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How to handle Prelims GS Paper I

GS for prelims have always been a nightmare both for the freshers as well as aspirants who have previously appeared and cleared prelims. This is primarily because of the vastness of the syllabus wherein almost everything under the sun is covered. Add to it the objective nature of the examination, which makes it important to go through even the minutest details of everything in the syllabus and to be able to recollect and reproduce it accurately in the examination.

Vastness of General Studies is like an ocean. It cannot be measured merely on the basis of topic or sections. Anything that exists in the universe can be a part of General Studies, especially if that is in news. Aspirants, those who are taking Civil Services Examination must be aware of this fact. Its Vastness often leads to directionless preparation. But understanding of the trend help in carving proper focus. While preparing for Civil Services one needs a precise strategy, idea of Questions and topics those are important for the exam.

The aspirants should start their study after analyzing previous years’ questions. One should carefully read out the questions, try to understand the nature of questions and identify those sections or topics where large counts of questions are asked. For example, Indian History consists of three parts Ancient, Medieval and Modern. Large numbers of questions, concerning History, are asked from Modern India. Even in Modern history, freedom struggle is most important. So, aspirants are suggested to focus core areas according to the number of questions asked. In preliminary exam, nature of questions are factual as well as analytical. One must keep in mind this aspect. While reading aspirants should note down factual points and mark analytical portions of topics. It will help in revising any topic and remembering the facts. Since, assertion and reasoning type questions have been increasing in number, one is required to read between the lines.

Generally, candidates know the sources of study materials and the way to prepare, yet, they do not/cannot do it. There is clearly a psychological block somewhere. The desire is there, but will is lacking. Unconsciously they have already presumed that it is too difficult, too lengthy and too boring. Another bottleneck is how to begin with. The procrastination attitude delays the first baby step to start with GS. Unfor¬tunately, aspirants have made it really difficult at least on two areas: the loss of precious time and the reinforcement of psychological block.

Well begun is half the work done and aspirants must realize that they have already began well if they have taken the first step towards overcoming the phobia of General Studies. It clearly means aspirants want to do something about general studies and they realize that this is the right time. The aspirants should not leave it for the tomorrow that never comes. So the journey starts the day one starts with general studies!

There is something about general studies quite unlike other sub¬jects. Aspirants are learning general studies every moment of their interaction and communication. In the morning general studies begins with reading newspaper. Attending classroom lecture is also general studies. Visiting the li¬brary is learning general studies. Attending the gymnasium is learning general studies as one invariably ends up learning someth¬ing about games or sports news in the gym. At times, dinner table talks may prove to be more stimulating general studies than a classroom lecture. In short, the world we live in is information packed and we are constantly being bombarded on all sides with information. To take the best of it, we have to organize it systematically.

There is so much information all around us that we cannot possibly take it all. So, aspirants should be selective and decide on their priorities. It means, orient one’s life style in such a manner that general studies come naturally and easily. Reading news¬paper, watching current event programmes and quiz programmes, attending seminars and lectures should become a part of day-to-day living. Then, the learning will be effortless and pain¬less. There is a lot of psychologi¬cal burden along with the burden of reading printed matter when one is all of a sudden exposed to volumes of reading material. Therefore, one should start learning general studies while making it a part of their daily routine and do it as early as possible.

It is quite clear now that preparation for general studies, keeping in view civil services exams, needs an effective strategy. Every strategy is composed of many tactics. The best and the most important tactic contained in the strategy to be devised for preparing GS is developing interest in the general happenings and information around. Initially, it is quite difficult to inculcate interest especially at a later stage. It has to be inculcated at an early stage. But even otherwise, there is never anything late in life. Interest develops in two ways: naturally and with conscious effort. The natural interest develops quite early in life. For such people general studies preparation is like a cakewalk, a fun and not a serious subject to be pursued. As with any art, discipline or skill, so with GS, a regular, disciplined and organized effort is the primary requirement.

The first and foremost thing an aspirant should do to tackle General Studies Paper I (Prelims) is reading daily newspaper. So, aspirants should focus on news every day with an eye on the civil services preparation. The aspirants would be naturally prodded to discover something more in the news. They should collect more information related to the area of news. For example, the slogan ‘Health for all’ should prompt one to discover more on programmes to eradicate diseases in our country and the steps being taken to control some of the diseases. The growing rate of population should lead one to the basics of demographic issues and so on. The aspirants must have noticed that the questions in the civil services examination are directly or indirectly related to what has been in the news recently. For instance, Higgs boson was in news for last one year, hence, there was a question in the 2013 PT examination on ‘Higgs boson’. The question was “The efforts to detect the existence of Higgs boson particle have become frequent news in the recent past. What is/are the importance (s) of discovering this particle?” The point is, candidates must develop curiosity in the daily news and gather more information on it.

Following tips may be of much help:
1. Be attentive and curious towards the daily news.
2. News contains some reference or a bit of information pertain¬ing to a specific area. So, build up your knowledge of the referred area beginning with the information you get in the news.
3. From there inculcate your interest in that specific subject, so that when you study it for the examination you already have some facts, figures and information at your command.

The advice tendered above is merely one of the innumerable ways in which interest in general studies can be created. The aspirants can them¬ self devise their own methodology. However, one thing is certain: general studies cannot be improved without a diversified reading habit. Till now some aspirants might have been interested in reading litera¬ture only and, therefore, they know why their knowledge in the field of literature is relatively stronger. There is a phenomenon in psychology called ‘transfer of training’. It simply means training in one area or activity can be transferred to the other area with a relatively greater ease than the process involved in learning a new activity itself. If one has a sound reading habit irrespec¬tive of the subject, it is more likely that he/she will pick up general studies with greater ease. If one has not been a habitu¬al reader, the process of learning general studies will perhaps be only slightly more difficult, not impossible though.

A month just before exam, the first thing one can surely do, even if they have not studied anything, is not to panic at all. The more one panics, the more one is under confusion, stress and mental tension and conse¬quently less organized one is, less is one's productivity and efficiency, and hence, less learning and output. Then, it is obviously going to be undesirable result for them.

Every civil services aspirant is supposed to have a general studies guide book. Those who do not possess one must buy a less bulky and more comprehensive standard guide and such a guide book has to be taken seriously. First, aspirants should concentrate on the areas where they are weak. If aspirants are from a non science background, they are presumably weak in science. If aspirants find science a difficult subject in the guide book wherein they are convinced that the output despite their best efforts will be negligible, leave it then and there. No point in wasting time over it. Then, aspirants should go back to the class sixth, sev¬enth and eighth standard science books from NCERT. That will acquaint them with the basics of science in a simple manner. In any case, most of the GS questions from science that will be asked in the examination will be based on application for which a basic understanding of sci¬ence is essential. Presuming, aspirants are good in history, they do not need anything more than a quick scanning and a quick revision of the history books. Indian polity is the least time consuming of all the topics included in the general studies syllabus. One must quickly scan through ‘Indian democracy at Work’ and ‘We and Our Govern¬ment’, both NCERT books. For Indian economy, aspirants right now leave out any bulky book and acquaint themselves with the basic problems like population, poverty, unemployment; terms used in economics; current economic data, the latest five year plan and economic survey documents. For current events, candidates should refer to competi¬tion magazines of the last eight to ten months. Geography will take quite some time if one does it from all the NCERT books available. Time is what aspirants don’t have at this stage in the last month. Therefore, aspirants should just refer to it from their guide book. They should go through NCERT higher secondary books.

When aspirants have about ten days left for the examination, they should test their preparedness under examination conditions. They should note the area where they ex¬perienced greater difficulty. In the course of their revision, they should put greater emphasis in the area/areas where they experienced diffi¬culty.

Question Pattern
The Kothari Commission Report states, “A university graduate aspiring to enter the All India and Central Services should have a wide range of interests. He should be aware of what is happening around him, and should possess knowledge of the country and the people. We recommend that the subject of general studies covering these aspects should be included in the scheme of the preliminary as well as the main examination. This may be covered in one paper and should include questions on general science, current events of nation¬al and international importance, history and geography of India, Indian polity and economy and the Indian national movement.

Questions on general science should cover general appreciation and understanding of science, including matters of everyday observa¬tion and experience, as may be expected of a well educated person who has not made a special study of any scientific discipline. In history, emphasis should be on broad general understanding of the subject in its social, economic and political aspects. Questions on the geography of India should relate to physical, social and economic geography of the country, including the main features of Indian agriculture and natural resources. Questions on Indian polity and economy should test knowledge about the country’s political system, Panchayati raj, community development and plan¬ning in India. Questions on Indian national movement should relate to the nature and character of the 19th century resur-gence, growth of nationalism and attainment of independence.”

Based on the above recommendations, questions in the examination will be truly of general nature but at the same time aimed to test candidates’ understanding, analytical and reasoning ability as well as factual knowledge. However, there will be least emphasis on testing the memorizing ability. Let us see some of the questions asked in Prelims 2013.

(a) Acid rain is caused by the pollution of environment by ….. This is a fundamental question. Whoever has read a basic book on science can answer this question.
(b) In which state lion-tailed macaque found in its natural habitat? This is a factual and general knowledge based question
(c) The people of India agitated against the arrival of Simon Commission because…. A student, who read history in his/her school days can answer this question without giving a second thought.
(d) The balance of payment of a country is a systematic record of …. This is a factual as well as basic fundamental question of economics. When one starts reading economics, after GDP and GNP, Balance of Payment is the next term which a student comes across.

Some Useful Tips
The general studies paper contains one hundred objec¬tive-type multiple choice questions of two hours duration. The prelims syllabus requires you to know Indian history and polity, geography, economy, science, current affairs and sports. There is no hard and fast delineation as to which area will have how many questions. The respective weightage on different areas vary from year to year.
In a certain year you may find less questions in history and more question in economics. Within science itself the questions appear from phys¬ics, chemistry, biology, agriculture and animal husbandry. Here also in a certain year there may be hardly a question or two from agriculture and animal husbandry, and the very next year there may be between five to ten questions from agriculture and animal husbandry. So, you should prepare yourself for any eventu¬ality and should not neglect any area.

Secondly, the orientation of the question especially in the areas like polity, economics, geography and science will be towards what is in news recently. Therefore, even while preparing the topic of General Studies syllabus keep your eyes on current details. And based on the issues that are in news recently look for basics and background.

The last three years’ prelims trend says, more and more questions now are framed around concepts rather than events or fixtures and a candidate is expected to work more on the following lines which is by and large a four step process.

Firstly, he is expected to master all the important concepts in a holistic manner across all the disciplines, be it history, polity, economy, geography, science and tech, etc.

Secondly, he needs to understand the theories around which the concepts are woven to offer explanations.

Thirdly, he needs to incorporate interdisciplinary concepts to explore more theories and explanations and thus further enrich understanding.

Finally, he needs to apply these theories and concepts to real situations and discover their validity or falsity for a given set of values.

This four step process though sounds very stupendous but is in-fact a solid foundation to all types of learning. Further following this four step process not only ensures that a candidate clears his GS paper in the prelims but also is very much on track as far as preparations for mains are concerned.

In consonance with this four step process, there are several noticeable trends which are visible in the GS paper of the CSAT examination. Foremost, we find that unlike in the past, the nature of questions asked in the GS paper are more multifaceted, that is, within the same question, the UPSC tends to identify whether the candidate has a grasp over a concept and whether he is also in a position to apply that concept and give out answers to questions involving theoretical linkages with other concepts.

So much so that even some questions from history envisage a candidate to use his knowledge of the social, economic and cultural variables of the time, to answer the questions rather than information like the genealogy of the kings and important dates, that is to indicate a definitive shift from the fact based pattern of asking questions. Furthermore the increased emphasis on concepts and understanding can be seen in some questions like that on Karl Marx and dialectical materialism (CSAT 2011), which otherwise is a core concept of sociology and political science, and not considered a part of GS, but is of ultimate importance to the understanding of various political and economic concepts. An extension of the same idea in the disciplines of polity and economics is in the form of asking questions in which the application of the concepts and the theoretical perspectives to real practical situations is required thereby testing for the candidates’ grasp in scenarios where such application of theoretical paradigms is not absolute. In other words, not only it is important to know the ‘what’ but also the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ aspects in a critical perspective, taking the entire preparation to the advanced level, closer to that of the mains exam.

Another important trend which is worth paying attention is the increasing need to have an in-depth knowledge of concepts across various disciplines to answer questions as amalgamation of concepts from various disciplines into one question is being increasingly observed. This is further coupled with a situation in which entire paper is almost evenly divided among questions drawing their nucleus from all the important disciplines and areas mentioned in the syllabus without particular or disproportionate emphasis on any one of the areas as was frequently observed in the past.

The UPSC seems to be testing all areas of study in the same way i.e. in a four step framework as described above, by imparting holistic colors to the paper. This means that a candidate can no longer afford to skip economics or polity or for that matter even science and technology on the pretext that he finds them hard to absorb and go for the examination with selective preparation only of those disciplines on which he is comfortable. Leaving out on even one of the portions can cost them dearly given the type of questions and level of competition which the candidates are exposed to, presently. What the commission seeks to test is that whether a candidate can understand his surroundings well and has the ability to use concepts acquired from various disciplines in consonance with each other in multifarious ways so as to make the understanding holistic, practical and useful. An extension of this idea is reflected in questions which may not now be straight ‘forward’ but straight ‘backward’ whereby the candidate is encouraged to think in multiple directions and not only in the forward direction by relating terms and events with concepts but also relating concepts with terms and happenings. That is to say that there is no more space for learning by rote, unless you know your lessons well and can play with the concepts, things would remain undone.

This also means that studying NCERT is necessary but not sufficient as the candidate has to cultivate the skill of understanding concepts beyond the conventional perspective himself, which is something he cannot acquire simply by gazing over NCERT which is more knowledge intensive rather than application intensive. In that sense, only candidates who have managed to take their preparation to the next level run a chance of clearing the Prelims. All this, however has proved to be a blessing in disguise for the smart candidate who knows his lessons well as very much of the questions can now be answered merely by applying common sense and also one becomes more comfortable in hitting at the right answers to those questions which offer more than one correct answer or present very close alternatives or involve application of some level of value based subjectivity in coming to the right answers.

Maximize the Probability of Answering
Now the question is as to how to maximize the probability of answering the most number of questions in the paper. Foremost is adhering to the wide extensive approach to which there is no substitute. A candidate must be thorough with the various important concepts across all disciplines in conjugation with popular theoretical paradigms. One must seriously strive to chart the course of his preparation along the four step process mentioned earlier in this chapter. From the beginning of his preparation one must try to see things in terms of their importance and utility in practical scenarios which will become handy by making newspaper reading a practice and assisting this study with some good reference magazines. This will not only help a candidate in terms of consolidation of concepts but also help in enlarging his vision to encompass diverse perspectives, thus imparting holistic shades to his outlook and proving beneficial even in the longer run when he is confronted with the challenge of the mains exam.

Once a wide extensive coverage is achieved, it should be followed by a selective intensive approach in which the keyword is ‘current affairs’. Now the word current affairs itself is so broad that some candidates find the application of the selective intensive approach almost impossible. But an avid observer will notice that there is definite definition of ‘relevant’ current affairs and irrelevant current affairs, which we can very well deduce from the previous year question papers. This emphasis on current is not arbitrary and trivial rather very logical and limited to its utility in terms of contemporary needs and requirements.  Other than questions in history of which almost no pattern could be predicted, rest all the questions try to lift concepts which have particular relevance to the issues and challenges the country is facing or which promise to offer some solutions to those issues and challenges. Even the questions on science and technology are neither as difficult as rocket science nor is everything written in NCERT asked, only those questions which incorporate concepts having direct relevance with what is of immediate consequence to the lives of the people are asked. A candidate must cultivate an eye for spotting such pieces of information and concepts which have contemporary relevance and on which intensive preparation should be done as in most cases one or the other aspects studied during the course of preparation proves to be a handful in zeroing down on the correct answer from the given alternatives.

Having said all this it is equally important to mention in the end, that a candidate must always try to remain original and honest during the course of preparation. All we can offer are just vital clues to make your approach focused and streamlined but the best approach for you is the one you think is the best for you. One must realize this fact very early in his preparation that the best person who can help you in sailing through the course of this examination is the one who you see in the mirror, because he is the person who best knows your strengths and weaknesses and is thus the best guide for you.

So work hard, be honest and focused and success will be yours!!!


1. If aspirants are reading for the first time, they should go at a slower pace and underline the relevant portions in the reading mate¬rial.
2. Second and subsequent reading should be faster.
3. In reading material some portions are very important, others are less important and yet others are not important. Aspirants should use their discretion in sorting out such areas and give them propor¬tionate attention.
4. Similarly, some aspirants are very strong in certain areas, weak in others and perhaps very weak in some. For example, as a student of his¬tory or science an aspirant is probably very strong in these areas. He/she should give greater attention and time to the areas in which they are weak.
5. In the general studies paper of prelims, most of the questions apart from the current events, center of the current develop¬ments of news. Therefore, aspirants should keep their eyes and ears open for such developments/news. For example, in agriculture instead of pure agriculture, a news item ‘Cabinet approves the Bt Brinzal’ will be more valuable from the examination point of view.
6. It is better to scrutinize and do a model paper in GS that closely resembles the examination pattern before one get down to study. A model paper will enable aspirants to have a feel of the actual ques¬ tions in the examination, thereby enabling them to orient their study style according to the examination pattern. It will also highlight their stronger and weaker spots.
7. Aspirants should keep themself in constant touch with the other examinees so that they are ever aware of the impending examination, the current events, and the important areas in a particular year and the other insights possible only in a group setting.
8. As aspirants progress in learning, they must be able to retain what they have already learnt. For this, they need to refer back constantly and revise what they have done. More so, if they are a fresher and reading for the first time.
9. Learning in GS is greatly facilitated by group discussion. At a certain interval of reading period aspirants should be discussing what they have learnt in the company of others. Sessions with a group help to know weaknesses and strengths thereby making one more and more motivated to learn.
10. Testing oneself at frequent intervals with the help of model test papers, highlights one’s progress. If aspirants’ score goes on in¬ creasing, it is a very positive sign. A time will come when score already high enough hovers around a particular level and doesn’t show significant increase. This should not dishearten them as they have already reached a high performance stage. Howev¬ er, if aspirants’ score is low and doesn’t show significant increase it is a matter of concern. Most probably, they have neglected their study or haven’t put much emphasis on their weak spots!

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