IAS (UPSC CSE) Mains 2021 Strategy and Preparation Tips

Updated On -

May 27, 2021

IAS (UPSC CSE) Main is the second stage after clearing IAS (UPSC CSE) Prelims. The fundamental difference between IAS Prelims and IAS Mains is that while the IAS Prelims focusses on recognition (of information) and requires an exhaustive study covering a wide variety of topics, Mains need the ability to recall, analyse and express (ideas and information, including one’s own thoughts) properly which can only be done through an intensive study of the topic. Download the previous year’s papers along with the answer keys.

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Therefore it is very important to stay focussed and cover in-depth the topics that you have picked for Mains and in doing so you have to match your skills with the subject at hand. Using the right approach and picking the right parts of the syllabus for intensive study will not only help manage time but also garner more marks in the end. check prelims preparation strategy

Paper Subject Duration Total marks
Paper A Compulsory Indian language 3 hours 300 (Qualifying)
Paper B English 3 hours 300 (Qualifying)
Paper I Essay 3 hours 250
Paper II GS Paper I – Indian Heritage & Culture, History & Geography of the World & Society 3 hours 250
Paper III GS Paper II – Governance, Constitution, Welfare Initiatives, Social Justice & International Relations 3 hours 250
Paper IV GS Paper III – Technology, Economic Development, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Security & Disaster Management 3 hours 250
Paper V GS Paper IV – Ethics, Integrity & Aptitude 3 hours 250
Paper VI Optional Subject – Paper I 3 hours 250
Paper VII Optional Subject – Paper II 3 hours 250
IAS Papers

IAS Mains Papers

GS Paper I - IAS Mains

  • Art and Culture - Arts and Culture, also known as the ‘Indian Heritage and Culture’ is 15 % of the total questions. Preparing following three topics Performing Arts, Visual Arts, and Literary Arts.
  • Modern History
  • World History - Focus areas are the Enlightenment, American and French Revolutions and the World Wars.
  • Indian Society - Prepare current affairs-based questions. For Basics – Indian Society Class XI Ncert
  • World and Indian Geography - Prepare important geographical phenomena with special focus on Human Geography, also keep equal focus on Geophysical phenomenon like EarthQuakes, Landslides, etc in news

Here is the detailed General Studies Paper - I Strategy, 

GS Paper II - IAS Mains

  • Indian Polity and Constitution: Polity and constitution hold the major portion of the whole syllabus and questions come every year. Almost 40 % of the total questions of this paper comes from this section which makes it the most and foremost important part to prepare.
  • Governance: From Governance, each year around 25 marks of questions comes and it varies every year. This section holds 10% of the whole syllabus. But the syllabus of Governance is a bit confusing and it is possible that you overdo the reading, so need a better plan.
  • International Relations: International Relations is an important topic for General Studies Paper-II as well as the Essay paper of UPSC IAS Mains. The international relations topic encompasses the foreign policy of India, bilateral relations, regional cooperation, etc. Approx 30% of the total questions of this paper comes from this section. To ease the complexity.
  • Miscellaneous topics: This section is actually an accumulated form of several topics like Social Justice, Poverty and Hunger, Human Development, Welfare scheme, current affairs, etc. Nearly 15 - 20 % of all questions of this paper are taken from this section. Read detailed GS Paper II preparation tips

GS Paper III - IAS Mains

  • Agricultural Issues: Prepare time-tested areas like Farm subsidies, MSP, Irrigation etc.
  • Macroeconomics: Issues that are ‘in the news’ including issues on infrastructure like waterways, railways and ports
  • Science & Tech. : Prepare from current affairs topics New Technologies, India’s Defence and Space program, Milestone development in Medical Science, Nanotechnology, and Biotechnology.
  • Environment: Prepare exclusively from current affairs but also study the science behind the facts. For example, topics like CAMPA Bill or the man animal conflict viz. culling etc.
  • Disaster Management: Prepare from current affairs keeping an eye out for policy frameworks. Topics like Urban flooding and water crisis, Drought and Farmers suicides, Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the National Disaster Management Plan should be prepared
  • Internal Security: Traditional topics connected with current affairs is the way to go. For example, Cross border terrorism and Mob lynchings, AFSPA, Money laundering viz. Fugitive Absconders Bill, NRC and Assam Accord etc. For detailed information about UPSC CSE GS III preparation tips, Click here

GS Paper IV - IAS Mains

The General Studies paper-IV is one of the most scoring papers in the UPSC IAS Mains Exam 2020. To prepare this paper efficiently, try to practice writing the answer about 100-150 words for each of the micro-topics like integrity, compassion, honesty, probity, etc. But to obtain the desired marks, proper strategy is required. check detailed strategy for GS IV

Must read: Best books for General Studies I, II, III and IV

Essay - IAS Mains

Writing is considered as a window to the thought of the writer.What aspirant writes on the paper, will tell the reader how he/she thinks, how he/she argues and how he/she proves your point. That is why for reputed exams like UPSC CSE it has been made mandatory. It is 250 marks paper. Aspirants can avoid common mistakes , know common mistakes that aspirants do in UPSC CSE main exam

It is important for the aspirant to know

  • What language and expression needed
  • How to formulate introduction
  • How to develop content for essay
  • How to prove your viewpoint
  • Where to put quotes
  • How to conclude the essay
  • What practices can improve essay writing skills

Must Read: Detailed Essay preparation strategy

IAS English Paper

English Language Paper - IAS Mains

English Language paper is qualifying in nature.

Purpose of English Language paper are

  • To assess a candidate’s ability to read and understand serious descriptive prose.
  • To assess a candidate’s ability to express his/her ideas correctly and clearly.

The question pattern of the English Language Paper consists of the following sections:

  • Comprehension of given passages.
  • Precise Writing
  • Usage and Vocabulary
  • Short Essay

Click here for detailed preparation tips for the English Language paper

IAS Hindi Paper

Hindi Language Paper - IAS Mains

IAS (UPSC CSE) Mains Exam includes 9 papers among which Paper-A is for Indian/regional Language papers. It is mandatory for all candidates to attempt this paper except candidates from the north-eastern states of Mizoram, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and Nagaland.

Almost 65% of total candidates of UPSC Mains choose the Hindi Language though in India only 46% of candidates come from Hindi speaking background or Hindi medium. One has to qualify this paper so that he/she will be able to know the ultimate ranking of other papers of the UPSC Mains Exam.

Optional Paper

Optional Paper - IAS Mains

According to the new IAS exam pattern, the number of optional subjects for UPSC exam to be chosen by the candidate for the Mains exam has decreased to one. The Civil Services Mains Exam General Studies papers account for 1000 marks and the two Optional Papers account for 250 marks each. Therefore, it is important for aspirants to put a lot of thinking before choosing the optional subject. Check how to crack the interview round

Checkout Topper’s trend of choosing optional subjects

Name Educational Qualification Optional Subject chosen
Gaurav Agrawal( AIR -1 )(2013) Engineer and MBA Economics
Ira Singhal( AIR -1 )(2014) Engineer Geography
Tina Dabi ( AIR -1 )(2015) Political Science Political Science and International Relations
Nandini KR ( AIR -1 )(2016) Engineer Kannada Literature
Anudeep Durishetty( AIR -1 )(2017) Engineer Anthropology
Kanishak Kataria( AIR -1 )(2018) Engineer Mathematics
Pradeep Singh( AIR -1 )(2019) Engineer Public Administration

Optional Paper Tips

Must Read: Detailed optional Syllabus

The IAS mains Preparation is comprehensive and the questions asked in the CSE require not only a certain depth of understanding but also the ability to present the answers in a coherent manner. The syllabus of UPSC mains comprises both static and dynamic aspects. Hence, it is essential for the IAS aspirants to track and sort the current affairs under appropriate papers/headings as per the UPSC mains syllabus.

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*The article might have information for the previous academic years, please refer the official website of the exam.


What is included in English Language Paper, what is its pattern?
kavita rani

Hi Muheshraaj. Sections like Comprehension of given passages, Precise Writing, Usage and Vocabulary, Short Essay, etc. are included in the exam. More information is mentioned here.

mizna harmain
Why English Language Paper is included in the IAS Mains exam?
kavita rani

Hi Mizna. English Language paper is qualifying in nature and it is included to assess candidate’s ability to read and understand serious descriptive prose and how effectively they are able to express their ideas correctly and clearly.

lakshay kakkar
What is the total percentage of candidates opting for Hindi Language exam?
kavita rani

Almost 65% of total candidates of UPSC Mains select the Hindi Language in India; one need to qualify this paper so that he/she will be able to know the ultimate ranking of other papers of the UPSC Mains Exam.
Click here for detailed preparation tips for Hindi Language paper.


uma goenka
What comes in GS Paper IV - IAS Mains exam?
kavita rani

Hi Uma. The General Studies paper-IV is one of the most scoring papers in the UPSC IAS Mains Exam and to prepare efficiently for this paper, candidates must practice writing the answer of 100-150 word limit on micro-topics like integrity, compassion, honesty, probity, etc. For more information, refer here.

tanishka shah
What is the preparation strategy for GS Paper III IAS Mains exam?
kavita rani

Hi Tanishka. For agricultural Issues, candidates must prepare time-tested areas like Farm subsidies, MSP, Irrigation etc. While preparing for Macroeconomics, candidates must read all the issues related to infrastructure like waterways, railways and ports.

koyena biswas
What is the educational qualification needed to appear in IAS exam?
kavita rani

Hi Koyena. Candidates having a graduation degree can apply but candidates must hold a degree of any of Universities incorporated by an Act of the Central or State Legislature in India.

What is the salary of an IAS officer?
kavita rani

Hi Nishu. IAS salary structure consists of different Pay Scales, Junior Scale, Senior Scales, Super Time Scale, Above Super Time Scales etc. Each of the pay scales further consists of different pay bands. For more information, you can refer here.