How does the UPSC Civil Services Exam work?

For students preparing for the UPSC CSE, here is an overview of the exam pattern and the papers

January 21, 2023 07:41 pm | Updated 07:41 pm IST

The UPSC Civil Services Exam is among the toughest in the country.

The UPSC Civil Services Exam is among the toughest in the country. | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

The minimum qualification for attempting the UPSC Civil Services Examination (CSE) is a Bachelor’s degree from a recognised university. Therefore, the subject of graduation is crucial, especially when it comes to choosing one’s Optional paper. The UPSC Mains have two papers of 250 marks each. A candidate has 25 subjects to choose from. While many choose subjects different from what they did in graduation, having the same optional subject as one’s graduation subject gives one an extra edge. Apart from factors such as scoring potential, syllabus, availability of guidance, and material, candidates must select a subject they are passionate about.

While there is a popular view that some optional subjects are high scoring, this is a myth, as there have been rank-holders from across different subjects. The UPSC Annual Reports indicate that Psychology, Public Administration, Political Science and International Relations, History, Geography, and Sociology are top favourites.

Exam pattern

Beyond choosing the subject, candidates must also understand the exam pattern. The UPSC CSE has three stages: Preliminary, Main, and Interview. The first, which has two MCQ-type papers, focuses on analytical abilities and understanding. Each paper is for two hours and for 200 marks each. The first paper tests candidates on current events, India’s history, geography, polity and governance, economic and social development, environmental ecology, and general sciences. The syllabus is a subset of the Mains exam. Paper II, called Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT), focuses on comprehension, interpersonal skills, communication, logical reasoning, analytical ability, decision-making, data interpretation and English language skills.

The second stage, called the Mains, is a written exam of nine papers, each of two-hour duration. Of these, two are qualifying papers (English and an Indian language) and test basic language competence. The other seven are an essay paper, four General Studies papers, and two optional subjects. In the essay, candidates have to write two articles of 1000 words each on topical issues like the economy, human resource development, security, or philosophical themes, abstract ideas and quotes.

The first of the General Studies (GS) section comprises four main elements: History (India and World); Art and Culture; Contemporary issues of Indian society and Geography (India and World). The next focuses on issues such as Indian polity and the functioning of the Indian Constitution, Governance and its machinery in India, and India’s relationship with the world and its foreign affairs. The third General Studies paper covers the Indian economy and world ecology. This includes Macroeconomic trends of the Indian economy, development issues and the functioning of our economic system, Environment and Ecology, General Sciences and new advances in technology, Internal Security and Disaster Management.

The final General Studies paper is Ethics, which looks at a candidate’s attitudes and approach to issues like integrity, probity in public life, and problem-solving. The questions are theoretical and the paper is based on the case-study approach.

Those who qualify in the Mains are then called for a personal interview, which assesses personal suitability for a career in public service. Assessment is usually based on intellectual qualities, social traits, and knowledge of current affairs.

The writer is Founder and Director, SRIRAM’s IAS

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