True to its name, the UPSC Mains really is the main thing in the UPSC exam.

The UPSC Mains exam pattern consists of 7 essay-type papers on which you will be scored and ranked. Your total score will determine whether you are invited for the interview round or not. (Two compulsory language papers are also included but they are of qualifying nature only)

Your score in UPSC Mains written portion and the score obtained in the Interview round determines your final rank in the exam. This rank determines which service you are finally allotted.

The challenging and competitive part of the UPSC mains syllabus consists of Essay, General Studies Ethics, and two Optional papers spanning a total of 7 papers, each worth 250 marks. Preparation for each of these papers requires substantial study and a very wide knowledge network. Many topics in the Mains syllabus are repeated in the Prelims.

As an aspirant, you will spend the bulk of your preparation covering these subjects/topics. Your intellectual challenge is to prepare a very long list of topics from a variety of disciplines and to answer deeply analytical questions asked in the exam. This challenge can best the most brilliant of students owing to which this UPSC exam is considered as one of the world’s toughest.

This world’s toughest exam has now been simplified and turned into an enjoyable game.

Exam pattern for UPSC Mains- Excerpt from the official UPSC notification

The flow of the exam pattern and the entire syllabus of the UPSC Exam is depicted in the Ultimate UPSC Navigator in the form of 7 Hexyllaby, arranged in a top-down hexagonal pattern.

The hexagons on the UPSC Navigator embody all these insights about the UPSC exam.

The downward progression of the UPSC Navigator represents the flow of the exam from stage to stage. The hexagons are geometric examination-depicting capsids. They encapsulate within their membranes the finer details of the syllabus for each paper in the UPSC exam.

Each of the Hexagons contains the entire syllabus, strategy trackers, and QR Portals which will give you access to everything you need to prepare for each paper in the UPSC exam.

This article contains everything you need to know about the UPSC mains exam- from its syllabus, what it means for you, and how to prepare yourself thoroughly for it.

The flow of the exam pattern and the entire syllabus of the UPSC Exam is depicted in the Ultimate UPSC Navigator in the form of 7 Hexyllaby, arranged in a top-down hexagonal pattern.

I Essay: UPSC Mains Paper 1

The ESSAY PAPER in the UPSC examination is General Studies Paper 1 accounts for 250 marks in the Mains examination.

Lucky for you, the UPSC syllabus and notification tell you precisely what it is looking for in the Essay exam.

The good news is that the essay paper is the easiest paper in the civil services Exam to score very high marks in because-

  • You don’t need to be a gifted writer to write good essays.
  • You hardly need any specialized knowledge about the essay topics.
  • You don’t need to use flowery language in your essays. In fact, you should avoid it.
  • You don’t need to memorize facts and data to write great essays.
  • The entire gamut of brilliant essay writing has now been decoded and explained in the ESSELGO method.

The Hexyllabus for UPSC Mains Essay in the Ultimate UPSC Navigator is designed to illuminate all the steps you must master in Essay-writing you need to master before you can expect to score well.

The key points of the UPSC Essay syllabus are listed in the inner hexagon of the Hexyllabus. But the Navigator goes much beyond just the syllabus.

In the outer hexagon, all the steps to actually write brilliant essays are listed from writing good introductions to structured brainstorming. The Ultimate Navigator suggests a powerful strategy for mastering Essay-writing in the manner which is expected in the UPSC exam.

The strategy in the Navigator is not only descriptive but prescriptiveit tells you what to do and how to do it to ace Essay and Answer-writing for the UPSC exam.

The fact is that the UPSC is a heavily language-oriented exam which puts a lot of people with mediocre writing skills at a huge disadvantage. I wanted to write a book that simplifies and demystifies the UPSC exams and makes them more accessible to such aspirants. And that’s why I authored my 1st book- The Ultimate Cheatbook of Essay and Answer-writing for IAS/IPS/IRS/IES state PCS and other Government exams.

It includes among other things, the ESSELGO (Essay generation Algorithm) a step-by-step procedure that can transform an average piece of writing into brilliant essays.

UPSC CSE Mains 2020-2021 Essay paper Solved, analyzed and super-simplified

This is a practical and powerful book of hacks which have been accumulated, tested, refined and bred over a decade. It includes insights from Linguistics, Cognitive Science, Behavioural Economics, and the psychology of learning as well as from years of hard-learned lessons in exam-hacking.

True to its name, this is a book that bends the rules. Apart from my blog you can find the book on Amazon and Flipkart

II General Studies: UPSC Mains Paper 2, 3 & 4

General Studies is the core of the UPSC exam. It is a generic term for your knowledge about the world and as such, it has no prescribed limit. The ‘General’ in General Studies stands for the fact that knowledge is interconnected and cross-disciplinary. Specifically for the IAS exam which focuses on the real world where academic divisions are absent.

In fact, this is what the official UPSC notification has to say about it-

Your knowledge of General Studies is your knowledge of the world. Your success in the UPSC exam depends on how rich and inter-connected this map of the world is.

General Studies is asked in the Prelims, Mains and the Interview stage, determining your overall score in the UPSC exam. Nothing else compares to it in terms of weightage and importance.

It is in the Mains exam that GS takes it complete form. It sprawls 3 separate papers with detailed syllabi prescribed for each.

What does not change between Prelims and Mains is the fact that GS is composed of 6 broad subject-domains 6SD which are History, Geography, Economics, Polity, Environment, and Science & Tech.

The detailed syllabus of all the UPSC Mains papers can be found here.

The distribution of the 6SD subject-domains along with the distribution in 3 papers in the Mains exam is –

  • GS Paper 1 includes History and Geography. The syllabus mentioned in the UPSC notification is exactly as mentioned in the UPSC Navigator
  • GS Paper 2- Polity
  • GS Paper 3- Economics, Environment, Science, and Tech
  • Current Affairs is nothing but the sum total of recent events which represent the ever-changing, practically applicable aspects of the 6 subjects listed above. For instance, a Tsunami is the dynamic part of geography (Mains G.S paper I) and disaster management Mains GS paper III) while a new government policy falls under the rubric of economics (Mains GS paper III) and Polity (Mains GS paper II). Current Affairs is dynamic GS (See Critical Insight 3.)

Current Affairs are all-encompassing and are concurrent with all the above subjects. This is detailed in General Studies Deconstructed and super-simplified here.  The most critical insights about GS are available here.

The absolute best way to prepare current affairs for the IAS exam

Current Affairs is not a separate subject deserving isolation. It is connected to everything else. Your job as an aspirant is to understand these connections.

Ethics: Paper 5 Of Syllabus Of UPSC

The Ethics paper is a relatively new addition to the UPSC mains syllabus worth 250 marks.

It is designed to test for values like integrity, empathy, tolerance, etc which are essential for a career in the civil In your career as an IAS officer or elsewhere in the Government, you may sometimes be making decisions that impact a large number of people. These traits are tested extensively all throughout the IAS exam.

No wonder then that General Studies Paper 4 contains a section on Ethical Case studies to judge these qualities in you. Case Studies for the UPSC are usually detailed scenarios of real-life where a civil servant (you) is faced with an Ethical dilemma.


By adding case studies in Ethics, the UPSC wishes to actually place you in a simulated situation and judge your response. You will score more marks if your answers are well-formed, include more groups of people, and are appreciative of the complexity of real life.

The Ethics paper of the UPSC mains syllabus tells you the kind of qualities you should inculcate within yourself to be a good fit for the job.

Ethics for upsc : super-simplified and super-powered by superheroes

While empathy is an essential attribute of a civil servant, while preparing Ethics for UPSC, your compassion must be directed and intelligent towards finding solutions. You will have to discern how to practice compassion and whom to apply it on. This sounds simple now, but, in real life situations, it can be quite messy and unclear.


upsc ethics

A case study is a hypothetical situation with no clear right or wrong answers. But this does not mean that your answer can’t be good or bad.

Optional Subject: Paper 6&7 Of Syllabus Of UPSC

A true heavyweight. Out of the 7 papers in the UPSC Mains exam, the optional subject accounts for 2 papers which is roughly 28% of the total score in the written portion of the Mains exam which is a huge chunk of the total.

For Optional subjects, the UPSC Civil Services Exam notification list 25 subjects that can be opted for papers VI and VII in the mains examination. The list consists most of the vast disciplines of academic study known to man, with subjects ranging from Agriculture to English literature.

This is where the UPSC expects you to be a specialist and possess in-depth knowledge of the subject of your choosing. There is no rule mandating that you should choose the subject of your graduation. The only important thing to consider is that the difficulty level of the questions will be that of Honours or College level degree.


You can read about how to write excellent answer-Essays here.

The questions are essay-type of different word lengths which requires not only knowledge but good command overwriting. In a nutshell, it is a test of the quality of your understanding of the subject. The maturity and depth of your answer determine the score you get.


If the UPSC exam is like a war, then your option is your “Weapon of Choice”. You must be as comfortable with your options as a soldier is with his weapon. So, choose accordingly.


The UPSC mains syllabus seems never-ending at first glance. As you read it for the first time, it feels as if everything under the sun is included. But the UPSC mains syllabus is not as impossibly difficult to cover as it may appear.

It cannot be approached the way you approach the syllabus for exams in school or College. The IAS exam is a different ball game. That is to say that school and college exams are different games with different rules. The UPSC exam preparation has no fixed rules.


The feeling of drowning in the syllabus of UPSC

Engage With Curiosity

Thankfully, the UPSC itself tells you how to approach the Mains exam in a lot of detail-

The emphasis of the UPSC on curiosity and Interest is evident from first sight.

The word ‘Interest’ is mentioned Thrice in a single paragraph in the UPSC notification.

But what if you are not a very curious person? Not everyone is so curious about the World, you might say. And I would agree with you. Hardly anyone is. But the good news is that You can develop a genuine Interest in virtually any subject, and it makes life extremely interesting.

Balanced Judgement

You will invariably be faced with conflicting demands and goals for which the syllabus of UPSC is testing for. As a civil servant, you will sometimes be making decisions that impact a large number of people.

In real life, as in civil services, there are always tricky choices to be made.

These decisions can have far-reaching consequences for others, and it is crucial to think about what those consequences might be and who all might be affected. And it’s all for the better because you will have to think differently to cover the entire UPSC mains syllabus in record time.

Express Succinctly And Effectively

Part of the challenge in being a civil servant is the constant demand of simplifying complex issues on file such that informed decisions can be taken. Your answers in the UPSC Mains must explain all the aspects of the issue without missing out on important details but in a few words only. The typical word-limit for questions in the Mains exam is 100-200 words which is designed specifically to test your ability to synthesize complex ideas

Generalist Civil Service

The nature of questions in the UPSC Mains exam point towards the requirement of a generalist civil servant i.e., someone how can understand the big-picture and essential elements of a variety of areas. The UPSC is explicitly and directly tells you how to approach this examination.

This makes sense because as an administrator, you can be posted in a number of different organizations where you must quickly learn the ins and outs of complex matters in a great detail in a very short amount of time.

UPSC Mains: The Ultimate Strategy

The Ultimate Strategy for the UPSC Mains follows the TOP5 Protocol and the Hexa-task method which are detailed here.

The Strategyzer in the Ultimate UPSC Navigator provides for detailed milestone tracking and strategy formulation for the entire UPSC exam- including UPSC Mains.


While the questions are essay-type of different word lengths, what ALL questions in mains syllabus have in common is that they are looking for some specific qualities in your answer.

The UPSC judges your answer on some fixed criterion such as-

  • What was the depth of your understanding of the topic?
  • Did you identify the Core of the issue?
  • How many different perspectives did you appreciate?
  • Did you consider all the stakeholders in your answer?
  • How well informed were your opinions about the topic?
  • How balanced and well-reasoned were the reasons for your opinions?

In a nutshell, the maturity and depth of your answer determine the score you get.

You can read about writing superb answer-essays here.



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If you wish to take the plunge and try to attempt the UPSC exam, you will spend a lot of time in the preparation process. You might as well have as much fun with it as possible. And it can be made enjoyable!

You must choose your own path during the UPSC preparation journey. You will probably make many mistakes but will ultimately get to your goal. Or you can learn from my mistakes and use the methods listed in this article which have been tried, tested, curated and analysed.

They are designed to be better, less expensive, more effective and faster. You can Clear the UPSC exam without coaching institutes and while continuing your job.

It is not easy, but it is entirely doable. And you can do it. The only question is- Are you going to?


While we strive to provide you with updated information, please go through the latest official exam notification to check the detailed eligibility criteria for the specific exam year to avoid any confusion.