How to navigate and successfully Conquer UPSC General Studies Syllabus?
With a humongous 1000 marks allotted across four papers in UPSC CSE Mains syllabus, UPSC CSE General Studies syllabus feels like a limitless vast ocean that knows no anchor. However, while on surface it might seem to be very vast and un-sailable ocean it has definite islands of important topics with limited areas that are interspersed hiddenly in the gristly language of the syllabus. This article will help you successfully navigate this ocean but also conquer the islands with ease and panache.
General guidelines to be kept in mind while preparing for the UPSC Mains General Studies:
1) First and foremost,get multiple handy printouts of the syllabus for ready reference and read it carefully multiple times. Your ultimate aim should be that you should be in a position to provide for each topic mentioned in the syllabus, a quality content in your answer paper that would honour all the demands of the question and would be holistic in its scope,i.e,250-300 words high quality multi-dimensional content should be on your hand tips, so that you would be able to write in quick time a good quality answer.
2) Go through previous years General Studies question papers (esp. those after 2013) to understand the variety, depth and range of questions UPSC generally touches upon. It’ll give you a good understanding of what’s important and what’s not. (It starts making those islands visible to you!)
3) Use the internet extensively, especially for topics like Science and Tech., Environment, Polity Current affairs, Disaster Management, Security related topics. Your target must be to gain knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals various topics as well as critical analysis of various current events and issues as and when they occur,
4) For most of the subjects, you need to link current affairs with the static and theoretical part of the syllabus. This is true especially for GS-II and GS-III. For both these papers, current affairs forms the core.
5) Give adequate time for revision. Without it, you will not be able to recollect whatever you may have read. So please dedicate enough time to it, whether you are giving a mock test or the actual exam.
6) Many aspirants commit one cardinal mistake due to which they fail to score high marks in the mains exam despite have large reserves of knowledge stored with them: They read and revise, over and over, but sparsely to answer writing practise. Remember that the examiner checking your copy will have no idea about the number of books you’ve read or number of hours you have spent reading a particular topic. Your answers are all that he/she will have at their disposal to judge you. Thus, is sine qua non that you learn and perfect the art of answer writing through rigorous practice.
7) Mains exam demands not only our memory and intelligence but also endurance. If you lack prior practice, writing relentlessly for 6 hours a day and do this for 5 days will cause both mental and physical fatigue. The only way to overcome it is to practice enough before the final exam.
8) General Studies demands a reasonable depth of understanding of an expansive set of topics. So, it becomes necessary that we give adequate focus to all the topics and don’t get over obsessed over perfecting one topic at the expense of others .Always remember that to score hight marks you need to score above average in most of the questions rather than scoring very high marks in few questions and floundering or scoring below average in most of the other questions. Always maintain that fine balance between all the topics and don’t get imprisoned in one.
9) In GS question papers, there might be very few questions where you will have absolutely no idea. Even if you only have a vague idea, write those generic points. For instance, in 2018 GS-I paper, for the question on Malay peninsula, Many aspirants knew no specific fact except a vague idea that it too was under British colonial rule and they too were fighting for freedom, so a generic answer comprising of problems such as ethnic strife, insurgency, and economic collapse would provide adequate fodder for the examiner to award at least 2-3 marks, which could ultimately land you in merit list or in your desired service. So try to attempt all the questions and don’t leave any question for every marks that you can potentially core is very precious for achieving success.
10) You must develop the skill to speed read a committee or an organisation’s report on your computer (reading online saves you a lot of time) and highlight important lines as you read along. In the second reading, this highlighted portion is what you need to revise.
11) In GS papers,maps,diagrams,Pie Charts,Flowchart etc serve a very effective tool for gaining an extra edge and breaking the monotonyin your answers. For example,map of India with proper labelling could be drawn for questions on North-East insurgency (GS-3), Inland navigation (GS-1), India’s 18th-century fragmented polity (GS-1) etc. Practise it enough so that you are able to draw and label it few seconds.
12) If you are taking a test series, please give those tests with all the seriousness of the final UPSC exam also observe strict time limits while giving mock tests.
13) You will never feel content with your Mains preparation and there is always a nagging lingering tendency to just keep on reading and procrastinate writing answers or skip an upcoming test. You need to overcome this reluctance through conscious effort and planning. At max., you can postpone your test by a day or two, but don’t skip it altogether.
14) Perfectionism is your enemy. If you keep referring to countless sources to make that “perfect notes”, if you keep postponing your mock tests in order to write “perfect tests”, this mentality will bring you to ruin. Getting a good score in Mains is about attempting all questions to which some answers are excellent, some good and many above average. So instead of waiting for that elusive perfection, start imperfect and then keep improving.
15) Be very particular in your reading sources,don’t go on window shopping every book that you come across as interesting. Avoid reading multiple books for the same topics unless they offer you a completely new perspective which you may not have been previously familiar with.
16) To succeed in this exam, the source of material is not important. What’s important is you to understand the concepts, memorise the facts well and have a firm grip over the entire syllabus.
Book List and Detailed Study Strategy for GS Mains
Indian Art and Culture
1. An Introduction to Indian Art – Class XI NCERT
2. Chapters related to culture in Ancient and Medieval India NCERTs
3. Centre for Cultural Resource and Training (CCRT) material
4. Heritage Crafts: Living Craft Traditions of India -NCERT
For someone who is starting just now, this topic may overwhelm them.So, it is suggested to beginners should read this section after they get acquainted with other GS topics.
In Art and Culture, questions asked by UPSC in recent years are more analytical— which requires both the factual content and good analysis to answer the why and how.You can answer such questions well only when you understand the historical background in which such art was produced. This is why it’s important that you read NCERT XI Ancient India for it gives you that historical context.
For instance, don’t just memorise features of say, Sangam literature or Chola architecture, but understand the social, political, religious and economic context in which such grand art was produced. They will form the analysis part and will help you write great answers.
Make good use of the internet to watch both visual and performing arts to understand how they actually look in real life. You will be able to recollect such visuals more easily. They will help you write a decent answer for questions which you only have a vague idea about.
Wherever relevant, draw diagrams to illustrate your answers. For instance, you can draw a rough sketch to show the features of a Stupa, Dravidian, and Nagara style architecture, Palaeolithic art, Folk arts such as Warli, Harappan pottery etc. You don’t need to be a Michelangelo for this, but you must ensure that the fundamentals are correct. For example, in Warli art, human bodies are represented by triangles, heads by circles and hands by simple lines. Just get these basics right.
Art and Culture requires a ton of memorisation and there’s really no shortcut to mastering it except through multiple revisions.
Modern Indian History
1. A Brief History of Modern India- Spectrum Publications
2. From Plassey to Partition-By Shekhar Bandhopadhyay
Questions on Indian history are something that every serious aspirant will answer well, so you really cannot afford to let go of these questions. If you had done your prelims preparation for this topic well, that is good enough. You just need to practise answer writing.
India’s Post Independence History
1. India Since Independence by Bipan Chandra
2. For certain topics, Notes can be made from Internet.
Old NCERT -World History
Baliyans World History Notes
Since revising this big book before the exam was difficult, I prepared concise notes from it. I also practised maps to demonstrate major world historical events.
1. NCERT:Class 11 and 12
2. G.C. Leong
3. OrentBlack Swan Atlas/Oxford Student Atlas
4. P.M.F IAS Study Material
This is a generic, nebulous topic with no style or structure. Questions are sometimes vague, philosophical and the challenge we face is not so much in lack of content as in presenting it concisely in 200 odd words. To understand the basics, read NCERT Sociology Std XI and XII. Make concise notes on each topic that includes: a crisp definition, latest statistics, govt schemes, criticism of these schemes; causes of issues such as communalism and regionalism, historical and current examples, their impact on our society, and your suggestions as the way ahead. (you can get these suggestions from the internet or ARC 2 or some committee report). In case if you find good coaching material for these topics, that’ll do as well.
For this topic, a generic answer with proper structure and subheadings that cover multiple dimensions is good enough to fetch you marks.
Polity, Governance and Social Justice
2. ARC 2 (One of the best reports ever written for the government. Read complete reports, memorise only recommendations)
1. The Hindu
2. The Big Picture on RSTV
3. Vision IAS monthly current affairs material
4. PRS India for latest legislation
5. All India Radio – Spotlight
Open your answers with Constitutional articles. Suppose there is a question on CAG, then Art 148 must be in the opening line. If there is aquestion on Election Commission, then Art 324 is where you begin. If there are technical terms like ‘Parliamentary Sovereignty’, ‘Political democracy’ or ‘Social Audit’ — define them in your introduction telling the examiner what you understand by those terms.
Supreme Court judgements are very important. Make a list of important judgements (both historical and current) and quote them to substantiate your answer. For example, when you are answering a question on Right to Privacy,then quoting SC judgement in K.S.Puttaswamy vs Union of India(2018) case will add tremendous value to your answers.
For a debatable topic, always write both sides of the issue even if not explicitly asked in the question. Example: A question might ask: Do you agree that Civil Services is in need of drastic reforms? For this, explain under a subheading why drastic reforms are needed. And in the next paragraph, counter by saying why drastic reforms are harmful. In the end, you can add the view of ARC 2/Hota/Surendranath committee to convey your view and end on a balanced note.
For miscellaneous topics like the comparison of Constitutions, RPA Act, SHG, e-Governance etc refer to any good coaching material to have 200-word worth content. Source latest examples and issues from newspapers and quote them in your answers.
Prepare thoroughly on Govt policies and bills. PRS India is an excellent resource for all the latest legislation in the offing and The Hindu for policy criticism.
Cram latest statistics pertaining to health, employment, women, education, poverty etc. Also, apart from committees, you may quote authentic reports from reputed organisations such as Lancet, Transparency International, UNICEF, FAO etc to substantiate your point. Make notes on important statistics that can be used for all papers of GS and essay.
Conclusion: Wherever possible, end with a committee/ commission recommendation or observation. For instance, a question on Centre-State relations should invariably end with Punchhi Commission, a question on death penalty with Law Commission and a question on Indian Constitution with NCRWC. Referring to Sustainable Development Goals, Preamble, DPSP is also another good way to end your answers.
Any good book that adequately covers the historical aspect of India’s bilateral relations.
Current affairs: The Hindu, India’s World on RSTV, any good monthly current affairs magazine/notes,etc
Questions on IR will be almost, always be about the current happenings in the world. But before you run after the Hindu or some other latest magazine for this section, it’s important that you understand the historical background of India’s relationship with other countries. This is indispensable because every bilateral issue that you see in the news can be traced back to history. Once you understand this historical context, this topic becomes uncomplicated.
For example, let’s take India China relations. Don’t merely focus on Doklam crisis and troop positioning, but understand the larger context of our border dispute with China, the agreements we had signed starting with the Simla Accord of 1914. For India-Sri Lanka, don’t just concentrate that India voted for or against Sri Lanka at the UN, but understand how India always championed peace between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, the 1987 accord, its fallout, Sri Lankan civil war and what India did during these times. When you have that bigger picture in mind, each part of the puzzle becomes easier to fit in.
For miscellaneous topics like diaspora and international institutions, refer to any good coaching material.
Draw map wherever relevant. Example: for India-Iran relations, you can draw a rough map to show how the Chabahar port helps us to bypass Pakistan and reach Afghanistan. Act East policy can be demonstrated with arrows pointing from India and showing our specific relationship with Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Australia and ASEAN, MGC, BIMSTEC etc.
Each bilateral relationship or a global grouping is multi-faceted. To make your answers comprehensive, always write a multidimensional perspective that includes: the strategic dimension, defence co-operation, technology, education, culture, diaspora, trade and investment, co-operation in global fora etc.
1. NCERT’S-CLASS XII AND XI
2. Budget (any coaching material compilation)
3. Economic Survey (gist)
4. NITI Aayog’sThree Year Action Plan report (a good resource for policy recommendations that come in handy while you write conclusion)
B) Current Affairs:
1. The Hindu
2. The Indian Express.
3. Refer to current affairs material of coaching classes for topics not covered well by News Papers.
C) Indian Agriculture, Land reforms, PDS, Food Processing, LPG, Infrastructure:
2. Vision IAS value added material
3. The Hindu and The Indian Express for current affairs
You need to remember that for GS-3, questions revolve around current affairs and there is no dearth of material. It may sound counter-intuitive, but the trick is to restrict yourself to material that’s good enough for you to write a 250-word answer for all topics. It’s very important that you don’t get sunk under the heap of current affairs and coaching material.
So, for each topic mentioned in the syllabus, make concise notes from the resources mentioned above.NITI Aayog’s 3-year Action Plan report really helpful for this paper. Also, statistics and committee reports are very important.
1. VajiRam and Vision IAS material
2. The Hindu and The Indian Express for current affairs
3. Prepare crisp and clear definitions of technical terms such as cybersecurity, terrorism, organised crime, money laundering, left-wing extremism etc.
4. For questions on border security, draw India map to illustrate.
1. Fundamental reading: CBSE book
2. Prepare concise notes on NDMA (structure, functions, rules etc), international agreements such as Sendai Framework, latest current affairs from newspapers, internet and coaching material.
3. Draw diagrams to illustrate concepts like river embankment, land zoning, watershed management etc.
Environment and Ecology.
1. Shankar IAS book
2. The Hindu and The Indian Express for current affairs
Science and Technology
1. The Hindu
2. Vision IAS Mains 365
3. YouTube and Internet
This topic terrifies many aspirants, and for good reason. There’s no single book or resource to help one navigate this section and it all feels like one big haze. But there’s good news: the questions asked in S&T are mostly from current affairs and you are expected to have only a general understanding of the topics.
During my preparation, I used to note down in my book whatever scientific term or technology that’s frequently talked about in news. For instance, these days we repeatedly encounter terms such as Artificial General Intelligence, Blockchain, Machine Learning, Cryptocurrency, CRISPR-CAS9 in news and on the internet.
Note down all such scientific concepts that are in news and then scour the internet (especially Youtube) to understand them. There are many explainer videos on Youtube that explain the concept so well that even a school student can understand it.
Apart from the above, you need to learn fundamental terms and technologies used in Space (PSLV, GSLV, Cryo Engine etc), Nanotech, Nuclear Research (Fast breeder reactor, Uranium enrichment, Nuclear fission and fusion etc.), Defence (Cruise missile, Ballistic missile, Stealth Bomber etc), Biotech (Gene editing, Stem Cells, GM food etc), Communication (LIDAR, RADAR, LiFi, 5G etc). Any comprehensive material of a coaching institute will be sufficient for this.
Whatever S&T topic you are learning, always focus on the concept, why is it in news, practical applications, potential threats, benefits far into the future etc. Just do this and you will easily handle this topic in the final exam.
2. Ethics book by L.Balaji
3. Book by D.Subbarao
2nd ARC reports: Ethics in Governance, Promoting E-gov, RTI, Citizen-centric Administration, Personnel Administration. Read all ARC reports completely, memorise only recommendations.
For moral thinkers, Google them to read about their major contributions.
Go through the syllabus and tried to define each term in clear words and simple sentences. It is very useful because these definitions would inevitably form the introduction to most of your answers. For all of ethics paper, the essence can be distilled as just this: a clear and simple definition of the term and a real-life example to illustrate the concept. You can draw flowcharts and schematics wherever apt.
It’s important to understand that each question is an opportunity to display your ethics. This will be best demonstrated by the actions you did or some other personalised/ real-life examples you quote. Reflect on your childhood, school life, college time, professional career etc and glean examples that are simple, unpretentious and at the same time bring out your ethical values clearly. For some questions, you can also quote historical examples from the lives of great leaders.
For case studies,aim was not so much in writing ingenious, extraordinary solutions, but to write something that’s realistic and practicable and finish the paper no matter what.
Give equal importance to both Section A and Section B and dedicate equal time to both the sections while writing answers in exam hall.
Rest of the GS papers have 20 questions each, Ethics has only 14. But don’t let that number 14 fool you, GS-IV is the lengthiest paper of all. Every question in Section A has many subparts that drain an inordinate amount of your time. In fact, if we go by the absolute numbers, we write more words in GS-4 than in other papers. So, to manage your time well: Abide by the rule that you must complete at least 80 marks worth of questions in each hour, irrespective of whether you start with Section A or Section B.
Just before GS-IV, you would have had written three stressful GS papers that would put your body condition under severe mental and physical strain. But it’s important to stay mentally tough during this crucial period and push your endurance limits so as to survive another 3 hours of relentless writing. Remember that it’s all in the mind— it can be your biggest enemy or your greatest strength.