Who’s afraid of UPSC?

I am. And you should be too! The pattern and syllabus of the UPSC examination is as complicated as the exam itself! The Union Public Service Commission of India (UPSC) conducts a competitive exam annually for recruitment to its highly prestigious government services.

Each year around three to five lakh aspirants apply, out of which less than a thousand are selected through a rigorous series of exams and a thorough personal interview adding up to 2075 marks. This unique structure makes the UPSC exam the toughest to crack among all competitive exams across India.

It is conducted throughout the year in three stages. They are:

  1. Preliminary Examination: Prelims are usually conducted in May. It consists of two papers of 200 marks each. Paper I- General Studies which questions your knowledge of current events, history, geography politics, economics, basic science and mathematics. Paper II- CSAT (Civil Services Aptitude Test) checks your general mental ability, logic, communication and problem solving skills. It also consists of questions on basic 10th grade English comprehension. Both the papers have a duration of 2 hours and comprise of multiple choice questions which carry 2 marks each. Prelims are comparatively easy to crack but the negative marking system can be a cause for concern. Methodical reading of NCERT textbooks and newspapers is required. If you fail the prelims, you are one attempt short.
  2. Main Examination: Here comes the scary part. If the thought of writing eight theory papers of 250 marks each makes you wanna throw up, don’t put yourself through the trouble of reading the rest of the article! The UPSC mains are NOT for the weak-hearted. To add to the agony, two qualifying papers, English and a regional language of 300 marks each, were introduced last year. These 600 marks will not be included in the final rankings. There are seven papers which are counted for merit. Paper I is Essay Writing. The topics are selected from the events that were in news in that particular year. It may seem easy, but writing an essay for 200 marks is not a child’s play. Then there are four General Studies (GS) papers. Everything under the sun is divided into categories here to make you feel better!

GS I is about history, culture, geography and society of India/world.

GS II includes questions on the Constitution, Law, Politics and International Relations.

GS III quizzes you on technology, economics, environment, security and disaster management.

GS IV: In 2013, the UPSC had an “epiphany” which lead to the addition of the dreaded Paper V on Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude. It involves a series of questions which test your morals and conscience. What makes this paper tricky is the fact that Ethics cannot be “studied” overnight. You cannot change who you are for the sake of an exam and lying is not an option here. You are also asked to comment on the teachings of philosophers and great personalities form both India and the world.

Other than this there are two optional subject papers (Paper VI and Paper VII) which you can choose from the 26 subjects allowed by UPSC. You can choose the subject in which you graduated or any other subject that interests you most. Mains are conducted in December/January.

  1. Personal Interview: This is the final step of the selection process. The number of candidates called for a PI is generally twice the number of vacancies. The candidates are judged on the basis of their education, individuality and competence by a panel of experts. The chief aim is an assessment of personality and not a test of intelligence. The interview takes place in Delhi; interviewees are eligible for a travel allowance.

A few points to bear in mind:

  • UPSC does NOT repeat questions from previous papers. Mugging up old answers will NOT help. But the papers do fulfill the purpose of pattern analysis and serve as a guide.
  • There is NO alternative to newspapers and magazines. Most of the questions are about current events. Reading a newspaper – preferably The Hindu or Indian Express – everyday is a must. Magazines like Frontline and Yojna are obligatory.
  • Almost all questions are opinion based; “ratta maar” is not an option.
  • For Prelims, going through NCERT books at least once is essential.
  • The myth that Arts students have an edge is ridiculous. Every aspirant has an equal amount of advantage. For instance, a history graduate may find GS I easy but will struggle with GS III whereas for an engineer studying for GS III will be effortless. Understanding and tackling your own strengths and weaknesses will decide your fate, not your previous education.

Lastly, I’d say that a systematic and planned approach to study is the key to success. The syllabus is so vast that it is not possible to revise everything. Even covering the whole syllabus is near impossible. In this case, there’s a need for accurate planning and organization. Sticking to the timetable and an apt foresight is vital. Passing the UPSC exam is not a cakewalk, but a thousand people do it every year and so can you.

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