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A Beginners Guide to UPSC Civil Services Exam


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The Civil Services Exam (CSE) conducted by Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) is by far the toughest exam in India. Professor Lant Pritchett, from the Harvard University, once said in 2010, “The Indian Administrative Service is full of officers who have passed an entrance examination and selection process that makes getting into Harvard look like a walk in the park.” But does that mean that average students don’t stand any chance of writing the exam?

The answer is NO. The history of UPSC has been full of memorable achievements wherein even a son of a rickshaw driver has been able to clear the exam with flying colours. This shows that UPSC does not only check your aptitude, but it is also very keen in measuring your attitude. An optimistic attitude coupled with perseverance can do wonders for a serious aspirant who has the zeal to crack this exam. The first step to build this attitude is to know about the exam and then to develop strategies in order to clear the various stages of the exam.

So now, let us first understand the pattern of the examination.

The CSE examination is a three-phase examination. These are;

  1. The Civil Services Preliminary Examination. (CSP)
  2. The Civil Services Mains Examination. (CSM)
  3. Personality Test.

The first stage, i.e., the Preliminary Examination consists of two papers;

  1. General Studies. (GS)
  2. Civil Services Aptitude Test. (CSAT)

The General Studies comprises of foundation subjects such as Indian Polity, History, Geography etc. and related Current Affairs to these topics (link to Prelims syllabus). This paper comprises of 100 questions in total. Each question carries 2 marks and for every incorrect answer, 1/3rd of the total marks is deducted. The CSAT paper consists of 80 questions in total. Each question carries 2.5 marks and has 1/3rd negative marking. However, the CSAT paper is only a qualifying paper i.e., an aspirant need to score only 33% of the total marks to qualify this paper which comes down to 67/200. The real race begins in the General Studies paper where one needs to score above the cut-off in order to qualify for the mains. Again, Preliminary Exam is just QUALIFYING in nature. The marks scored here are not counted for calculating the final cut-off. So, the Preliminary Examination just acts as a gateway for MAINS. Details of the CSP Exam are summarized in the table below;

Topics Details
Exam Mode Offline
Total Papers General Studies (GS) and CSAT
Total Questions GS – 100 questions / CSAT – 80 questions
Total Marks GS – 200 marks / CSAT – 200 marks
Exam Type Objective – Multiple Choice Questions
Time Duration GS – 120 minutes (2 hours) / CSAT – 120 minutes (2 hours)
Negative Marking 1/3rd
Exam Nature Qualifying

The second stage, i.e., the CSM consists of the following papers;

  1. General Studies (GS-1, GS-2, GS-3, GS-4)
  2. Optional Papers (Paper-1 and Paper-2)
  3. Essay
  4. Language (Paper-A and Paper-B)

Each General Study paper, Essay paper and Optional Papers comprise of 250 marks and the time allotted for each paper is 3 hours (link to Mains syllabus). Paper-A would include one of the languages which should be selected from a list of 22 languages written in the 8th Schedule to the Indian Constitution. Paper -B would comprise of English language. Both, Paper-A and Paper-B would comprise of 300 marks each. These papers are qualifying in nature and a candidate in required to score only 33% of the marks to qualify these papers. These marks are not accounted for while calculating the final merit.

After securing the required cut-off in mains, candidates would then have to appear for the Personality Test (PT). This test would comprise of 275 marks in total wherein the board panel would thoroughly check personality traits such as alertness, attitude, integrity etc. which are very much required to be an officer.

The marks scored together in mains as well as interview are used to decide the final merit and rank of a candidate.

Details of the Mains and Interview are summarized below;

Topics Details
Exam Mode Offline
Paper – A (Qualifying in nature) 300 marks (Not Calculated in final merit)
Paper – B (Qualifying in nature) 300 marks (Not Calculated in final merit)
Time Duration 3 hours / paper
Essay 250 marks
General Studies – 1 250 marks
General Studies – 2 250 marks
General Studies – 3 250 marks
General Studies – 4 250 marks
Optional Paper – 1 250 marls
Optional Paper – 2 250 marks
Total Mains Marks 1750 marks
Personality Test 275 marks
Mains + Personality Test 2025 marks

In this article, we have thoroughly understood the nature of the examination and also the syllabus for it. In the upcoming articles we shall understand the tips, techniques and strategies to crack the first stage i.e., The Preliminary Examination.

All the best 🙂 !!!!

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