Civil Services Examination conducted by UPSC has three stages – Prelims, Mains and Personality Test (PT). The ranking of a candidate in the final merit is decided by IAS Mains exam and PT. And between these two, Mains exam is most critical for the simple reason that it constitutes nearly 86% marks of the total marks (1750 Marks out of total of 2025 Marks).

IAS Mains Exam stage is most important from UPSC’s perspective since this is where not only a candidate’s knowledge is tested but also skills and abilities like comprehension, analytical skills, clarity of thought, written expression, time management etc. The Mains exam give a candidate an opportunity to showcase his knowledge & skills and also gives an assurance of getting reciprocator reward as the marks obtained are proportional to the efforts invested. Another highlight of UPSC Mains exam is that irrespective of quality of an answer, it will still be assessed and evaluated.

Having said that, it is equally important for a candidate to know the challenges posed by Mains exam. While most of the students feel that it’s a mental challenge, however, the challenge is also physical and psychological. Each of the nine papers of Mains exam is of three hours, conducted twice a day over a period of five days.While the mental challenge is surmounted with good knowledge, physical (physiological) and psychological challenges needs one to undertake extensive answer writing practice. Prudent aspirants go an extra mile by even creating the exact same conditions of exam hall while undertaking tests within environs of their homes like sitting for three continuous hours without water and washroom breaks, sitting in a room with availability of only ceiling Fan, switching off air conditioners etc.These things might appear to be not so relevant nevertheless these are important too. If one undertakes IAS Mains mock tests at the same time of the day as per UPSC schedule, it will definitely help candidate to get physiologically and psychologically ready as well. With repeated practice your mind and body will acclimatize to perform at its peak during those hours.

We have talked about evaluation of skills of a candidate above. Before we move ahead in our discussion let us understand little more about skills which are essentially required. This might sound academic but it is important to know.

Two kinds of skills which are tested in the IAS Mains examination are:

a) Cognitive/ Reasoning Skill: 

This can be defined as the ability of an individual to perform various mental activities most closely associated with learning and problem solving. Cognition mainly refers to things like memory, the ability to learn new information, speech, understanding of written material. Humans have a capacity for cognitive function once born, so almost every person is capable of learning or remembering. The idea of Mains exam is to judge the cognitive ability of a candidate by posing a series of questions to measure level of consciousness, memory, awareness, problem-solving skill, motor skills, analytical abilities, and other similar concepts. Without this skill, a candidate will only be able to write mugged up answers in the exam and would fail where the analysis is required.

b) Linguistic and Writing skill: 

Writing is a medium of human communication that represents language with signs and symbols. No one is born with this skill but it’s an acquired skill. Not everyone is blessed with excellent command over language and the ability to pen down with the required eloquence however, with practice this skill can be honed.

Now, let us discuss about what will enable a student to succeed in Civil Services Mains examination.


  1. Comprehension of question/ Question interpretation

First and the foremost, it is important to understand the demand of the question clearly. Reading the question twice is a good habit. This obviates the chances of any confusion or misunderstanding a question. Various directives given in the questions e.g. Elaborate, Discuss, Critically Analyze, Explain etc. need attention as it would give direction to how you would frame your answer. For example, in questions with “critically analyze” directive, you will need to elaborate on both the sides i.e. the positives and negatives; the Pros and Cons. Before putting the pen on paper, give yourself 15-20 secs to structure the answer in your mind.

2. Structure of answer

Introduction, Body, Conclusion” format is one of the tried-and-tested approach of writing an answer. Introduction should not be more than 10% of your answer. Avoid writing lengthy introductions as this would eat into the actual meat of your content in terms of space and time. Body is the part of your answer where you put maximum focus to show that you have understood the question well and you have the acumen and knowledge to answer it. Conclusion is equally important aspect of your answer. At times, it does get under-valued. However, this is the part in your answer which would leave a positive or negative impact on the evaluator. This is kind of a summary of your complete answer. So do not leave it. Conclusion should always be optimistic, forward looking, non-critical and suggestive in nature, wherever required.

3. Quality of argument/ answer

Quality of arguments is central to getting good score. It is important that one must prioritize the points and write the best ones at the beginning. Remember, examiners have years of experience and unequaled proficiency in their respective domains. They can easily see through the depth of knowledge in the first few lines of your answer itself. Hence, it is important that most relevant and substantial points / arguments are given first.

4. Use of Diagrams, Flow Charts, Hub and Spoke Model, Maps, Quotes

Although it is not necessary to include them but their judicious use can do lot of value addition to the answers. These are good substitutes for lengthy sentences and do help in breaking the monotony of writing for the student and monotony of reading for the evaluator. We can call them “embellishments” which can make your answers look more attractive, interesting, different and help you stand out from the crowd. Make smart use of Maps to say more in less.

5. Use of Data and Statistical Data

Use of Data/ Statistical Data to substantiate your answer is a pretty good way to impress the evaluator. However, don’t force their inclusion in every answer. There has to be a judicious mix of facts and figures. Remembering Stats in the first go will not be easy, but as you go along and revise and practice, your mind will start recalling. It will be wise to remember data which can be utilized in multiple papers, has multiple usages. This can be classified as multiple use data like population figures, GDP data, Demographic data, Resource data, Findings of Economic Survey, budget data etc.

6. Adherence to word limit

One needs to strictly follow the word limit prescribed in each question. More so, since UPSC has started penalizing candidates who do not adhere to instructions. Stipulated word limit does not mean that one has to write as much! In fact, if one writes answer as per word limit (150 words for 10 marks questions and 250 words for 15 marks questions) in all questions, mathematically this would amount to writing about 4000 words in three hours i.e. 22 words per minute! There are high chances of running out of time. Thus restricting word limit to 135 words (10 marks) and 225 words (15 marks) should be enough. In any case, writing full words 150/250 should not be done at the cost of quality of answer.

7. Time management

Most important!  For better and effective time management it is vital to do a little analysis. There is no disputing the fact that 15 marks questions are more important than 10 marks questions. If one writes a hasty and/or poor reply in a 15 marker, obviously loss will be more compared to writing a poor reply in a 10 marker question. Further, if there is a situation of time crunch, it will be far easier to reply to 10 markers. So, in nut shell, it will be better that 15 markers are attempted first.

Also, identification and categorization of Easy, Moderate and Tough questions will further help a candidate in making up mind on which questions are to be attempted first.

8. Miscellaneous Tips

a) Read exam instructions carefully. There could be a change in the pattern of exam and marking scheme. UPSC is known to change things to keep aspirants on their toes.

b) Quickly glance through the entire question paper. This would give you a rough idea about the difficulty level and also will help you in making up mind on which questions you want to attempt first.

c) Tackle the easy questions first. This will give you confidence and it will surely reflect in the ensuing answers.

d) Split the question into multiple subparts wherever required and address them in sequence. In case the question itself has been framed into subparts, address all the subparts and don’t forget to highlight them. Proportionate weightage should be given to all subparts as far as content is concerned.

e) Do not write paragraph type long sentences. Breaking them into short to-the-point sentences is better. At the same time avoid writing one/ two word points.

f) Presentation of answers should be neat and hand writing legible. Proper indentation and alignment is important. Have proper spaces between words and lines.

g) Highlight or underline key words in your answers. However, don’t overdo or else you might end up highlighting complete answer.

h) On the day of exam, before leaving for test centre, write for 15/ 20 mins to warm up your hand.


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