What determines success in the civil services exam?

Competitive exams like UPSC requires focused attention and a progressive approach, a slight deviation from the right path can terribly affect the result. To adapt traits which are helpful to crack the exam and to withdraw from habits which could lead to failure is one of the decisive factors for students preparing for UPSC.

Winning Traits include high curiosity level, having a learner’s attitude, having an administrator attitude- candidates’ ability to differentiate emotions (which is what is tested in essay and ethics), ability to differentiate emotions doesn’t clutter the mind of the student, high degree of self-understanding and having ability to bond with people.

Losing Traits include having a herd mentality, being gullible and rumormongers, being non-receptive to novel things and being arrogant.

Let us learn ‘what’ and ‘why’ UPSC expects from a candidate at each stage of the examination….


PRELIMS: Through this stage, the following qualities are assessed.

  • CLARITY OF MIND: A civil servant entrusted with the responsibility of the society should have a mind which is very clear on its thoughts to take a just and lucid decision. Similarly mind should be strong and solid enough to be able to withstand stress and answer the questions in a balanced manner.
  • SPEED: An administrator has to take big decisions and that too immediately.
  • DECISION MAKING: An administrator’s success depends on how many correct decisions he could take in his life as they affect the country and its people.
  • MEMORY: It should be able to sort out what it requires even in the foggiest situations.
  • FOCUS: Concentration is a forte of an administrator’s mind.
  • AWARENESS: Civil servant should be aware of the times, its requirements and the technology and means available, to make a good decision. Civil servant is expected to observe things that happen around you and retain them. Undoubtedly, such a mind would have a store of information and knowledge that he could use as raw material while taking a decision. Such a mind would be rational, continuously working and progressive.

Similarly, one should be aware of the differences between each tier of the exam. This will help them help approach preparation in a scientific manner and mould their brain and personality accordingly.


MAINS: Notification says that, ‘The main Examination is intended to assess the overall intellectual traits and depth of understanding of candidates rather than merely the range of their information and memory. The questions are likely to test the candidate’s basic understanding of all relevant issues, and ability to analyze, and take a view on conflicting socio-economic goals, objectives and demands’. ‘Mains’ assesses the quality of thoughts and content of one’s mind. These will enter subconsciously into one’s answer sheets. Through this stage the following qualities are assessed.

  • ANALYTICAL ABILITY:The assay mark of a good mind is that it can better analyse things, such a mind is more productive. Administrators need to have such minds.
  • NOVELTY:Societal change is brought about when someone decides to do something new. Doing something new is the contribution of an administrator to the society and the country. If he is unable to do so, he is simply confined to the role of the manager of organising things.
  • PROFICIENCY IN EXPRESSION/LANGUAGE AND PRESENTATION: Just like a bee has to suck nectar from many flowers to create honey, similarly, aspirant while writing answers for mains collects his wisdom from many sources. An administrator has to deal with all kinds of people. If one lacks proficiency in language they will not be able to govern people effectively.
  • SUCCINCTNESS:Civil servant has to orally inform superiors about many things every day. They will also have to submit files with comments. Too much talk and long comments are signs of a weak mind. A man with brevity is considered to be an able administrator.
  • ETHICS, APTITUDE AND INTEGRITY: it is no rocket science that why a civil servant should be ethical, should have strong aptitude and should be a person of high integrity.


INTERVIEW:Notification says that, ‘The object of the interview is to assess the personal suitability of the candidate for a career in public service. The test is intended to judge the mental calibre of a candidate. In broad terms this is really an assessment of not only his intellectual qualities but also social traits and his interest in current affairs. Some of the qualities to be judged are mental alertness, critical powers of assimilation, clear and logical exposition, balance of judgement, variety and depth of interest, ability for social cohesion and leadership, intellectual and moral integrity. It is not intended to be a test either of the specialised or general knowledge of the candidates which has been already tested through their written papers. Candidates are expected to have taken an intelligent interest not only in their special subjects of academic study but also in the events which are happening around them both within and outside their own State or Country as well as in modern currents of thought and in new discoveries which should rouse the curiosity of well-educated youth’.

Success in civil services coaching requires comprehensive preparation in terms of content, proper time management in the exam. It requires leaving nothing to chance. It requires having a very clear vision to clear the IAS ceiling and be a factor for change in the society. It requires preparing both subconsciously and consciously. It requires keeping self updated of all the current happenings and seeing them with different perceptive lenses and not a rigid outlook. It requires a strong foundation through NCERTs and gradually switched over to the higher-level standard books. It requires immersing self into the preparation but also not shying away from pursuing special interests and hobbies in the free time. It requires gaining abundant insights from travel experiences of the past, conversations with relatives, mates, friends, etc.

Firstly, there are few things that should be kept in the back of the mind during the entire phase:

  • UPSC is not looking for specialists in each of the subjects mentioned in the syllabus but it wants the future civil servants to have a general knowledge on the topics mentioned in the syllabus.
  • We all have experienced this natural tendency of comparing ourselves with others. REMEMBER…If you are starting something new, never compare yourself with others especially the successful ones and those who have been doing it for a long time.
  • If one goes through the pattern of marks scored by successful candidates in prelims or mains stage one will find that a score of 55-60% can make you sail comfortably through the prelims stage and a 50% score in mains exam with a decent interview performance can fetch you a very good rank in the final list. It is definitely a no brainer that scoring 50% marks does not require some kind of specialization.
  • Believe in self: try, try and try again until you succeed
  • Identify reasons for failure: no one is perfect. focus on both strengths and weaknesses (most aspirants just focus on their strengths). Do a meticulous analysis of test series results and work on the weaknesses.
  • Be in a positive environment
  • Be patient: time heals all difficulties and hope is a great balm, Work hard for a better tomorrow
  • Introspect
  • Never give up: nothing is impossible, problems are part of the journey which are going to be resolved ultimately
  • Acknowledge your success
  • Follow simple/ uncomplicated approach: Jump onto the IAS bandwagon with a proper strategy for the subjects.
  • Do not lose the ‘BALANCE’: remain consistent. It is not like do hard work for 6 months and then nothing. Maintain a balance in almost all spheres of life-neither eat too much nor exercise too much. Maintain balance between static and dynamic portions of the syllabus.
  • Do not believe in rumours: do not allow things to demotivate and distract you. Focus solely on the preparation and nothing else.
  • Read from limited sources and revise the limited set of books, notes that have been prepared at least 3-5 times. DO NOT ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE LOST IN ONLINE OCEANS…
  • Do not procrastinate: Many aspirants plan thoroughly and set monthly, weekly and daily goals. But, due to procrastination are unable to complete them. It leads to piling up of topics to be covered. It leads to stress and skipping of topics and ultimately giving up.
  • Do not allow fear of failure stifles you into inaction. Successful candidates do not allow fear to hamper their preparation.
  • Attitude: Cracking the UPSC civil services is not for the faint-hearted or languid ones. Stay motivated and stay hungry.
  • Cover the basics first, then go to intermediate level, and only once intermediate is cemented in the grey matter, go to advance stuff.
  • Do not ignore the body: continuously do exercise, maintain yourself physically emotionally and mentally, pursue your hobbies/passion.
  • Remember the harder you work, the luckier you will get.
  • Finally, embrace the hard reality-that in this exam there are only 2 possibilities-one will either SUCCEED or will either fail. Before undertaking this journey one should be ready to face any unpredictable circumstance/hardship/risk. To put it simply, ONE SHOULD BE READY TO EMBRACE FAILURES. Tough times, failures, hardships are inevitable. No matter how strong or powerful or confident one is, tough times will come: viciously forcing their might and causing one to crumble.

Aspirants who are confused about how to start preparations for the UPSC should follow these points:

  • Firstly, one should understand the process and pattern of examination.
  • The syllabus of the examination should be imbibed by referring to it daily. An accurate understanding of the nature, clarity, and scope of the syllabus is crucial for good preparation. It helps in understanding what to read and what not to read.
  • After this one should thoroughly read the past five years’ question papers of both preliminary test and mains examination. This will give a direction to the candidate that what one should focus upon while reading such a vast syllabus.
  • Before you start your preparation, a smart strategy needs to be scripted keeping in mind the details of each step that you have to go through.
  • Then choose the right study material. If one thinks that he/she needs to read HUNDREDS of books, browse TENS of websites and prepare notes from FIVE newspapers and TEN magazines each day to clear IAS, THIS IS WRONG. The exaggerated actions are neither practical nor necessary to clear CSE. Even if an imaginary person does all what is stated above, there is still chance that he/she not clear Prelims/Mains. So what matters is not the quantity of materials one had gone through, but the quality of learning and revision done.
  • Instead of rigorous studies, studying smartly is the ideal way. What does studying smartly mean? Few easy-to-implement tips to study smart for UPSC Exam:
  • Learn in multiple ways
  • Read multiple subjects in one day
  • Avoid multitasking
  • Take handwritten notes
  • Learn by association
  • Revise periodically
  • Simplify the information
  • Practice tests
  • Know what to filter
  • Read textbooks effectively
  • Don’t cram, understand
  • Read important information out loud
  • Reward yourself
  • Take a break and make those breaks happening but in a way that one gets back to preparation with double the zeal and enthusiasm.

Key Ingredients for success in a nutshell:

  1. Build your own strategy and take the best out of everything available around you.
  2. Evaluating oneself in course of preparation, understand your strengths and weakness; work over it.
  3. Hard work is the ultimate key for success. This is the only thing we can bank upon throughout the journey.
  4. Keep calm, be persistent in your goal and always believe why you want to be a Civil Servant, keep remembering that in your tough phases, this way you will not only cross it but you will with flying colors.
  5. Self-Belief: whenever you feel low, talk to your parents, mentors and well-wishers, try to get positive vibes from them.

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