UPSC Syllabus

UPSC syllabus: How to start UPSC preparation

Anybody will tell you that the first step is to look at the UPSC syllabus carefully. But no one will tell you how to use the UPSC syllabus as a TOOL to HACK the exam.

If you have decided to take the plunge and want to start UPSC preparation, the first step is to figure out exactly WHAT all you need to know to clear the IAS exam.

This series of posts are a detailed guide to what the UPSC syllabus entails, What to do with it and HOW to USE it to clear the IAS exam.

Obtain the REAL UPSC syllabus

First things first, get hold of the syllabus but dont just rely on Google. Because when you google search for “UPSC SYLLABUS” you will find mostly websites of coaching institutes and private businesses.

upsc syllabus google search results
UPSC syllabus search results on Google

Avoid all unofficial sources and find the official UPSC notification.

You can read about why you should avoid these websites and the role of IAS coaching institutes in UPSC preparation here.

in the UPSC NOTIFICATION 2020,you will find the syllabus for Prelims and mains

UPSC syllabus Prelims
UPSC prelims syllabus

Next step is to look closely at the UPSC Mains syllabus for General Studies which spans 3 separate papers. Here is a snapshot of everything you need to know for General Studies.

UPSC syllabus General Studies
UPSC syllabus for Mains exam. Press ctrl+s to save or download this image for future reference.
You are going to need it.

In this article, I will focus on General studies which is the MAJOR part of the UPSC syllabus.

General Studies spans through all stages of the exam- Prelims, Mains AND interview. G.S is at least 60% of the Civil Services Exam syllabus and by far the MOST important component of the entire UPSC syllabus.

If you don’t have a strong hold on General Studies, you are unlikely to get past the first round of elimination in the exam.

What is the UPSC syllabus telling you?

Apart from the long list of topics to be covered, the UPSC syllabus gives you a lot of clues about the UPSC CSE, which you can read about in the hidden messages in the UPSC syllabus article here.

A few things are obvious from the get go-

1)There is overlap and repetition in the syllabus of Prelims and Mains especially for GENERAL STUDIES. Some topics are common such as Indian history, Indian polity, geography etc.

2) Mains syllabus seems to be an expanded version of Prelims syllabus.

3) Mains and Prelims have to be approached in different ways and this is made explicitly clear by the UPSC –

upsc syllabus

4) The syllabus seems to be never-ending. Its normal to feel like you will drown in the ocean of UPSC syllabus. And I don’t blame you. It is the perfectly normal response to have.

UPSC syllavbus
Drowning in the ocean of UPSC syllabus

You may be tempted to ask for book-lists at this point, but don’t. You don’t need the books just yet.

The good news is that there is smart way to cross this ocean.

But you will have to undertake a challenge first.

So DO NOT read any further unless you are willing to accept a challenge.

The UPSC Syllabus Challenge

If you are going to swim an ocean, it will be useful to get a big-picture idea of your path before you jump in.

The UPSC syllabus Challenge consists of 2 ROUNDS.

These rounds are a lot like charting the territory of a vast area from a height.

Think about the UPSC syllabus challenge as taking a helicopter ride over the big ocean of the syllabus which you have to swim across.

IAS syllabus

Your helicopter is the GOOGLE search bar.

The only things you will need are an internet connection and a stopwatch.

Watch the full lesson in YouTube here-

ROUND 1: ‘The Blitz’

This time, you will use google intelligently and to your advantage.

RULE 1: Google search EVERY KEYWORD mentioned in the UPSC syllabus, one by one.

RULE 2: You have only 6 MINUTES for every search.

RULE 3 : You CANNOT CLICK ON ANY LINK on the search page.

It doesn’t matter what you Learned from that search, you have to quit the search after 6 minutes and begin a new search.

Here is a step-by-step example for you.

If you follow the same procedure, I promise that you will have never look at the UPSC syllabus in quite the same way again

  • STEP 1: Set your alarm clock or stopwatch to ring EVERY 6 minutes.
  • STEP 2: Google search the keyword in the google search engine for example- ‘INDIAN CULTURE’

Just LOOK at what there is in front of you for a few minutes.

But remember Rule 3 and DO NOT CLICK ON ANY LINK.

IAS exam google search Indian culture

You can see a LOT of interesting things on this page.

You see some beautiful colored images which hint at what Indian culture is about. There is a picture of an Indian classical dancer and some colorful collages.

Read the text on the page- It tells you that Indian culture is heavily influenced by Dharmic religions. It consists of Literature, Philosophy, art and architecture.

Notice that this is very close to what the UPSC syllabus says about Indian culture.

Observe that there is ministry in the Government of India dedicated to Culture.

  • STEP 3: Click on google images

Take a visual tour of Indian culture before you dive in to learn.

SEE what the Searched topic is about.

IAS exam indian culture

The Google images page shows a beautiful collage of Indian culture. There are dances, designs, architecture and festivals.

You will recognize many of these images.

But there’s more- read the tabs on top of the images.

Get a visual feel of what we mean when we talk about ‘Indian culture’.

These images will remain in your mind and will help you remember facts and details later. Images convey meaning much more efficiently than text and will serve as excellent learning aids.

Not to mention that they prevent boredom.

  • STEP 4: Click on Google NEWS

Take a quick look at what’s happening around this keyword. You see some interesting things related to Indian culture which have made it to the news. Get an idea about why that search word was in the news.

Let your curiosity grow. WITHOUT CLICKING on any of the links otherwise you will get lost in the ocean of websites and lose the challenge.

IAS exam news results

What you call ‘current events’ can be gleaned by using this trick. If something very important is in the news about that topic, you will probably see it here.

At the very least, you will get to know what kind of debates and questions are occurring around that topic.

Did you notice that the theme of diversity was all over the search results?

These few minutes of browsing will tell you that Indian culture is a combination of thousands of different cultures and is very diverse.

SIDE NOTE-Diversity is a VERY important value in our country. You will find it explicitly mentioned in the Indian Constitution. It is mentioned multiple times in the USPC syllabus itself and is an important element of the UPSC exam as a whole.

Chances are that by this time, 6 minutes are over and it’s time to move on to the next topic.

  • STEP 5: STRIKE OFF the Keyword or topic you have finished and move on to the next one which could be ‘Indian History’ or ‘Environment’ or whatever.

In these 6 minutes, Indian culture struck me as a vibrant, colorful, beautiful and full of variety. Also as one of the the reason I find India to be a very interesting place to live in.

in 6 minutes you can get a very general ‘feel’ of the topic. This is what we want to do for the whole syllabus.

Let the big picture sink in.

Repeat this process for EVERY KEYWORD in the UPSC syllabus.

If you stay disciplined and follow these steps you will complete ROUND 1 in a few hours.

ROUND 2: ‘The Hover’

RULE 1: Google search EVERY KEYWORD mentioned in the UPSC syllabus, one by one.

RULE 2: You have only 25 MINUTES for every search.

RULE 3 : You can click ONE link from search results and watch ONE video only.

  • STEP 1: Follow the exact same procedure but with timer set at 25 minutes this time.
  • STEP 2: Google search the keyword in the google search engine for example- ‘INDIAN CULTURE’

Give a 5 minute break between searching for topics.

You can use the Pomodoro timer here.

In Round 2, you have more time to explore the topic. But only one click.

Which means that you can click one only 1 link on the search page. You can choose the Wikipedia page or any other website which gives you all the information in one place.

IAS exam indian culture

When you do go to Wikipedia, for example, don’t read in detail. Don’t click on any internal links . Just browse the page.

By skimming, look for interesting images and get a feel of the details associated with that topic.

Don’t spend more than 10-15 minutes on this page.

  • STEP 3: Click on Google Videos.

Choose the video which you think will give you maximum information in the least amount of time.

From the list of videos you can watch one video of no more than 5-10 minutes.

Remember that you are still hovering over the ocean. You have not dived in yet.

Try to look for official sources. While choosing the video, remember that you are looking for information and NOT opinions.

The preview text about the videos can tell you a lot about what to expect from the video.

In this case, the third videos look like the best choice.

IAS exam google videos

You-tube will show a lot of video suggestions. Avoid clicking or you will get sucked in a never-ending ocean of videos.

Once you watch the video, if it is good, save it in the ‘watch later’ playlist and move on when the stopwatch rings.

STEP 4: STRIKE OFF the Keyword or topic you have finished and move on to the next one until all topics in the UPSC syllabus are explored.

This round will take you a few days to complete.

Let it take time, striking off topics as you go.


If you are unable to complete 2 rounds of this challenge-

  • It could mean that you are not ready to take on the IAS exam.
  • It could also mean that you are not really interested in India and should maybe look at another profession.

In case you didn’t notice, the biggest and most important keyword in the whole of the syllabus is INDIA.

After all, this exam ,the job you want ,your future employer, is all about India.

Did doing the challenge fill you with curiosity and wonder about the world?

If you felt excited about getting to know all these things, you are in the right competitive exam.

On the other hand, if you take the UPSC syllabus to be a list of topic to be studied just to score some marks, you will find it hard to get through this exam.

Also, if these topics don’t interest you, in any case, your UPSC journey will not be pleasant because you will be spending hundreds of hours learning this stuff.

In case you do survive the challenge, you will have achieved the following-

  • You will be forced to wonder about how vast the world is and how much there is to learned.
  • You will have developed a fairly solid foundation for GS. And a burning desire to know more about the world.
  • You will start to see some patterns in the IAS syllabus which will help you immensely in your preparation.
  • You will notice inter-connections between the topics of the UPSC syllabus and realize that everything is actually inter-connected in the real world.
  • You will be struck and fascinated with India.
  • You will look forward to preparing for the UPSC exam. And to the unique education it will give you.
  • Your Education will turn into an Edu-vacation.
UPSC exam
The Ocean becomes your playground

See you on the other side of the challenge!

We have created a dedicated Forum for your questions which you can ask here >

56 thoughts on “UPSC syllabus: How to start UPSC preparation”

  1. Hlo sir,
    Myself Saraswati,you are the real God I have never seen in my life time.please sir support like this to us.These process matters a lot for us.
    Thank you so much sir.

  2. Thank you sir for providing such an Interesting Article. I wanted to take up the UPSC syllabus challenge but cannot find the word document with the list of keywords.

  3. Hello sir,
    A simple word “thank you” is not sufficient enough to acknowledge your hard work . How helpful this info has been for me and how it has cleared so many doubts in my mind. I know you have been through this phase and u know what an aspirant feels, how people around judge you for no good reason .
    But I owe you for this and I promise I wll make this dream come true.
    I know thank you is not enough but thank you

  4. Thank you sir, for such a insightful psychological guidance to us. i like to read psychology book as a hobby and i found this method also mentioned there but i was not able to implement it. after reading this article i cleared all my doubt.

  5. Literally I live this process… Although it’s taking much time like for every word we have to search but yes… This process gives a basic idea of syllabus..

    Working on round 1

    Thanks much sir!!

  6. Thank You Sir,
    For this innovative article.i have read all the rules and rounds..and I am excited to do this challenge.
    Once again thank you sir for such a wonderful tips for upsc preparation.

  7. Thank you sir for this I always have confusion about these basic steps about syllabus and books what to do what not by one by one am going through your emails it becomes easier for me to mend my way .
    This mail was very helpful .
    One more doubt I have regarding Ncert s ! Is it compulsory to read 6 to 12 NCERT or we can simply choose one complete syllabus book.

  8. Hello Sir,

    Thanks for sharing this great method to understand about UPSC syllabus.
    Whenever I interacted with anybody who is preparing for UPSC or senior to me, I came to learn that I should thoroughly understand the syllabus First.

    But today I got realized that what does it mean to understand thoroughly about the syllabus.

    Thanks again sir for this giving us simplest and yet effective learning way.

  9. Hello sir,
    Whenever I am reading this article I was very keen and curious and my brain 🧠 is thinking 🤔 about round 1 and round 2. The thinking nature of education into edu-vacation and ocean into playground makes me very excited and I will follow the rules and makes myself feel excited in edu-vacation. Thank you very much for your guidance sir, we are really lucky to have you sir.

  10. Hello sir,
    I have just read all the rules and rounds ….and I m excited to do this challenge…..
    Thanku sir for such a wonderful tips for upsc preparation.
    Thanku sir

    • Hi Abhay,

      Definitely don’t take notes during round 1. Given that you have only a few moments to search through a word, the only note taking you should do is mental. Try to grasp the bigger picture and don’t
      worry about the details.

      Avoid taking notes during round 2 as well. If you find something very useful, bookmark it or save the page for perusal later. if you find some super useful text, you can keep a word document open on the side and cut and copy the text as you go along.

      But keep in mind that the overarching theme here is for you get a solid handle on the big picture of the entire syllabus.

      Note-taking will become important when you start to fill in the details of each of the keywords in the syllabus during more advanced stages of preparation.

      Hope this helps

    • I’m not at all godly but thank you for your heart-felt appreciation, Mounika!
      Im very happy to know that you found some value in my articles. Let me know how it goes.

      Tc and stay healthy,

  11. Hello sir,

    Thanks a lot for this technique!
    I have completed Round 1. Will start Round 2 and will update here. Its really exciting in learning things this way.

    Thanks and Regards,

  12. Thank you Sir, for this innovative and effective article. i have just started and successfully completed round 1 and working on round 2.
    I must say its a little bit time taking process but very productive.

    Thank you.

  13. Dear sir

    I am a regular visitor of your blog and I find your articles really helpful. I am a working professional and starting out on CSE preparation. Looking forward to more articles from you!

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