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Preliminary Exam - Choice of Subjects and Strategy

In the three stage UPSC CSE Exams, the Preliminary Exam is the first stage, and as the name obviates, it is a preliminary exam. It is usually held on the third Sunday of the month of May.

There are two papers:

  • General Studies, which is common to all and sundry.

  • Optional paper, something which you can pick from a basket of subjects:

    • Agriculture

    • Animal husbandry and veterinary science

    • Botany

    • Chemistry

    • Civil Engineering

    • Commerce

    • Economics

    • Electric Engineering

    • Geography

    • Geology

    • Indian history

    • Law

    • Mathematics

    • Philosophy

    • Physics

    • Political science

    • Psychology

    • Public administration

    • Sociology

    • Statistics

    • Zoology

Procedure to be followed at the Exam hall while answering your paper

Answering a question involves filling up one of four blocks (each block for each option of an answer) with a good HB pencil- a procedure which you would do better to practice a little at home (it would take you about 5-7 seconds to fill up one block). Unlike a conventional exam in your school or college, don't spend a second going through the questions. That would be a sheer waste of time. As soon as you are asked to start answering, read the first question and try to answer it, and then proceed sequentially. If you cannot answer any particular question, don't pore of it for long. Fill out any block you instinctively feel to be the correct answer, note down the question number in a separate place,  and you will come back to brood over it if you have time left after completing the above procedure with each of the questions - don't just leave any question blank at any stage, however! As you go through the questions, ensure that you give your final answer - unlike a conventional exam, revision is a luxury you won't have in a competitive exam. If at the end of 150 questions you have time left, now is the time to come back to those questions which you were unsure of. Go over them, and in case you want to change you options, do so now. After even this procedure is over, and miraculously you have time left, you have the luxury now of revision. Keep in mind that there are no negative marking- NEVER LEAVE OUT ANY QUESTION.

GS paper contains 150 questions which you will have to complete in 120 minutes- in other words, you will have to answer in question in about 48 seconds. Since the paper is of 150 marks and there are 150 questions, each question is of one mark only.

The optional paper contains 120 questions which you will have to work out in 120 minutes- thus you get one minute for each question. The paper carries 300 marks, so that each question carries 2.5 marks.


Please remember that the Preliminary Exam is of qualifying nature only- your ranking at this stage is irrelevant (nor will you get any ranking- you will only know if you have passed or failed). You need to study hard enough to clear it, but always your aim should be at the Mains exam. The irony is that unless you study your best to make sure that you clear the Prelims, you won't get the opportunity to sit for the Mains. So, give your best.

The syllabi for both the papers is so huge that most likely you will have trouble completing it. Even when you think you have completed the syllabi, you will find that in any sample paper or pervious year's question paper you cannot probably answer more than 50 percent of the questions correctly. You are full of self-doubt, become hopeless, lose motivation and give up- a suicidal path. Avoid it. Working with a strategy will most probably prevent this scenario.

The syllabus of the GS is much vaster. Most aspirants are agreed to the fact that no one can completely master it. There are so many areas, and the issues are dealt with in such depth that one cannot conceiving of mastering all aspects of it. Furthermore, each question is of one mark only. The syllabus of the optional subject (whatever that might be) is more limited, and probably it is something you have read before. Thus, you can easily master the syllabus of your optional paper. Furthermore, each question in the optional paper carries 2.5 marks. When you combine these two facts, you realize that it is much more profitable to utilize your limited time studying your optional paper. People in the know tell that if you get anything over 250 out of the Prelims total of 450 (150 + 300), you stand a good chance of clearing it. And if you get anything over 300, you can guarantee your place. Thus, if you can answer correctly 100 out of the 120 questions in your optional paper, you are almost through.

Now, don't get the idea that I am asking you to neglect your GS. All I am asking you to do is to give your preference to your optional. A good idea would be to devote four hours to your optional for ever two hours you devote the GS. Another good idea is to start exclusively with your optional. At this stage do not even touch your GS. After you have gained a fair acquaintance with your optional, now is the time to get acquainted with GS.

Since the Preliminary papers are MCQ (multiple-choice-questions) based, it is very factual. It helps tremendously if you have a good memory; in case you don't, there are ways to buttress it. The simplest way to remember facts is to read them again and again, and then again after some interval. It is always advisable to make succinct notes- writing down helps memorising, and you have a useful medium for revision. So, what are the things you should do immediately before the exam?

  • Don't read any newspaper or magazine one month previous to the exam- no questions with that recent reference will ever come. Don't stretch the period to two months however- two month events do come. Read how much of newspapers and magazines should I read for more.

  • Almost exclusively read from a question bank, or other collection of questions. Especially read previous years' question papers- that would give you an idea about how much prepared you are.

  • Practice at least one question paper each day in full exam conditions- that you teach you a lot about time management, the most essential aspect in a competitive exam.

Selection of Optional

Since the Optional Paper is so much more important than the GS paper, the selection of the Optional is that much more important. Selecting one subject out of the 21 can be a little tough for many people. But there is a basic procedure which you can follow to make this process more smooth.

The easy part about selecting the optional at the Prelims stage is that you have to select only one, unlike the Mains where you have to select two optionals. Again, since the basic qualification to sit for the exam is graduation, most aspirants have studied at least one subject at degree level (the level at which you would be asked questions), unless one is a simple pass graduate (such people would be very few). You should first look up your own subject, take a look at the syllabus, and then take a look at the question papers. If possible, also take a look at the study material of the subject and see if they are familiar. If you feel easy with it, your problem is solved. Take the subject.

But sometimes it happen that the syllabi do not match. Engineering students are at a disadvantage- there are only two engineering subjects (Civil and Electrical). Beside, most engineers say that the IAS syllabi are vaster than their college syllabi. Similar is the case with Science students, who allege that the syllabi is much vaster. Inevitably it is found that a large number of engineer and science students opt for humanities subjects. The humanities subjects are very easy to follow for a fresher as they are non-technical, and one can master them without much guidance. Thus, although UPSC has increased the number of optionals to allow students from all disciplines to participate, the difficult syllabi precludes their participation many times. Arts and humanities subjects are universal favourites. For this reason, some subjects, like Public Administration, Political Science, History, Sociology have become very popular subjects (History being the most popular).

Thus, the choice of your optional should be decided after looking at the syllabi, previous years' question papers and the study materials (available in the market).

Remember, Civil Services is a vastly different exam from other difficult exams. Genius might take you through an IIT or an MBA screening test, but for IAS you need something more. Motivation and dedication is the unfailing mantra for civil services.



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UPSC Website
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Frequently Asked Questions - FAQ
Various Civil Services in India
Examination Schedule
Eligibility Criteria
Subjects Available
Scheme of Exam
Sequence of Mains Papers
Constitution and Civil Services


Mistakes I Made
Prelims - Choice of Subjects
Newspapers and Mags - Should I read?
Language - Mains and Interview
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Limited Usefulness of Coaching Institutes
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IAS as Career Option for IITians
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