What is UPSC looking for in you?

What is UPSC looking for in you?

Okay, so let us tell you the secrets to being successful in IAS by revealing what UPSC is looking for in the candidates. It is but quite natural that there has to be some criteria to choose. It is not just UPSC but all countries have come up with their own methods to select candidates for administrative services. Nearly all of these methods include exams and interviews. UPSC has also modified the selection criteria according to its needs and settled upon a three stage selection process. You already know about this.

You must ask this question now: how will UPSC assess you for everything that is required in an administrative officer through this exam? If this question is occurring to you then it is a good sign that you have potential to be an IAS officer.

It is obvious that if you opt for history and become a district collector you will not be asked to write a history of the district. If you take geography, you will not have to produce a map of the district when you are the District Magistrate. Your vast reserves of general knowledge will not be of much use once you start working as an administrative officer. So if all this is required later, why does UPSC make us toil over it?

The answer is simple. It is through these methods only that UPSC tests your mind, thoughts and character. This is similar to how before buying a new pot you tap it with your fingers to check it. If you do not like the UPSC pattern, then we would like you to suggest another improved pattern which is fool- proof with no errors. This is not just difficult but almost impossible. You may hold any opinion about the UPSC selection process but as of now you have this three-stage exam. It will help you better understand what is expected of you in the preliminary exam, in the mains and in the interview. Believe us this is going to help you prepare better.

Preliminary exam

First of all you must realise that it is a kind of entrance test and not the actual exam. UPSC has made a provision for it so that candidates for mains exam can be shortlisted. You must know that unlike preliminary exam the basic nature of main exam is descriptive. Its papers cannot be evaluated by a computer as is done in the preliminary exam papers. This is being pointed out for those students who do not take this into account and think that preparing for and clearing the preliminary exam is enough in itself.

So let us study its structure first:

  • It includes a general knowledge paper.
  • It includes a CSAT paper.
  • It asks objective- type questions.
  • The given options are complex, long and difficult.
  • You have to solve almost 80 to 100 questions in 120 minutes.

You must be aware that for the first time since 1979, in 2011 i.e. thirty-two years later it was decided to change the nature of the preliminary exam, which was actually a delayed move. The change should have happened sooner, by 2001 at least, because in these 32 years the nature of Indian democracy, administration and economy has undergone tremendous change. But it is better late than never. UPSC deserves praise for it anyway.

This change will benefit the country and the society. So, of course, it would benefit you too. This will help you decide how to do your preparation because if you link your preparation to the benefit of the nation and the society it’ll not only change the way you prepare but also make it easier. You should also be aware of this so you start your job or face difficulties in performing your role. This way you’ll be able to enjoy whatever you do. And this way you will be working for the betterment of yourself and of all.

In the last 32 years, the country and the world have undergone major changes. This can be divided into two categories. The first aspect is changes in the administrative structure. With the expansion of democracy there is a decentralisation of power and the nature of administration has turned more into organisation. The difference between the two is that whereas ‘orders’ are used in an administration, ‘request’ is used in an organisational structure.

Administration has some scope for dictatorship but organisation depends on your skills as a leader. So the country needs now more of an organiser than an administrator. This means the person should be able to fulfil his duties using motivation, not punishment. Now a manager is required, not an administrator. Students of public administration will be able to understand this better. The present administrative structure can be referred to as the ‘new public administration’ because they know what it is.

The next big change has occurred due to globalisation. Geographical boundaries may still exist but social, economical and cultural boundaries in the world have been blurred. Now our own nation shall not suffice. Our feet should be on the ground but our arms above the entire world. Of course, we can’t do this literally but we can do this mentally. In other words, we need a mind that is logical, broad and highly receptive. Only such a mind can bring about this amalgamation of the self with the world.

It’s simple. When an organisation hires someone their sole purpose is that the person should be able to do the work that they need to be done. Hospitals do hire people who are capable of treating patients, educational institutes look for people who can teach, research institutes want scientists whereas industries need engineers and managers. But when it comes to civil services, it is not so specific.

There are two kinds of administrators that are required in public administration: specialists and general. When you start the job you fall under the latter category. By ’general’ we mean students with all the basic qualities that can be moulded as per the need. For example, Indian Administrative Service is a general service. Administrative work, while being very important, does not require specialisation.

However, Indian Police Service, Indian Foreign Service and some other services demand specialisation. But UPSC, so far, hasn’t come up with an idea of different entrance procedures to different services. It has a single exam for all services. In these circumstances it is a real challenge for the UPSC to choose young people who fit the requirements of all services.

Do you know that UPSC does not recommend you to the Home Ministry based on your virtues? Its recommendations are based on two things. First, your ranking. And second, preferences given by you for the services. It simply matches these two things and decides what service you are going to be in. This is why UPSC has to adopt a ‘general entrance exam’ approach for civil services.

In other words, for civil services, such a metal is required that can be moulded into anything – plate, bowl, glass etc. It does not matter much to UPSC what you wish to be at a personal level. It is only interested in determining whether you are a deserving candidate or not. Now the question is: how do you know whether an individual has that metal or not?

To decide this, two things will be taken into considerations: the man’s mind and his personality. The individual takes a decision and his personality implements it. In other words, decisions are shaped by personality and the individual follows them. So mind and personality are connected.

For instance, one may have decided to oversee the law and order situation; this decision has been made by one’s mind. Now there are many ways to implement it. One could take strict measures to achieve my goal. One can also ask people to cooperate. One can implement my decision at once or do it step by step. This will depend on one’s personality.

Therefore, Civil services candidates are tested for an appropriate mind, practical thinking and effective personality. All the systems and mechanisms adopted by the UPSC are meant to achieve this very objective. The preliminary exams, the mains and interview are meant to test these characteristics only. Everything from deciding on to the subjects to the style of forming questions is intended towards that goal.

We decided to talk about this because we have seen young students study for up to twelve hours, years after year. They have this misconception that the more they will study; the more likely they are to pass the exam. This reasoning stems from their ‘successful’ experience of university exams. However, the requirements of civil services and the university are different.

University exams test one’s knowledge, not personality. But knowledge is not required for civil services. Knowledge is only the means to test the analytical ability of the mind. If you don’t develop the ability to critically analyse the knowledge you have gained, it will be difficult to qualify the civil services exam, even if you have memorised the entire syllabus. Civil services require a strong personality, and the way you analyse your knowledge can give clues to your personality.

Another thing we would like to mention here is that UPCS is not bothered whether you get IPS or IRS or any other service. If you have proven that you have desired metal in you, the UPSC will recommend you. That’s it. It is your personal preference which service you want to be in. But please do not let this preference influence your preparation. You just have to prove your mettle that you deserve to be a civil servant.

All the ministers have their own training institutes. You will be trained according to the service you get.  And this training will last for almost a year or a half. So the UPSC is only evaluating whether you deserve to be trained in these institutes. It is not meant to evaluate whether you are eligible especially for IAS or IPS or any other specific service. You are to remember this. If you have the mettle for it, the training institutes will handle everything themselves. Your job is only to follow instructions.

We hope you are now clearer about how to do your IAS preparation. Trust us and absorb everything we have to say now. You will then realise that the way you were preparing has changed and this would be the correct way to go about it.

Ask the old people in your house, they will tell you the difference between today’s collector and SP and the ones during their time. Earlier, when these officers would roam the city’s streets in their jeeps, life would come to a standstill, and people would longingly stare at them. But today the public does not care. Earlier it was extremely difficult to meet these officials. Now the officers find it necessary to hold meetings with the general public on a regular basis.

All in all the administration has, thus, gone through many changes. To keep up with these changes, the optional paper in the preliminary exams was replaced by C-SAT in 2011. In 2013, changes were introduced in the mains exam also.

Now let us see the qualities that UPSC tests you for in the entrance exam.

Clarity of mind

If you have ever taken the UPSC exam (if you haven’t, please go through the previous years’ unsolved papers of the preliminary exam before reading any further) you must have felt ‘I have read about this somewhere’ while attempting the questions. ‘I know the question, I’m familiar with it’: this is what you think but still answer incorrectly. This is the biggest challenge posed by the preliminary exam.

You read a question and you feel you have to choose from to answer, you get confused. In most cases, all the options contain some truth in them, they all seem correct. The options evaluate how clear you are about your subject. They are written in such a manner so as to confuse you.

So what do you do in this situation? The thing here is that if your hold on the subject is not strong enough, then you will have great difficulty in choosing the correct answer from the given options. It is obvious then that if your mind is clear about the subject, you will be able to choose the answer faster and accurately.

Do you not think that someone who the government is entrusting with the responsibility of the society should have a mind which is very clear on its thought? If the administrator has a muddled mind how will he take a just and lucid decision?

A related issue here is the ‘solidity’ of the mind. When you start solving CSAT or general knowledge questions, you will be fine initially, but after solving half the questions you will feel like your mind is wandering and stumbling. The given options start messing in your mind in the same way that woollen balls get entangled with each other. The time limit is fixed which pressurises the mind. Half the questions remain unsolved, but the time is running out. These thoughts also stress your mind.

If your mind is not strong and solid, you will panic. If this happens then your chances of answering incorrectly will increase and you will have to exit in the first stage of the competition. To answer the questions in a balanced manner, it is necessary that you have a strong and solid mind.

Speed of mind

As you are well aware, you get 120 minutes to solve round 100 questions of general reasoning and another 80 of CSAT. This means you have approximately one and a half minute for each question. There is a theory that may not be applicable to general reasoning but it is definitely valid for CSAT. The theory is that students can increase their scores by fifty percent compared to their previous scores if instead of two hours they were given three to four hours to write the exam. If they get more time to think and calculate they will be able to get more correct answers.

But if such a thing is done how a good mind would be selected? If there is ample time then it will bring all minds to the same level. A mind that answers fast and calculates with speed is considered great. The question asked for entry in ‘Kaun Banega Maha Crorepati’ is so easy that nine out of 10 people can answer it correctly. But they choose the one who answers before all others.

An administrator has to take big decisions. In fact, in some situations, they have to take important decisions immediately. There is no time to think and evaluate. If a weak mind is appointed in this position, he will take slow decisions. You must have heard adage, ‘what’s the use of rain the crops have dried’.

The CSAT exam includes questions related to mathematics, some questions are about relationships, and some are about locations and directions. These questions are written in a way that after reading them your mind is in a state of chaos. You wonder what you have read, what the question is asking and how you should begin answering it. The time limit also looms large like a threat.

But there are brains that are fast enough to catch the answer immediately. They know the tricks and formulas. They apply the required trick and formula to the question and come to the answer. It is believed that faster a mind can calculate, the greater it is. Therefore, this was one reason to start CSAT exam.


A country’s memory is etched in its history and a person’s memory of the past is stored in his brain. How well you know your subject is very important, especially when it comes to the general reasoning paper. You have to go deeper than the information and knowledge of the subject and understand its very essence. Nobody can deny this fact, this importance of understanding.

But at the same time you will have to realize the importance of memorizing things also. Your memory also plays an important role here. Around one-third of questions are those that you won’t be able to solve if you do not have a strong memory. This is especially true of current events.

But the memory required here is far beyond the average memory. The kind of memory required here should be as strong as a footballer who is surrounded by five rivals but still manages to score a goal. So the memory that you need should be able to sort out what it requires even in the foggiest situations.


CSAT paper includes comprehension questions. Truly speaking, looking at the level of civil services exam, these questions seem sort of amusing. Many students take these questions lightly. But if you take it seriously, you will realise what a challenge these comprehensions pose to your mind. The biggest challenge is that of focus.

You read the comprehension and you are asked three to four multiple choice questions based on it. When you read the options, you read the options, you face two major issues. The first is that all the options you have to choose from seem to be correct. They are correct. But the question is which option is related to what you have studied in the comprehension. You will only be able to choose the correct answer if you have remained focused while reading the comprehension.

The second problem is how much of your mind could you control. You will notice that most of the answers that are given are correct if viewed from the perspective of general knowledge. In fact if it is not compulsory to answer keeping the comprehension in mind, the option you decided on the basis of general knowledge is probably a better match.

So when you are deciding upon an answer based on the comprehension, your general knowledge will invade your mind. So face the challenge of ignoring this invasion and keep your mind from drifting.

Concentration is the speciality of a high ranking officer’s mind. If he reads something and understands something else, then such a mind will also do something completely different. Just imagine as a collector, you read a two-page note in a file. You have to inform your senior, a commissioner or a minister about it. And simply channelizing the information as it is may not work here. You may have to sum up the two-page information in just a paragraph. Do you think a mind which is not focused can do so?

Decision-making power

The challenge of choosing the correct answer from so many confusing ones is also lined to your decision- making power. An administrator’s success depends on how many correct decisions he could take in his life. Although every person’s success depends on the decisions he took, in the case of an administrator this becomes even more important. This is because a common man’s decision will only affect him personally but an administrator’s decision can affect the country and its people. Keeping this in mind, the CSAT paper has question related to decision making.

In such questions, none of the answers you have to choose from seems wrong. But this does not mean all the options are correct. It means that there is one option which is more apt than others. Obviously, only the best answer can generate best results.

The questions associated with decision-making that are asked in civil services also have to do with a person’s character, his moral values, his life values, his understanding and his personality. Any decision that a candidate takes will be influenced by all these factors. In this scenario, your answer is representative of your whole personality.

Awareness and Alertness

The questions asked in the general knowledge paper in the preliminary exam are related to current events which may have happened in the previous year or up to a month ago. I know some of you would be thinking ‘what is the need for knowing about these current events as they are not directly related to the administrator?’

Actually this is a wrong belief. It is very important that an administrator be aware of all the current events. If an administrator is not aware of the times, the requirements of the times, and the technology and means available, he will not be able to make a good decision. If you have to make a development decision, you should know about the wants and needs of the society. You also need to know how all this would be possible. This is the reason that not just preliminary exams but even mains have four question papers related to general knowledge.

It would not be wrong to say that general knowledge is the backbone of IAS preparation. It is not just the responsibility of an administrator but also that of a citizen to be well- informed of his times. If someone is not doing so, he does not deserve to be an IAS. He also does not have a right to be called a responsible and educated citizen.

There is another thing here: a good knowledge of current events shows that your mind is sharp and stable. It shows that you absorb 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 definitely be far more efficient in taking appropriate decisions than those who are not so aware and alert.

An awareness of your times signifies that your mind is continuously working and it is progressive. It is a psychological fact that a mind which is progressive can better interpret and analyse situations and incidents. Such a mind is rational and being rational it is also prudent. For an administrator it is not just necessary to possess such a mind, but it is also his greatest asset.

Mains exam

We have no hesitation in saying this that the true IAS potential of yours is judged by the main exam. It is true that you would not reach this level without clearing the preliminary exam but the true assessment of your knowledge, understanding, wit etc is at this level only. It has been observed that sometimes students who clear the preliminary exam cannot even score 25 percent in the main exam.

On the other hand there are students whom fear the preliminary exam but are well prepared for the main exam. We’re discussing this fact here so that you can understand the difference between the two exams. This will help you approach your studies in a scientific manner and you can mould your brain and personality accordingly.

Now we shall see what expectations UPSC has from you in the main paper.

We can perhaps conclude that while the preliminary exam tests for qualified mains, the main paper tests for qualified thoughts. To find the correct option in the given amount of time is the most difficult challenge posed by the preliminary exam. This requires a clear and stable mind.

In the mains there are no multiple- choice questions, whatever you write here is the content of your own mind. There are no ready-made answers. You have to write your own answers. When you write your answers some of your qualities and thoughts will subconsciously enter your answer sheet and will represent you in front of the examiner to see.

The nature of the main exam is as follows-

  • There are four question papers on general studies. There is also a paper on ethics, integrity and aptitude. There are two optional papers too.
  • There is a paper on essay-writing.
  • There is a paper on General English and a paper on General Hindi.
  • All the questions are descriptive.
  • There are hardly any straight-forward questions.
  • The questions are such that they allow you to express your thoughts on the matter.

There is a word limit on questions on general studies.

Now based on the nature and structure of these questions we will highlight the qualities UPSC experts you to possess:

Analytical ability

Your ability to memorise will not work here. The questions asked in the exam are such that you can’t write a memorised answer. The facts you have memorised will be useful so far as to provide content for your analysis. Whatever you have studied will be the raw material to feed your answer just like you need potatoes, cabbage, chillies, salt and spices to make vegetable curry. You cannot make a curry simply by mixing the vegetables; you also have to cook them. This applies to the mains too.

Once again, it’s important that before you read further, you should go through the unsolved papers of the main exam. When you see the questions, it will test how well you understood the things you have studied and how well you can analyse them.

The hallmark of a good mind is that it can better analyse things; such a mind is more productive. Your mind is exercising when it is analysing things. Just like exercise can make your body fit and healthy, analysis can make your mind healthy and useful. We need administrators with such minds.


An analytical ability alone is not enough. You read the questions in the unsolved papers again. You will notice that most questions end with ‘give a critical analysis’ or ‘what steps should be taken etc. You have read the subject and you have the general knowledge. It’s fine. You can also analyse what you have read. Fine again. Whatever you have studied and absorbed indicates the awareness and alertness of your mind. An ability to analyse what have been studied and absorbed hints at the brightness and productivity of your mind.

But when you express your thoughts about the subject it reveals what exactly your productive mind has produced. This tests the originality of your mind thinks on a certain subject. Do not forget that when we think of something which is original and present our thoughts, it unveils our entire personality.

Many students dismiss the part of the questions which says ’you’. They think it is just a small part of the question so it is not important. Also, they discover that it is not an easy thing to answer this. They do not want to spend time brainstorming over it. Since they had formed no opinions on the topic, they find it difficult to write anything here. And it proves to be a big mistake of theirs. Consequently, UPSC finds the originality of the mind needed to be a good administrator missing.

Society continues to exist like it always has and things keep repeating themselves. But a change is brought about when someone driven by original thoughts decides to do something new. Doing something new is the contribution (in a true sense) 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 who only keeps on organising things. Originality is an important thing in every aspect of life.

Language proficiency

Civil services included an essay-writing paper before 1979. It was discontinued for a decade. It was then re-introduced for various reasons. First was to test a student’s thoughts on any given topic. Secondly, it tested the language proficiency and style of the candidate. Essay-writing is paper that you can’t really prepare for. It is sort of a self-writing exercise and there is no student who does not attempt the essay. They may choose their topics and write differently, but all students write the essay.

It is simplest paper but also full of challenges. The challenge is that this paper is more of an art and less science. It is clear that when a subject comes under the category of an art, its boundaries get blurred and the outcome depends on the person. When you need to answer a general knowledge question, the facts are clear and in front of you. And to answer questions on optional subjects, you have books.

But these things are not available for the essay-writing paper. Here the role of a writer is that of a bee which has to stuck nectar from many flowers to create honey. Similarly, to write an essay the writer collects his wisdom from many sources. This reveals how vast the ocean of writer’s knowledge is, how well his understanding of facts is and how well he uses the facts to reach a desired conclusion.

The most important of all is the presentation and expression. Remember, essays are not written for intellectuals, they are for average readers. So the challenge while writing an essay is how to write a piece that the common reader can understand, even if the topic of the essay is tough or related to science.

If the essay is too intellectual, it will come across as an article and not an essay. If it is too loosely written, instead of an essay it will come across as general talk. So the question is how should the essay be presented? Remember, if the strings of a sitar are pulled too tight, it will break and if they are left loose there would not be good music.

Now let us address the question of language. As an administrator, you will deal with all kinds of people. Some of them may be illiterate. They will come from different backgrounds. Whichever department you belong to, your role will be that of a leader who guides others. If your language is not simple, not fluent, not relevant, and if it lacks sympathy, it will fail to make an impression and you will not be able to govern people effectively. The essay you write reveals whether you have this quality.


Quite clearly, if the word limit is removed from the questions asked in general studies, it would become much easier for students to answer it. But something which is easy for one person would become easy for everyone else too. It will then become difficult to select the best. The purpose of word limit is to test which brain has the ability to control and express its thoughts within the limits that it has been asked to. This ability can prove how efficiently we can control our thoughts.

To follow the word limit and give the best possible answer is not easy unless the person has thoroughly imbibed the subject. This strategy helps eliminate those who just memorise everything. It also proves that you have understood the topic you are writing on.

Your ability to say what you need to within the word limit reveals your unique style of expression. It is like the ability to drive safely in the narrow, winding roads in the hills. You are in total control of the steering of your car because you know that one mistake will cause the car to fall in the gorge.

There is a practical aspect of it too. When you actually get into civil services, you will have to orally inform your superiors about many things every day. You will also have to submit files with your comments. Too much talk and long comments are the products of a week and disillusioned mind. A man who can say and write what he intends to in brief is considered to be an able administrator because he says or writes only that what is really needed. This is what the word limit on questions tries to test.

Besides informing your superiors or writing comments on files you also have to deal with press and reporters or brief the public on so many occasions. As an administrator you need to be as precise with them as possible. On these occasions people naturally cross-question you, so it is better not to say anything out of agenda. Less you talk more you succeed. Violate this thumb rule and you will find yourself in deep waters. And remember, you are the representative of the government. Any slip of tongue on your part would make the government pay the penalty.

Test of Integrity

Whether we talk about an administrator, a politician, a farmer, a labourer or an average citizen, the quantity and the quality of their gross effect on their surrounding depends on their ‘integrity’. You may have heard the name of ENRON, a big MNC that was in the process of setting up an ambitious power project in India.

But suddenly it got bankrupt. Nobody could believe it. ‘How can this be possible’ people were asking each other. Specialists in the trade tried to find out the exact reasons behind this breakdown. Do you know what their findings were? They concluded that through ENRON succeeded in hiring the best engineers in trade, they probably could not hire the best people! Don’t you think if every citizen of India promises to hold his/her integrity, we can change the fate of our country?

Keeping this in mind, a voluntary paper on ethics, integrity and aptitude was introduced in 2013, which was a very positive move. Though we keep improving upon these aspects while interacting with elders or teachers or with wise people in our community, we simply lack a well arranged knowledge in this regard. This paper serves the purpose of giving a practical knowledge of this to people whom the government would be handing over some of the most crucial tasks in the country. And marks obtained in this paper would give a clear cut indication of morality, integrity and aptitude present in various aspirants.

If you have seen the unsolved papers, you must have felt that this paper is based on case studies. In the paper, you are given a situation and your viewpoint towards it is judged. There are many to tackle a situation and approach is revealed in your answer and you get marked accordingly. Consequently, there is a greater chance of selection of candidate as officers who potentially possess more integrity and a positive attitude.

Therefore, books are of little use while preparing for this paper. They can give you general guidelines and nothing more. In order to be fully prepared for this paper you have to grasp the core values of life, you need to understand how to maintain these values while fulfilling your duty as an administrator. In other words you have to learn how to be practical without being unethical. Or, rather, how to be an effective administrator without compromising your integrity. Only then will you be able to present yourself effectively to the evaluator through your answer sheet.


This is a selection criterion that is used in most services and employed worldwide. It is possible that there would be no written test for entry into some services but it is not possible that there would be no interview. Mostly, candidates for top posts are selected just on the basis of interviews. You can understand the importance of interview from this.

In the first two stages of civil services your assessment is sort of oblique. In the written exam, many people get eliminated so only the best minds get to the interview stage. It is a proven fact that it is not necessary that a person who possesses a stable and clear mind, lucid and prudent thoughts and whose integrity is beyond doubt, would also have a dynamic personality.

A dynamic personality can inspire people, and one who harbours a desire to change himself and displays polite and exemplary behaviour. You can categorise these as behavioural qualities as they are revealed from how you behave with other people.

An interview tests you for these qualities. Even though an interview lasts maximum for half an hour, the time is enough for the experienced and alert interviewers to see through you as if they are X-raying you. Your body language, the way you talk, the way you stand and sit, your debating skills, the liveliness of your replies to questions asked, how you put forth your views and opinions can reveals whether you should be made an administrator. If your personality fails to make an impression, it does not matter how intellectual you are, you will not be successful.

To sum up, IAS preparation is not such that only books would suffice. Books are required but they are not sufficient. This is a psychological journey; you need to be mentally prepared. So when you understand these psychological facts, your style of writing answers and the way you study will change for the better.