Comprehensive Preparation Strategy for Essay Paper in IAS Mains Exam: Target IAS 2018 and Beyond

The essay paper in the civil services main examination, of course, like any other paper, is crucial in determining the final outcome / selection and ranking. It is decisive because there is no specialization in an essay and so no aspirant can claim expertise, unlike the optional subjects.


There is no singular source from which one can prepare for the essay paper, nor there any syllabus.


The expectation is more on how to present the ideas than the ideas per se. Both the above points pose a definite challenge. It is vital to understand that an essay is a reflection of one’s personality: ideas, views, analysis, assessment and inferences, values, attitude, aptitude, orientation and communication abilities, all the expected personality qualities that the selection process looks for!


Simple English and short sentences are suggested; they make your writing work easier as well as the work of the examiner before giving marks. Writing ideas into small sentences is not so easy. We keep writing long sentences with lots of commas and many ifs and buts. Please practice to avoid these and come up with short and lucid sentences.




Characteristics of a good essay:

  Unity – the subject must be clearly defined in the mind. Irrelevant points should not be written in the essay. At the same time, the subject might be treated in a variety of ways and from different points of view.

  Order – the essay should follow a certain ordered line of thought and come to a definite conclusion. It should not consist of haphazard points. Every point should reflect on the subject in a direct sense.

  Personal touch – an essay should reveal personal feelings and the opinions of the writer. It should have his individuality in it. So don’t be afraid to express your own views

  Simple – the essay should be written in simple language.

  Direct and clear – the style of the essay should be simple, direct and clear.

  Avoid spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, as these mistakes will take a toll on your final marks.


Some patterns and root topics observed and suggested for preparation:

  Women empowerment

  Environment, S&T, Energy Security, Sustainable development

  Democracy, Judiciary and related topics

  Education, Indian Culture (including Cinema)

  Current events



General trend is the essay paper will contain either four or give topics out of which, one topic is to be chosen. It is important to analyze previous year essay papers, to find out the kind of topics that are being asked to write upon. It is conspicuous to find some definite patterns and root topics in the previous essay topics.



The aspirants should look for more such patterns and make a list of them. Try practicing writing essay on each of the items in the list to get to the best levels of preparation.


The duration of the essay paper is three hours and the word limit is not mentioned. Hence, it is up to the student to choose his word limit! One needs to judiciously divide the given three hours’ time in doing the following:


Take not more than five to ten minutes in deciding which topic to write:

It would be utterly confusing to choose one topic out of the given four/five, but upon practice, it is always seen that one is inclined to a specific set of topics, often. So practice more and make sure not much time is taken for the topic selection. It is even more important to stick to your choice and believe in it!

Don’t think of changing the topic in the middle of the examination. That would do more harm than good.

One can also eliminate some topics with which one is not comfortable. Some topics, most of the aspirants cannot maintain a balance throughout the essay, so better opt them out as well. Finally, select the topic that you think can do justice. Sometimes one particular essay seems tempting from the first look and we decide to write that without even reading the other ones.

The answer booklet of the main examination consists of 24 pages. The last 3-4 pages can be used for rough work. If you are sure that you can complete the main booklet, then ask for one additional at the beginning of the exam and use it for rough work.


Take time to draft ideas and prioritize:

Once a topic is chosen, one of the better ways to approach the essay paper (though this cannot be generalized) is to start with a draft / rough version of your essay.

Take some rough sheets or go to the backside of your answer sheet, and start jotting down everything and anything that gets in to your mind about the topic. We generally call such thinking green-light thinking. Don’t stop on any negative annotations and keep collecting all the ideas that you can think of.

It is easy to think of ideas, by thinking of questions (Please see the below example essay and how to form questions and ideas). Once you are sure that enough ideas are noted, think of a possible conclusion that you want to end the essay with. Your conclusion is the single most important item in making your essay. Take good time to think of it and form a conclusion.


Now, from the points that you drafted before, prioritize and organize the ideas/points according to the conclusion you decided upon. Some of those points could be used in favor of the conclusion; others could be used against the conclusion. Use your conscience whether to include or exclude some of the ideas that are drafted.

Next, think of a nice introduction that can really open up your ideas and subsequently the conclusion to the examiner. There is no set of rules as to what to be written for a good introduction, but it is good to have a grand opening (the way we expect for any match/movie). If you can think of any recent happenings / some anecdotes / phrases or some unique presentation, it would help in making a solid impression.

The whole of this process of drafting the ideas, making the conclusion, organizing the ideas and providing an introduction would take a good amount of time, anywhere between 45 min to 90 min. It is important that one practices all these steps to get a thorough hold on the entire exercise.



Know your speed:

It is important to know one’s speed of writing. If one can write around 1000 words in one hour, for example, all he needs is around one and half hours to finish writing the full essay.

The rest of the time in the three-hour examination could be used for drafting the ideas and prioritizing them. The more time you take to write the essay, the less time you get for the above step of drafting the ideas and organizing them. So, channelize your preparation to enable more time is provided for the thinking part and less time for the writing part.

Improve your writing speed as much as you can, but the even important point is to know your speed, so that you can gear up your examination accordingly. More or less, this part of the discussion applies to other paper as well, in some part or the other.



Writing it, finally:

Once you did the steps above, you are ready to write the essay in its final form. Elaborate the points that you have already written in the rear side of answer sheet, in the draft. Make it a logical flow.

Even if you come across a very good point while writing, that you haven’t noted in the draft, and if it is disturbing the flow of essay, then avoid writing it. It’s not an issue if you miss one point but are writing twenty other points, but it is very important to maintain the logical flow of ideas in your essay!

If you know your speed correctly, you will know how much time you can afford for drafting and prioritizing the ideas and how much time you need for writing them down. If you are a slow writer, make sure you give yourself enough time to write (implying, you will get less time to draft your ideas, which in turn means, you need lots of practice than others) so that you can finish the essay in time, or with some 10-15 minutes left, so that you can make some final corrections.


Rectify grammatical mistakes if you can find them, it is important there are no spelling mistakes, so use the last minutes to correct these all. Give a quick reading of the essay for making these corrections, underline as you read any of the sentences you want to highlight or want the examiner’s concentration to be upon.


Let’s see how the above brainstorming would work, by taking an example.

Essay topic: “Terrorism and global Peace (CSE-2005)” Drafting the ideas and questions:

  What is terrorism, its aims, methodologies and its origin?

  What is global peace?

  What is the relation between terrorism and global peace?

  How is it affecting global peace?

  Any recent incidents that I can think of, that threatened global peace? (This could be useful for introduction).

  What are the different ways or types of terrorism and how each one is a threat to global peace?

  What are the causes of terrorism to flourish?

  How global peace can be maintained (remedy and a global approach in fighting terrorism because of its spread to all countries)?

  What is the relevance of terrorism to India and affect on Indian ways of living?

  Should terrorism be fought against? What is the outcome of the war on terror?

  What should be the conclusion? Ex: Terrorism is affecting global peace and it is a fact, so the solution is to make it disappear. Whatever form it may be, it should be condemned because it involves loss of precious lives and living of many.



On such lines, many more questions and ideas can be thought of. While thinking on your ideas (words or sentences), try also to find answers for some/all of your above questions. This will form most of the content matter for your essay.


Important points to remember:

  Good introduction and good conclusion are a must. Introduction should guide the examiner to what you intent to convey in the subsequent paragraphs. The conclusion should be appropriate to what you discussed and must be proactive, balanced and positive in approach.

  There should be flow / link between paragraphs.

  Clarity of expression is very important. Use simple English to express your points clearly. One need not use flowery language. Simple logical presentation is sufficient. Please remember that, the essay paper is not expected to examine your talent about the topic. It is expected to example your talent of essay writing, how you can present the ideas of the topic in to an essay.

  Practice is essential for getting a good score.

  Main focus should be on giving a good analysis of the topic.

  Do not drive into areas, which are irrelevant to the topic, even though you know a lot about it.

  Make sure that you have sufficient understanding and material to write, before choosing the topic.


More on Introduction:

The introduction is the opening part of the essay and should be confined to a paragraph. This is expected to put the topic in front of the examiner, and wherever necessary, explain the central theme or idea, basic or core concepts and definitional criteria.

The introduction should arouse the interest and general curiosity in the mind of the examiner/reader. Spend good amount of time for introduction.


Main Content:

The main text of the essay must develop, support and explain the main ideas stated in your introduction. This essentially is a systemic organization of information based on a consistent methodology.

It deals with the topic and related issues to be addressed, the correlation of facts, figures, ideas, views, concepts, in-depth, systematic, coherent analysis based on the topic leading to logical interferences, as well as making plausible projects and providing necessary solutions (wherever expected/required).



As the text draws to a close to the conclusion, the essay should have reached the stage of critical mass, a sort of climax. The conclusion, a summary, should express the essence of the essay, it should not contain any fresh evidence, facts of figures.


Suggested readings for preparation:

  •   Yojana Issues
  •   Frontline (especially the cover stories)
  •   The Hindu Sunday magazine



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