This article is all about to give you a major overview of the UPSC CSE Mains Exam with appropriate links for the section wise strategies as well but before understanding the details it is important to understand the process first. This is an attempt to compile all the required details about the exam for you at one single place.

With 1000 marks spanning across four papers in Mains, GS feels like one giant, insurmountable mountain. The point of this article is also to convince you that those fears are unfounded. A proper planned approach can help you strategize well.

If you have not read about Prelims and its strategy, it is advisable to please go through that first and then come here to have a holistic understanding. (Prelims Phase-1 Link)

You will also find some embedded links in this as well as successive articles to ease your resources search as much as possible.

Before moving onto whole overview thing let us understand the pattern of the Mains exam-

S. No. Paper Name Marks Duration Type/Nature
1. Indian Language

(Paper A)

300 3 hours Qualifying (33%)
2. English (Paper B) 300 3 hours Qualifying (33%)
3. Essay (Paper-I) 250 3 hours Marks added in final score for merit
4. General Studies-I


250 3 hours Marks added in final score for merit
5. General Studies-II


250 3 hours Marks added in final score for merit
6. General Studies-III


250 3 hours Marks added in final score for merit
7. General Studies-IV


250 3 hours Marks added in final score for merit
8. Optional Subject’s Paper-1


250 3 hours Marks added in final score for merit
9. Optional Subject’s Paper-2


250 3 hours Marks added in final score for merit

The above tabular representation hence now clearly suggests that, in UPSC CSE Mains Exam, students have to write 9 papers out of which two are qualifying in nature.

In English and Indian Language Exam, students have to score more than 33% marks to pass the exam. If you fail to pass this, the copies of rest papers will not be checked.

The marks of rest seven papers, are however added to form the Mains Score. This score is further used to determine the cutoff for the interviews and also added to the final score.

UPSC CSE Mains exam is conducted about 4 months after the Prelims exam. This exam happens for about 2 weeks. The duration of the paper is about 3 hours and the gap between 2 papers is about 3 hours ( 2 papers are conducted on the same day, which means practice in a way to build endurance for the same too)

About Indian Language Paper

The 1st paper of every UPSC CSE Mains exam is the Compulsory Indian Language paper. Students from North-East can avail of exemption for this paper. The list of Indian Languages in which students can give this paper is mentioned in the notification itself.

Students have to secure at least 33% in this paper. The level of difficulty of the paper will be of 10th level. The paper pattern as per the notification will be:

  • Comprehension of given passages.
  • Precis Writing.
  • Usage and Vocabulary.
  • Short Essays.
  • Translation from English to the Indian Language and vice-versa.

Indian Language Paper Preparation Strategy

  • Start the preparation for this paper approx 2 months before the Mains exam to avoid last-time panic.

  • The best way always is to start by reading and knowing the syllabus and the sections lik comprehension, precise, translation can help you easily clear the cut-off.

  • Practice a little for answer writing for this part because those who write other papers in English, find it difficult to speedily write in their native languages so it is better to practice as much as it gives you the writing speed, the number or duration depends individually.

  • Avoid spelling mistakes because it is a critical point for this exam and may seem ironic too. In an attempt to showcase talent, sometimes students forget that it is better to write easy-to-understand language and avoid spelling mistakes.

  • Make it a point to go through previous year papers as well. But it is not assured that questions will be repeated, however you may get an idea of the nature.

About English Compulsory Paper

UPSC CSE Mains English compulsory paper is held in the second shift on the Indian language paper exam. This paper is also qualifying in nature, students have to score above 33% marks to pass the paper. The difficulty level of the paper will be equivalent to the matriculation level. The paper pattern as per the notification is:

  • Comprehension.
  • Precis Writing.
  • Usage and Vocabulary.
  • Short Essays.

English Compulsory Paper Preparation Strategy

  • This paper is relatively easier as compared to other papers in the UPSC Mains exam.

  • Students can focus on the essay, comprehension and the precis writing part. It can help them fetch enough marks to pass the exam.

  • It is not about ignoring something but give it some practice before Mains to be in that mode before the exam.

Essay Paper

  • The first paper to be counted in the mains final score is the Essay Paper. Over the years, this paper has gained a place in the merit in such a way that has helped students grab their desired rank or name in the final pdf of UPSC CSE Exam. Other than GS Paper- IV, this paper has also become the key to scoring higher marks in Mains.

  • The essay paper will have two sections with 3 essay topics each. Students have to select one topic from each section and two essays in total.

  • A major build-up or categories under which the previous year essays could be counted are as-

  • Indian society- issues, values, developments, etc.
  • Women- issues, empowerment, etc.
  • Education- schemes, issues, etc.
  • Technology- advancements, ethical issues, etc.
  • Democracy- Indian administration,
  • Economy- growth, development, issues, globalization, etc.
  • Ethics and ethical values
  • Philosophical essays- thoughts, thinkers, quotes, etc.

  • There is no alternative to writing good essays other than practice. Make your schedule inclusive of the essay writing Practice as well. Not daily but weekly or monthly targets will serve the purpose of training your subconscious mind about good points and the presentation ideas.

  • As Ethical Essays prove to be a menace to many students, it’s advisable to integrate it with the preparation of GS-IV. The theories, principles would help you out here.

  • Similarly, good GS preparation forms a basis for good essay preparation as well. The dimension expansion approach works well when you have a proper repository of preparation for different subjects and makes writing 1000-1200 words on a topic a little approachable task.

For Detailed strategy check out (Essay detailed strategy link)

An overview Strategy for General Studies Mains

Moving onto all the four General Studies Paper, where this section of the article would be providing you with the syllabus of different GS Papers to get you acquainted with the major idea following which would be the links for detailed strategy of respective GS papers. But before that some general points to start with, for all GS subjects-

  • Along with the books and notes (which would be mentioned in the detailed separate GS strategies), get a printout of the syllabus, go through it thoroughly, and make this your final aim- have enough content for each topic in a way that you are able to write a 250-word answer.

  • Go through primarily five years previous question papers (increase the years if you think you can). This will help you get to the length and breadth of the demand of UPSC. It will give you a lesson about what’s relevant and what is not.

  • Current Affairs is an aspect which cannot and should not be missed. It is to be superimposed especially for GS-2 and 3. Current Affairs are like nuclei to these papers.

  • Use the internet extensively for studying the topics of Science and Tech or Current Affairs and try to organize them for your later use along with highlighting. The target is to gain knowledge and perspective over topics, the source could be books, magazines, compilations or your own researched content.

  • Never underestimate the power of revision because without it you will not be able to recollect what you studied and without this recollection all is just a waste.

  • Also don’t stop here, no stage preparation is complete without practice. Some students think that only reading and revising would make them able to write answers, but this is not the case. The examiner checking your copy will have no idea about the number of books you have read or number of revision hours you have given. Your answers are the only source for him to judge you so make sure you ultimately are ready for that exercise.

  • General Studies comes with a demand of peripheral understanding of an expansive set of topics. So make it a point to not obsessively focus on one topic, rather try to gain minimum sufficient knowledge over a diverse set of topics.

For example, it is not sensible to devote 3 months time to study World History and ignore other subjects. There has to be a fine balance about requirements.

  • Committee reports and suggestions are a valuable addition to the GS mains answers, so develop the skill to speed read these documents and highlight the relevant stuff which will be the revision content for your second reading.

  • Before buying a new coaching material, ask the question of the relevance of what new this material has to offer. If the answer is unconvincing, then drop the idea of buying it. Remember do not collect resources but only relevant content in the minimal resources possible.

  • Maps are an important illustrative tool for GS answers, especially Indian Map. For example- North-east Insurgency, Inland navigation, river linkage.

Hence, Practice it in a way that you draw and label it in 60 seconds.

  • Perfectionism is your enemy in preparation because if you keep referring to countless resources to make that ‘perfect notes’, and postpone your mocks because of this, this is gonna ruin because the thing you are running after is an illusion.

  • Getting a good score in Mains is about attempting all questions to which some answers are excellent, some good and many above average. Instead of waiting for that perfection, start imperfect and keep improving.

  • If you are taking a test series, Give those test series with the seriousness of the UPSC exam. If you take extra minutes to finish the paper you are cheating yourself, so it’s advisable to observe strict time limits.

  • If you are unable to finish a syllabus before a mock test, postpone it by a day or two but not altogether.

  • You will never feel content with your Mains Preparation and a nagging tendency will always be there about procrastinating. Overcome this reluctance through conscious effort.

  • In GS, accept that there will be few questions where you will have absolutely no clue. Even if you have a vague idea, write those generic points. For example, if you don’t know about particular points of a temple architecture’s influence of that time period, write the generic points these artforms could tell you about a time period. You may not get very high marks but 3-4 marks is always better than 0 and that too in such high a competition.

  • Mains exam demands not only our memory and intelligence but also endurance. If you lack prior practice, then writing relentlessly for 6 hours a day for 5 days will cause you both mental and physical fatigue. Only thing that could be done is practice well before the final exam.

  • No booklist or resources by any topper should be the last word for you. To succeed you need to understand the concepts, memorize the facts, and have a firm grip over the entire syllabus, which can be from any source. Remember every journey is different, so paths can be different too.

For detailed strategy, visit (LINK of Mains Tab)

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