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Exam pattern and the selection procedure for UPSC IAS exam

Civil Services in India was created by the British Empire during the tenure of Lord Cornwallis in the late 18th century. The purpose of this service was to provide a pool of talents to British rule to strengthen the roots of colonial empire. This service suited the needs of Britishers to rule the vast nation of India with several means, using carrots and sticks, with divide and rule policy and enabled the suppression of masses under the colonial hegemony. Those were ironical times in Indian History when the very best talent from the country was selected to loot & plunder and enable the deprivation of the same nation. That was precisely the ambition of Civil Services during British times.

As we achieved the much-desired Independence at the stroke of the midnight on 15th August 1947, a tectonic shift was expected in Indian society through Political and Economic Means. The need of the hour was to bring the millions out of the deep poverty, provide water to agricultural fiends, provide skills & jobs to masses, build the infrastructure for growth, deliver education & health to everyone in Independent India. The challenges were humongous and had accumulated severely given the British misrule in India for centuries. This required the change in administration and governance. Civil services being at the forefront of governance had to deliver to the ambitions of masses. Thus the Civil services exam had to undergo several reforms thereafter to select the talents which could take the country forward. The Constitution makers empowered the body UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) through article 315 of the Constitution to conduct this Civil Services Examination.

Nature of The IAS Exam

The Civil Services Exam conducted by UPSC is considered as one of the toughest exams in not just our country but across the globe. The toughness so perceived can be traced to a number of factors. The very vastness of syllabus makes it an exam which requires years of sheer hard work and determination. This exam expects the aspirants to have a very vast pool of knowledge across multiple subjects such as Polity, Economy, History, Geography, Environment, Art & Culture, Science & Technology and so on and so forth. This expects that aspirants are aware of the events going across the world and within India. He must possess knowledge of History to analyze & understand the present better, required towards making a brighter future for the nation. The aspirant is expected to have an analysis bent of mind because the questions framed are meant to test the analyzing skills. How good and deeply one can understand the issues is visible in the quality of answers written by the aspirant. The aspirant should possess articulating skills as he would be required to convey his thoughts in a minimum number of words. This exam is not about how good one is at mugging up things. This is not an exam to test the memory of the candidate. Though memory plays a supportive role in every phase of this examination that is not the primary objective per se.

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This exam is about whether you possess the decision-making skills which are the indispensable quality for a civil servant. A decision cannot be taken in isolation but only after considering all the related stuff. E.g. A Dam is proposed to be constructed to provide drinking water, ensure irrigation, and generate power. Though the objectives of the dam are utilitarian decision has to be taken after exploring all related impacts of the dam on the geography, economy, environment of the region. The impact on the people says displacement of masses has to be analyzed. The environmental hazard, if it is proposed in ecologically sensitive zones cannot be overlooked. Whether it lies in seismic prone areas or not, if yes then to what extent dam can withstand an earthquake on a Richter scale has to be considered. What I mean to say is that you have to take a decision only after analyzing from all possible dimensions. That requires one to broaden the scope of thinking, explore issues from a multidimensional perspective and then reach the best possible decision in public interest.

Based on the demand of the service, accordingly, pattern and selection procedure has been devised.

IAS Exam is a three-phase examination. The three different phases have different objectives and expectation from the aspirants. The aspirant has to cross three hurdles one after the another to become a Civil Servant. This ensures that the best of the talent is filtered out who is fit to serve the country from the platform provided by Civil Services. We shall go through three phases of this examination.

The First Hurdle – Preliminary Examination

Prelims Exam, as is commonly called in Civil Services circle is the first phase of this examination. The date of the examination is notified every year by a notification issued in the Gazette of India. Every detail of the examination such as syllabus, age limits, optional subjects allowed in mains etc is provided in the notification. UPSC conducts the exam every year, which is common for all candidates applying for the Civil Services Exam and Indian Forest Service Exam. This exam serves as a screening test, the marks obtained are not counted for determining the final order of merit. Generally, the number of candidates to be admitted to mains Exam is about 12-14 times the total an approximate number of vacancies to be filled in the year in various services.

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The syllabus for the Prelims Exam is not specified but a general idea is only given in the IAS Exam Pattern. Prelims Exam comprises of two compulsory papers of 200 marks each. GS paper 1 and CSAT Paper 2. The questions are of objective type with multiple choices. The question papers are set in Hindi and English. Blind candidates are allowed extra time of twenty minutes for each paper. There is “Negative Marking” in the Prelims Exam. For every wrong answer, 1/3rd of marks allotted for every question will be reduced from the correct tally of the score. So candidates should be extra careful and refrain from making wild guesses in the Prelims exam.

Paper 1 of Prelims tests you on General Studies. Only marks scored in paper 1 is considered for qualifying to Mains examination. The keywords used in syllabus such as “Current events of national and international importance, History of India and Indian National Movement, Indian polity and governance, Economic and Social Development” only gives the direction to the preparation. You have to go through the basic reading materials and books for each subject. The objective should be to cover the syllabus from the standard textbooks besides NCERTs. You need not to know everything under the sun to clear IAS prelims, but you need to know the nature of UPSC questions to crack this examination. The best way to find the nature of questions is to look at previous year question papers of the exam. A blind study mugging up a lot many things will neither help you in Prelims nor Mains. Essential books & study materials along with the right strategy will help you clear the preliminary exam.

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Paper 2 of Prelims tests you on Aptitude. This paper is only of qualifying nature and its marks are not counted while preparing merit of candidates for Mains Exam. However, it is mandatory for the candidate to score minimum 33 percent in this paper to qualify the Prelims Exam. This paper is dynamic in nature and includes mathematics, reasoning, analytical ability, interpersonal skills, English language comprehension, decision making and problem-solving, basic numeracy etc. The purpose of the paper is to test the general mental ability of the candidate. If you qualify this paper scoring anything above 33 percent then your performance in GS paper 1 would decide your qualification for Mains. However, If you fail to qualify this paper then you fail to qualify for Mains examination irrespective of performance in GS paper 1. Thus this paper despite being qualifying in nature has an impact on the selection so needs to be taken seriously.

Mains Examination: The Real Hurdle

Once the Prelims is over, all attention shifts towards the next phase in this exam i.e. Civil Services (Mains) Examination. This is the most crucial phase in this exam given the weight of marks scored in the preparation of the final order of merit. Frankly speaking, whether you can get a rank in the list or not is almost decided by the Mains Examination. Mains decides the selection, the interview gives you the ranks. You will find the level of competition in mains skyrocketing from Prelims exam level.

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The Mains Exam is a written examination. It consists of 9 papers of conventional essay type i.e. descriptive in nature. General studies comprise of 4 papers. Optional subjects have 2 papers. One paper each from Essay, English Language, any other Indian language. The last two papers are qualifying in nature and marks are not counted for merit list of the main examination. The candidate is allowed to pick any one language from the Eighth Schedule of the constitution or English as the medium for writing the mains examination.

According to the recent pattern in UPSC Exam Syllabus, there are “FOUR” General Studies paper each comprising of 250 marks with a total of 1000 marks. All papers are compulsory. There is only ONE optional subject to choose from the list of subjects as per the notification. It comprises of two papers, each of 250 marks. So optional subject bring to the table 500 marks, exactly half as that of four GS papers. The candidate is free to take up any subject from the list as optional subject irrespective of his own graduation background. Essay paper consists of 250 marks.

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For last few years, candidates are asked to write two essays of 125 marks each in the exam with one essay each from two sections (4 options each). The first 7 papers from GS, Optional subject, Essay collectively leads to 1750 marks and mains exam is worth 1750 marks only. The 8th and 9th paper i.e English language and any other Indian language respectively is of 300 marks each and are just qualifying in nature having no impact on the merit list. Minimum 30 % marks in Indian language and 25 % marks in English would be required to qualify these two papers. The Indian language paper is not compulsory for candidates hailing from the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Sikkim. However, if any candidate fails to qualify these two papers, then their mains answers script would not be checked further and thus would fail to qualify for interview irrespective of performance in other papers. I hope you realize the importance of so-called qualifying papers.

9 Mains Papers

Paper 1: Essay paper can be written in English medium or language of the candidate’s choice. This paper intends to test the clarity of thoughts, expressive skills and articulation of the candidate through a long write up on any topic from given choices. Two essays each spanning around 1250 words are to be written from a given number of options.

Paper 2: GS paper 1 broad theme is Indian Heritage and Culture, History and Geography of the World, Indian Society. The number of questions asked in the last few years is 20, each question having a subpart or more. Geography questions would require some drawing skills to enhance the presentation part.

Paper 3: GS paper 2 would raise questions from Indian Polity, Governance, Constitution, Social Justice, International relations and current affairs from these parts to test the understanding and analytical abilities of the candidate. One should possess a good understanding of the Indian constitution, follow current affairs religiously, have a balanced opinion on several issues, understand India’s foreign policy etc to score high in this paper. Answers should be analytical, less factual, reflect the balance of judgment, backed by constitutional & legal provisions and providing a futuristic conclusion.

Paper 4: GS Paper 3 covers multiple subjects such as Economics & Development, Science & Technology, Environment, Security and Disaster Management. Generally, around 7-8 questions are from Economic development and 2-3 questions each is asked from the rest of the topics. The answer in this paper should be multidimensional, touching different dimension, exploring various angles of the issue and providing realistic & innovative solutions to the problems. This paper is highly dynamic in nature and one should be updated with recent happenings.

Paper 5: GS paper 4 considered to be easiest among 4 GS papers aims to test the Ethics, Integrity, and Aptitude of the candidate through multiple questions and case studies. The paper has two parts, each comprising 125 marks. Questions in the first part would be testing candidate’s ethics, morality, compassion, attitude, emotional intelligence, leadership qualities etc apart from the opinion on several issues of Ethical concerns such as honor killing, Environmental degradation etc. Part two, would be having 6 case studies, each referring to different circumstances and involving different qualities to be exercised for addressing the problem in a holistic, consensual, ethical and in public interest. Case studies require a lot of practice but can fetch you a good score.

Paper 6 & 7: Optional subject comprises of two papers, 250 marks each. The toughness of questions may vary across subjects. It is difficult to compare different subjects on the same benchmark. In GS papers, all questions are compulsory but not in the optional subject. You should go through the previous year papers to know more about the paper pattern and trend of questions asked.

Paper 8 & 9: Two papers, English language and any Modern Indian language Paper, 300 marks each makes it total 9 papers in Mains exam. But these two papers are only qualifying in nature with 25 & 30 percent marks respectively. However, these two should be taken seriously. And if you want to play it safe in the examination, then try to attempt maximum questions in the paper to eliminate any chances of disqualification in these papers.

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The Final Frontier: Personality Test

Based on the performance in mains examination, approximately number of candidates thrice the total number of vacancies are called for the personality test. The mains result may come anytime after 2 months. Interview generally starts a month after the mains result and lasts around 2 months. Interview total weight to the merit is 275 marks in nominal terms but is actually too high in real terms. The interview has a tremendous impact on deciding the ranks and a good performance here can assure you a top rank. The mains marks are in a small range for most of the candidates so any variation in interview score can change the fortune of the candidates and it does so every year. Having reached this level, there is no ground for complacency and must be taken seriously.

In a nutshell, Civil services exam is a three-tier examination spanning across 8-9 months. And the cycle gets repeated every year. In recent years it has been seen that the exam is throwing certain uncertainties which candidates have to adapt to during the exam. One has to be mentally prepared for such things. As I remember, till 2013 there was a requirement of just one Essay to be written. But come 2014 mains, two essays were asked to be written. These changes in pattern are part and parcel of IAS Exam so that it cannot be taken for granted. There is some consistency in a pattern of the exam but don’t be perplexed by the changes for they apply for all and the most suitable one fits into the change. The focus should be on being flexible during examination and don’t fall for the rigid approach. If the number of questions are raised then immediately decrease the time for each answer so as to complete the paper.

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There may be several sub-parts within each question, as have been the case in recent times, so accordingly address each subpart. Try to attempt a maximum number of questions in the paper. If you don’t know the answer well then just write whatever little-related stuff you know, try to build the answer around that. Point is that you should not leave any question unattempted as every single marks matter in this exam. As you go along into the preparation you would appreciate these things. For the time being, start your preparation well. Take your time to choose the optional. Prepare with a positive mindset. This is just another exam in life and should be taken accordingly. I wish you all the best in this life-changing journey of civil services examination.

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