The Art of Crafting an Essay For UPSC

The Essay Paper is one of the nine papers in the UPSC civil services mains exam. In this paper, you will have to write two essays, each with a word count of 1000 – 1200. One topic can be selected from a choice of four topics. The Essay Paper is for a total of 250 marks with one essay for 125 marks.

You would have read many articles on our website on how to prepare for the essay paper in the IAS mains exam. This article tells you how to write an essay for the UPSC exam.

It is recommended that you follow certain steps while writing the essay paper.


UPSC Essay Syllabus

The UPSC mains syllabus does not have any prescribed syllabus for the essay paper as such. As per the UPSC, “Candidates are expected to keep closely to the subject of the essay to arrange their ideas in an orderly fashion, and to write concisely. Credit will be given for effective and exact expression.”

Candidates are required to write two essays from a list of given topics for a combined total of 250 marks.

How to Write Essay in UPSC Exam

  1. Read the topics thoroughly

This is the most important step in the process. You should choose one of the four topics. While selecting your topic, make sure you know most about that topic out of the given topics. What not to pick:

  • A sensitive or controversial topic like say, feminism.
  • A topic about which you are too passionate or feel strongly about. In this case, you may tend to get excited and fail to write a balanced essay. This can work against you.
  1. Think for some time

Once you’ve selected your topic, you should not start writing straight away. It is prudent to think for some time and collect your thoughts. Write in pencil the points you want to write. This is important because only then you can write your points in the correct sequence. For instance, if you are writing about India’s relations with her neighbours, you need to write the historical facts and events in the beginning. Suppose you start writing the essay, and realise only towards the end that you have forgotten to mention a crucial detail in the historical part; it would be too late to add it because of a space crunch. Therefore, it helps if you write your rough points in the beginning.

Once you have the rough points in hand, you can start writing the essay. While writing, you must adhere to a good structure. The structure of a good essay is as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Historical
  3. Main issue/problem/subject
  4. Current scenario/current news related to the topic
  5. Positive and negative aspects
  6. Obstacles
  7. Reforms/way forward

You can get brownie points if you also include:

  • Relevant quotes/sayings by famous personalities (ensure to quote verbatim – wrong quotes make you look careless or lazy).
  • Relevant government schemes and policies.
  • Any figures or numbers (must be accurate otherwise don’t include them).

Important pointers to note while you write:

  • Don’t resort to name-calling. Never get personal in your essay.
  • Don’t have extreme views. The Buddha’s middle path can help you here!
  • Don’t just present problems. Give possible reforms/solutions also.
  • Don’t criticise the government/administration excessively.
  • Even if the topic is provocative, your essay shouldn’t be. Present a balanced picture. You don’t HAVE to agree to the topic.
  • Avoid writing utopian solutions.
  • Keep in mind you are a future officer, not a journalist!

UPSC Mains 2020 Essay Paper

The UPSC Mains 2020 kicked off on January 8, 2021, with the Essay Paper. The Essay Paper is counted for merit ranking in the UPSC scheme of things. The UPSC Mains consist of 9 papers in total. The UPSC 2020 Mains will go on till 17th January 2021.

The Essay Paper consists of two sections of four essay topics each. Candidates will have to write one essay each from both sections. The total marks for the Essay Paper are 250 (125 marks for each essay). Candidates should write essays in about 1000 – 1200 words.

The Essay Topics asked in the UPSC Mains 2020 are given below.

UPSC 2020 Mains Essay Paper

Section A

  1. Life is a long journey between human being and being humane.
  2. Mindful manifesto is the catalyst to a tranquil self.
  3. Ships do not sink because of water around them, ships sink because of water that gets into them.
  4. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Section B

  1. Culture is what we are, civilisation is what we have.
  2. There can be no social justice without economic prosperity but economic prosperity without social justice is meaningless.
  3. Patriarchy is the least noticed yet the most significant structure of social inequality.
  4. Technology as the silent factor in international relations.

Important Quotes for UPSC Civil Services Mains Exam General Studies and Essay Papers

Using quotes of revered personalities to emphasise your point adds a lot of value to your answers in the IAS exam. With the introduction of GS 4 paper (Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude) and the changing nature of Essay paper (UPSC mains 2018 Essay paper had four topics related to quotes/philosophy/character), it has become quite necessary to include some relevant quotes in the answers.

For the UPSC Exam, the selection of quotes is important as quoting some celebrity/non-entity is likely to do more harm than good. During the preparation phase, an IAS aspirant can either classify quotes based on the source or organise them under broad pertinent categories such as education, Justice, etc.

n this article, we have compiled a list of quotes which are important from the UPSC syllabus point of view. Also, the two ways to categorise the quotes for quick revision are illustrated below. Candidates are advised to use the approach that suits their study process.

Important Quotes for UPSC GS and Essay

Issue-based categories

Issue Quote
Free Speech
  • I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it. – Voltaire
  • The caste system is opposed to the Religion of the Vedanta. Caste is a social custom, and all our great preachers have tried to break it down. – Swami Vivekananda
  • Righteousness is the foundation stone of peace and good governance. – Confucius
  • Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. – Abraham Lincoln
  • When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace. – William Gladstone
  • Peace and Justice are two sides of the same coin. – Eisenhower
  • The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so much dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy. – Montesquieu
  • I understand democracy as something that gives the weak the same chance as the strong. – Mahatma Gandhi
  • The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men. – Plato
Science v/s Religion
  • All thinking men are atheists. – Ernest Hemingway
  • Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men. – Martin Luther King
  • Science without religion is lame, and Religion without Science is blind. – Einstein
  • Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. – Nelson Mandela
  • It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. – Aristotle
  • To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society. – Theodore Roosevelt

The list given above is just a brief example. Aspirants should identify issues/keywords and make their list of UPSC relevant quotes.

Quotes categorised by author/personality

Author/Personality Quote
  • “All persons ought to endeavour to follow what is right, and not what is established.”
  • “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
  • “No great mind ever existed without a touch of madness.”
  • “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”
  • “Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.”
  • “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Arthur Schopenhauer
  • “Compassion is the basis of morality.”
  • “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”
  • “One should use common words to say uncommon things.”
  • “Religion is the masterpiece of the art of animal training, for it trains people as to how they shall think.”
Jeremy Bentham
  • “Rarest of all human quality is consistency.”
Bertrand Russell
  • “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”
  • “If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have paradise in a few years.”
  • “Longing for love, the search for knowledge and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”
B R Ambedkar
  • “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”
  • “Life should be great rather than long.”
Benjamin Franklin
  • “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”
  • “Either write worth reading or do something worth writing.”
  • “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”
  • “He that can have patience can have what he will.”
  • “If everyone is thinking alike then no one is thinking.”
  • “Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle.”
  • “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”
  • “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
  • “Lost time is never found again.”
  • “You may delay but time will not.”
  • “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
  • “Consideration for others is the basis of a good life and good society.”
  • “When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”
  • “Give a bowl of rice to a man and you will feed him for a day. Teach him how to grow his own rice and you will save his life.”
  • “Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles.”
  • “If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for ten years plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years, educate children.”
  • “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
  • “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
  • “The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life.”
  • “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
  • “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”
  • “Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
  • “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
  • “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
  • “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
  • “Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler.”
  • “Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work.”
  • “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
  • “Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.”
  • “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
  • “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
  • “I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.”
  • “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”
  • “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
  • “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
  • “It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”
  • “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”
Franklin Roosevelt
  • “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
  • “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”
Gautam Buddha
  • “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
  • “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
  • “Doubt everything. Find your own light.”
  • “Every morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.”
  • “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them?”
George Washington
  • “Ninety-nine per cent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”
  • “Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”
  • “Human happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.”
  • “If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
  • “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”
  • “My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.”
Henry David Thoreau
  • “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.”
  • “Dreams are the touchstones of our characters.”
  • “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
  • “Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.”
  • “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”
  • “Things do not change, we change.”
  • “This world is but a canvas for our imagination.”
H. Jackson Brown Jr.
  • “Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”
Immanuel Kant
  • “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
John F. Kennedy
  • “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
  • “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death.”
  • “A child miseducated is a child lost.”
  • “A journey to Thousand miles begins with one step.”
  • “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth”
  • “Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.”
  • “Mankind must put an end to war – or war will put an end to mankind.”
  • “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”
  • “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognise the opportunity.”
  • “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
  • “To those whom much is given, much is expected.”
  • “Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.”
  • “The supreme reality of our time is the vulnerability of our planet.”
  • “Without debate, without criticism no administration and no country can succeed and no republic can survive.”
  • “We need men who can dream of things that never were.”
Leo Tolstoy
  • “A man is like a fraction whose numerator is what he is and whose denominator is what he thinks of himself. The larger the denominator, the smaller the fraction.”
  • “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
  • “To get rid of enemy one must love him.”
  • “Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.
Mahatma Gandhi
  • “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.”
  • “Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed. Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well.”
  • “A No uttered from deepest conviction is better than a YES merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.”
  • “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
  • “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”
  • “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
  • “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.”
  • “God has no religion.”
  • “Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony.”
  • “In doing something, do it with love or never do it at all.”
  • “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
  • “My Life is My Message.”
  • “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”
  • “Seven Deadly Sins. Wealth without work; Pleasure without conscience; Science without humanity; Knowledge without character; Politics without principle; Commerce without morality; Worship without sacrifice.”
  • “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”
  • “The future depends on what you do today.”
  • “To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest.”
  • “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
  • “The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer.”
  • “To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being.”
  • “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.”
  • “Your beliefs become your thoughts; Your thoughts become your words; Your words become your actions; Your actions become your habits; Your habits become your values; Your values become your destiny.”
  • “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”
  • “You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.”
  • “A man is the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.”
  • “Before you do anything, stop and recall the face of the poorest most helpless destitute person you have seen and ask yourself, Is what I am about to do going to help him?”
Martin Luther King
  • “A right delayed is a right denied.”
  • “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.”
  • “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
  • “Dante said that the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality.”
  • “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.”
  • “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever may do you have to keep moving forward.”
  • “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
  • “In matter of conscience, the law of majority has no place.”
  • “It’s the action and not the fruit of the action which is important.”
  • “It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.”
  • “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
  • “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
  • “Lightning makes no sound until it strikes.”
  • “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is : “What are you doing for others?”
  • “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy to a friend.”
  • “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”
  • “Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.”
  • “Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service.”
  • “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”
  • “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
  • “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe,nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
  • “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
  • “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
  • “Public opinion alone can keep a society pure and healthy.”
  • “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
  • “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
  • “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
  • “The time is always right to do the right thing.”
  • “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
  • “Victory attained by violence is tantamount to defeat, for it is temporary.”
  • “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
  • “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.”
Mark Twain
  • “Classic – a book people praise but don’t learn.”
  • “God created war so that Americans would learn Geography.”
  • “Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
  • “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”
  • “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
  • “I do not fear death, I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
  • “The best way to cheer up yourself is to try to cheer someone else up.”
  • “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”
  • “The beginning is the most important part of the work.”
  • “By all means marry; if you get a good wife, you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.”
  • “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”
  • “Know thyself.”
  • “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
  • “There is only one good, knowledge and one evil ignorance.”
  • “A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it.”
  • “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.”
  • “Everything comes to us that belongs to us if we create the capacity to receive it
  • “Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.”
  • “The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”
  • “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.”
Thomas A Edison
  • “5% of the people think; 10% of people think they think and the other 85% would rather die than think.”
  • “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”
  • “Good fortune happens when opportunity meets preparation.”
  • “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
  • “I never did a day’s work in my life, it was all fun.”
  • Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.
  • Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.
  • The most necessary task of civilisation is to teach people how to think. It should be the primary purpose of our public schools. The mind of a child is naturally active, it develops through exercise. Give a child plenty of exercise for body and brain. The trouble with our way of educating is that it does not give elasticity to the mind. It casts the brain into a mould. It insists that the child must accept. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning, and it lays more stress on memory than observation.
  • “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this – you haven’t.”
Thomas Paine
  • “Independence is my happiness; the world is my country; to do good my religion.”
  • “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”
  • “The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.”
  • “Whatever is the right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.”
Thomas Jefferson
  • “Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time, who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.”
  • “Honesty is the first chapter of the book of wisdom.”
  • “I can’t live without books.”
  • “I am a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”
  • “On matters of style, swim with the current, on matters of principle stand like a rock.”

The table of 200-odd quotes above, although comprehensive, is by no means exhaustive. IAS aspirants should go through UPSC mains GS and essay papers from past years to understand how these quotes can come in handy and then compile and categorise their own lists.

7 Easy Steps on Essay Writing for UPSC Mains Exam

The UPSC Mains Exam has a total of 9 papers which includes an essay paper as well. The Essay Paper in the IAS Mains Exam consists of two sections A and B with four topics each of 125 marks and a total of 250 (125×2) marks. Candidates have to select a topic from each section and write about it in 1,000 to 2,000 words within the given time of three hours. The Essay paper is considered as crucial in determining the final result of selection and ranking of a candidate.     The Essay Paper is considered as crucial as it is a compulsory paper and its marks are incorporated in computing the total and moreover what makes it crucial is that there is no in-depth study in an essay unlike optional subjects where any aspirant can claim expertise.     Let us take a look at the conventional way of writing an essay that includes introduction, body and conclusion. Though this is the fundamental but the concept of an essay when it comes in terms of UPSC Paper it is quite tricky.   An essay should be of topical text that is easy to understand or follow and comprehensive, succinct, composite and definite, as well as informative and logical.   So, here are a few tips on how to structure an Essay Paper in the UPSC Mains Exam. For effective composition of an essay one should generally follow the below points that are ideally suggested by the senior UPSC Aspirants and toppers:   What to write in the Essay?

  • Read the topic carefully
  • Think and recollect the points to be included in the topic for 30 minutes

What not to write in the Essay?

  • Provoking Essay
  • Do not get personal
  • Quotes
  • Deviating from the subject

Tips to enhance your Essay writing

  • Recommended Reading
  • Reading Books as Hobby

Step-1: Choose the topic with great care

Before choosing the topic, read all the topics more than once and choose the topic wisely from the given choices so that you will find enough points to write about the topic.   Once you choose a topic and start to write you may find difficult and tend to change the topic in between which would be foolishness and it will be too late to change the topic as you would have already utilized much time.   Read the topic twice and think about the topic for 30 minutes.

Step-2: Think about the topic for 30-minute

Once you have chosen the topic to write don’t start to write immediately instead ‘think about the topic for 30 minutes’. Because when one starts writing without thinking about the topic they may miss out many important points and in between or at the end they may remember more significant points which would be too late as there would be no enough pace left in the answer sheet or time to write more.   Hence, it is recommended to utilize the first 30 minutes to think about the topic before starting to write as you have three hours to write the essay.

  • Think about the topic for 30 minutes
  • Write down the random points that come to your mind at the end of the sheet
  • Arrange the points that you have jot down in sequence

Some important tips to make your Essay worthy

Important points to add in Essay
Step-3: Structure your essay

Once you have recalled, collected and noted the points then the next step is to structure it as given below:

  • Introduction
  • Background/past example
  • Main concept/theory
  • Correlate with current event
  • Advantages and disadvantages
  • Suggested Changes
  • Conclusion

Step-4: Don't be provocative in your writing

It is advised while writing an essay on a topic that maybe provocative not to get personal and criticize a person or government in your writing. Some topics would be provocative where you may tend to lose control in your writing and write something in offensive way, which is not appreciable and recommended as well.   If you are writing about the disadvantages it is suggested to come up with few reforms that may change the disadvantages into advantages.

Step-5: Remember the quotes correctly

Always memorize the quotes correctly and the name of the person who has quoted it. If you are not sure about the quote then it is advised to leave it instead of writing it incorrectly.

Step-6: Don't deviate from the topic

For an effective essay writing one should clearly be sure of the purpose of writing the essay and should remember about the “Five Wives and One Husband” concept i.e., – Who?, Why?, What?, When?, Where?, and How?,  that is taught in the school on the first day of Essay Writing.   Following this concept will make you to stick around the topic and not to paddle away from the topic.

Step-7: Recommended Reading

Essay writing also needs continuous reading; hence it is suggested to candidates to read diverse topics and books and some of the recommended are:

  • Editorial section of The Hindu Newspaper
  • Magazines like Frontline, Kurukshetra, Yojana
  • Watch discussions and debates on television
  • Work on previous question papers essay topic

Finally, when it comes to Essay as one of the papers in the UPSC Exam, it is all about to understand and assess the personality of a candidate through which his/her views, ideas, suggestions, values, attitude, aptitude, coordination and communication (written) abilities and other attributes are analyzed that especially UPSC looks for in an aspirant.   If you want to analyze or enhance your essay writing skills then participate now in our UPSC+ Essay Contest and win cash prize as well as free registration for UPSC Civil Services Mains Test Series.

UPSC Preparation: Framework for essay writing

Essay writing is the most taken for granted area in the civil services exam preparation although it happens to be one of the most scoring papers. It can be decisive as there is no specialisation in this genre and hence it’s tough to claim expertise, unlike optional/general studies. An essay, in general, is a reflection of your thought process and general traits.  The Union Public Service Commission expects an aspirant to stick to the subject of the essay, to organise their ideas and write concisely. The effective and exact expression of thoughts is what will fetch you marks. Below are a few pointers to be noted on how to approach an essay.

What should an ideal essay consist of?

Structure: It forms the backbone of an essay. And hence one should start with an

Introduction: It acts as a preamble. The introduction can start with a quote, an anecdote or a simple paragraph. A powerful introduction should clearly set the tone for the reader as to what the essay will entail.

Body: Next part is the body of an essay which is all about critical analysis of the core areas. It is essential to present both the sides of the argument and substantiate with the examples and illustrations.

Conclusion: Coming to the conclusion part of the essay, it needs to be balanced and optimistic. It is advised to summarise the topic and end an essay on a positive/visionary note.

What should be kept in mind while writing an essay for UPSC?

  1. Brainstorming: is very essential before you start the essay and it helps a person to get the right material that can be incorporated into an essay like thinking from various dimensions/perspectives and key words. While at it, you can look for quotes, events, examples, facts and figures name a few. While brainstorming, develop a flowchart/skeletal structure which will help organise your thoughts and serves as a reference while writing the actual essay.
  2. Stick to the topic: It’s extremely crucial to stick to the central theme of the essay. From the start till the end, the theme of the essay should be reflected and the flow shouldn’t be interrupted. The word limit prescribed by UPSC is 1000 – 1200 words. Deviating from the topic and not sticking to the word limit will result in negative marking.
  3. Content: should be presented in a simple language. This paper is to understand one’s analytical abilities and their command over writing.
  4. Dimensions: It is a given that an essay is open to one’s interpretation but an aspirant should ensure that it has various dimensions to it. Create as many linkages as possible. Depending on the essay include elements related to core areas of IAS exam like public policy, constitution, good governance, social issues etc.

Essay Writing - An Overview of Different Types and Styles

The UPSC Civil Service Mains Exam contains a paper on essay writing. Here you will be asked to write two essays each one carrying 125 marks making a total of 250 marks. You will be given two sets of four topics out of which one has to be chosen from each section. Here there is no prescribed syllabus and the topic could be socio-economic in nature. It could also be general. With three hours to finish two essays (each of about 1200 words), you have ample time in this paper, making it a good bet for increasing your score in the UPSC Mains Exam. This article gives details on the 4 types of Essays, 2 different styles of essays and some of the good characteristics of the essay.

Essay – 4 Types

There are 4 types of essays which are listed below.

Narrative Essay

Here the writer narrates an incident or event.

Descriptive Essay

Here the author describes any event, process or conditions.

Informative Essay

Here the purpose of the writer is to provide information including negative and positive sides to a topic.

Persuasive Essay

Here the author tries to convince the reader about any topic.

Basically, in the essay paper, a combination of all the above types is generally required. The writer’s goals define the type of essay used.

Essay – 2 Styles

There are two styles of essay writing namely,

  1. Structured
  2. Spontaneous

In a structured essay, you build a framework on which you write the essay. A spontaneous essay is one in which you make the framework as you write. However, it is important to collect your thoughts and organised the points which you will be covering beforehand. As a writer, you have to figure out which style suits you more. This can be done by practising essays in mock tests.

Good Essay – Characteristics

  1. Clear and concise.
  2. Coherent throughout.
  3. Written in a simple yet good and accurate language.
  4. Contains relevant quotes, examples and statistics.
  5. Written in a good hand.
  6. Relevant to current India.
  7. Multi-dimensional.
  8. Neutral and balanced.
  9. Offer possible solutions to problems.

How to Write the Essay Paper in UPSC Mains?

The essay paper is an important aspect of the UPSC civil services exams. It can make or break your outcome. There are two sections in this paper. Each section gives you four topics out of which you have to choose one topic each. Each essay you write is marked out of 125 making a total of 250 marks.

While you don’t have to study separate content for the civil services essay paper, for your general studies preparation is enough to cover possible topics, you do have to remember certain aspects of writing a good essay if you want to have an edge over your fellow UPSC aspirants. A lot of IAS aspirants make the mistake of not focusing on the essay paper because of its general nature. However, there are many advantages of concentrating on this paper such as:

  • You have the option of selecting one topic out of four. You should be able to leverage this to your advantage and shine in this paper.
  • The essay paper is an area where you can let loose your creativity while displaying your knowledge about the topics.
  • Also, you have three hours to write about 1000 to 1200 words per topic (word limit for essay in UPSC exam). Hence, you can do justice to the essay topic as you have ample time to structure your thoughts and then start writing.

Your essay should ideally have an introduction, content, basic theme and conclusion. The introduction and conclusion are self-explanatory. Content should give a historical perspective to your topic. It should also include facts and events related to your topic. Try to cover relevant aspects of the topic. The basic theme should talk about your views on the topic. Take a stand but a balanced one. You should also describe the negative and positive aspects of the topic chosen.

How to select the UPSC essay topic?

  • Go through all the given topics well.
  • Choose a topic that you are most aware of and have significant knowledge about.
  • Try to avoid provocative issues where personal opinions can be controversial.
  • Select the topic only if you are sure of the meaning. For example, know what IT refers to in a given case – information technology or income tax.
  • Don’t necessarily pick a topic because it excites you. You should have content and a balanced approach while writing about it.

Features of a good essay

  • It should resonate with the topic given. Don’t stray from the topic merely to fill up the word count.
  • It should engross the reader. A good essay should ignite the reader’s curiosity about the topic. It should not be boring. The reader should feel like going on reading it.
  • It should be multi-dimensional. Don’t have a single viewpoint. Analyse the topic from different perspectives. You can provide new insights into the topic and impress the examiner.
  • It should be simple but effective and coherent. You need not write the Queen’s English but let the language drive home whatever point you are trying to make.
  • It should be grammatically perfect. Not only does it enhances your essay’s clarity it also avoids a negative impression.
  • It should be neat. This is why it is important to first think about what you want to write before you start. Clearly picture in your head the order of things you want to write in your essay. This avoids scratching.
  • There should be continuity in your essay. Don’t jump from one point to another. Make your shifts seamless and smooth. Let there be a natural flow of points. This indicates clarity of thoughts.
  • It should contain quotes, headings, sub-headings and diagrams if required.
  • It should be structured appropriately.

Things to avoid in a UPSC essay question paper

  • Avoid writing in the first person.
  • Avoid being too aggressive in your writing. You want to portray an image of a composed person with balanced views. Aggressiveness can also show inflexibility.
  • Avoid being pessimistic in your writing. UPSC wants officers with a cheerful and positive disposition!
  • Avoid writing in points. Remember you are writing an essay.
  • You don’t have to agree with the stand taken by the question. Sometimes, a question can be a statement giving a particular view. You can write both negative and positive aspects of it.
  • Don’t stray away from the topic.
  • Don’t get too personal and name politicians or political parties unnecessarily. You are going to be a bureaucrat, not a politician or journalist!
  • Avoid giving quotes that you are not sure of. Don’t attribute quotes to the wrong people. And, definitely do not create your own quotes. You can’t fool the examiner. Doing so will certainly get you penalised.

You can write good essays if you develop the habit of reading good UPSC essays on a regular basis. Incorporate reading essays as a part of your UPSC civil services preparation. Also do note that referring to UPSC previous year essay papers will help immensely. Remember, practice makes perfect!

Last 25 Years Topic-wise Essay Questions From UPSC Mains (1994 - 2018)

Paper I of the UPSC Civil Services mains exam is the Essay. Here, prelims-qualified IAS aspirants have to write two essays out of a few given topics. The paper is for a total of 250 marks and its marks are taken into consideration for the Final Merit List. In this article, we have listed all the essay topics asked in the UPSC mains exam from 1994 to 2018. We have also classified the last 25 years essay questions into topics to make your preparation easier.

UPSC Essay Topics


  1. Politics, bureaucracy and business – fatal triangle. (1994)
  2. Politics without ethics is a disaster. (1995)
  3. The VIP cult is a bane of Indian democracy. (1996)
  4. Need for transparency in public administration. (1996)
  5. The country’s need for a better disaster management system. (2000)
  6. How should a civil servant conduct himself? (2003)

Democracy/India since independence

  1. Whither Indian democracy? (1995)
  2. What we have not learnt during fifty years of independence. (1997)
  3. Why should we be proud of being Indians? (2000)
  4. What have we gained from our democratic set-up? (2001)
  5. How far has democracy in India delivered the goods? (2003)
  6. National identity and patriotism. (2008)
  7. In the context of Gandhiji’s views on the matter, explore, on an evolutionary scale, the terms ‘Swadhinata’, ‘Swaraj’ and ‘Dharmarajya’. Critically comment on their contemporary relevance to Indian democracy. (2012)
  8. Is the colonial mentality hindering India’s success? (2013)
  9. Dreams which should not let India sleep. (2015)
  10. Management of Indian border disputes – a complex task. (2018)

Economic growth and development

  1. Resource management in the Indian context. (1999)
  2. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) along with GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness) would be the right indices for judging the wellbeing of a country. (2013)
  3. Was it the policy paralysis or the paralysis of implementation which slowed the growth of our country? (2014)
  4. Crisis faced in India – moral or economic. (2015)
  5. Near jobless growth in India: An anomaly or an outcome of economic reforms. (2016)
  6. Digital economy: A leveller or a source of economic inequality. (2016)
  7. Innovation is the key determinant of economic growth and social welfare. (2016)
  8. Impact of the new economic measures on fiscal ties between the union and states in India. (2017)

Federalism, Decentralisation

  1. The language problem in India: its past, present and prospects. (1998)
  2. Water resources should be under the control of the central government. (2004)
  3. Evaluation of panchayati raj system in India from the point of view of eradication of power to people. (2007)
  4. Is autonomy the best answer to combat balkanization? (2007)
  5. Creation of smaller states and the consequent administrative, economic and developmental implication. (2011)
  6. Cooperative federalism: Myth or reality. (2016)
  7. Water disputes between States in federal India. (2016)

Indian Culture & Society

  1. The Indian society at the crossroads. (1994)
  2. New cults and godmen: a threat to traditional religion. (1996)
  3. The composite culture of India. (1998)
  4. Youth culture today. (1999)
  5. Modernism and our traditional socio-ethical values. (2000)
  6. Indian culture today: a myth or a reality? (2000)
  7. As civilization advances culture declines. (2003)
  8. From traditional Indian philanthropy to the gates-buffet model-a natural progression or a paradigm shift? (2010)


  1. Judicial activism. (1997)
  2. Judicial activism and Indian democracy. (2004)
  3. Justice must reach the poor. (2005)

Social justice/Poverty

  1. Reservation, politics and empowerment. (1999)
  2. Food security for sustainable national development. (2005)
  3. The focus of health care is increasingly getting skewed towards the ‘haves’ of our society. (2009)
  4. Farming has lost the ability to be a source of subsistence for the majority of farmers in India. (2017)
  5. Poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere. (2018)

Media & Society

  1. Misinterpretation and misuse of freedom in India. (1998)
  2. Mass media and cultural invasion. (1999)
  3. Responsibility of media in a democracy. (2002)
  4. How has satellite television brought about cultural change in Indian mindsets? (2007)
  5. Role of media in good governance. (2008)
  6. Does Indian cinema shape our popular culture or merely reflect it? (2011)
  7. Is sting operation an invasion on privacy? (2014)


  1. Urbanization is a blessing in disguise. (1997)
  2. Protection of ecology and environment is essential for sustained economic development. (2006)
  3. Urbanisation and its hazards. (2008)
  4. Should a moratorium be imposed on all fresh mining in tribal areas of the country? (2010)
  5. We may brave human laws but cannot resist natural laws. (2017)

Economic sectors/MNCs

  1. Multinational corporations – saviours or saboteurs. (1994)
  2. Globalization would finish small-scale industries in India. (2006)
  3. BPO boom in India. (2007)
  4. Special economic zone: boon or bane? (2008)
  5. Are our traditional handicrafts doomed to a slow death? (2009)
  6. Is the criticism that the Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) model for development is more of a bane than a boon in the Indian context, justified? (2012)
  7. Tourism: Can this be the next big thing for India? (2014)


  1. Restructuring of Indian education system. (1995)
  2. Literacy is growing very fast, but there is no corresponding growth in education. (1996)
  3. Irrelevance of the classroom. (2001)
  4. Privatization of higher education in India. (2002)
  5. Modern technological education and human values. (2002)
  6. What is real education? (2005)
  7. “Education for all” campaign in India: myth or reality. (2006)
  8. Independent thinking should be encouraged right from the childhood. (2007)
  9. Is an egalitarian society possible by educating the masses? (2008)
  10. Credit – based higher education system – status, opportunities and challenges. (2011)
  11. Is the growing level of competition good for the youth? (2014)
  12. Are the standardized tests good measure of academic ability or progress? (2014)
  13. Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make a man more clever devil. (2015)
  14. Destiny of a nation is shaped in its classrooms. (2017)


  1. The new emerging women power: the ground realities. (1995)
  2. Greater political power alone will not improve women’s plight. (1997)
  3. Woman is god’s best creation. (1998)
  4. Women empowerment: challenges and prospects. (1999)
  5. Empowerment alone cannot help our women. (2001)
  6. Whither women’s emancipation? (2004)
  7. If women ruled the world. (2005)
  8. The hand that rocks the cradle. (2005)
  9. Women’s reservation bill would usher in empowerment for women in India. (2006)
  10. Managing work and home – is the Indian working woman getting a fair deal? (2012)
  11. If development is not engendered, it is endangered. (2016)
  12. Fulfillment of ‘new woman’ in India is a myth. (2017)


  1. Youth is a blunder, manhood a struggle, old age a regret. (1994)
  2. Useless life is an early death. (1994)
  3. Disinterested intellectual curiosity is the lifeblood of civilisation. (1995)
  4. When money speaks, the truth is silent. (1995)
  5. Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds. (1995)
  6. Truth is lived, not taught. (1996)
  7. True religion cannot be misused. (1997)
  8. Search for truth can only be a spiritual problem. (2002)
  9. The paths of glory lead but to the grave. (2002)
  10. If youth knew, if age could. (2002)
  11. There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. (2003)
  12. Be the change you want to see in others. (2013)
  13. With greater power comes greater responsibility. (2014)
  14. Words are sharper than the two-edged sword. (2014)
  15. Lending hands to someone is better than giving a dole. (2015)
  16. “The past’ is a permanent dimension of human consciousness and values. (2018)
  17. Reality does not conform to the ideal, but confirms it. (2018)


  1. Attitude makes habit, habit makes character and character makes a man. (2007)
  2. Discipline means success, anarchy means ruin. (2008)
  3. Character of an institution is reflected in its leader. (2015)
  4. Need brings greed, if greed increases it spoils breed. (2016)
  5. Joy is the simplest form of gratitude. (2017)
  6. A good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge. (2018)
  7. A people that values its privileges above its principles loses both. (2018)
  8. Customary morality cannot be a guide to modern life. (2018)


  1. Modernisation and westernisation are not identical concepts. (1994)
  2. The world of the twenty-first century. (1998)
  3. The implications of globalization for India. (2000)
  4. My vision of an ideal world order. (2001)
  5. The masks of new imperialism. (2003)
  6. Globalizations and its impact on Indian culture. (2004)
  7. ‘Globalization’ vs. ‘nationalism’. (2009)
  8. Preparedness of our society for India’s global leadership role. (2010)

Science & Tech

  1. The modern doctor and his patients. (1997)
  2. Value-based science and education. (1999)
  3. The march of science and the erosion of human values. (2001)
  4. Spirituality and scientific temper. (2003)
  5. The lure of space. (2004)
  6. Science and Mysticism: Are they compatible? (2012)
  7. Science and technology is the panacea for the growth and security of the nation. (2013)
  8. Technology cannot replace manpower. (2015)
  9. Alternative technologies for a climate change resilient India. (2018)


  1. The cyberworld: its charms and challenges. (2000)
  2. Increasing computerization would lead to the creation of a dehumanized society. (2006)
  3. Cyberspace and Internet: Blessing or curse to the human civilization in the long run. (2016)
  4. Social media is inherently a selfish medium. (2017)

International organisations/relations

  1. Restructuring of UNO reflect present realities. (1996)
  2. India’s role in promoting ASEAN cooperation. (2004)
  3. Importance of Indo-US nuclear agreement. (2006)
  4. Has the Non- Alignment Movement (NAM) lost its relevance in a multipolar world. (2017)


  1. Terrorism and world peace. (2005)
  2. Are we a ‘soft’ state? (2009)
  3. Good fences make good neighbours. (2009)
  4. In the Indian context, both human intelligence and technical intelligence are crucial in combating terrorism. (2011)


  1. India’s contribution to world wisdom. (1998)
  2. The pursuit of excellence. (2001)
  3. Geography may remain the same; history need not. (2010)
  4. Fifty Golds in Olympics: Can this be a reality for India? (2014)
  5. Quick but steady wins the race. (2015)

When preparing for IAS Mains, aspirants must focus on UPSC Mains Answer Writing Practise as this will improve one’s speed, efficiency and writing skills. It will automatically help in essay writing as well.

Frequently Asked Questions on UPSC Essay Topics for UPSC Mains

Q 1. How can I write a good essay in UPSC?

Ans. Essay writing not only checks your ability to understand the topic but also how well you can explain the same. While preparing for any subject, keep making notes. Read editorial articles in newspapers like The Hindu. Listen to analysis of particular topics on Rajya Sabha TV. There is no shortcut to master the essay, it is all about regular practice.

Q 2. Does handwriting matter in UPSC?

Ans. If the answer is good and the handwriting is not good, then there is a possibility of being at a state of disadvantage because the person who evaluates your paper will be evaluating thousands of other papers. Hence, to make sure that your evaluator has not missed out on any piece of information that you have written, it is better to have good and legible handwriting.

Important Pointers for Essay Writing in the IAS Exam

The Essay Paper is one of the nine papers in the UPSC mains (written) exam. It has a weightage of 250 marks, which are counted for the final tally. Earlier, it used to be only 200 marks. There is no syllabus as such for the essay paper, and the essay topics can come from anywhere, particularly current affairs. Even though it might sound easy, it is necessary to prepare for this paper as the marks are counted for your ranking. It is also important to up your general awareness and critical thinking abilities.

The essay is essentially a piece of well-planned and organised writing. Now, not only for the essay paper per se, this form of creative writing is important for all the mains papers since the UPSC demands that all answers be in this format. This paper can be a boon for candidates who can write meaningful and well-structured essays since they can take the final marks notches above. The essay topics have come from both predictable and unpredictable areas. Aspirants should understand how to prepare for the essay paper, as well as how to write a good essay for the IAS mains exam. In this article, you will find the top ten tips for writing good essays that fetch top marks for the civil services mains exam.

Topic Selection

In the essay paper, you have to write one essay out of a choice of four topics in two sections. So, there would be a total of 8 topics and you will have to write two essays. Selection of the topic is also important in this paper. Select a topic that you are comfortable with so that you do not run out of ideas while writing the essay. Also, take care to avoid topics that might be considered controversial or sensitive.


After you have finalised on the topic, think about it for a while and jot down all the points that you get in rough.

Ideas Sequencing

Arrange and sequence your ideas and thoughts in such a manner that their logical consistency is maintained. Suppose you have ten points for a particular topic, arrange them in the way you would put them in the essay. After that, think of a good introduction and conclusion for the essay.

Quoting Facts and Figures

You should always substantiate what you say in the essay with facts and figures. Recent statistics should be provided to prove any point. Of course, you should only give authentic information and not make up stuff!

Do not stray

Make sure you do not stray away from the topic asked. Going way off topic can cost you marks.

Write concisely

The word limit for the essay is about 1000 – 1200 words. Make sure you include all your points within the prescribed word limit.

Exact and Effective Representation

Represent your views in an exact and effective manner. Articulation, effective expression, logic, flow and rhythm are important. Correct grammar and style of writing adds to the overall effectiveness of the message which you want to convey through your essay.

Tone of the Essay

Always make your essay neutral and balanced. Show human concern and do not take extreme positions on particularly divisive topics. Do not use provocative lines such as ‘Panchayati Raj is a waste of taxpayer’s money’.


A candidate must be thorough and well verse with his/her general awareness. As topics come from Current Affairs, you need to have in-depth knowledge and background on trending topics in the world.

Revision and Proofreading

After you’ve written your essay, proofreading and revising your essay is absolutely essential. This is an absolute must if you are to score high marks on the paper. You should check spellings and grammatical errors.

What are the Important Points to Note for Essay Preparation in UPSC Exams?

One of the mains papers is the Essay Paper. Amidst the hullabaloo of the General Studies and the optional subject papers, the essay paper tends to get side-lined. No issues there as there is no set syllabus for this paper, but it would be imprudent to take this paper without any preparation whatsoever. You have to practice writing essays by making some rudimentary preparation about a few general relevant topics. The below points should be adhered to in the Essay Examination.

  1. Must write the essays in the language authorized in the admission certificate. The medium must also be mentioned by you on the cover of the answer booklet. Answers written in any other language will not be evaluated by the board.
  2. One must adhere to the specified word limit.

If any page or portion of the answer booklet is left blank, it must be struck off.

Which are the Subject Areas a Candidate Must Focus on while Preparing For Essay Paper of UPSC Mains Exam?

A candidate preparing for Essay Paper of UPSC Mains exam must focus his or her preparation on the below given subjects.

    1. Education
    2. Women
    3. Technology
    4. Democracy
    5. Economy
    6. Ethics
    7. Social Issues

What can we Analyse from the Previous Years Essay Question Papers?

The below 2 graphs gives an interesting perspective of the Essay papers. It gives us an idea of the subject areas that needs to be covered and requires the attention of candidates to handle questions of Essay paper.

Essay paper of 2015 and the number of questions asked from each topic.

Essay paper of 2016 and the number of questions asked from each topic.

There was a better mix of diverse topics in the 2016 paper when compared to the previous one. There was no question on education but there was one on innovation.

Question on innovation: “Innovation is the key determinant of economic growth and social welfare.”

2016 also saw a question (albeit controversial) on women empowerment after a gap of three years. The last time there was a question on this topic was in 2012.

The question in 2012 was: “Managing work and home – is the Indian working woman getting a fair deal?”

Capitalism and technology continue to be favourite topics. The questions generally tend to focus on the negative aspects of these concepts. But you must remember the answers must be balanced.

What is the Difference Between Essay Paper and General Studies Papers?

A comparison of the Essay Paper with the General Studies papers is given in the below table

GS Questions Essay Paper Questions
The nature of economic growth in India in recent times is often described as jobless growth. Do you agree with this view? Give arguments in favour of your answer. (GS Paper III, 2015) Near jobless growth in India: An anomaly or an outcome of economic reforms. (2016)
The concept of cooperative federalism has been increasingly emphasized in recent years. Highlight the drawbacks in the existing structure and the extent to which cooperative federalism would answer the shortcomings. (GS Paper II, 2015) Cooperative federalism: myth or reality? (2016)
Constitutional mechanisms to resolve inter-state water disputes have failed to address and solve the problems. Is the failure due to structural or process inadequacy or both? (GS Paper II, 2013) Water disputes between States in federal India. (2016)
Explaining Mahatma Gandhi’s quote: “There is enough on this earth for every one’s need but for no one’s greed.” Need brings greed, if greed increases it spoils breed. (2016)

The above table gives credence to the fact that a lot of the material for the essay paper is obtained from the General Studies material itself.

How to Improve Your Writing Skills for the UPSC Mains Exam

As you are well aware the UPSC mains exam consists of nine descriptive papers. Here also, you must score the minimum required marks to get the interview call from the board. Thousands of people take the mains written exam and mostly all study similar material.

So, how do you distinguish your best answers from the rest? You need to write in a style that is good, neat, systematic, error-free, aesthetic, and one that shows your clean grasp of facts. This article will give you insights on how to improve writing skills for the UPSC mains exam and more tips on answer writing skills for the IAS exam.

Skilful Answer Writing for UPSC Mains

The following tips will help improve your writing skills for the UPSC Mains Exam-

1. Increase your reading count

You can improve your writing by reading a lot. Sure, you have to read a lot for your IAS preparation, but the next time when you read a newspaper or magazine, do focus on the written content style also. Reading more familiarises you with good writing practices subconsciously and this will be reflected in your writing as well. So, reading more is the first step in knowing how to improve answer writing in UPSC mains exam.

2. Keep your outline consistent

The outline refers to the basic structure of your written piece, in your case, answers. You should have an introduction, body and conclusion to your piece. And they must be consistent as much as possible.

3. Do not use unnecessary jargons or technical terms. Also, avoid clichés

While writing answers in the UPSC mains, restrict the use of unnecessarily technical words and clichés. Don’t write just to fill up the word count. Remember that quality is better appreciated than quantity. The examiner will most likely be put off by a paper that comes across as written by a person trying to show off his knowledge.

4. Avoid generalizations

In any writing, generalizations are best avoided. Always give material that you can substantiate with basic facts and information.

5. Do not overdo the embellishments

You must definitely give quotes in your answer. They certainly show your erudition. But avoid giving too many quotes. Also, you can give a few metaphors and similes in your answers. But only very rarely and when you think they are absolutely essential to the point being told. Otherwise, save the embellishments for the English literature optional paper!

6. Be original

This point is self-explanatory. Don’t just reproduce what you read as it is onto the answer paper. Write in your own words. Don’t invent stuff up. But don’t curtail your creativity in writing.

7. Practice makes perfect

Nothing can be perfected or at least improved without practice. Practice answer writing for the UPSC exam as it can make the difference between winning and losing in this high-competition exam.

8. Make your writing error-free as much as possible

Always make sure that your answers are free from grammatical and spelling errors.

Inculcate all the above-mentioned tips in your writing practise daily and you will see yourself becoming more adept at this art. Mere knowledge is not enough to pass the IAS exam. You need to convince the examiner correcting your answer booklet that you have good knowledge and ideas to become a first-class civil servant. This is possible by writing simple yet effective answers that not only give the required information but also are a pleasure to read as well.

To know more about the topics generally asked in the exam, visit the UPSC Syllabus.

You can find more UPSC-related preparation materials and other articles with the links given in the table below:

10 Quick Tips On Answer Writing For IAS Exam

Practising answer writing is an important part of UPSC Civil Services exam preparation. IAS Mains exam is totally descriptive and demands for expression of your views on the topics asked in the question.

Thus, understanding how to present your opinion is a very important part of the IAS Exam preparation.

In this article, we are giving 10 useful tips through which you can improve your answer writing skills.

  • You should read the question very carefully so that you understand what is specifically being asked from you and what is expected.
  • You should use your own words to write the answers. Your language should be lucid. You should avoid unnecessary jargons and flowery language.
  • Your answers should not seem biased or prejudiced. There should be clarity of expression.
  • When you critically examine you must examine a situation in the light of socio-economic & political circumstances, this would give your answer a moderate tinge.
  • Do not use very long sentences and paragraphs, write simple answers. Making long sentences increases the complexity of the answers.
  • Split your answers into paragraphs. Change paragraphs when you shift to a new subject matter. Also, avoid writing too long paragraphs.
  • Do not quote views, opinions frequently – at times you can quote from original work whenever it suits the context of your writing.
  • Write the answers within the word limit so that you can solve more questions instead of spending all your time on a few questions.
  • While writing, please make sure your handwriting is legible. Do not be under the impression that in whatever manner you write the examiner would make all efforts to go through that, instead help the examiners read your answers comfortably.
  • Do not use quotations in your answers that you are not absolutely sure of. Because if the examiner comes to know that you have used the wrong quotation, you will surely lose your marks.

Follow these tips and do practise answer writing from the very beginning of your preparation, then only you will be able to give your best in the Mains examination.

To test and practise UPSC Mains Answer Writing 2021-22, check the linked article. Candidates can practise answer writing in GS 1, GS 2, GS 3 and GS 4.

Essay Paper Strategy from Toppers

The Essay Paper in the UPSC civil services mains exam is sometimes overlooked by candidates thinking that all they have to do is write on a topic from material that they have learnt for the general studies papers. They take it easy thinking it doesn’t require any additional preparation. But, read on to understand why the essay paper is important and should not be ignored.

On the other hand, this paper can also rattle candidates who are unnerved by the ‘lack of a concrete syllabus’ for the UPSC essay paper. Both the extremes should be avoided and candidates are advised to put in the right effort and the right amount of effort needed for this paper. IAS toppers Chandra Mohan Garg and Mittali Sethi aced the essay paper and scored 149 marks and 160 marks respectively out of a total of 250.

Essay Tips from Chandra Mohan Garg (AIR 25; CSE 2015)

  1. Choose your topic wisely. You should have a holistic understanding of the topic. Avoid thinking that a common topic cannot do you good since most candidates would opt for it. Take an unconventional topic only if you are most comfortable with it.
  2. After topic selection, brainstorm for fodder material like keywords, quotes, examples, illustrations, case studies, facts and figures, etc.
  3. Also, think about the past, present and future scenario related to the topic.
  4. Structure your essay properly. Have an introduction, body and a conclusion. In the body, you must write about both sides of view as illustrated below:

Essay tips from Chandra Mohan Garg

  1. Keep your language simple with short sentences and small paragraphs.
  2. Mention examples, government schemes and plans in your essay.
  3. Always cover the social, economic, political, cultural, legal, international and humanistic perspectives of the topic.
  4. There should be a definite flow to the essay.
  5. The essay should reflect your vision and ideas rather than display your knowledge.
  6. Your introduction should be impressive. Include striking quotes or illustrations here. Also, it should outline your essay and tell the reader what to expect in reading further.
  7. Try to conclude your essay with a positive or visionary note.
  8. When you read the newspaper for your IAS preparation, note down good lines and examples.
  9. Prepare some fodder about general topics like education, women, healthcare, internet, technology, democracy, etc. Stay updated on all the important UPSC current affairs with our daily current affairs features.
  10. Before your exam, you should practice writing at least 5 – 6 essays.

Download the 2019 UPSC Essay Paper at the linked article.

Essay tips from Mittali Sethi (AIR 56; CSE 2016)

  1. Your introduction and conclusion should stand out. Psychologically, a person remembers what is at the beginning and at the end. So, try to impress the examiner when you write the introduction and the conclusion. It would leave a good impression if you portray your compassionate and empathetic side in the beginning of the essay itself.
  2. You should connect to the topic as a HUMAN. Avoid writing mechanically.
  3. You should conclude the essay on a positive note. You could give possible solutions or also end with a futuristic vision.
  4. You can make a rough flowchart before you begin writing your essay so that you can outline what you will be writing where. This will make your essay more structured and also ensure that you don’t forget important points and perspectives.
  5. Write in simple English but make you don’t make any grammatical errors. Put in efforts to improve your language if you feel you need to. Wrong language/grammar can change the meaning of a sentence.
  6. You can have strong opinions on a topic but make sure you are not just opinionated but also informed.
  7. Don’t just crib about things, also present solutions.
  8. Make sure your quotes are correct verbatim otherwise, don’t quote them. You can get some good and authoritative quotes for UPSC exam at the linked article.
  9. Try to be concise so that you can cover maximum dimensions and also avoid repetitions.
  10. Try to cover multiple perspectives like social, economic, political, cultural, linguistic, local, international and humanistic ones.

What does a question mean (directives) and how to approach different types of questions

Critically - सूक्षम रूप से / गंभीर / गुण-दोष की दृष्टि से






Comment (टिप्पणी)

South China Sea has assumed great geopolitical significance in the present context. Comment. (CSE 2016, GS I)

  • Choose your position on the topic/issue.
  • Provide arguments with facts/examples in favour of your opinion.
  • To critically comment, mention both sides of the argument with examples
  • Introduce the topic.
  • In the main body/bullets put down the arguments and the facts.
  • End with conclusion. 
  • To critically comment, write the positive arguments first, followed by the negative arguments.

Examine (की जांच)

Examine the development of Airports in India through joints ventures under Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model. What are the challenges faced by the authorities in this regard? (CSE 2017,GS III)

  • Probe deeper into the given topic.
  • Support your answer with details like causes, implications and the way forward.
  • Begin with a brief discussion of the various issues on the topic.
  • Provide details and conclude in the same paragraph if possible. 

Critically examine (समालोचनात्मक जाँच करें)

India has achieved remarkable successes in unmanned space missions including the Chandrayaan and Mars Orbiter Mission, but has not ventured into manned space missions. What are the main obstacles to launching a manned space mission, both in terms of technology and logistics? Examine critically. (CSE 2017,GS III)

  • Go into details along with causes and reasons, strengths and weaknesses
  • Mention the consequences, implications and action taken for the issue at hand.
  • Similar to above, but write the strengths and weaknesses in separate paragraphs.
  • Consequences, etc should be in a separate paragraph and conclude without taking sides.

Discuss (चर्चा करना)

Discuss the role of women in the freedom struggle especially during the Gandhian phase. (CSE 2016, GS I)

  • Cover broadly, mentioning strengths/weaknesses and positives/negatives.
  • Mention causes/ consequences as well.
  • After introduction, go into the positive/negative aspects, followed by causes/consequences.
  • In addition, provide solutions, suggestions, examples etc and conclude with a holistic view of the topic.

Discuss critically (आलोचनात्मक चर्चा करें)

To what extent can Germany be held responsible for causing the two World Wars? Discuss critically. (CSE 2015, GS I)

  • Same as above, only be very careful with the reasoning applied to arrive at a conclusion.
  • Same as above


Evaluate the economic and strategic dimensions of India’s Look East Policy in the context of the post Cold War international scenario. (CSE 2016, GS II)

  • Assess both sides of the statement/topic.
  • Mention the worthiness or usefulness of the statement.
  • Mention briefly, positive and negative aspects of the statement/topic
  • Introduce the statement/ topic and then break into paragraphs of positive/ negative aspects and end with a concluding remark on why you think it is worthy or unworthy

Critically evaluate

Mesolithic rock cut architecture of India not only reflects the cultural life of the times but also a fine aesthetic sense comparable to modern painting. Critically evaluate this comment. (CSE 2015, GS I)

  • In addition to the above, bring out the value of the topic.
  • Same as above, but you can lean towards either the positive aspects or the negative, depending on the


The North – East region of India has been infested with insurgency for a very long time. Analyse the major reasons for the survival of armed insurgency in this region.(CSE 2017,GS III)

  • Break the main idea into its constituent parts.
  • Examine each part separately.
  • After introducing, move to examine each broken down ideas one by one.
  • Conclude by addressing the central idea of the topic.


What is a quasi-judicial body? Explain with the help of concrete examples. (CSE 2016, GS II)

  • Give clear reasons to show what/how/why something is happening or has happened.


  • Introduction-main body-conclusion format should work.


The Self Help Group (SHG) Bank Linkage Program (SBLP), which is India’s own innovation, has proved to be one of the most effective poverty alleviation and women empowerment programme. Elucidate. (CSE 2015, GS II)

  • To elucidate is to make something clear that was formerly confusing.
  • To bring clarity, cite evidences, examples, facts etc.
  • Introduction-main body-conclusion format should work.


 “The growth of cities as I.T. hubs has opened up new avenues of employment, but has also created new problems.” Substantiate this statement with examples.(CSE 2017,GS I)

  • Give evidence in support of what is being said i.e cite reports, facts, events etc.
  • Introduction-main body-conclusion format should work.


Write a note on India’s green energy corridor to alleviate the problem of conventional energy. (CSE 2013, GS III)

  • Summarize what you know i.e the what/when/how/why of the given topic.
  • Introduction-main body-conclusion format should work.

Strategy: Answer Writing for CSE MAINS

The Civil Services (Mains) Examination 2020 is scheduled from 8th January 2021 onward and the IAS aspirants must pull up their socks and start working on their answer writing skills to upgrade their Mains preparation simultaneously as well. Aspirants must be aware that if Prelims is a battle then UPSC Mains is a war. So without any procrastination, it’s time to sharpen your mind and skills for what lies ahead.

Directives for Strategic Writing in the UPSC Mains Exam

The UPSC Mains examination is designed to gauge the overall intellectual quirks, depth of understanding with regard to the subject matter and the ability of an aspirant to critically analyse an issue/topic. The descriptive nature of this level tests one’s ability to present the answers in a clear, rational and concise manner.

Even before we venture out on how to practice answer writing, let’s get an in-depth understanding of the Directives which assists one to interpret a question and answer accordingly. A wide range of Directives is used in UPSC Mains General Studies and Optional question papers each year. Directives are general instructions that tell one what to do with the content words/task words to make the answer as relevant as possible. Let’s try to understand frequently used Directives with their clear meanings:

1) Evaluate/Critically Evaluate –

To evaluate is to come to a decision based on the overall analysis of the pros and cons backed by evidence. The word “Critically” is used when a fair judgement is demanded by the examiner. Critically evaluating a statement requires a person to be able to exercise their sense of reasoning and provide evidence both to support and repudiate a statement and to finally reach a conclusion.

A most common mistake that can be found here is most aspirants give only pieces of evidence to support the statement, thus leaving it an incomplete and paving way for the examiner to partially grade the answer.

For example,

A) E-governance is the new mantra of governance in India and the world. Evaluate.


  • Explain the significance of e-governance
  • Conclude the introduction by giving a hint that – all is not well with e-governance mode of governance.


  • Briefly touch upon the success/positives of e-governance with some examples.
  • However, the bulk of your answer should evaluate the above statement. Primarily due to the fact that e-governance is value-neutral and sometimes not an inclusive model of governance, particularly in the developing world.


  • Focus on how e-governance systems can be made more inclusive.
  • Conclude by saying that the administration requires both men and machine. But, machines could replace men in areas where value questions or decision making is not very important.

B) The states of  Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are reaching the limits of their ecological carrying capacity due to tourism. Critically Evaluate.

Introduction: The carrying capacity of a biological species in an environment is the maximum population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water, and other necessities available in the environment. The heavy rush of tourists into the ecologically sensitive Himalayan states of HP and UK during peak season has raised serious questions of ecological sustainability.



  • Explain the ecological constraints of these states
  • Explain how tourism is affecting their ecology


  • Case study
  • Statistics
  • Graphs (if required)


  • Steps to be taken to make tourism in these states eco-friendly.
  • How tourism has become indispensable to the economy of these states.
  • The conclusion should be balanced.

2) Comment / Critically Comment –

This is one of the most used directives in mains paper. A comment is a statement which expresses an opinion or reaction. It is important to pick out the main points/core and give one’s opinion based on the information or the arguments originated from the reading. One should take a neutral ground and write facts and viewpoints.

As mentioned previously, the word “Critically” demands fair judgement and hence both the pros and cons are weighed. The opinion expressed may swing for or against but it should be backed by right evidence.

For example,

A) There should be zero tolerance to corruption if ease of doing business has to make any noticeable progress. Comment from India’s perspective.


(Please note that comment basically is a detailed discussion, opening up a given topic)

  • Define ease of doing business and India’s position (Check the latest Ease of Doing Business Report in the linked article.)
  • There can be a statement like “empirical shreds of evidence have shown that ease of doing business is greatly impacted by issues of corruption, although factors external to corruption like – the absence of citizen charters, the shortfall in administrative personnel etc can determine ease of doing business.


  • Explain how corruption impacts doing business. (For facts, you can give India’s rank in the Corruption Perceptions Index.)
  • Explain how factors external to corruption dent ease of doing business.
  • Use statistics, diagrams and case studies.


  • Throw some light in steps taken to improve the ease of business scenario in India.
  • Make new/possible suggestions to improve EODB.
  • Make your concluding remarks – ideally, for this question – ‘ redressing corruption is a big factor in improving ease of doing business, but, ease of doing business has to do with a lot of other factors connected to ecology, economy, administration and the political and social culture.

3) Discuss/ Discuss Critically

One of the most frequently used directives with a bland tone and possibly the trickiest term whose meaning varies according to the question. Discuss necessitates a debate where reasoning is backed up with evidence to make a case for and against an argument and finally arriving at a conclusion. In simple terms an examiner expects one to discuss various perspectives and present a logical argument.

Questions which ask a candidate to “Discuss Critically” are broad-based in nature and a UPSC examiner would expect the candidate to give out his own perspective with regard to the question. Also, this directive expects one to discuss the points of criticism with regard to the concept.

For example,

A) Discuss the shortcomings of SAARC in achieving its objective of regional and economic integration.


  • Start with the regional and economic objectives of SAARC.
  • State how it has largely remained unfulfilled despite holding great promise.


  • Bring out the hindrances and obstacles that are holding back progress with regard to seamless integration.
  • Discuss trade barriers, bilateral incompatibility (especially Indo-Pak clashes due to terrorism), mutual distrust, poor connectivity and infrastructure etc.
  • Highlight the achievements – SAFTA, SAARC University, SAARC food bank etc.
  • Insulating the multi-lateral process from bi-lateral complications can help aid progress.


  • Suggest a way out- use the ASEAN model as a comparative guideline to resolve issues.

B) The frequency of earthquakes appears to have increased in the Indian subcontinent. However, India’s preparedness for mitigating their impact has significant gaps. Critically discuss various aspects.


  • Discuss the causes and instances of increase in the frequency of earthquakes in the Indian subcontinent in brief (One should know the basics of the earthquake.)
  • Proceed to critique India’s disaster management policy with regard to earthquakes.


  • Bring out its loopholes, flawed implementation etc and at the same time balance it out by highlighting the positive changes and recent achievements in the field of earthquake preparedness, mitigation and rehabilitation.
  • Back your critique with evidence and examples.

        Conclusion: Suggest policy measures to improve disaster preparedness.

4) Analyse/ Critically Analyse –

When a candidate is asked to Analyse, he/she is expected to break an issue into constituent parts and explain how these relate to one other and present as one summary.

On the other hand when asked to “Critically Analyse”, a candidate is supposed to provide a fair judgment and the other steps remain the same as Analyse.

For example,

A) There is a clear acknowledgement that Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are a tool of industrial development, manufacturing and exports. Recognizing this potential, the whole instrumentality of SEZs requires augmentation. Critically analyse the issues plaguing the success of SEZs with respect to taxation, governing laws and administration.


  • The promise of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ)
  • Broadly outline the problems they are facing


  • Issues hampering the success of SEZ’s with respect to taxation in India (in detail)
  • The income tax benefits were neutralized by the introduction of the minimum alternate tax (MAT) etc
  • Issues with respect to governing laws and administration
  • Red tapism
  • Complicated  custom laws
  • FTA free trade agreements
  • The absence of complementary infrastructure outside the SEZs, like port connectivity, roads, train connectivity proved to be a dampener for manufacturing investments
  • Export incentives were not extended too many sectors in SEZ’s whereas an export outside the SEZ’s enjoyed duty drawbacks and other incentives.

Conclusion: measures-how it could be improved, balanced view of SEZ’s with the example of China.

5) Examine

The word “Examine” means to probe deeper into the topic and understand the topic in detail. Here a candidate is expected to investigate and establish the key facts and issues related to the question. In “Examine” you probe deeper than “Comment” and in “Analyse”, you probe deeper than in “Examine”.

“Critically Examine” throws light on the negatives and positives where an aspirant needs to examine both sides of an issue and come to a balanced conclusion.

For example,

A) Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata are the three megacities of the country but the air pollution is a much more serious problem in Delhi as compared to the other two. Examine.

The question wants us to examine the given statement. The statement already makes a conclusion that Delhi has more serious air pollution problem than Mumbai and Delhi. To examine we first need to present the issue in focus in detail and then proceed to reason finally concluding with a positive solution.

Paragraph 1: a brief statement about air pollution in India, its severity and if possible India’s ranking in global air pollution index, ambient air quality index etc.

Paragraph 2: analysis of pollution in Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata.

Paragraph 3: reasons why Delhi pollution is more than the other cities. It can contain the sources of pollution, geographical and climatic factors etc. Talk about Stubble Burning.

Paragraph 4: problems due to pollution in Delhi

Paragraph 5: ways to tackle pollution in India with more focus on Delhi. Mention about Air Quality Index.

B) India is well endowed with freshwater resources. Critically examine why it still suffers from water scarcity.

The question wants us to critically examine water scarcity in India in spite of abundant freshwater.

Paragraph 1: The importance of freshwater resources

Paragraph 2: Present the details of abundant water resources stated in the question and its sources like rivers, lakes, groundwater, rainwater, glaciers etc

Paragraph 3, 4, 5: Present the problems associated with conserving water leading to scarcity. Each source of water can be picked up and then problems associated with conserving that particular source of water can be stated. For example, problems associated with river water are pollution through industrial effluents, runoff into oceans, wetland destruction, developments on flood banks etc. (Read about RSTV’s take on India’s Water Crisis.)

Paragraph 6: Provide a constructive solution to conserve freshwater resources. Mention about Atal Bhujal Yojana.

6) Elucidate

Elucidate means to explain in detail/to make clear. When an examiner uses this directive, they present us with a cause-effect correlation. In such cases, a candidate has to bring out the connection more clearly by citing evidence and examples.

7) Explain

Explain gives a clear account as to How/Why something happens. A candidate here is expected to clarify with relevant facts and implications.

Elucidate and Explain are self-explanatory and previous examples gives a fair idea on how to structure the answer.

These are the most commonly used directives in mains repeated time and again. Some straight forward and obvious ones like “WHY?” “HOW?” show up a few times which demands a direct answer and no complications there.

You can find more topics by visiting the UPSC Syllabus page. For more preparation related articles, visit the following links.

Over 30 ‘directives’ or ‘tail words’ and how to tackle them in Mains

UPSC paper setters take a lot of time to frame questions and this is one of the main reasons we don’t find any of the other exams coming remotely closer to UPSC. In such a scenario, not having a deep understanding ‘question directives‘ or ‘tail words‘ can adversely impact your attempt.

Presenting an exhaustive list to help clear all doubts – what do the ‘question directives’ mean from a pure english language perspective? How they can be incorporated in your Mains Answer Writing?

Towards the end, we discuss their practical applicability.

There are 2 kinds of directives – Descriptive directives and Critical directives 

Descriptive directives want you to primarily answer the 4Ws – what, where, who, when. You are representing the situation as it stands, without presenting any analysis or discussion. They want you to provide with information.

Critical directives, on the other hand, want you to go beyond providing information. They want you to analyse and evaluate the issue at hand. A much higher level of skill is clearly needed for attempting critical directives than for descriptive directives. 

Let’s dive in 

Descriptive directives

1. Define

Here, you must outline the precise meaning of the term being referred to. If you don’t have a crisp clear and packed definition, then it will be hard for you to score in this question.

If the definition is contested then make sure you mention that. Mentioning examples to make it clear to the examiner always helps. 

For example, the definition on terrorism, there are many different perspectives. Some say, there is also state sponsored terrorism. Others contest it. Clearly present this in the definition. You need not be an expert. Put it down in your own words.

2. Describe

When describing something, you must provide thorough insight into the main characteristics of the topic in a very objective manner. 

Eg. when asked to describe a policy. You simply have to list the main issues it tries to address and the salient features. (ideally doesn’t want you to )

3. Elaborate

Here, you are required to provide a lot of detail and information on a topic or argument. 

Eg. ‘Although individuals within a representative democracy possess rights, allowing them to lobby parliamentarians and governments concerning pertinent issues, a collective approach can often exert more powerful pressure on decision makers, as well as consolidating a range of similar ideas and opinions into a cohesive format’. Elaborate. (2013)

You are expected to discuss, in detail, with examples and arguments on the idea of pressure groups, lobbying in particular.

4. Explain

‘Explain’ questions expect you to basically clarify a topic. When answering such questions, it helps to imagine you are writing for someone who knows absolutely nothing of the subject. And remember two things. To provide as much detail as possible, and to give definitions for any jargon or key terms when used.

Keep in mind any ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions as this will help you to structure a clear and logically coherent response. Coherence is extremely important in providing explanatory answers.

5. Explore

Needless to say, your answer must be exploratory and thus it is imperative that you adopt a questioning approach when answering such questions. Because of the exploratory nature of such essays, objectivity is key. That is, you should give an overview of all viewpoints before providing any of your own arguments.

A somewhat detached, dispassionate tone can be particularly effective, in contrast to the more assertive, argumentative tone you might adopt for other types of essay question. Just remember that the key objective here is to give a nuanced account of a research topic or argument by examining its composite parts.

>>Simplification based Descriptive directives

6. Clarify/elucidate

This means to provide insight into a subject, and quite literally, provide clarification. For example, this could be done by making an argument or topic more clear by explaining it in simpler terms.

In several of the questions, where the examiners use this directive, they present us with a cause-effect linkage asking us to ‘elucidate’. In such cases, we have to basically bring out the linkage more clearly citing evidence and examples.

Eg. The Self Help Group (SHG) Bank Linkage Program (SBLP), which is India’s own innovation, has proved to be one of the most effective poverty alleviation and women empowerment programme. Elucidate

‘Globalisation is generally said to promote cultural homogenisation but due to this cultural specificities appear to be strengthened in the Indian society.’ Elucidate. (2018)

7. State/Throw light on

To specify in clear terms the key aspects pertaining to a topic without being overly descriptive. Refer to evidence and examples where appropriate.

Eg. Throw light on the significance of the thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi in the present times. (2018 – 10M)


Start with a line like Gandhi is regarded as the greatest Indian since Gautama Buddha and the greatest man since Jesus Christ.

Elaborate on the following writing 1-2 lines and you’ll score an 8/10. No need to explain too much and go into the depth too much


2.Ahimsa – believer in peace and harmony,


4.Swaraj – Multidimensional concept spanning political, cultural, economic and technological spheres.

5.Dharma – Multidimensional concept meaning many things depending upon the situation – obedience to law, morality, being virtuous, etc.

6.Trusteeship Model – Though a failed model but inspired Corporate Social Responsibility. The best companies in the world invest heavily in social projects.

7.Ram Rajya/ Decentralized polity – Democracy is about giving power to the masses. Debates around strengthening the Panchayati Raj system all based on this ideal.

8.Sarvodaya and Antyodaya

9.Campaign against untouchability

10.Campaign for cleanliness – Inspired swatch bharat.

11.Ethical journalism – Gandhi was a journalist at heart. He published 4 newspapers and used it as a medium to generate awareness.

12.Opposition to western materialism, appreciation for sciences and bringing back spiritualism from our past.

8. Identify

Questions that require you to ‘identify’ something in relation to a topic or argument require you to point out and describe the main ideas in a short and coherent way.

Eg. What is the significance of Industrial Corridors in India? Identifying industrial corridors, explain their main characteristics. (2018-15M)

Here, you are expected to identify the particular issue that is asked for in the question ie., Industrial corridor locations. Sticking to the keyword is of utmost significance. 

>>Presentation based Descriptive directives

9. Demonstrate/substantiate

The key to tackling ‘demonstrate’ questions is to use several examples, evidence, and logical arguments. Essentially, you are required to show how a particular research topic or argument is valid by using evidence and arguments to support your claim.

You have to build a strong case. 

Similarly substantiate require you to substantiate already proven point and not debating between the various points. 

Eg. ‘Women’s movement in India has not addressed the issues of women of lower social strata.’ Substantiate your view. (2018-15M)

10. Enumerate

Specifically asking you to provide details in a point-wise format. 

Eg. Enumerate the provisions of RTI Bill. You are expected to list the provisions. But you should also deal with the analysis aspect of it as to how each provision addresses a particular dimension of transparency/ accountability.

11 Estimate

Measurement of positive & negative of an idea. It doesn’t show exact situation. (Note: No conclusion is written in this type of question).

12. Illustrate

Such an answer will generally involve the use of many examples, such as tables, figures, graphs, or concrete research statistics and evidence. The aim is to use these examples to demonstrate knowledge of the subject of the question and to further explain or clarify your answer.

Eg. What is meant by conflict of interest? Illustrate with examples, the difference between the actual and potential conflicts of interest (2018)

‘Communalism arises either due to power struggle or relative deprivation.’ Argue by giving suitable illustrations. (2018 – 15marks)

In both the questions, you have to quote examples to explain your points. Examples of how power struggle has aided communalism and how relative deprivation has aided communalism.

13. Outline

outline answer requires you present an organised description of a topic or argument. It is imperative that you provide the main points only (and any important supplementary information) as opposed to focusing on the minor details. Remember to present your answer in a systematic and coherent way.

14. Summarise

When you are asked to summarise or present a summary of a topic, you should give a condensed form of its main points or facts. You must omit all minor details and focus mainly on the key facts. As a result, summaries are typically brief and straight to the point. The key is to get all the main facts across to the reader in as punchy and succinct a manner as possible.

>>Comparative analysis based

These questions are best represented in the form of a table. 

15. Compare

When asked to ‘compare’, you must identify any similarities between two or more subjects of discussion. You can go beyond making a basic comparison by trying to understand the roots of the similarities you identify, as well as their significance.

Furthermore, you may also want to emphasise any differences, although the focus of your essay should be on establishing similarities.

Eg. A question on comparing various land revenue systems in British India is expected to tackle the similar objectives of the mechanisms while also presenting the fine differences between them.

16. Contrast

A ‘contrast’ question expects you to identify differences, not similarities, between subjects. What are the main dissimilarities between two or more subjects? What sets them apart? These are the general questions that you must keep in mind when addressing ‘contrast’ questions.

17. Differentiate

Bring out the differences. 

Eg. How the Indian concept of secularism is different from the western model of secularism? Discuss. (2018)

This is a tricky question in the sense that it wants a comparative analysis but at the same time asks you to deep dive into it by asking you to ‘discuss’. Go through the approach. Parts of it can be captured in a tabular format. 


Secularism broadly refers to the separation of religion from state and its confinement to the private sphere. It’s a western construct whose roots can be traced back to the treaty of Westphalia which called for state sovereignty and its separation of religion. However, the relationship between religion and states remain complex.

There are 2 prominent models of secularism regarded as western models

1.France –> wall of separation model – which calls for a water-tight separation between the religion and state exists. The state actively tries to confine people’s religion to their private spheres and bans public appearances. Eg. banning burkinis, hijab, etc.

2.USA -> no-preference model – which calls for equal treatment of all religions by the state and no preferential treatment. In USA, you have every right to wear your religion in public.

The version of Indian Secularism has been a matter of intense debate. Secularism is a part of the Preamble and the Constitution calls for no discrimination on the basis of religion. However, it also allows the state to intervene in matters of religion via Art. 25-30. The DPSP for establishing UCC also goes against the principles of Secularism.

Some matters where the state has interfered

1.The Hindu Marriage Act.
2.The Triple Talaq Ban
3.Jallikatu, Temple Entry, etc.
Hence one can see it is neither a wall of separation model nor a no-preference model.

The Indian Secularism can be best described as that of ‘Principled Distance’. The doctrine of Principled Distance allows states to interfere in matters of religion to stop discrimination and ensure that all religion are treated equally.


Critical directives 

The following directives require you to provide with a critical analysis. The degree of how critical your answers must be is decided by the specific directives. 

1. Analyse

Questions that ask you to ‘analyse’ a particular topic expect a thorough deconstruction of the subject. In other words, this word requires you to break the topic down into its fundamental parts.

Once you have done this, it’s important that you critically (more on this later) examine each part. You need to use important debates and evidence to look in depth at the arguments for and against, as well as how the parts interconnect. What does the evidence suggest? 

Eg. When you are asked to analyse the relevance of the latest e-commerce policy, you clearly explain the topic in hand, use substantial facts and arguments to argue for and against the topic and give a conclusion.

2. Evaluate

You are required to demonstrate the extent to which you agree with a particular argument or hypothesis.

It is essential to provide information on both sides of the debate. Then you must state your position basing your arguments on the evidence that informed you in arriving at your position.

3. Justify/Advocate

With ‘justify’ question words, you need to explain the basis of your argument by presenting the evidence that informed your outlook in a very convincing way. 

You need to explain why other possible arguments are unsatisfactory as well as why your own particular argument is preferable.

Eg. If a question says that Art 370 completes the integration of Kashmir into India, you are expected to justify any stand you take. You need not toe the line of the question. Just be firm with your argument, strengthen it with evidence and argue for it. Also, prove against why the other side is not true.

4. Review/Examine

An answer to a ‘review’ question word should demonstrate critical examination of a subject or argument. This is done by recapping or summarising the major themes or points in question, and critically discussing them while giving your opinion.

Put another way, ‘review’ questions entail offering your opinion on the validity of the essay question. 

Review answers must demonstrate a high level of analytical skill. The aim is not simply to regurgitate the works of other scholars, but rather to critically analyse these works.

5. Assess

In the case of ‘assess’, you are expected to consider or make an informed judgement about the value, strengths or weakness of an argument, claim or topic. Questions place particular emphasis on weighing all views concerning the essay subject, as opposed to your opinion only. Essentially, you need to convince the reader about the strength of your argument, using research to back up your assessment of the topic is essential. Highlight any limitations to your argument and remember to mention any counter arguments to your position.

6. Discuss

‘Discuss’ question words typically require an in-depth answer that takes into account all aspects of the debate concerning the topic. You must demonstrate reasoning skills with this type of question, by using evidence to make a case for or against a research topic/argument.

Give a detailed examination of the topic by including knowledge of the various perspectives put forward by other scholars in relation to it. What are your thoughts on the subject based on the general debates in the literature? Remember to clearly state your position based on all the evidence you present.

7. Examine

‘Examine’ questions are less exploratory and discursive than some other types of question. They focus instead on asking you to critically examine particular pieces of evidence or facts to inform your analysis.

8. To what extent

In essence, this asks how far you agree with a proposition put forward in the question. This requires a very in-depth assessment of the topic, and especially of the evidence used to present your argument.

Such questions require that you display the extent of your knowledge on a given subject and that you also adopt an analytical style in stating your position. This means that you must consider both sides of the argument, by presenting contrasting pieces of evidence. But ultimately, you must show why a particular set of evidence, or piece of information, is more valid for supporting your answer.

9. Comment

It’s like giving a commentary. Pick out the main points on a subject and give your opinion, reinforcing your point of view using logic and reference to relevant evidence, including any wider reading you have done.

Eg. “Sufis and Medieval mystic saints failed to modify either the religious ideas and practices or the outward structure of Hindu/Muslim societies to any appreciable extent. Comment.” (2014)



Critically evaluate, Critically analyze, Critically Examine

Critical is a strong word and will warrant an assertive response that details the extent to which you agree or disagree with the argument at hand.

The key to tackling these question words is providing ample evidence to support your claims. Ensure that your analysis is balanced by shedding light on, and presenting a critique of, and alternative perspectives. It is also important that you present extensive evidence taken from a varying range of sources.

State your conclusion clearly and state the reasons for this conclusion, drawing on factors and evidence that informed your perspective. Also try to justify your position in order to present a convincing argument to the reader.

Eg. Critically examine the Supreme Court’s judgement on ‘National Judicial Appointments Commission Act, 2014’ with reference to appointment of judges of higher judiciary in India. (2017)

This question expects you to :

  1. first present the judgement
  2. put forward your opinion on the judgement and substantiate it
  3. Mention the opposite argument and highlight the drawbacks of the argument
  4. Conclude by giving your firm opinion on the topic 


The knowledge of these directives is important. But they are not the primary factor to consider while deciding how to pen down your answer. 

If you have a 250 word question asking to ‘illustrate.’ You cant simply provide 2-3 examples and say your job is done. 

You have to deep dive and analyze by providing more examples. It is implied that some analysis is expected as the question follows a lengthy format. 

So, it is important that you understand what is expected from you rather than blindly following the directive. 

These directives can be effective when you have more knowledge about the topic and have enough material to write. In such a scenario, the directives can help you filter the content thats most aligned. 

Best Strategy For UPSC Essay Writing | How to write the Essay For UPSC | Essay Topics for UPSC | Career Launcher

In the scheme of the UPSC Mains examination, the essay paper plays a very important role. This paper carries a total of 250 marks. Initially, the candidates were asked to write only 1 essay in 3 hours till 2013, but after the change in syllabus, the challenge is now of writing 2 essays in 3 hours on diverse topics.

So, now you will have to write two essays each with a word count of 1000 - 1200. There are two sections - Section A and Section B each of which has four topics of essays. Out of these, candidates can select one topic from each section to write an essay. Candidates can select the topic of their choice from a choice of four topics. The UPSC Essay Paper is for a total of 250 marks with one essay for 125 marks.

In this article, we will discuss how to write the essay for UPSC including the genesis of essay, books, and references for essay writing and everything that a candidate must know about UPSC essay writing

Essay for UPSC - Highlights

  • Number of essays to write - 2
  • Time allotted - 3 hours
  • Word Limit - 1000-1200 words
  • Marks allotted- 125 each. Total Marks - 250

UPSC Essay Writing | Genesis of an essay

  • An essay is defined as an organized collection of YOUR IDEAS nicely written and professionally presented.
  • In other words, the essay must be well structured and presented in a way that the readers find it easy to follow and it must look tidy and not present any obstacles to the reader.
  • It must have a clear readable interesting style. But above all, it must consist of your ideas about the issue in question.
  • Developing the skill to write a good essay needs preparation, which precedes the examination phase.
  • Writing holds the key to an effective essay: it forms the core for conveying ideas from your mind to paper.
  • Language skill is not developed overnight. It demands effort and perseverance. Your command over a language is determined by your desire to master it.
  • The general essay paper plays a crucial role in compensating for the lack of high scores in GS and optional papers.
  • Many of us commit the mistake of gathering facts and information on the probable topics at the eleventh hour of preparation, thinking that we can produce a good piece of work in the examination hall.
  • What we have to understand is that arranging gathered ideas using an appropriate language is going to be a tedious job, especially when you have the pressure of time limit
  • So start working on improving your writing skills right from the beginning of your preparation. Enhance your skills by developing an interest in learning more vocabulary, acquiring a wider information base, and having a passion for reading.
  • The whole essay should be organically linked from one paragraph to another So that the examiner could feel the continuity and orderly flow and arrangement of your ideas. the unification among the paragraphs can be done through transitional words and phrases

Guidelines to be followed for UPSC Essay Paper

The best answer to how to write the essay for UPSC can be very well formulated from the guidelines mentioned below. Let’s have a look at them:

  • The essay is not merely a test of your factual knowledge. It is a test of your creativity, inventive spirit, and capacity for the generation of new ideas.
  • The choice of words and the proper statement is important.
  • For that make a list of the alternative words for the words you use often.
  • Note down powerful sentences, paragraphs, and quotations whenever you find them.
  • Keep close to the subject matter. Whatever you write it must be totally relevant to the subject matter.
  • The introductory note should be around 5 to 7 percent of the length of the essay, the body around 86 to 90 percent, and the concluding remark again around 5 to 7 percent.
  • To obtain good marks remember the abc of essay which stands for a - for accuracy; b - for brevity and c - for creativity.
  • Don't take extreme views. Your essay should reflect your balance of judgment, holistic approach, and an analytical bend of mind
  • Select the topic wisely -A topic about which you are too passionate or feel strongly about. In this case, you may tend to get excited and fail to write a balanced essay. This can work against you.
  • After selecting the topic judiciously, you should not start writing straight away. It is advisable to think for some time and collect your thoughts. Write in pencil the points you want to write as doing so you can write your points in the correct sequence.
  • Once you have the rough points in hand, you can start writing the essay. While writing, you must adhere to a good structure.

Structure of a Good UPSC Essay

  • The introductory paragraph should have clear indications about what you are going to write in the essay - begin your essay with a quote w.r.t the context
  • Set out your main idea clearly
  • You may use relevant quotes to reinforce your arguments. But never try to alter the quotes of great personalities.
  • Make it clear how you are going to address the questions, where you are going and why
  • The examiner normally gives credit to new perspectives and fresh analysis.
  • Make it clear how the main ideas relate to each other
  • Take the examinee through your answer in a logical, progressive way
  • Organized groups of related information in paragraphs
  • You may show your inferences in the concluding paragraph.

Introducing the ABC of UPSC Essay Writing

A - Accuracy, appropriateness, attentiveness to your reader, avoidance of ambiguity.
B - Brevity or conciseness, brightness or buoyancy.
C - Correctness ( of usage and grammar), clarity, consistency, concreteness.

In the course of UPSC preparation, you become a master of longitude of information. The essay paper requires you to filter, arrange, organize, and even innovate ideas out of that information, and, at the same time, not diverging from the selected topic. It’s not the dearth of content but the lack of organizational skill that holds many students back.

However, this can easily be mastered with regular practice, expert evaluation, and working on the mistakes. Once this is done, the UPSC essay would become the most rewarding part of the paper, taking you beyond 'the' line

Books and References For Making UPSC Essay Writing Easy

For general reading -

  • My experiment with truth - M.K Gandhi
  • India after independence - Bipin Chandra
  • Discovery of India - J.L Nehru
  • Getting India back on track - by Ratan Tata
  • My experiment with truth - M.K Gandhi
  • India after independence - Bipin Chandra
  • Discovery of India - J.L Nehru
  • Getting India back on track - by Ratan Tata
  • For detailed reading -
  • Democracy in India NCERTe
  • Social Problems in India - Ram Ahuja
  • Women in Indian Society - Neera Desai and Usha
  • Thakkar ( NBT Publication)
  • The Hindu ( editorial articles)
  • Yojana
  • Kurukshetra
  • Frontline

Previous Year Essay topics for UPSC


Politics, bureaucracy and business – fatal triangle. (1994)

Politics without ethics is a disaster. (1995)

The VIP cult is a bane of Indian democracy. (1996)

Need for transparency in public administration. (1996)

The country’s need for a better disaster management system. (2000)

How should a civil servant conduct himself? (2003)

Polity/International Relations

Whither Indian democracy? (1995)

What we have not learnt during fifty years of independence. (1997)

Why should we be proud of being Indians? (2000)

What have we gained from our democratic set-up? (2001)

How far has democracy in India delivered the goods? (2003)

National identity and patriotism. (2008)

In the context of Gandhiji’s views on the matter, explore, on an evolutionary scale, the terms ‘Swadhinata’, ‘Swaraj’ and ‘Dharmarajya’. Critically comment on their contemporary relevance to Indian democracy. (2012)

Is the colonial mentality hindering India’s success? (2013)

Dreams which should not let India sleep. (2015)

Management of Indian border disputes – a complex task. (2018)


Resource management in the Indian context. (1999)

GDP (Gross Domestic Product) along with GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness) would be the right indices for judging the wellbeing of a country. (2013)

Was it the policy paralysis or the paralysis of implementation which slowed the growth of our country? (2014)

Crisis faced in India – moral or economic. (2015)

Near jobless growth in India: An anomaly or an outcome of economic reforms. (2016)

Digital economy: A leveller or a source of economic inequality. (2016)

Innovation is the key determinant of economic growth and social welfare. (2016)

Impact of the new economic measures on fiscal ties between the union and states in India. (2017)

Multinational corporations – saviours or saboteurs. (1994)

Globalization would finish small-scale industries in India. (2006)

BPO boom in India. (2007)

Special economic zone: boon or bane? (2008)

Are our traditional handicrafts doomed to a slow death? (2009)

Is the criticism that the Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) model for development is more of a bane than a boon in the Indian context, justified? (2012)

Tourism: Can this be the next big thing for India? (2014)

Federalism, Decentralisation

The language problem in India: its past, present and prospects. (1998)

Water resources should be under the control of the central government. (2004)

Evaluation of panchayati raj system in India from the point of view of eradication of power to people. (2007)

Is autonomy the best answer to combat balkanization? (2007)

Creation of smaller states and the consequent administrative, economic and developmental implication. (2011)

Cooperative federalism: Myth or reality. (2016)

Water disputes between States in federal India. (2016)

Indian Society

The Indian society at the crossroads. (1994)

New cults and godmen: a threat to traditional religion. (1996)

The composite culture of India. (1998)

Youth culture today. (1999)

Modernism and our traditional socio-ethical values. (2000)

Indian culture today: a myth or a reality? (2000)

As civilization advances culture declines. (2003)

From traditional Indian philanthropy to the gates-buffet model-a natural progression or a paradigm shift? (2010)

Media & Society

Misinterpretation and misuse of freedom in India. (1998)

Mass media and cultural invasion. (1999)

Responsibility of media in a democracy. (2002)

How has satellite television brought about cultural change in Indian mindsets? (2007)

Role of media in good governance. (2008)

Does Indian cinema shape our popular culture or merely reflect it? (2011)

Is sting operation an invasion on privacy? (2014)


Restructuring of Indian education system. (1995)

Literacy is growing very fast, but there is no corresponding growth in education. (1996)

Irrelevance of the classroom. (2001)

Privatization of higher education in India. (2002)

Modern technological education and human values. (2002)

What is real education? (2005)

“Education for all” campaign in India: myth or reality. (2006)

Independent thinking should be encouraged right from the childhood. (2007)

Is an egalitarian society possible by educating the masses? (2008)

Credit – based higher education system – status, opportunities and challenges. (2011)

Is the growing level of competition good for the youth? (2014)

Are the standardized tests good measure of academic ability or progress? (2014)

Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make a man more clever devil. (2015)

Destiny of a nation is shaped in its classrooms. (2017)

Women & Gender

The new emerging women power: the ground realities. (1995)

Greater political power alone will not improve women’s plight. (1997)

Woman is god’s best creation. (1998)

Women empowerment: challenges and prospects. (1999)

Empowerment alone cannot help our women. (2001)

Whither women’s emancipation? (2004)

If women ruled the world. (2005)

The hand that rocks the cradle. (2005)

Women’s reservation bill would usher in empowerment for women in India. (2006)

Managing work and home – is the Indian working woman getting a fair deal? (2012)

If development is not engendered, it is endangered. (2016)

Fulfillment of ‘new woman’ in India is a myth. (2017)

Quote-based abstract topics

Youth is a blunder, manhood a struggle, old age a regret. (1994)

Useless life is an early death. (1994)

Disinterested intellectual curiosity is the lifeblood of civilisation. (1995)

When money speaks, the truth is silent. (1995)

Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds. (1995)

Truth is lived, not taught. (1996)

True religion cannot be misused. (1997)

Search for truth can only be a spiritual problem. (2002)

The paths of glory lead but to the grave. (2002)

If youth knew, if age could. (2002)

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. (2003)

Be the change you want to see in others. (2013)

With greater power comes greater responsibility. (2014)

Words are sharper than the two-edged sword. (2014)

Lending hands to someone is better than giving a dole. (2015)

“The past’ is a permanent dimension of human consciousness and values. (2018)

Reality does not conform to the ideal, but confirms it. (2018)

Attitude makes habit, habit makes character and character makes a man. (2007)

Discipline means success, anarchy means ruin. (2008)

Character of an institution is reflected in its leader. (2015)

Need brings greed, if greed increases it spoils breed. (2016)

Joy is the simplest form of gratitude. (2017)

A good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge. (2018)

A people that values its privileges above its principles loses both. (2018)

Customary morality cannot be a guide to modern life. (2018)

Science n Tech

The modern doctor and his patients. (1997)

Value-based science and education. (1999)

The march of science and the erosion of human values. (2001)

Spirituality and scientific temper. (2003)

The lure of space. (2004)

Science and Mysticism: Are they compatible? (2012)

Science and technology is the panacea for the growth and security of the nation. (2013)

Technology cannot replace manpower. (2015)

Alternative technologies for a climate change resilient India. (2018)

Tips For Writing Better Answers In UPSC Main Examination

Tips For Writing A Better Answer

Two important factors decide the good outcome of your answer: one, understanding the question completely. Second, sticking to the word limit.

To understand a question fully, one must know that a question has keywords. Every question has a ‘topic’ and a ‘directive’.

For example,

” Gandhian strategy of non-violence and satyagraha had its own limitations”. Examine.

In the above question, the topic is ‘limitations of Gandhian strategy of Non-violence and satyagraha‘ and the directive is ‘Examine‘.

If we give an ‘explanation’ to this answer how Gandhian strategy  had limitations and how it affected Freedom struggle, the examiner is sure to give less than average marks. Instead, the directive points us towards a definite course of answering, here, ‘examination’ of the statement.

So, what does ‘Examine’ precisely mean?

Before we move to that, one should know that UPSC often gives many other directives in its questions and each demand a precise answer. Frequently used directives are, ‘Examine’, ‘Comment’, ‘Analyze’, ‘ ‘Evaluate’, ‘Discuss’, ‘Critically Examine’, Critically Comment’, ‘Critically Analyze’ and ‘Assess’.

  • Examine and Critically Examine

When you are asked to examine, you have to probe deeper into the topic,  get into details, and find out the causes or implications if any .

In the case of above question on Gandhi’s strategy, you have to probe the details of his strategy, find that if it really had limitations and provide a balanced view. All within a given word limit.

When asked to critically examine, as in the following question,

 “In the context of the growing demands for the ban of endosulfan in the country,’critically examine‘ the issues involved.What, in your view, should be done in the matter?” (2012, Paper-I)

In this question, you have to probe in detail two aspects: one, good and bad of Endosulfan. Second, implications of its ban. And arrive at an unbiased conclusion.

When ‘critically’ is suffixed or prefixed to a directive, all you need to do is look at the good and bad of something and give a fair judgement.

  • Comment and Critically Comment

The directive ‘comment’ is usually followed by a statement made by some famous personality, or taken out from a famous book. When you are asked to comment, you have to pick main points and give your ‘opinion’ on them based on evidences or arguments stemming from your wide reading.

Your opinion may be for or against, but you must back your argument with evidences.

These types of question offer you a chance to consolidate your reading of different subjects to justify your opinion.


“There is an urgent need for the Planning commission to revise the chapter on health in the 12th Five year Plan document”. Comment (GS-I 2012, UPSC)

Your answer to this question must contain your opinion backed by certain evidences.  If you agree with the statement, first mention what are the shortcomings in the chapter on health and offer your opinion in the form of suggestions backed by data from certain reports or committees.

Critically comment is also forming opinion on main points but in the end you have to provide a fair judgement.


Critically comment on the extent, scope and implications of Non Communicable Diseases in India.

To this question most of us tend to provide facts on extent, scope and implications, but it demands a fair opinion from our part based on evidences. Here one can form an opinion on how dire the situation is and how costly it can prove to health and wealth of the people and nation.

  • Analyze and Critically Analyze

When asked to analyze, you  have to examine methodically the structure or nature of the topic by separating it into component parts and present them as a whole in a summary.

When you are asked to analyze, you have to examine each part of the problem. It is a broader term than ‘Examine’.


“Conflicts in Indian society are not so much social as they are economic in nature”. Analyze.

This question though appears confusing, if broken into component parts, i.e, into conflicts arising out of social factors and economic factors, and then examining (probing deeply) the nature of each part, it becomes easy to conclude your answer. (In this question, ‘economic nature’ mentioned is nothing other than ‘development’ – whose lack is the root of major conflicts in our society these days)

Critically Analyze:

You need to conclude with  a fair judgement, after analyzing the nature of each component part and interrelationship between them.


“Analyze critically the  interlinkages between the Convention on Biodiversity and FAO treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.”

As critical analysis of this question involves separate examination of COB and FAO Treaty and the examination of their inter-relationship – if both are in harmony with each other or there is any conflict between them (they are in harmony).

Observe the word ‘interlinkages’ in the question itself.

  • Evaluate

When you are asked to evaluate, you have to pass a sound judgement about the truth of the given statement in the question or the topic based on evidences.  You have to appraise the worth of the statement in question. There is scope for forming a personal opinion here.


Has the RTI made a noticeable impact on our governance system?Evaluate.

While answering this question, you have to, based on evidence,  appraise whether the RTI act has really made an impact on governance and give your opinion on the issue.

  • Discuss

This is an all-encompassing directive – you have to debate on paper by going through the details of the issues concerned by examining each one of them. You have to give reasons for both for and against arguments.


Discuss the contentious issues that have caused the prolonged constitutional logjam in Nepal.

The question is self-explanatory. You have to debate the issues both for and against, find the reasons and examine them. There are various actors, factors involved in Nepal which is prolonging the finalization of their constitution. Focus on the causes.

(At the end of this article, links to few PDFs is given that will give you definitions for 10-15 commonly used directives.)

In the Examination Hall

General Studies papers are a headache for many aspirants – “so many questions, but so less time to answer all of them” – is the common complaint we hear before and after exam. Previously, one could answer only for 400-450 marks out of 600 marks in GS.

So, is there a way out to attempt at least 500+ marks in the exam?

Yes. There is a way. But it requires hard work. A plan and its execution. Everyday.

But How?

Practice, Practice and Practice. Everyday. Only through practicing answer writing every day, keeping in mind the different directive words, the demand of the question and the word limit (from this year UPSC will provide question-cum-answer sheet), you will be able to write fast and think fast in the exam hall.

Before entering the exam hall,  your mind should be trained to quickly identify the nature of the question. In the 3 hours you get, more time must be spent on thinking about the answer, not on questions.

A thorough practice before the final exam also saves you from panics in the exam hall.

Most aspirants go to exam hall without knowing the subtle differences between directive words and end up giving a very general answer that would fetch only average marks.

To get a top rank, you must have at least 100 marks above the cutoff marks. This is possible only if you answer more number of questions and more accurately.

Points to remember when you are in the exam hall:

  • Read the instructions on the question paper – there will be a chance of introducing certain changes from that of previous year’s
  • Allot 5 minutes to scan the whole question paper – while scanning quickly mark the questions by pencil  which you think you are comfortable answering
  • Now start with big questions – Read 2-3 times the question. Underline the main topic/issue and most importantly, the directive word.
  • Underline the word limit too.
  • Don’t jump into the answer. Think on the question. And think quickly the outline of your answer.

The Basic Anatomy of an Answer

Introduction is a must. It is the best part of the answer where you tell the reader what is awaiting him in next few paragraphs. You must state your thesis in a clear statement. Introduction is not a summary of your answer. It leads the reader to your answer in clear manner.

In the next paragraph, you start arguing based on the thesis in the introduction and directive word of the question. Throughout the answer, you must remember the directive word.

Split your answer into few small paragraphs containing one single idea that is a continuum of the previous paragraph and an indicator to the next one.

Remember, you should read the question after each paragraph.

The introduction and all the paragraphs should lead to a logical conclusion. Don’t repeat the question or introduction in your conclusion. Also there is wrong perception that your conclusion should ‘suggest’ something. No, the conclusion to your answer must stem from the body of your answer. It can not be a separate part in the answer.

Don’t use jargon. Don’t be verbose. Don’t use flowery/ornamental language. Simplicity wins the hearts. Be precise and effective. Make the examiner happy.

Finally I would like to say that, when you answer a question, you ‘answer’ it. Don’t dump the facts, don’t exhibit superfluous knowledge and end up getting mediocre marks.

Some related documents (for more Directive words and their definitions):


How To Write Introduction for an Essay In IAS Exam

Ways to start Introduction

Introduction can be started in several ways such as:

  1. It can be started with a quote (उद्धरण).
  2. It can be started through an anecdote (उपाख्यान/ छोटी सी कहानी).
  3. It can be started by focusing on the keywords given in the topics.
  4. It can be started with any current event in news.

Essay Writing for Civil Services Examination

Understanding Essay Writing

An essay is a short piece of writing that sheds light on any given topic. M.H. Abrams, the American literary critic, notes that the essay is “Any short composition in prose that undertakes to discuss a matter, express a point of view, or persuade us to accept a thesis on any subject.”

Broadly speaking, there are two types of essays - formal and informal. In the UPSC Civil Services Examination (CSE), we are concerned with the formal essay. The formal essay is relatively impersonal, the author writes it as an authority and such essays tend to be less emotional. Formal essays can also have factual elements in it, like quoted statistics from a government report etc. It is never in the form of a conversation, never uses first-person references and seldom gets intimate with the audience. In short, a formal essay has a certain degree of seriousness attached to it.

Essay writing for CSE

  • For the CSE essay paper, two essays have to be written under 3 hours in the 1000-1200 word limit. Each essay carries 125 marks for a total of 250.
  • The essay paper is divided into two sections - A and B, each carrying a choice of 4 essays each, and the aspirant has to choose only one essay from each section.
  • The instructions in the syllabus are clear in what is being expected from the aspirant. Aspirants are ‘expected to keep their thoughts closely to the subject and arrange their ideas accordingly.It furthur tates that, credit will be given for effective and coherent expression’.
  • The underlined keywords are important because after content, these are the exact parameters on which the essay will be evaluated. 

Beginning Essay Writing

Practice makes perfect. For scoring good marks in the essay, one needs practice. But, before we get to the practising part, we should do some basic homework first. We would start by looking at what a well structured essay is, how it can be planned, what elements can be added to make the essay more scoring, and most importantly, how to do it all within the prescribed time limit.

Basic structure of an essay

The most common method of structuring a essay is breaking it up into paragraphs. In this technique, besides the introduction and the conclusion, there will be body-paragraphs. In these body-paragraphs, the aspirant will have to fit in all his content.

  • Body-paragraphs can broadly be supportive, critical or narrative. Ideally, one can start any argument in an aptly phrased narrative paragraph which describe the topic in some detail and then move on to a supportive paragraph containing a few positive facts/ideas on the topic. Though critical paragraphs look best when they are placed last, there are no such rules, and for some topics it can be used as the opening paragraph for the topic.
  • The most important part of the essay is perhaps the introduction. First impressions are very important, and a well thought out introduction will definitely make a positive impression on the examiner. We will discuss how to write a proper introduction later in this strategy.
  • Similarly, the conclusion is where one can score additional marks if done properly. This will also be discussed later.

Keywords of the essay syllabus

  • 'closely': Any deviation from the topic will be tolerated only up to a certain point. One must, therefore, as a rule stick as closely as possible to the topic at hand. Any example, quote, anecdote or reference must be on topic or related closely to it.
  • 'arrange': The essay must be in an arranged form. The aspirant is supposed to plan ahead and form a structure of the essay before actually writing it down.
  • 'orderly': The ideas or arguments put forward in the essay must follow an order. A haphazard essay that does not flow sequentially, must be avoided at all costs.
  • 'concise': The essay and the matter discussed therein must be expressed as precisely possible. Clarity of thought and brevity of expression is what is looked for in the CSE essay.
  • 'effective': The essay must be written in a language that makes a strong impression. Thus, one needs to be conveying a point with every sentence, every paragraph. Flowery language is best avoided.
  • 'coherent': Coherence is required of all forms of writing, including answer writing, but in the CSE essay one must be extra careful to check that all individual sentences in the essay are making sense. Also, paragraphs as a whole must convey a clear and well thought out exposition on the theme of the essay.

Planning to write an essay

A good essay needs planning. There are three steps to it - defining or understanding what the essay is going to be about in very clear terms, brainstroming on the topic and thirdly, devising the outline of the essay.

Central idea of the thesis statement

  • All CSE essays have a thesis statement. For example, in CSE 2016, the following essay was asked— ‘Innovation is the key determinant of economic growth and social welfare’. Here the central idea is ‘innovation’. The aspirant is supposed to explore those dimensions of innovation that affect ‘economic growth and social welfare’. In doing so, the aspirant should not veer from the central topic of innovation but if possible add a few related ideas which may supplement the overall central idea that not only socio-economic but also other areas like technology and culture are affected by forces of innovation.
  • In another essay asked in CSE— ‘Water disputes between States in federal India’ – the central idea is how the water disputes between various Indian states have played out and what are its various dimensions. Constitutional, legal, social and political dimensions, for ex, are a must for addressing this topic. In order to find out the various dimensions of any given topic we should perform a brainstorming exercise.

Brainstorming for essay writing

  • Brainstorming for essay is a crucial step. Brainstorming helps you get all the ideas at one place for quick reference. There are no hard and fast rules, but typically one can begin with the given topic and immediately start listing the things that come to mind. One can ideally devote an entire page for this exercise.

Brainstorming guide

  • The first requirement for brainstorming is focus. One should be able to focus single-mindedly on the job at hand, which in this case is jotting down as many points as possible regarding the essay topic.
  • Boundaries must also be properly defined. If the topic does not absolutely require a particularly complex point or if it does not require following a difficult train of thought, it should be avoided. Keeping the essay as simple as possible without sacrificing the most valid points is what we should be looking for.
  • Then we must set a time limit for the brainstorming session. Ideally, for CSE that time limit works out to about 25 minutes per essay. Within that time limit one is supposed to come up with all the necessary points and plans for writing the essay.
  • Another important point to be made here is that aspirants should have a fair understanding regarding  the expectations of the CSE examiner from the essay. Every topic will have some basic ideas that the aspirants must necessarily try to explore or address. During brainstorming such a requirement can be searched for.
  • In the brainstorming exercise one may also take help of diagrams, flow-charts, mind-maps etc., if needed. Sometimes doing this may clear things up to a great extent or even save precious time.
  • Three things that one must exclusively do while brainstorming are — identify causes and factors, define the various issues and make a list of associated ideas. Doing this is key to success in the entire brainstorming exercise.

Adding elements to the essay

  • Any good essay will definitely have a multitude of elements and dimensions to it. For CSE essay writing, there are certain basic rules that one can follow while searching for these elements and dimensions.
  • The first of such rules would be to follow and uphold Constitutional values at all times. This is very crucial for essay writing in CSE, that the values enshrined in our Constitution reflect in whatever idea, problem or solution we discuss in the essay. At no point should one try and support an idea that is unconstitutional.
  • One must also be democratic while addressing issues. The concepts of ‘freedom and equality’ should be the guiding principles while suggesting solutions and while criticising events or issues.
  • Generally, one must also avoid taking absolutist/non-compromising positions. In fact, the best way to handle complex problems is to find the middle ground.
  • One must also try not to make sweeping generalisations on any given issue. Instead, there should be hints of patience, justice and understanding in addressing or discussing any given topic.
  • Lastly, there are two more things that an aspirant need to keep in mind while attempting the CSE essay. (A) Do not question the topic itself, which is to say, in other words, do not contradict yourself. Pick a position (ideally, the middle path) and stay true to it throughout the essay. (B) Never use positively, things that are universally considered or used in a negative sense, and vice-versa. For ex, one must not say that ‘terrorism’ under certain conditions is equivalent to a freedom struggle, even though quotes like ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ are quite common.

Elements in an essay

  • The three basic elements — social, political and economic — form the bedrock of a good CSE essay.
  • To these, one may add other dimensions like Constitutional, legal, technological, technical etc. 
  • Another important element is the persona Good personal experiences or anecdotes can no doubt be used to increase the effectiveness of the essay but these should stay within the accepted framework of ethical conduct.

PESTLE Analysis

  • Political – Economic – Sociological – Technological – Legal – Environmental Analysis.
  • Use PESTLE Analysis to figure out the various aspects, dimensions, factors etc of any given topic.

Outlining the essay

  • Before writing the essay, it is best to outline it. To outline an essay means to figure out what to say in the introduction/conclusion, which idea comes where, or even what quote to use for the essay etc.
  • Outlining the essay in rough helps us grasp the entirety of the essay before actually writing it. It helps us get the big picture, and also see what we could be missing.
  • It is said that once we can figure out the conclusion to our essay, it becomes much easier to not only begin but finish it with confidence.

Writing An Essay 

Sticking to the time limit

In the CSE, one has to write two essays in 3 hours which translates into 1 hour 30 minutes for each essay. Out of this, around 45 minutes to 1 hour will be required to write one essay. One can add another 10 minutes for the revision of one essay. This leaves us with roughly 30 minutes of time to prepare the essay in rough, and it includes time for carrying out the brainstorming and outlining exercises.

How to introduce the essay

  • The goal of the introduction should be to arouse the reader’s interest in the topic and to prepare the reader for what is to follow.
  • A good introduction to the essay can be a brief explanation of the essay topic itself. It can be made further interesting by adding to it some personal experience, or some relevant anecdotes or quotes
  • The introduction should not be confusing or lacking in clarity, rather it should be able to immediately clear up any doubts regarding the topic if there is any.

Writing in paragraphs

  • In a stand-alone paragraph, the concluding sentence announces that the paragraph is finished, complete. In an essay, the concluding sentence of a paragraph is more likely to play the role of a transitional device, joining one paragraph to the next.
  • Flow is very important in an essay. It is also connected to writing order. Writing orders are of two types
  • Known-to-New is the order of writing where the author by choice goes from known (given) concepts to unknown ones. New material is gradually added to build on the unknown.
  • Simple-to-Complex is the order of writing where the author first establishes a base of concepts that are easily understood and then develops over it increasingly complex ideas.
  • One can use the FREQOES method to add matter to the various paragraphs.

How to conclude the essay

  • The purpose of the conclusion is to bring a smooth end to the essay. It is also important to note that a strong finish is as important as a strong opening. Both are important for scoring better marks.


    • Facts and statistics
    • Reasons
    • Examples
    • Quotes
    • Opinions
    • Experiences
    • Senses
  • The essay can be concluded in the following ways - restating the main points in brief and with different wordings (summarizing), suggesting a way forward or a course of action, or adding an interesting personal comment or any relevant anecdote.
  • Another way to conclude the essay is by returning to the discussion begun in the introduction. This is called the ‘cyclic return’ and a lot of essays follow this simple method of concluding an essay.
  • The conclusion should bear a positive outlook, it should see the silver lining in the clouds. It should also be as clear and concise as possible.

Revising the essay

  • To revise, read the essay in its entirety, underlining (preferably with scale and pencil) important words or phrases. Correct spelling or grammatical mistakes if any. Make sure the pages look clean and tidy.
  • One may add or omit a few words but it should not be overdone. It is also not advisable that entirely new ideas/sentences are inserted in the essay at the time of revision, unless such information is critical to the essay.

Some tips on essay writing

  • One can go through the CSE previous year’s essays and understand the concepts, dimensions and solutions required to solve those. Having a simple understanding of complex social problems is the secret to writing a good essay for the CSE.
  • One can also keep handy a small collection of quotes or quotable phrases and citable anecdotes to be used while writing the essay. This keeps one prepared for writing any type of essay.

Strategy: Answer Writing for CSE MAINS

It is said that answer writing is an art.The good news is that any form of art can be learnt over a period of time. All it takes is will and effort, regular practice and some guidance. We are here to provide you help with the guidance part and we hope you successfully integrate the tips we are going to provide in your preparation.

This answer writing guide has been divided into three sections – Basic, Intermediate and Advanced. As the names for the section headings suggest,one should proceed step by step, understanding each section completely before proceeding to the next. Ultimately you should be able to use the tips from all sections in your answer writing in a holistic manner.

The Basics

The Basics section of answer writing tackles the bare minimum requirements needed for effective answer writing. The answer you are going to write has to be effective in order to earn an advantage over the competition. To write an effective answer there are certain basic tricks that you need to know and these are discussed below.

Do’s and Don'ts

  • Do understand the question fully and correctly before contemplating an answer for it. Questions in the Mains examination come with certain directives like ‘discuss/ critically discuss’ etc and you should be able to grasp clearly what that particular directive is asking you to do. You should consult the accompanying table on various directives and their meanings for a proper appreciation of what the examiner is expecting from you in the answer. This is also the most basic and yet a very important skill that you should have for effective answer writing.
  • Do develop a basic mental framework of the answer before actually committing anything to paper. This is a very crucial skill that you need to develop on a war footing. It should be that the moment you have read and understood a given question, you immediately start forming the structure for the answer in your mind. With practice, it becomes easier and easier to do this and if required, jot down (with a pencil) whatever you remember as and when you remember it. The last point is important because sometimes we tend to forget or we simply are unable to recall from memory at the very last minute (or while writing) which can drastically affect the quality of our answer.
  • Don’t wait for the answer to come to you, instead force it out. It is important that you learn how to force an answer out of you. This is not something very hard to achieve. Think of it in this way. You are a serious aspirant and you have prepared considerably for the Mains examination and as a result you are in the possession of a considerable amount of information, facts, ideas etc. If time were not an issue you could contemplate generously before each and every sentence you write but within a given time limit you do not have such luxuries of time. For example, suppose you can recall only two points (fully) for an answer and you think you need at least four points for a complete answer. In such a case you should not waste time trying to recall all the points before attempting to answer and instead force yourself to write the answer with whatever information you’ve got. That way, without wasting time you give your best shot to the question.
  • Don’t overstretch your imagination. UPSC requires that you have a good understanding of a given issue and that the same should be readily understandable when expressed. Thus, one should not slip into thoughts, ideas or arguments that are not absolutely necessary for writing a particular answer. Overbrooding and philosophizing may lead to confusion and as such it should be left out of Mains answer writing. Moreover, this can save you time and effort which can be used in answering other questions efficiently.

How to structure your answer

  • Step 1: Write a fitting introduction to your answer. Ideally, the introduction should not only introduce the topic/issue/idea to the examiner but also (very) briefly narrate the central premise of the answer. If the question has two or more parts, then all parts must be introduced briefly. The introduction should not be lengthier than 20% of the word limit at any cost, and its ideal length is about 10% of the word limit. For 200 words, 20-40 words is what you should be looking at for the introduction (and the conclusion too).
  • Step 2: Divide the main body of the answer into paragraphs or bullets as required. Each paragraph or bullet should have one point only (unless it is very necessary to do otherwise) and the most important points or the points that you have recalled fully should go first. When you are asked to discuss both positive and negative aspects of an issue, you can either list all the positives in one paragraph and then list the negatives or you can go for a positive-negative combination in each paragraph. Do the latter only when there are very less points in the answer (because 3 paragraphs for 200 words looks best) and for all other purposes go with the former.
  • Step 3: Wrap up your answer with a well balanced conclusion. You can balance your conclusion with a healthy positive opinion. The opinion does not necessarily have to be original but ideally (and mostly) has to be a positive one. Never end on a negative note or tone, you must be able to see the silver lining in the clouds. Also, never end the conclusion by posing another question. If you want to pose a question as part of your answer, do so in the main body of the answer only. Also, avoid ending your answer in the rhetoric and instead try to put forward a solution or a way-forward. This shows a positive bent of mind and a willingness to find solutions - things that any CSE aspirant should possess.

How to introduce and conclude your answer

  • Introduction: For introducing your answer choose first the crux of the problem/issue/idea that the question is inquiring about. Then add to it the one line version of the answer that you are planning to write. Finally, if space permits write the ‘verdict/sentiment/judgement’ in another line. So, basically the introduction is 3 sentences that lets the examiner know beforehand that you know the answer and that you are not going to beat around the bush looking for the right answer.
  • Conclusion: To conclude your answer, begin with a simple sentence that brings together all the main elements/points/arguments of the answer. Follow it up with the above-mentioned positive opinion. The last sentence should be a general statement reiterating the ‘verdict/ sentiment/judgement’ mentioned in the introduction.
  • An example of introduction and conclusion: For the question ‘What is meant by Employment 4.0? Discuss the benefits and challenges posed to Indian economy by Employment 4.0.’ we can introduce thus – ‘Employment 4.0. refers to an on-demand, digitally driven labour market characterised by independent workers in temporary positions for short-term engagements or contracts like freelancing for a magazine, driving cabs through Uber etc. It is also referred to as Gig Economy. According to a recent report, India is the largest supplier of online labour, hosting 24% of such workers globally.’ (59 words). For conclusion we can write - ‘There is a large gap between the way gig economy is growing and the adoption of regulations, as the law associated with it is incomplete and antiquated in many respects. But given the huge potential of gig economy going forward, there is a case for the state to deftly balance the interests of business exigencies and social welfare.’ (58 words).

Whether to write in bullets or in paragraphs

  • An opinion-based answer should ideally be written in paragraphs. Such answers are generally essay type answers and could consist of an Introductory paragraph, Main body of the answer in paragraphs, and the Concluding paragraph. A fact-based answer can be written in both paragraphs and in bullets or in a combination of both. A fact-based answer in bullets would consist of the Introductory paragraph, Main body of the answer in bullets, and the Concluding paragraph. Since, most questions asked in the CSE would invariably be a mix of both facts and opinions, it is best that you develop a method that suits you naturally. For example, have a look at this question from CSE 2016 – ‘Discuss the role of land reforms in agricultural development. Identify the factors that were responsible for the success of land reforms in India.’ – and then take a look at the suggestions given below.
  • Case 1: The opinion-based question – ‘Discuss the role of land reforms in agricultural development’ – this part of the question is opinion-based and as such could be attempted in paragraphs.
  • Case 2: The fact-based question – Identify the factors that were responsible for the success of land reforms in India’ – this part of the question has factual elements to it and as such can be presented in either paragraphs or bullets. Choosing the latter here could surely save time if not fetch extra marks.

The Intermediate

The Intermediate section will handle the second set of challenges that aspirants face in the Mains examination. To score well and above the competition it is important that you understand and follow the guide given below.

Sticking to the word limit

The ABC of Answer Writing

  • Accuracy
  • Brevity
  • Clarity
  • The General Studies (GS) papers, with the exception of GS paper IV which is the Ethics paper, has a limit of 200 words per question. This is a justified word limit given the time that you are given to answer a question. The trick here is to write sentences that are short. Avoid compound sentences even though you may feel that by joining two sentences with an ‘and’ you have saved time and words. Instead use a semicolon to separate a sentence into clauses with each clause addressing a related but different idea or argument. You can also break into bullets if the question is asking you to list down factors, causes etc.
  • GS paper IV (Ethics) has 150, 250 and 300 as word limits. 99% of the time the questions are opinion-based so, it is best to write the answers in paragraphs. Follow the tips mentioned in the above point and add two more tricks to it. First, for open-ended questions like ‘Explain how ethics contributes to social and human well-being (CSE 2016)’ that have to be answered in 150 words, spare 30 seconds to figure out a framework for the answer. Once you have a vague idea that this is what your answer is going to be, sticking to the word limit becomes much easier. Second, when answering the case study questions avoid bringing unnecessary justifications to your ideas and arguments (instead, you can use a paradigm to justify an answer, for example, the paradigms of Rights-based approach, Justice based or Utilitarian approach etc.). State your ideas in a plain and simple manner, cite an example or two (or quotes) when necessary and make sure that you do not repeat the same thing in one or more paragraphs.
  • Most Optional subject papers carry the 150 word per question limit for the short-note section (the optional History is a notable exception). Generally, a well prepared aspirant should be able to write more than 150 words on a given topic. Therefore, the trick here is to learn how to compress a (say) 500 word answer to a 150 word short-note. In order to compress something get to the gist of it first. The root idea/information should not be ignored at any cost. Ignore only the peripheral, unnecessary, redundant or repeated things. You can also use the ‘comma’ creatively as illustrated by this example – ‘the Battle of Buxar, 1764, was fought and won by the British, led by Hector Munro, who faced the combined armies of Mir Qasim, the Nawab of Bengal; the Nawab of Awadh; and the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam’ (38 words). In this example, we ignored the exact date of the battle (unnecessary), the name of Awadh’s Nawab (peripheral), the description or location of Buxar (unnecessary) etc.
  • The rest of the questions in the Optional subject paper do not come with a word limit. The word count in this case can vary from 150 to 350 words depending on factors like time, marks, writing speed and how much you can recall at a particular moment. Though, the lack of a predetermined word limit might look encouraging, we would advise against filling up the entire provided space with words just for the sake of it. But, do write your answer carefully and comfortably and do so without any compulsion on adhering to word or space limits. The various tricks mentioned here will definitely help you achieve that.
Word Count Marks
150 words 10 marker
200-225 words 15 marker
300 words 20 marker
350 words 25 marker
Approx. word count; may vary from question to question.
  • In the Essay paper you have to write two essays in the 1000-1200 word limit. The booklet provided for you to write your answer is very very generous so, do not worry over space or large handwriting. Writing a very good essay, within the stipulated time and word limit, is very much possible, provided that you follow some of the basic rules. These basic rules are - brainstorming, outlining, idea/argument placement and structuring. There are also well established types of essays like the narrative, descriptive, expository and the persuasive essays that you need to know. Generally, the more prepared you are in the GS papers the more content you will have for your essay. Also, do not choose a topic for the essay only because it looks exotic or impressive. Instead, choose a topic that is most comfortable to you, and on which you can recall many interesting things, and can develop the most vivid dimensions. Ultimately, a good essay on an average topic is likely to fetch more marks than a bad essay on an exotic topic.

Time management in the exam hall

  • To manage time while attempting the Mains examination mean that you know how to allocate the right amount of time to each question so, that you can complete all the questions within 3 hours. The three rules of thumb for time management in this case are i) go with the flow while writing and thinking; learn to trust yourself; do not indulge in self-doubt like being unable to decide whether to write a particular thing or not ii) write in language that comes naturally to you; do not use forced made-up writing styles, and iii) do not get stuck with one question – temporarily leave the question that you are unable to write at a particular moment and move on to the next question; come back to the difficult question as and when you get the opportunity to do so. With practice you should be able to master the time management aspects of the Mains examination.
  • Always stick to the word limit; develop a good writing speed; try to consume as less personal time as possible - in the exam hall, drinking water, going to the bathroom, changing pens, imagining how others are faring etc qualify as personal time; and lastly, do not try to reach ‘perfection’ with your answers - the Mains examination is not the right platform for such things - instead try to consistently maintain above average quality in all your answers. Consistency matters more than writing one excellent answer and then following it up with a bad answer.

Choosing when to attempt a question

  • One good question for the Mains examination is, should we attempt the questions we are confident on, first? We would like to answer this question in the positive. Always try to answer this type of questions first, as these will come from you fresh and spirited. Also, due to higher energy levels and lower stress levels during the initial period of the exam, such answers can turn out to be dynamic in content, well favoured in style, and yet completed in less time.
  • You should also, always revise your answers. The question is when should you do it – should you revise as you go or should you revise after completing the entire paper? Revising the answer immediately after you’ve completed it, is untenable, given the time factor of the exam. Instead, we recommend that you ‘revisit’ your answer immediately after its completion and check for spelling mistakes or other errors. Ideally, you should also underline important points only when you are ‘revisiting’ your answer and not while writing it. Underlining important points after you have seen the complete answer, helps greatly in the correct identification of important points. If, after you’ve completed all you answers, there is time remaining, you should revise or at least check for errors. You should also always be relaxed and extra careful while carrying out any revision work so as to avoid the tendency to make any unnecessary changes or additions.

Whether to leave or attempt unfamiliar questions

  • Leave unfamiliar questions when you know you can use the time thus saved, elsewhere, like in answering a different question properly or in revising. Sometimes, it is not prudent to attempt unfamiliar questions despite having time because it may send a negative impression to the examiner and may also lower your self-confidence for the rest of the question paper.
  • Attempt unfamiliar questions only if it crosses a certain minimum threshold for information (information that is available with you on the topic and at that given time). Suppose, if you are able to recall 20-30% or 1-2 points on any topic, only then you may attempt an answer. By many standards, this threshold is very low for answer writing but since this is a competitive exam one must do everything it takes to score marks. The only exception to this should be that it must not work against your getting a good score. For example, beating around the bush, hoping to hit the mark by writing things that you ‘think’ may be relevant to the answer, can never be recommended. Because doing so, may affect you negatively. Thus, you should be very careful before attempting to answer a question that you are unfamiliar with.

The Advanced

How to practice answer writing

  • While practising answer writing, keep in mind that it involves three things primarily. These are the abilities to recall, process and write down thoughts in a streamlined and time-bound manner. To do this you need to cultivate a habit of being able to process information quickly and thoroughly. As such, begin with open-book answer writing - you will have the source/ reading material in front of you and you will refer to these while answering a question. You should continue with open-book answer writing till you get comfortable and reasonably quick at it. Then move on to answer writing from memory - read up a topic first and then answer the questions to it. Doing this would also improve your writing speed because writing from memory is faster than writing from an open book. Also don’t forget that answer writing is an art, the more you write the better you get.
  • To practice answer writing begin with the CSE previous year’s papers which are a great source for quality questions. Now, pick a question on a topic that you may have recently prepared, and simply write the answer to it. Read the answer that you have written multiple times, analyse it and ask yourself whether you have been able to do justice to the question. If yes, then how can you better it and if no, then what have you missed. Always remember that answer writing helps us find gaps in our preparation. At the same time it also helps us get a glimpse into the mind of the examiner. Thus, you should practice answer writing because it will help you not only in knowing what is left in the topic for you to prepare but also what the examiner is looking for in any given topic.

Whether to enrol in a test series

  • Ideally, if it is possible you should enrol for a test-series. A good test series can not only guide you but it can also help you maintain a time-table. Besides, it will tell you where you have fared well and where work needs to be done. In any case, having a regular report card on your answer writing is always helpful.
  • If you are pressed for time, or if for some reason it is not possible for you to join a good test series, you should try and do the following.
  • First, if you are in a coaching or have a mentor then you should periodically get your answers checked by them. Then, you can also go for peer review where aspirants check each other’s answers.
  • Lastly, you can also ask your friends and family (if they are qualified) to review your answers. The bottomline is that you should not keep writing answers solely but get feedback as well.
  • Feedback is a very important part of the learning process and good feedback can help you with course correction in your preparation, and also help you in the evaluation of progress in your answer writing practice.

How to develop a lucid answer writing style

  • To develop a lucid answer writing style, first and foremost discard the use of complex language. Use words that have a chance of being universally understood, for example, use allocate instead of bestow. Write simple and easy to understand sentences, for example, read the following sentence from the Economic Times – ‘India’s agricultural growth will accelerate to 4.1% in the current fiscal from a sluggish 1.2% in drought-hit 2015-16, the Economic Survey said while raising concerns that inadequate supply may lead to a spurt in prices of milk, sugar, potato and onion as happened in the case of pulses last year’. This sentence can be converted to multiple sentences, like ‘India’s agricultural growth will accelerate to 4.1% this year from last year’s 1.2%. Yet, the Economic Survey is concerned that if the supply of milk, sugar, potato and onion does not increase it may lead to a price rise. Last year, the price of pulses had spiked due to a drought.’
  • An advanced strategy for successful answer writing would also be to develop templates for answers that you can recall at a short notice.
  • For example, you can have a universal answer template consisting of an introduction, body/bullets and a conclusion, or you can have a particular template for answering science-based questions and another for socio-economic ones, etc, or you can have both. It would help tremendously if you can recognise in the exam hall that a given question fits one of your templates (perfectly, or with slight modifications) and all that you need to do now is start writing your answer. In order to develop this template you will need to understand what interrogative directives are and how to approach them. In the final part of this month’s strategy we have compiled a comprehensive list of frequently used interrogative directives that you can use to develop and retain your own answer templates. We hope that you will find it useful and valuable.

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