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UPSC Civil Services Exam Pattern, Syllabus for IAS, IPS, IFS jobs

How to prepare for UPSC Civil Services Exam (CSE)When the road to success is significantly narrower than failure, as is with the Indian Civil Service Examinations (CSE), conducted by the UPSC, the decision to try, and qualify, needs a miracle and a half. It is one of the toughest exams in India, much more intimidating than any IIT, IIM, CAT, GMAT, or WHAT out there.

The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) is one of the three arms of the All India Services of the Civil Services of India, the Indian Police Service (IPS) and the Indian Forest Service (IFS) being the other two.

An exam that sees the strictest filtering from over 4 lakh applicants to a shy­ north of a thousand finally selected, the CSE clearly requires a lot of planning to prepare, especially if you are looking to make it to the top ranks to be recruited as an IAS officer. To put things in perspective, only 200 some seats are allotted for IAS positions, reserved for the exam toppers.

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So, what would you do to prepare for the CSE IAS exam?

The process is not formulaic. No single strategy can work for everyone. What you can obviously try, however, is chalk out your own plan using what is known from the historical trend – how much time have previous candidates taken to prepare, how many times have they attempted the test, what kind of study material did they use, what optional subjects have had the highest success, and what type of questions have appeared in the CSE paper.

The rest is largely dependent on controllable factors like dedication, motivation, perseverance, and diligence, luck being the uncontrollable ingredient. Read on to find out the historical trend, mostly gathered from the UPSC Annual Reports released each year, and other preparatory tips from various sources.

UPSC CSE Syllabus and Exam Pattern

The CSE exam is divided into three stages – the Preliminary (CSAT), Mains, and the Interview. Each candidate is allowed a maximum of six Attempts at the CSE exam. There is some relaxation for minorities.

Preliminary Exam (Mandatory)

It consists of two compulsory multiple choice papers of 200 marks each to be completed in 2 hours. Prelim Paper I is counted towards merit while Paper II is qualifying (Min. 33%). They cover General Studies: Current Topics, History, Geography, Politics, etc and Paper II tests for Comprehension and Analytical Ability.

Main Examination

The exam is intended to evaluate your depth of understanding rather than memory in 9 Papers, the first two (Indian Language and English) being qualifying by nature. Typically, the majority of Papers in the Main exam are based on general awareness, testing the candidate’s understanding, comprehension, analytical abilities, reasoning, decision-making, and problem-solving skills.

They don’t particularly require a specialized understanding of the subjects, but rather an overall awareness of the topics as would be required for his/her job as a Civil Servant of this country.

The optional subject exam (Papers VI and VII) requires a specialized understanding, however only as much as somewhat more than an undergraduate level, ie at an Honor’s level. In the case of Engineering, Medicine, and Law, an undergraduate understanding is sufficient.


The interview, conducted by a board, is directed on matters of general interest, with the intention of evaluating the candidate’s social awareness, interest in current affairs, mental alertness, critical powers of assimilation, logic, judgement, variety and depth of interest, leadership, communication, and finally intellectual and ethical standards.

The syllabus, for each section, is detailed on the UPSC website. The exam pattern has also been covered in an earlier article on How to become an IAS Officer in India.

Preparation Time and Number of Attempts for IAS exam

As is evident from the vastness of the syllabus, the preparation time for the Civil Service IAS exam may take from a few months for some candidates to couple of years for others.

Unfortunately, there is no fixed recipe that works, and it really only depends on how each individual is able to strategize their preparation. Given the massive number of topics, it is quite easy to get lost in irrelevant studying, losing out on precious time that could be otherwise better utilized. The best method is to understand the “Type” of questions, and stick to a near-exhaustive study, albeit with limits, so that it is easy to recall and revise a few days before the exam.

Coaching, study material, free prep classes, mock tests, and more, are readily available to interested individuals. However, it is essential to keep their effectiveness in mind, researching their success rates to keep from spending time and money on futile endeavors.

To obtain a clear perspective on past examinees, and their success rates, we present here a set of historical statistics as provided by the UPSC Annual Reports.

The table below shows the success rates for candidates appearing in the 2010, 2012, and 2014 CSE exams at each of the exam stages. The success rate for the CSE exam is well below 1% making it incredibly competitive.

Year #Applicants #Appeared at Prelims #Appeared
2009-10 409110 193091 11514
2012-13 550080 271442 12190
2014-15 947428 446623 16286

The number finally recommended, in those years, was only of the order of a thousand selected candidates in the respective CSE exams. If we were to dive into the details of the number of attempts it took for the candidates that qualified in those years, we get the graphs shown below.


Number of Attempts taken to qualify CSE in 2010, 2012 and 2014

Judging from the images (a), (b) and (c) for 2010, 2012, and 2014, it is clear that the likelihood of qualifying the CSE in the 2nd or 3rd attempts is the highest, which gives an average window of 2-4 years for successfully preparing for the IAS exams. Of course, you don’t have to follow the pack and many successful candidates, clearing through the top ranks with the highest merit, have been known to have prepared for only a few months.

The success ultimately hangs on the merit of the preparation rather than the time. Candidates who have a regular reading habit, strong academic background, and excellent comprehension, retention and analytical skills, usually have a steeper learning curve.

Success Rate in IAS exam by Academic Background

CSE Main Examination Papers VI and VII are dedicated to Optional Subjects decided by the test takers. According to UPSC, they can be from one of 26 subjects listed in Appendix I of the UPSC Notice. The individual syllabus is also listed in the content of the Appendix.

The content, as mentioned above, is higher than undergraduate and of the order of Honor level academics.

For instance, if you were to choose Economics as an Optional Subject, your first Paper would be tested on Advanced Microeconomics, Advanced Macroeconomics, Money Banking and Finance, International Economics, and Growth and Development. The second Paper would examine your knowledge on Indian Economics in Post-Independence Era – Pre and Post Liberalization.

If your choice is Electrical Engineering, your first Paper would include Circuit Theory, Signals and Systems, Electromagnetic Theory, Analog Electronics, Digital Electronics, Energy Conversion, Power Electronics and Electric Drives, and Analog Communication. For the second Paper, the topics would cover Control Systems, Microprocessors and Microcomputers, Measurement and Instrumentation, Power Systems Analysis and Control, Power System Protection, and Digital Communication.

Based on data from the UPSC Annual Reports, it is interesting to note that the choice of the Optional Subject is not entirely dependent on the academic background of the candidate. In fact, there is a significant cross domain shift between the two. For instance, the table below shows the academic background of the candidates who qualified the 2014 CSE exam.

Academic Background of Candidates in 2014 CSE Candidates Recommended (Selected)
Humanities (including literature, Commerce, Accountancy, Law, Management, and more) 387
Science 94
Medical Degree 183
Engineering 699
Total 1363

The table clearly shows that 51.3% of the successful candidates were from an Engineering background while 28.4% were from Humanities. However, about 87% of optional subjects opted by the selected candidates were related to Humanities, in 2014, which is no surprise given that a majority of the rest of the CSE exam is related to fields in the Humanities.

So, clearly you can choose to select an optional subject outside your stream of previous education, thus strategizing your preparation based on a plan to optimize your performance on the day of the exam. Do be cautious of venturing outside your comfort field in the interest of strategizing. Only choose what you can successfully attempt.

Other Handy Tips to prepare for the IAS Exam

  • Read a lot. Focused reading is a key to success in these exams.
  • Understand the “topic” of every question and stick to the precise requirement of the answer for an accurate response within a word limit. Write regularly to practice how to respond to questions that require you to analyze, examine, comment, discuss, etc.
  • Practice essay writing, how to follow logical steps from introduction to conclusion.
  • Wash up your basics and work on increasing your understanding rather than memorizing volumes of information.
  • Remember that you are not expected to have specialized understanding. Instead focus on how to increase your general awareness.
  • Examine the questioning trends in the previous year examinations. Questions are almost never repeated but they do provide an insight into the question styles.
  • Keep a regular routine and practice timed mock tests to understand the time limitations.
  • Follow the daily news.

Work hard and you may have a shot at one of the most respected public-sector careers in India. And finally, do keep your fingers crossed. Chances are that the rest of your 4 lakh some fellow candidates are doing the same – hoping for a miracle to become a member of the heaven-born.

Good Luck!

Meanwhile a few helpful reads,


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Rakhi Acharyya
About Rakhi Acharyya
Rakhi is a freelance writer, a Physics PhD from Michigan State University, an ex-teacher and a former employee of Corporate America. Follow her on Twitter.

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