Writing a good essay is not always easy. It requires right approach and good practice. But it has been observed that many candidates take the essay paper too lightly resulting in a score not comparable with their potential. Hence, it is vital to attempt this paper with the same seriousness as all other papers in GS Mains and learn the art of writing a good essay.
Practice is the key!
Practice, not talent, is the key to success.
Make reading good essays a habit. And more importantly, start writing essays from today.
Participate in ClearIAS Answer Writing Program (AWP) for mains. It’s completely free!
Understanding Essay Paper in IAS Exam
250 marks out of 2025 (12.3 %) are the weight-age of essay paper on total Civil Services Mains Marks as per the latest UPSC syllabus. Since 2015, candidates are asked to write two essays out of 8 choices. Each essay is for 125 marks (1000-1200 words). Check the UPSC CSE Essay Syllabus here.
Time allotted is 3 hours.
Note: Before 2013, UPSC CSE essay paper was only for 200 marks with a single essay to write upon!
UPSC’s expectation from Essay Paper
Examiners will pay special attention to the candidate’s grasp of his/her material, its relevance to the subject chosen and to his/her ability to think constructively and to present his/her ideas concisely, logically and effectively.
How To Write A Good Essay In Civil Service Mains Exam?
- Make a framework (blueprint) of the essay you are going to write first.
- Our advice would be to use simple language. As Anton Chekov once said ‘Brevity is the sister of talent’.
- The idea of using ornamental language to showcase your English vocabulary may backfire at times. But, don’t make your essay sound like a General Studies answer.
- If the introduction can generate a curiosity in the reader, that would be great.
- There should be a logical continuation from beginning to end.
- The essay should be organized in well-structured paragraphs coherent with the flow of the essay.
- Don’t be too aggressive or pessimistic in your tone.
- Come up with good points and express new viewpoints.
- Go through well-written essays by experts in newspapers and magazines, and understand how they frame the ‘Introduction’ and ‘Conclusion’ paragraphs.
- In most cases, there will not be any need for separate coaching or preparation for essays, and candidates’ reading and preparation for General Studies Mains should suffice. But make sure your writing and analytical skills are up to the UPSC expectations; if not, polish it.
- Write mock essays and get it evaluated by experts in the field.
Let’s analyze a few previous year UPSC essay papers.
Essay Questions asked in UPSC (Mains) Examination
Write an essay on any one of the following topics:
- 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.
- 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?
- Science and Mysticism: Are they compatible?
- Managing work and home – is the Indian working women getting a fair deal?
- Creation of smaller states and the consequent administrative, economic and developmental implications.
- Does Indian cinema shape our popular culture or merely reflect it?
- Credit-based higher education system –status, opportunities, and challenges.
- In the Indian context, both human intelligence and technical intelligence are crucial and combating terrorism.
How much is a good score in UPSC CSE essay paper?
As the essay paper is out of 250, marks which are above 50% can be considered good, ie. 125.
Marks between 110-125 is considered as average.
Marks in the range 150-160 are possible for exceptional essays.
Note: UPSC may award poorly written essays marks as low as ‘0’ or ’20’. So beware and pay sufficient attention to proper practice.
Important Essay Topics for UPSC CSE
Topics like Women empowerment, Rural development, Social Justice, Terrorism and Internal Security etc are hot topics for essays and be prepared with various dimensions of the same in UPSC Exam.
Books which helps in Essay Writing for UPSC Civil Services Exam
It is our immense pleasure to know that Umesh N S K who has securedRank 77was benefited from Insights’ initiatives. He is 24 and it was his 3ed attempt at CSE. He has sent an article outlining how he prepared for his Optional subject – Political Science and International Relations (PSIR). He has scored 278 Marks in PSIR.
We congratulate him on behalf of all of you.
POLITICAL SCIENCE and INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS – HOW I PREPARED
By Umesh N S K Rank – 77, CSE – 2014
I am not trying to share a foolproof fit-for-all strategy to crack PSIR here because there cannot be any such strategy. Instead,I will share the sources I studied for each and every topic here. I must confess that I never did writing practice, I did not attend any mock tests and I did not take notes except for loose sheets like “List of International Organisations”,”Names of thinkers and their famous books” and other such school-level stuff. But what I had as my strength was a diverse reading habit which ranged from newspapers to magazines to works of non-fiction by Granville Austin, Ashutosh Varshney,David Malone et al. A topic-wise analysis of syllabus follows :
This section can be divided into four parts : Political Theory, Indian Political Thought,Western Political Thought and Political Ideologies.
For Political Theory, my basic text was Andrew Heywood’s “Political Theory” which helped me attain conceptual clarity in all fundamental topics like Equality,Rights,Power,Liberty and Democracy. Once Heywood is done, we can move on to O.P.Gauba. I must confess that I never completed even half of this book because of it’s convoluted style of writing. (In engineering,local authors helped me clear exams whereas in PSIR, foreign authors were more lucid).But O.P.Gauba has it’s utility because it fills the gaps in Andrew Heywood and it is written keeping in mind an Indian syllabus. So numbers 1 to 7 (refer syllabus)in Part 1 of Paper I can be mastered by thorough reading of Heywood followed by selective reading of Gauba.
For Political Ideologies, Political Ideologies by Andrew Heywood is a gift from Heaven. Look no further. Gandhism alone can be covered in Indian Political Thought.
For Western Political Thought , the book by Brian Nelson is very good. This book covers some ideologies too. Some quotes and questions from Paper 1 related to Western thinkers in 2013 were directly from this book only. Gramsci and Hannah Arendt are missing in this book.
I covered Gramsci and Hannah Arendt in O.P.Gauba’s “Political Theory” and also through some online reading.
For Indian Political Thought , V.R.Mehta’s book is a good source to study even if the language is not easy to master. Ambedkar and Syed Ahmed Khan are missing in this book which can be covered in IGNOU PDFs.I read the original texts of “Annihilation of caste” and “Hind Swaraj”.
Indian Government and Politics:
I considered this entire section as an organic whole and the basic texts for it are B.L.Fadia, Laxmikanth, Ramachandra Guha and Bipan Chandra. But ultimately,this is a current affairs oriented section and we win or lose within the pages of a good newspaper.
Answers in these sections must have contemporary examples and can quote good authors. For example, for a question on “Marginalisation of Left Ideology in India” in 2014’s paper, I quoted Ramachandra Guha’s points from a piece for Caravan Magazine in June,2011. So, every weekend, few hours can be spent to browse websites of Indian Express, Outlook and India Today etc. There is a tendency to see Times of India as a frivolous page- 3 paper but it features columns of great writers like Sunil Khilnani and Gurcharan Das on a regular basis.
I would suggest columns of Ashutosh Varshney, Ramachandra Guha and Pratap Bhanu Mehta as mandatory reading for this section.
Comparative Political Analysis and International Politics:
This can be divided into two sections : Comparative Politics and International Relations.
Comparative Politics was the only portion in PSIR’s syllabus which never kindled my interest enough to do extensive reading. All I read for this section were IGNOU PDFs.
For International Relations,a wonderful introductory text is Globalisation of World Politics. This book is an absolute delight with great illustrations,brilliant design and most importantly,quality content. Any gaps in this book can be filled by selective reading of V.K.Malhotra’s “International Relations”.
Again,answers for this section can be written with references to recent examples. For example,an answer on National Security can mention Syrian crisis as an example.BBC website provides great summaries of all current international crises (Sample: See this).”Frontline” is a good Indian magazine to cover international events if one discounts it’s blinkered worldview.
For Indian foreign Policy, a topnotch introductory text is David Malone’s book. Gaps in this book can be filled by reading Shashi Tharoor OR Rajiv Sikri selectively.
But as anyone who saw/wrote 2014’s paper would know, even without reading any book, this section can be mastered if we follow The Hindu and good columnists regularly. Some expert foreign policy commentators include : C.Rajamohan, Brahma Challaney ,Suhasini Haidar and Srinath Raghavan. (For a question on India-Russia relations, I almost reproduced Srinath Raghavan’s viewpoints written in the pages of The Hindu five days before the exam.) I never read a single issue of World Focus (even though I bought so many issues only for them to rest in the attic) and relied more on these commentators I have mentioned.
Thus, PSIR can be mastered by a diverse reading habit along with very good writing. Why I insist on Andrew Heywood first (and not Gauba) and Srinath Raghavan (and not World Focus) is because when we read such lucidly written prose regularly, our writing will also gain finesse with time. So,our answers for PSIR should
i) introduce the statement in the question , analyse the viewpoints associated with it and conclude it . It is important to ensure our answers have a closure to it. We must not write like students appearing for B.A Pol. Sci exam.Rather,we must write like a bureaucrat submitting a report to a higher official.
ii) Our answers should have contemporary examples and touches.For example,a question on women panchayats should mention examples of successful and popular woman sarpanches.
iii) We can quote authors and columnists in answers. It adds to the intellectual heft of our viewpoints.
iv) Above all, reading more means writing better.
The above is not exactly a strategy but a recounting of what I did to score 138+140 in PSIR this year. All the best to all aspirants who are taking up this wonderful optional.