How to Study like a UPSC Topper?

Are you preparing for UPSC CSE Prelims 2024? Then you must take a look at this Winning-Strategy.

Table of contents

Reading & re-reading books is an inefficient way to study. There are smarter and more efficient ways to study.

Here's how YOU can study like UPSC CSE toppers.

Before we start, let me tell you a story.

One day, a man approached JP Morgan, held up an envelope, and said, “Sir, in my hand I hold a guaranteed formula for success, which I will gladly sell to you for $25,000.”

“Sir,” JP Morgan replied, “I do not know what is in the envelope. However, if you show me and I like it, I give you my word as a gentleman that I will pay you what you ask.”

The man agreed to the terms and handed over the envelope. JP Morgan opened it, and extracted a single sheet of paper. He gave it one look and handed the piece of paper back to the gent, pulled out his checkbook, and paid the man the agreed-upon $25,000.

The paper read:

  1. Every morning, write a list of the things that need to be done that day.
  2. Do them.
    This blog will have 2 major sections.
  3. Managing time and dealing with procrastination.
  4. The methods of study.

That story captures the essence of the first section.

P.S.: I put most of these ideas to use in my own attempts at UPSC CSE, but the organisation of knowledge for this blog has been borrowed from
Prof. Cal Newport's book "How to Become a Straight-A Student".

Step 1: Manage how you spend your time every day

You need to:

  • Write your to-dos and deadlines on a list.
  • Transfer them to your daily calendar.
  • Plan your day each morning by assigning realistic time frames to your to-dos.
  • Shift pending to-do to a later date.

While this seems like a tedious thing to do daily, this simple change will have the most positive impact on your output.

And don't be afraid to miss a few days here and there.

For example: taking a week or two off from this method immediately post Prelims/Mains is normal.

Step 2: War on Procrastination

No one wins over procrastination.

But you can learn to manage it.

Do this:

  • Maintain a progress journal - record whether you were able to achieve your targets of the day or not.
  • When studying, maintain energy levels by eating healthy snacks.
  • Build routines to help you make progress everyday without needing motivation.
No matter how much we plan, there will be over runs.

And in order to manage those we might need to make some adjustments. Adjustment days are overloaded and will be hard. You will have such days every now and then.

But the good part is, that you can choose hard days in advance. And then relieve yourself of the everyday stress of having to cover the "backlog".

Step 3: Choose When, Where, and How Long

  • Try to study as much work as possible into the morning and afternoon.
  • Study in isolated locations. A group study is often just a group distraction session.
  • Take a short break every hour.
Note: Avoid scrolling on social media during breaks.

That covers the basics of what to do, push ourselves to do what is needed and then when, where and how to do those things.

Now let's talk about the METHODS.

We can't clear UPSC for you.

But with our personalised mentor support, you'll be ready to do it yourself.

Step 4: Taking Smart Notes

First, if you have joined a class - GO TO CLASS.

Attending the class and being attentive there is half the battle won. Then the real work starts.

Divide your subjects into two groups:

  1. Technical - maths, eco, and some optionals.
  2. Non-technical - history, polity, geography, etc.
    For Non-Technical Subjects

Capture the big ideas by taking notes in the question/evidence/conclusion format.

For example: when studying the civil disobedience movement, your notes should look like this:

Q: Why did Irwin sign a pact with Gandhiji?
E1: pressure of mass movement
E2: revenue loss for govt.
E3: system overload with 90,000 prisoners

Conclusion: The British wanted to buy time and relieve the stress.

The added benefit of this is that questions are asked in a similar format in mains and you will be super comfortable answering those later.

For Technical Subjects note as many sample problems and answers as possible.

For example: In CSAT, when studying number systems make a note of 5-10 sample problems that demonstrate how to solve the most of the common questions.

Revise these by writing out the steps before the exam.

Step 5: Not all sources are important

There are multiple sources for each subject. And not just the books.

If you have joined a class, you will have:

  • Core book
  • Class notes
  • Lecture PPTs
  • Other material
Most students get lost in this sea of content.

Your priority order should be:

BOOK first.

Then class notes (if you have them, and preferably taken in QEC format) and then everything else if the doubt remains.

Step 6: Organise Your Notes

  • Figure out what will be covered in the paper with PYQs
  • Organise your notes (in Q E C format) for non-technical subjects as per the syllabus.
  • Build problem sets for CSAT and your optional as needed.

Doing this ahead of time will save you from stress later.

Step 7: Conquer the Material

  • Embrace the active-recall method. It’s the single most efficient way to revise what you have studied.
  • You will need to memorise some material, don't plan to do it all in one day. Space out your memorisation.

Step 8: Academic Insurance

With UPSC preparation, you can't cover everything to perfection. But you should at least have a working knowledge of all areas.

While reading or making notes, clearly mark the areas that you DON'T understand.

Then reach out to a friend or mentor and get those doubts clarified.

Doing this on a regular basis will ensure that your doubts don't pile up and you will end up feeling more confident as the exam approaches.

If you are facing any particular issues right now, ping @UPSCprepIAS and we'll help.

Step 9: Ace the Attempt

You don't get extra marks for attempting the paper in serial order.

  • Look over the whole test.
  • Answer the easy questions first.

This will not just help build momentum but will also save you time as easier questions get solved faster.


S1: Manage your time daily.
S2: War on procrastination
S3: When, where, how long
S4: Smart notes
S5: Prioritise sources
S6: Organise your notes
S7: Conquer the material
S8: Academic insurance
S9: Ace the attempt

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