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How to Prepare for UPSC | Syllabus, Optional Subjects, Tips, Books, Study Plan

April 7, 2024


16 Minutes

Table of Contents


To do well in the UPSC exam, which is considered one of the toughest in the world, the key to success is preparation. Although the exam can seem hard, with the right plan, hard work, determination, patience, and expert advice, anyone can succeed. In this detailed guide, I'll explain simple steps on how to prepare for UPSC.

Mental Groundwork for UPSC Preparation

Embrace the Challenge

The UPSC exam may seem extremely challenging, but many people, just like you, have tackled it and succeeded. You can do it too! To excel in this exam, you need the correct strategy, unwavering dedication, hard work, and the right guidance. It requires your utmost commitment and effort. It demands the ultimate “aatma-samarpan.”

Define Your Purpose

Before you begin your UPSC preparation, it's essential to define your 'why.' Ask yourself why you want to prepare for the UPSC exam and what you aim to achieve. Whether it's a passion for serving your country, a desire for positive change, or personal goals, clarifying your purpose is crucial. Once you have a clear sense of why you're doing this, jot it down on a sticky note and place it on your study table. This note will remind you of your goal, helping you stay focused and motivated, especially when facing challenges.

Commitment and Self-Honesty

To succeed in UPSC, you need to be aware of yourself and give your best effort every day. It's not an easy journey, and it's not for those who give up easily. Be honest with yourself. Recognize your strengths, but most importantly, acknowledge your weaknesses. Take a moment to reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. Write them down and use this self-awareness to plan your UPSC preparation more effectively.

Channeling UPSC Success Stories for Motivation

To stay motivated on your UPSC journey, consider finding inspiration in the stories of successful candidates. Platforms like the Josh Talks YouTube channel have many uplifting accounts of individuals who overcame challenges to excel in UPSC. These stories can reenergize your preparation and determination. I suggest looking into the journey of IAS officer Govind Jaiswal, who faced significant obstacles but achieved his goal through perseverance and hard work. His story highlights the importance of determination and effort.

Essential Items for UPSC preparation

Getting ready for the UPSC exam needs a smart plan and having the right tools. If you want to begin your UPSC preparation like an expert, ensure you have these important items. I will explain the importance of these items at different stages later in this article.

UPSC Syllabus: It is important to always keep a copy of the UPSC Syllabus on your study table and in your bag.

A dedicated study table: A comfortable and well-lit study space is crucial for focused preparation as you will spend most of your preparation time here. If you cannot purchase a study table, designate a specific part of your room as your study arena.

Files and Folders: Organize your study materials with dedicated file and folders for each subject or topic.

Planner and Calendar: Use a planner to schedule your study sessions and set goals.

Highlighters: To mark key points in your study materials for quick revision.

Notepads & Sticky Notes: These are handy for taking quick notes, reminders, and marking important sections in your books.

Laying Foundation stones for UPSC preparation

Explore the UPSC Syllabus

To lay a solid foundation, it's crucial to break down the UPSC syllabus. The UPSC Civil Services Examination has been divided into three tiers – Preliminary Examination, Mains Examination and UPSC Personality Test. Here’s a brief overview of the syllabus:

UPSC Prelims Syllabus



Paper I (General Studies)

Current events of national and international importance

History of India and Indian National Movement, Indian and World Geography – Physical, Social, Economic Geography of India and the World

Indian Polity and Governance – Constitution, Political System, Panchayati Raj, Public Policy, Rights Issues, etc.

Economic and Social Development – Sustainable Development, Poverty, Inclusion, Demographics, Social Sector Initiatives, etc.

General Issues on Environmental Ecology, Biodiversity and Climate Change – that do not require subject specialization.

General Science

Paper II (Civil Services Aptitude Test)


Interpersonal skills including communication skills.

Logical Reasoning and analytical ability

Decision making and problem solving

General mental ability

Basic Numeracy (numbers and their relations, orders of magnitude, etc.) (Class X level), Data interpretation (charts, graphs, tables, data sufficiency etc – Class X level)

UPSC Mains Syllabus



Paper I

Essay writing

Paper II

General Studies I: Indian Heritage and Culture, History, and Geography of the World and Society

Paper III

General Studies II: Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social Justice, and International relations

Paper IV

General Studies III: Technology, Economic Development, Bio-diversity, Environment, Security and Disaster Management

Paper V

General Studies IV: Ethics, Integrity, and Aptitude

Paper VI & VII

Optional Subject (Paper I & II)

Click on the official UPSC notification link to download the detailed syllabus of UPSC Civil Services Exam.

UPSC Interview

The interview assesses the personality, knowledge, and mental traits of the candidate. It is not based on a specific syllabus, but candidates should be prepared to discuss topics related to their background, interests, and the world around them. Questions may cover current affairs, your hobbies, your educational and professional background, and more. The key is to be well-informed and confident.

Dissect the UPSC Syllabus

Break the Syllabus into Themes and Sectors

Analyzing the UPSC syllabus requires patience and a systematic approach. To begin, it's essential to break down the extensive syllabus into distinct themes and categories. I have broken it down for you into 28 different themes below.



Indian Heritage and Culture

Study of India's cultural and historical heritage.

History of the World

Global historical events and their impact.

Geography of the World

World geography, regions, and landforms.


Social issues, diversity, and Indian society.


Systems of governance, public administration.

Constitution and Polity

India's Constitution, political institutions.

Social Justice

Equity, rights, and social justice in India.

International Relations

Global diplomacy, foreign policy, and treaties.


Technological advancements and their impact.

Economic Development

Indian and global economic policies and growth.


Biodiversity conservation and ecosystems.


Environmental issues, conservation, and ecology.


National and international security concerns.

Disaster Management

Different types, disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.


Ethical principles, values, and moral philosophy.


Moral and ethical integrity in governance.


Logical reasoning, problem-solving, and aptitude.

Optional Subject (Paper I)

First paper on the chosen optional subject.

 Optional Subject (Paper ||)

Second paper on the chosen optional subject.

Indian Economy

Economic policies, growth, and development.

Food Security

Food-related policies, subsidies, and distribution.

Science and Technology

Scientific developments and their applications.

Ethics and Public and Private Administration

Ethical considerations in governance and business.

India and its Neighbors

Relations with neighboring countries and issues.

Agreements and Treaties

Bilateral, regional, and global agreements.

Indian Diaspora

Indian communities abroad and their influence.

Global Influence on India

Impact of developed and developing countries.

International Institutions

Roles and functions of global organizations.

Alternatively, Dr Khan Sir, the visionary behind KSG India, has deconstructed the UPSC Mains syllabus into 67 themes. This breakdown serves as a valuable resource for adopting a focused and strategic approach to the examination. Refer to Dr Khan Sir's comprehensive syllabus breakdown in PDF format.

You can use these breakups as a foundation to gain a fundamental understanding of how to divide the syllabus and implement a more intelligent strategy in preparing for the UPSC exam.

Pro Tips to study UPSC syllabus

  • Files and Folders: Maintaining separate folders for every subject/theme helps you stay organized. Srushti Jayant Deshmukh, who secured AIR 5 in UPSC CSE 2018, also emphasized the benefits of dissecting the syllabus and maintaining separate files and folders for each topic in a
  • Syllabus on the Table: Ensure you always have the UPSC syllabus on your study desk. It serves as a constant reminder of your progress and the path ahead, keeping you on track.


Studying old question papers is like building a strong foundation. It helps you understand how the exam works and what the examiners want. At first, it might seem confusing, but do not worry. The goal here is to gain a basic understanding of how the questions are framed and just going through all the questions can give you a basic idea of what to expect.

How to study UPSC previous year questions?

Here is how I do it:

Step 1: Organize Year by Year : Start by arranging the old question papers by the year they were from. Also, keep the syllabus handy. This way, you can see how the questions relate to what you need to study.

Step 2: Systematic Reading : Go through the questions one by one. Look for common themes or topics that come up a lot. This gives you a quick sense of what's important.

Step 3: Understand Question Types : Pay attention to the different ways questions are asked. Sometimes, UPSC might ask you to explain, describe, comment on, or discuss various topics. I'll explain these terms later in this article.

Step 4: Understanding the UPSC PYQ Difficulty : Figuring out how hard or easy the questions are is important. It helps you choose which ones to answer in the actual exam. This skill gets better with practice.

Let's compare two questions from UPSC CSE 2023:

Q1: What was the difference between Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore in their approach towards education and nationalism? (Modern History)

Q2: Why is the world today confronted with a crisis of availability of and access to freshwater resources. (Geography)

The first question is more straightforward. If you've read about Gandhi and Tagore's ideas on education, you can write about them directly. The second question is trickier. You'll need a global view, talk about the reasons, and even mention ongoing river disputes in India. So, the second question is harder.

By practicing regularly, you'll get better at quickly understanding question difficulty. This will help you answer them more effectively in the exam.

Step 5: Take Notes Jot down the key things you learn from your analysis. This will help you plan your study time and improve your overall performance.

By following this organized approach, you can effectively study previous year's question papers for UPSC and understand the exam's ins and outs.

Study NCERT Books for UPSC preparation

After understanding the syllabus and papers, it is the best time for you to start reading textbooks and build a strong academic foundation. It's widely believed that no matter how good you are, it's important to read the NCERTs. Starting this habit early, even if you already know a lot, will increase your grasping power in the coming days.

Here's a list of NCERTs that every aspirant MUST read before delving deep into GS and optional subjects:


Must Read NCERT Books


6th – Our Pasts I

7th – Our Pasts II

8th – Our Pasts III – Part I and Part II

9th – India & the Contemporary World I

10th – India & the Contemporary World II

11th – Themes in World History

12th - Themes in Indian History Part I, II & III.


6th – The Earth: Our Habitat

7th – Our Environment

8th – Resources & Development

9th – Contemporary India I

10th – Contemporary India II

11th – Fundamentals of Physical Geography, India – Physical Environment

12th – Fundamentals of Human Geography and India – People & Economy


9th – Economics

10th – Understanding Economic Development

11th – Indian Economic Development

12th – Introductory Microeconomics

12th – Introductory Macroeconomics.

Political Science

9th – Democratic Politics I

10th – Democratic Politics II

11th – Indian Constitution at Work

12th – Contemporary World Politics, Politics in India since Independence


11th – Introducing Sociology

12th – Social Change & Development in India, Indian Society

Culture/Fine Arts 

11th – An Introduction to Indian Art


6th to 10th Science NCERTs

Biology NCERT for Class 11 and 12th.

Check out our blog on Best books for UPSC Civil Services Examination 2024

Be Your Own Toughest Evaluator in your UPSC preparation

You must adopt a critical eye towards your progress. Regularly assess your strengths and areas needing improvement, ensuring continuous growth and refinement in your approach. Maintain a logbook of your small achievements and failures. Keep practicing in certain time frames.

Self-Evaluation Techniques for your UPSC Prep

Self-assessment is important for UPSC success because it helps you understand how well you're doing in your studies. It's like a roadmap that tells you where you need to improve and what you're already good at. By knowing your strengths and weaknesses, you can focus your efforts and increase your chances of doing well in the UPSC exam. Here are some self-assessment tips that can help you while preparing for the Civil Services Examination:

  • Test Series: Taking regular practice tests is a dependable way to know how ready you are for the UPSC exam. These tests help you figure out what you're good at and where you need improvement. Here's how to use them:
  • Regular Practice Tests: Take full-length practice tests regularly. This helps you get used to how the exam works and see how good you are at managing your time. However, taking any practice test online may not be very helpful because the quality of the questions might not be good, they might not relate to current events, and the way they're set up could be confusing. Instead of spending time searching for free practice tests or making your own questions, it's better to look for Best IAS Coaching in Delhi and sign up with them. They have experts who create tests with up-to-date information and make sure the questions are tailored as per the latest trends.
  • Checking How You Did: After each practice test, look closely at how you did. Figure out which parts you did well in and which parts you need to get better at. Maintain a register and update it regularly to assess your preparation.
  • Focused Practice: Concentrate on the subjects or topics where you're not doing as well. Practice more on these areas to improve your understanding and knowledge. Remember, by taking these tests and carefully looking at how you do, you can boost your confidence and be well-prepared for the UPSC exam.
  • Syllabus-Centric Prep and Regular Checks on Schedule: While preparing for UPSC, it's crucial to cover the syllabus thoroughly without delving too deeply into specific subjects. Some students make the mistake of going too deep, which may not be effective for UPSC preparation. However, if you have a keen interest in exploring subjects more deeply, you might find satisfaction in pursuing a career as a scientist in India. For further insights, you can check out this blog on How to Become a Scientist in India. To make sure you're on track in your UPSC journey, here are effective ways to keep an eye on your progress
  • Weekly Progress Checks: Every week, take a moment to see how much you've covered in your studies. Ask yourself this question every day, “Are you keeping up with your plan?” This will help you stay on course.
  • Performance Analysis: After practice tests or study sessions, review how you did. Note your strong areas and where you need more work. Tracking your performance is key to improvement and noting this down is a must do.
  • Study Schedule Updates: Regularly update your study schedule. As you progress, adjust it to match your strengths and weaknesses. Make sure it remains effective for your learning style. By focusing on these methods, you can maintain a clear view of your UPSC preparation progress and make the necessary adjustments for success.
  • Checking Your Answers: Mentors play a valuable role by looking at your practice test answers and essays. They go through your answers and essays to understand how well you're doing. They will point out the good parts and areas where you can do better. It's like having a mentor as your study partner who helps you see what you're doing right and what needs a little more attention.
  • Personalized Feedback: What's great about mentors is that they don't give you generic advice; they give you advice that is just for you. They carefully consider your strengths and weaknesses and then offer guidance based on what you need most. This tailored feedback is like a personalized roadmap that tells you exactly where you need to go to improve.
  • Motivation and Support: Sometimes, studying can be challenging, and that's where mentors really help. They act like your biggest cheerleaders, supporting you and motivating you when things get tough. It's like having a friend who keeps you on track, even when you feel like giving up. Their encouragement is priceless, and it helps you stay focused and determined.
  • Through Mentorship: Having a mentor or a guide can be invaluable during your UPSC preparation. Seek mentorship to benefit from the following advantages:

With mentors by your side, you not only get a helping hand in self-assessment but also a supportive and personalized approach to UPSC preparation.


Success in the UPSC exam is achievable with the right mindset, dedication, and resources. Embrace your purpose, follow a well-structured study plan, and stay focussed on your goals. Remember, your journey may be challenging, but with patience and continuous self-assessment during your UPSC preparation, you can crack the exam. Best of luck!


How long does it typically take to prepare for the UPSC exam?

The duration of UPSC exam preparation varies from person to person. On average, candidates spend around 12-18 months in focused preparation. It's essential to customize your preparation according to your background, knowledge, and the amount of time you can dedicate each day.

Can I choose any optional subject for the UPSC exam, or are there specific recommendations?

You have the flexibility to choose any optional subject from the list provided by UPSC. However, it's advisable to choose a subject you are genuinely interested in and have a reasonable understanding of, as this can make your preparation more enjoyable and effective.

Is coaching necessary for UPSC preparation, or can I self-study successfully?

Coaching is not mandatory for UPSC preparation, and many candidates have successfully cleared the exam through self-study. The choice between coaching and self-study depends on your learning style, resources, and discipline. It's important to find a method that works best for you.

What is the ideal daily study routine for UPSC aspirants?

There is no one-size-fits-all study routine, but a general guideline is to maintain consistency and study for 6-8 hours daily. Allocate time to cover all subjects, take regular breaks, and include revision in your schedule. Adapt your routine to suit your peak productivity hours and personal commitments.

Are there any specific tips for time management during the UPSC preparation process?

Effective time management is crucial for UPSC preparation. To manage your time efficiently, create a study timetable, set clear goals, and prioritize your tasks. Use time-saving techniques like studying in focused blocks and employing study aids, such as flashcards and mind maps. Regularly assess your progress and adapt your plan as needed to make the most of your time.

You can also check out - https://bestiascoachingindelhi.com/

Here are some links to free NCERT Books for you to lay a solid foundation to your preparation.
1. 6th – Our Pasts I
2. 6th – The Earth: Our Habitat
3. 7th – Our Environment
4. 8th – Resources & Development
5. 9th – Contemporary India I
6. 9th – Democratic Politics I
7. 11th – Introducing Sociology
8. 12th – Social Change & Development in India
9. 11th – An Introduction to Indian Art

Need UPSC guidance? Look no further!

Josh Talks is here to help you with all your UPSC questions.

More news and ideas from Josh Talks

Table of Content


Mental Groundwork for UPSC Preparation

Essential Items for UPSC preparation

Laying Foundation stones for UPSC preparation


Study NCERT Books for UPSC preparation

Be Your Own Toughest Evaluator in your UPSC preparation



Recommended for you


Talk to UPSC Counsellor


For Already Enrolled UPSC Students:



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