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UPSC Prelims Trend Analysis

UPSC Prelims Trend Analysis

Prelims is the first stage of three-stage UPSC CSE exam. Prelims, is now, all about General Studies, after Paper 2 became qualifying in nature. The unpredictable nature of questions leaves little room for any discrepancy in preparation. It would be unadvisable to leave or ignore any topic of syllabus. Excessive emphasis on current affairs in 2016 proves this. We take look at question trend of last three years.


Topic UPSC 2014  UPSC 2015 UPSC 2016
History 13 12 13
Geography 26 18 3
Indian Polity 15 21 6
Economy 10 14 15
Environment 13 11 16
Science & Tech. 16 12 7
Art and Culture 04 01 3
Current Affairs 02 09 37
Total 100 100 100


The number of history questions has remained almost constant. Geography has witnessed a decline from 26 questions in 2014 to just 3 questions in 2016. Polity and Science & Tech. questions have declined over these years. Economy, environment and culture seem to be evergreen topics. Environment questions have increased to 16 from 10 in 2014. The growing need to generate environmental awareness at all levels is reflected in 16 questions from this topic alone. If we keep 2016 aside, there was certain degree of constancy in the nature of questions asked. Significant number of questions from conventional topics made it easier for many candidates.

All this changed drastically in 2016. 37 out of 100 questions were straight from current affairs. Even questions from other sections (Environment, Economy etc.) were related to current events. A liberal extrapolation takes the number of current affairs questions to ~55. A good number of data-based questions marked another departure from the prevailing trend. Earlier, UPSC used to ask concept-based questions. Aspirants did not focus much on facts and figures. However, such questions have been increasing in number for the last two years. For example, India is a member of which groups? NPT not signed by whom? Mekong Ganga doesn’t include whom?

After the change in Mains pattern in 2013, UPSC had started focusing on currents-based questions in GS and even optionals. This, gradually, gave rise to a feeling that prelims would focus mostly on non-current affairs portions. It was proved wrong in 2016. Culture portion has failed to cross 5-question mark in recent years. Successive, UPSC chairmen have underlined the need to focus on India’s culture and heritage in their lectures. Culture questions are generally fact-based, and take no time to attempt if we have the required information.

Below is the pictorial representation of 2016 questions.

Talking about the trend in sources of questions, let us leave 2016 for a while. In 2014 and 2015, around 60% of questions were from conventional sources – NCERT, Standard reference books, Economic Survey, NIOS and India Year Book. We will cover the preparation strategy and booklist for Prelims in details in a separate article. Due to excessive focus on current affairs in 2016, the conventional strategy might not have worked. Being in regular touch with newspaper, and brushing our knowledge with current affairs capsule may prove helpful. However, this does not mean we start ignoring the conventional topics. Core sections and sources should always be the backbone of our preparation.

Of late, current affairs questions are not straight forward. For example, if Palestine is in news, UPSC would ask where is “Golan heights”? (2015). If South East Asia is in news; question on arranging countries from north to south would be asked (2014). Thus, we see UPSC requires us to be smart in our preparation. It wants to apply what we read, and not limit ourselves to only cramming facts. Also, we ought to have the ability to look beyond what is obvious to the world. To have a 360 degree view of an issue. For instance, if the current year is an important anniversary of any historical event, there are high chances of questions being asked. A question on Ghadar Party (formed in 1914) was asked in 2014.

Staying in touch with previous year questions, and practicing mock tests are extremely important.  They help in gauging the pattern of questions that can be framed from a particular topic. Also, we gradually develop the ability to think from question setter’s point of view. All we need is to outsmart UPSC to beat it in its own game.