Sizal Agarwal, Rank 112 UPSC Preparation Strategy


I firmly believe that each one of us differs in the way we read, think, understand and express. Therefore , I do not wish to pen down a detailed strategy but rather list important points to bear in mind as you prepare to crack one of the most competitive examinations. . Your strategy should be based on your own strengths and weaknesses and understanding of what works for you.


I was born and brought up in Jorhat, Assam. As a child, I never had stable goals in life. I did my schooling at Carmel School, Jorhat and Higher Secondary from  Assam Rifles Public School, Jorhat. Further, I did (hons) from Lady Shri Ram college for Women, New Delhi and post graduation in Marketing  from Delhi School of Economics.

The realization of wanting to appear for the civil services examination came rather late to me. It was only after my graduation that I started preparing for the exam. Lacking direction and guidance, I joined a coaching institute in New Delhi. Having charted my way out, further preparation was mostly based on self study.

The preparation for all the three stages of the examination is integrated yet nuanced.

PRELIMINARY EXAMINATION The prelims requires detailed and in depth study and is the most unpredictable of the three stages. It is essentially an elimination stage. As I write this article, there are about 4 weeks left for Prelims 2020 and a wave of anxiousness and nervousness must be running through all of you.

1.      A fine balance between the static and dynamic components of the paper needs to be maintained– High scoring subjects like Polity, Ancient India, Medieval India, Art and Culture, Modern India etc should be well prepared. Over emphasis on current affairs and neglecting the static portion is a sure recipe for failure.

2.      Analysis of the past year papers–  The past year papers provide insight into the kind of questions that are being asked and are immensely helpful  in understanding trends.  For example- questions on reports and indices, location of national parks etc

3.      Diversified preparation for current affairs– Do not stick to just one source for current affairs. Read the newspaper religiously and make notes. Can follow any website for daily and monthly compilation of current affairs.

4.      Test series–   The prelims test papers have a vital role in improving guesswork, aiding in revision and providing new information. Solve multiple test papers from different sources and evaluate yourself.

5.      Notes making–   Handwritten notes were one of the key pillars in my course of preparation. They are immensely helpful in consolidating information at one place as well as for quick and repeated revisions.

6. Optimum number of questions- Try to figure out what is the optimum number of questions where your score gets maximized – for some it may be 90-95 questions, while for others in the bracket of 70-75 or 80-85 questions.

7. Robust revision plan- Rather than wanting to read everything, it is important that you do not lose what you’ve already read. Hence focus on consolidation.

8. Smart guesswork– Even if you have seriously prepared for the examination, it is impossible to know all the questions. Moreover, without attempting an optimum number of questions for the fear of negative marking, you may hamper your chances of clearing the exam. This is where the role of good guesswork comes in.

Prelims wisdom:

Chances of getting through prelims have U shaped graph.

When you don’t know much and have little to no knowledge of question, you are likely to use your common sense and get the question right.

But if you have half knowledge, you’ve heard it somewhere, you’re sure to get it wrong. This is where most of us are. Half knowledge is more dangerous.

Example: last year there was a question which depended on following statement being correct or wrong:

Central govt. makes regulations with respect to mining and state govt. implements those. (this was the essence)

Case 1: No knowledge

Why would this be true. This is sure shot recipe for chaos and conflict. Hence it must be wrong.

Case 2: Half knowledge

I remember that something related to mining is there in union list as well as state list. This could be correct.

You lose 2.66 marks

Case 3: you know that mining safety is in central list and mining operations and regulations is under state list.

Conclusion: Strive towards complete knowledge and let your common sense be alert!

MAIN EXAMINATION The main examination is not just about knowledge, but also about being able to organize your thoughts, structuring your answers well and managing time efficiently.

1.      Richness of content–   It needs to be understood that there isn’t an overall marking for answers but marks are given for specific points like use of keywords, examples, drawing linkages etc . Hence, the quality of the answer is important.

2.      Adhere to the syllabus–   Make sure that you have covered every word that is mentioned in the syllabus. Have at least one page write up for topics that you didn’t come across while studying but are mentioned in the syllabus.

3.       Command words– The questions in the main papers have command words like describe, analyse, elucidate, illustrate etc. It goes without saying that the requirement of each of these words is different and needs to be understood to write appropriate answers.

4.      Essay, ethics and optional–   These papers, I believe are game changers and can really make or break your attempt.

ESSAY- Analyse the past year papers and jot down a broad categorization for essays like science & technology, climate change, growth and development etc. Practice essays on current topics as well as value based ones. Keep data and quotes handy.

ETHICS– The ethics paper has two parts- theory questions and case studies. For the theory questions, prepare definitions and examples for the topics mentioned in the syllabus. The approach to case studies has very well been explained by Siddarth Jain Sir ( refer to his YouTube video).

OPTIONAL– Be wise in selecting your optional subject. Apart from interest in the subject, a streamlined and well laid out syllabus, availability of study material, the time constraint are important things to bear in mind.

PERSONALITY TEST This stage is not the test of your knowledge but rather how you come across as a person.

1.      The questions asked are diverse and can be profile based, current affairs based, opinion based, situation based etc. As you prepare for this stage, keep your mind open to multiple viewpoints.

2.      Your confidence, humility, body language, honesty and approach to answers are of immense importance. You can take a few mock interviews in order to groom yourself.

3.      The mock interviews may bring a mixed feedback. Let them not dishearten you. All that matters is your belief in yourself.


GS Paper I
Ancient & Medieval History ·         NCERTS

·         VAJIRAM yellow book, Jain Sir’s notes

·         VISION IAS current affairs

Art & Culture ·         NCERT Class XI Fine Arts Textbook

·         Nitin Singhania’s handwritten notes

·         Past years CSE papers

·         GK today compiled material

Modern Indian History & Freedom Struggle ·         NCERT

·         Spectrum

·          Bipan Chandra- India’s struggle for Independence

·         Parmar Sir’s notes

Post-Independence History ·         NCERT Class XII Political Science Textbook: Politics in India since Independence

·         Gk today material

·         Ojha Sir’s notes

World History ·         Ojha Sir’s notes on World History

·         Ankur Sharma’s book- World History for IAS exam

Indian Society ·         VISION IAS Value Added Material

·         Issues in news

·         VAJIRAM yellow book

·         NCERT Class XII Sociology textbook

·         2nd ARC reports

Geography Physical Geography

·         NCERT: Fundamentals of Physical Geography

·         Mrunal Rajtanil Mam’s Geography lectures

Human Geography

·         NCERT Class XII Geography Textbook: Fundamentals of Human Geography

World Geography

·         G.C. Leong ICSE Geography Textbook for World Geography

Indian Geography

·         NCERT Class XI Geography Textbook: India- Physical Environment

·         Geography of India: Arvind Kumar

Map reading

·         Orient Blackswan Atlas

GS Paper II
Governance ·         2nd ARC Reports
Constitution & Polity ·         Indian Polity by M. Laxmikanth

·         PRS India for Bills & Schemes

·         PIB

Social Justice ·         VISION IAS Monthly Current Affairs Magazine

·         Economic Survey, Volume I

·         Budget Summary by PIB

·         2nd ARC Report: Social Capital

·         Vision IAS Value Added Material

International Relations ·         MEA website

·         VISION IAS current affairs

·         Newspapers

·         Pawneet Sir’s notes

GS Paper III
Economic Development ·         NCERTs

·         Sriram IAS printed material

·         Budget

·         Economic Survey

·         VISION IAS Monthly Current Affairs

·         Newspaper’s business and economy section

Environment ·         Shankar IAS Book on Environment

·         NCERT

·         VISION IAS Monthly Current Affairs Magazine

·         GK Today material

Security ·         VAJIRAM Yellow Book

·         VISION IAS Monthly Current Affairs Magazine

Disaster Management ·         2nd ARC Report

·         NDMA Guidelines

Science & Technology ·         VISION IAS Monthly Current Affairs Magazine

·         The Hindu S&T column

Patience, perseverance, dedication and discipline are not empty words when it comes to preparing for the civil services examination. They must be your very life. All the best!