carbon dioxide).”
  3. Decarbonization refers to the conversion of the economic system or individual carbon emitting entity reducing the carbon intensity of its (direct or value chain) emissions over time.

Select the correct answer using the codes below. 

  1. a) 1 and 2 only
  2. b) 2 and 3 only
  3. c) 3 only
  4. d) 1, 2 and 3  

Solution: c) 

Justification: Statement 1:  A “carbon credit” (also known as a “carbon offset”) is an electronic and serialized unit that represents one ton of CO2 equivalent that is reduced, avoided, or sequestered from projects applying an approved carbon credit methodology.

Related terms: 


  • CO2 equivalent is a unit of measurement used to express the global warming potential of each different greenhouse gas in terms of the amount of CO2 that would create the same amount of warming.
  • Carbon crediting program: A program under which emissions reduction projects are certified and issued carbon credits. Examples include programs typically used for emissions compliance obligations, such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and programs typically or exclusively used for voluntary carbon credit purchases, such as the Gold Standard, Verified Carbon Standard, Climate Action Reserve, American Carbon Registry, and Plan Vivo.


Statement 2:  The IPCC defines carbon neutrality as “balancing of residual emissions with emission (carbon dioxide) removal.” This is not how the term is used in the marketplace, however. Many will define carbon neutrality as when an entity is balancing out carbon emissions it has caused by funding an equivalent amount of carbon savings elsewhere in the world. Carbon neutrality can sometimes be misperceived as meaning only the complete elimination of emissions. 

Statement 3:  Literally, it means the reduction of carbon. More specifically, the term refers to the conversion of the economic system or individual carbon emitting entity converting to reduce the carbon intensity of its (direct or value chain) emissions over time.

Q Source: Read more important terminologies here:


Or, this question from Ministry of Jal Shakti’s website:


Apart from Teesta, India and Bangladesh have been engaged in discussions to potentially share the water of which of these rivers?

  1. Gumti
  2. Manu
  3. Feni 
  4. Khowai

Select the correct answer using the codes below. 

  1. a) 2 and 3 only
  2. b) 1 and 4 only
  3. c) 1, 2 and 3 only
  4. d) 1, 2, 3 and 4 

Solution: d) 

Learning:  Discussions have been continuing with Bangladesh for sharing of waters of Teesta & Feni rivers besides other six common rivers namely; Manu, Muhri, Khowai, Gumti, Jaldhaka and Torsa.  Govt. of India is at its endeavour to conclude the agreement of the sharing of waters of Teesta and Feni rivers with Bangladesh, which is acceptable to all parties concerned and which protects the interests of all stakeholders.

There exists a system of Transmission of flood forecasting data on major rivers like Ganga, Teesta, Brahmputra and Barak during the monsoon season  from India to Bangladesh. The transmission of flood forecasting information during the monsoon has enabled the civil and military authorities in Bangladesh to shift the population affected by floods to safer places.

Also, an Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) is functioning since 1972. It was established with a view to maintain liaison in order to ensure the most effective joint effort in maximizing the benefits from common river systems. The JRC is headed by Water Resources Ministers of both the countries.

Q Source: 


Can you notice the abundance of new and crucial information in just 3 questions? Do you realize what all you can miss if you do not attend mocks or quizzes? Missing out on VITAL information could be a deciding factor in your selection. A little investment, better planning, and right commitment can take you from being a borderline case to being a successful one.  


If you were in A’s camp, we’d strongly recommend changing gears and start solving tests as soon as you can! Every day is important. If you were in B’s camp, have faith in your strategy and continue going down the road. If you were in between A’s and B’s camps, shed your inertia and take off right now! You’d be doing a great disservice to your valuable time by not sticking to a plan or not using all the resources that you have at your disposal. Inertia is broken with the first step, which is often the hardest to take! Rest of the steps are easier to follow. Gather all your motivation, take this first step and break this slumber. Chalk down a plan, see how you are going to do it and start solving tests and quizzes regularly. 

If you stick to this for a week, you will notice a tremendous spike in confidence levels. If you could follow along for a month, you will see how you expand your knowledge significantly and how uncertainty in a question paper disturbs you less and less. If you followed us along for the coming two months, we assure that you’ll come out with flying colours! With limited time at your disposal, it is time to work hard and to work smart! All the best! 


Note: All you need to do is to place your faith in us and move along and all we expect in return is small support that ensures the sustainability of this much loved platform! In these uncertain times when we had to temporarily suspend our offline activities, if you can support us by not using pirated material and pay for genuine guidance by purchasing our test series, we can hands-on assure you of our continued committed genuine guidance. Thank you very much!