Evolution of the UPSC Question Paper

Change is the only constant.


The UPSC civil services exam pattern has undergone many changes over the past many years. From changing the number of optional papers to introducing an aptitude-based CSAT paper, from increasing the number of general studies papers to dropping foreign languages from the list of languages for the language paper, the Commission has done it all. Apart from these ‘external’ changes, a major change has been the kind of questions per se that are asked in the IAS exam. A glance at the questions from the 90s reveals a striking difference in the manner in which questions are framed both in the prelims and the mains. Read on for more insights.

Up until 2009, the main focus areas of the questions in the UPSC prelims were history, geography and current affairs. From 2010 onwards, the UPSC is concentrating on environment, science, history and polity in that order. In the GS prelims of the pre-2010 era, the structure of the question paper would be roughly as follows:

  1. 20 questions on history.
  2. 30 – 40 questions on geography.
  3. 40 questions on science.
  4. There were a lot of current affairs questions that were rather static in nature, such as books and authors, persons/places in news, sports, science and tech, awards, etc.
  5. Rest of the questions were based on polity and aptitude.

During those days, there used to be a prelims paper for one optional subject as well.

Example question from the 90s era (pre 2010):

Q) Which of the following organization won the CSIR award for S&T innovation for rural Development, 2006?

  1. CLRI
  2. NDDB
  3. IARI
  4. NDRI

Answer: a

Q) Match the following:

  1. Bhanu Bharti                      1. Music composer
  2. Mike Pandey                      2. Poet
  3. Mohd. Zahur Khyyam      3. Theatre director
  4. Vinda Karandikar             4. Wildlife film maker

Answer: a – 3, b – 4, c – 1, d – 2

These questions could be answered by cramming material from current affairs or competitive exam magazines. Such questions are not asked these days. Today, you don’t have to learn this kind of trivia by rote. Questions generally follow a pattern where you have to identify one or more true/false statements given concerning a particular topic. Here, a good understanding of the concept/issue will help you answer it. Of course, some amount of memorisation is still required.

Example question:

Q) With reference to the Parliament of India, consider the following statements: (2017)

  1. A private member’s bill is a bill presented by a Member of Parliament who is not elected but only nominated by the President of India.
  2. Recently, a private member’s bill has been passed in the Parliament of India for the first time in its history.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

  1. 1 only
  2. 2 only
  3. Both 1 and 2
  4. Neither 1 nor 2

Answer: d

In the UPSC mains exam also, UPSC has changed the nature of questions. It has stopped asking direct questions from geography and history. Instead, the focus is now more on environment, public health, science and technology and current affairs from newspapers. Many questions were rephrased from previous years and even repeated. Even in the optional papers, this pattern was followed. Earlier they asked 2-marks questions which meant that candidates had to mug up certain facts.

Implications of the change:

  • Coaching classes which doled out ‘processed material’ of current affairs/trivia – material which had to be just crammed, were stumped.
  • The move to include questions which were not-so-direct and straightforward meant that candidates who attended coaching classes did not have an upper hand compared to someone from a smaller town who did not have access to any coaching.
  • Everything now depends on the candidates’ skills and intelligence.
  • Since there is less stress on rote learning today, senior players’ advantage is reduced if not completely washed away.

The UPSC wants to give every candidate a level playing field and that is the reason behind this question paper pattern change.

In the current affairs section, the days of mugging up facts and names are long gone. Today, candidates must read the newspaper and extract meaningful, UPSC-relevant information from it. This is the most important part of today’s IAS preparation because questions asked are generally drawn from current affairs. Even the static questions are based on phenomenon/event which grabbed headlines in recent times. Get your daily dose of current affairs for UPSC exam with BYJU’S Daily News Analysis.

For more on how to prepare for the UPSC civil services exam, click on the link below:

How to Prepare for UPSC Exams

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