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The UPSC Civil Services Exam journey starts with the Preliminary Examination, usually conducted in the month of May/June. Marking the first stage of the 3 stage exam process, it turns out to be a hard nut to crack for many. But, few IAS aspirants get through with considerable ease, apparently. Yet, it is to be acknowledged that those who “apparently” clear with ease would have put in the hard work and smart work in the months prior to the examination. Taking into account the conversations we have had with top performers in prelims and their experiences, we have come to decipher that the key to score good marks in UPSC Prelims in fact involves a focused strategy with a dedicated plan.

The Key to score good marks in UPSC Prelims:

Here, we list out those key elements of preparation, which will ensure a good score to clear UPSC CSE prelims, as well as to breach IFoS cut-off.

How to score Good marks in UPSC Prelims? Steps to Score Good Marks in UPSC Prelims
How to Score Good Marks in UPSC Prelims? – Steps to follow

Analysing Previous Years’ papers

Oftentimes, students end up studying a book pertinent to the examination, cover to cover. The assumption is that if he/she studies between the lines, the chances of clearing the exam improve by a fair margin. Such an aspirant is mere oblivion to the fact that the UPSC has a method to ask questions and some lines in the book can be conveniently overlooked. Meaning you need not remember the data at all.

It is just to say that analyzing the previous year papers will give you a sneak peek into the minds of the Question paper setters and the trends of Questions. This brings down the relative strain on your memory capacity, as you will have to retain only that information that clearly goes with the trend.

Basic Concepts

The importance of fundamentals can be seen threadbare even as you analyze the UPSC prelims papers. Most of the questions can be answered if the basics are strong. When we say basics, these are the concepts you learn from NCERTs. Mere rote memorizing the content from ‘n’ number of books will never serve the purpose of cracking the exam. The concepts are to be learned with sufficient depth, and enough time. Never ignore the conceptual information if you do not understand. Put to use the internet, mentors, or friends to get that concept clarified, and only then do you move on.

Limited Resources

Building a library with all UPSC-related books will only lead you astray. Certainly ‘reading’ is a good habit, but for ‘studies’ you should always rely on a few resources which cover most part of the Syllabus. Master these few books. Our suggestion is to divide the books into Stages, and do not proceed to a higher stage till you have mastered the preceding stage. As such the first stage would be the NCERTs and standard books (class notes if you are taking coaching). You have to master these even before you buy the other books. The reason is pretty straightforward: “If you can’t remember the stuff that’s there in the book you have studied, what was the point in spending the time in studying it at all?”


The preparation for UPSC CSE as a whole looks all hunky-dory at the initial stage. This is because you will have picked up one or two subjects to study, and it would not put much of a burden on you. However, as the number of subjects you lay hands on increases, students will start to feel the paucity of time and also start to forget the content related to the subjects they learned earlier. In order to push the information into long-term retention, it is of utmost importance to engage in multiple revisions.

The first reading should be rather slow, with the focus on understanding the content. After some time, say a week or so, revise the same content. Then again, after a month, revise it. Remember, the amount of time required for each revision reduces by a great margin if you are going for frequent revisions. If you give too much space between the recap, then you will end up studying everything again for you will have forgotten all the content.

Test papers

Just as everyone knows, CSE is not an ordinary examination and thus one cannot settle themselves to being ordinary as the exam in itself boils down to seeing something extraordinary in one’s preparation. Meanwhile, one should also acknowledge the fact that the syllabus is vast and not everything can be learned by heart. Hence, the smarter the approach, the better the results, and the test series come in handy at times like this in helping the aspirant gauge their preparation.

It mainly helps the aspirants sidetrack their fear by setting their mental conditions right by giving them an exam-like environment every time they take it. This, in turn, will boost their confidence in even marking uncertain questions and to stay composed in the real examination hall as well. It also serves as an ancillary means of revision, as one can revise their tests soon after it’s done, as the tests in most cases concentrate only on important topics pertinent to the exam.

However, it is also advisable to not just revise but to thoroughly analyze the entire paper so much so that one also understands their accuracy in marking the answers (be it sure shot questions, 50-50 hopes questions, or even random uncertain questions). And, for an exam like CSE, there is no alternative to test series. Be it any test series from any coaching institute, all that it takes is solving it judiciously and revising it religiously.

Newspapers and notes

 It is never a waste of time when we talk about the importance of reading newspapers and making notes out of it. Although making notes is optional for some who keep track of monthly compilations, it is still highly suggested to make notes of those topics which would not reflect in the monthly compilations otherwise. For example: briefly noting any case study on a particular issue which would be helpful for ethics paper or any GS papers, any important sayings in a judgment by any sitting judges would add more color to one’s essay paper as well. Thus, it’s not at all a lost cause when it comes to making notes.

When it comes to newspapers, any national daily would suffice. Preferably, reading two newspapers on a daily basis is convincing rather than going for one. Over the years, THE HINDU and THE INDIAN EXPRESS have proved its worth in catering all the necessary, right, and more balanced information required for the current affairs part.  Editorials that come in both these newspapers have a lot of weightage compared to its other sections which would anyway reflect in any monthly compilations. Hence, giving more stress on editorials and forming a balanced opinion alongside making notes would stand high grounds for mains as well as your personality test. One can also check out the institutes work on current affairs which also has a PIB summary coupled alongside it (Daily Current Affairs)

Reading all options

Humans tend to make mistakes and given the time frame in which an aspirant has to solve the paper, it is highly likely that he/she will end up making mistakes- grave and simple..!

As the exam is believed to be tentative in nature, so are its questions. And, selecting the right answer especially in this exam not only requires knowledge and understanding but also some logic and smartness. Thus, reading all the options of a question not only makes it easier to eliminate the wrong option but also gets the aspirant closer in marking the correct answer as well.

Moreover, some questions will be framed such that all the four options will look almost similar, and it is impossible to get the right answer unless one reads all of it. Thus, never make this simple mistake and put your 2 marks at stake.

Topic targets

Setting a target is the first step towards goal achievement. It marks one’s first point towards success. It’s when one switch from a passive state to being more involved. Since, one has to deal with the syllabus too vast as an ocean, it is foremost to have a proper planning which would act as a light house at times when one gets lost.

There are a lot of ways through which one can set targets. Out of all, the most effective one is setting topic targets instead of time targets and so on. As compared to time targets which mostly tracks the quantitative part by not considering the quality is no friend but a foe indeed. Because, time targets confines our reading to finish maximum topics in a limited time frame. Meanwhile, the aspirants lag in giving ample time for a particular subject which would hamper the understanding he/she gets while reading it.

On the other hand, setting topic targets ensures that the aspirant wont skip the present topic unless he thoroughly understands it, making it more useful and productive. Meanwhile, as in when you keep achieving your daily targets (even if it’s 80%) it’ll still be boosting your confidence giving you more caliber to read more the next day. It also avoids procrastination.

One break a week

Breaks increase productivity and creativity. It not only refreshes the mind and body but it also helps to take a U-turn from stress and exhaustion making the person feel more efficient. The answer to “How to score good marks in UPSC Prelims?” takes you on a long journey, and for a journey like this, which demands complete surrender of all your recreational activities still requires breaks in-between. Although taking breaks are good, taking it very often would just create more pits to fall, rather it’s advisable to take breaks once in a week which enables the aspirant to bounce back the next day thinking that he took a break the previous day. Perhaps, it’s mandatory that even on break days, he/she reads that particular day’s newspaper.

Try discussions

Discussions as such play a vital role in this journey of solving “How to score good marks in UPSC prelims?”. It allows the aspirants to share their views and opinions which ultimately expands their own thought processes (provided that the discussion is happening with serious aspirants only). Moreover one tends to retain more after they’ve discussed a particular topic with others. It’s also true that one gets to learn a lot many things on a particular issue, which helps them add more dimensions to it. Moreover, topics that are very important stay anchored in their minds as they would’ve discussed them in-depth. This indirectly would help the aspirants improve their communication skills and knowledge which will help them during their personality test. This can also be done in the form of revision as well,  one can revise the topics in the form of group discussions.

Progress feedback

The most critical part of any preparation is the self-evaluation section. Perhaps, progress feedbacks act as a report that gives facts about your success/failure. Here are a few things that one should keep in mind while working your way towards scoring good marks in UPSC Prelims-

  1. Make a TO-DO list for a particular day and make sure that at the end of the day, you check if you’ve lived up to your expectations or not.
  2. See to it that on every break days, you review  that particular weeks targets. Also, make sure you’ve tried completing atleast the 80% of it.
  3. Above all, don’t get disappointed and don’t set unrealistic targets. Keep it simple, crisp and achievable.

Daily routine

Having daily routine helps in organizing time during the day. It will also help to inculcate a specific pattern for the entire preparation by striking a healthy balance between the personal and the study life.

Of course, there’s no set routine that would work wonders for an aspirant. Yet, it is advisable that he/she devotes 10-12 hours on studies, 7hours for sleep, 1 hour on a hobby and at least 2 hours on their health (yoga/meditation/workouts).

Moreover, it’s consistency that matters, and being consistent also means being disciplined. There is no short-cut or magic answer to the question of “How to score good marks in UPSC Prelims?”.

For more details  on the routine of an aspirant and how to study for the UPSC exam, check out the blog-

Must Read: Tricks to solve UPSC Prelims

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February 2024