All About IAS Exam: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need

Copy of UPSC

Being an IAS is considered the most cherished job and career in India. IAS cadre marks the top most echelons of the Indian bureaucracy and is considered the cream of services among the civil services. No wonder the Civil Services examination is called the “mother of all competitive examinations.” More than one million candidates every year apply for the Civil Services examination.

The examination has a success rate of less than 0.01%, as only about 120-150 are selected for the coveted IAS. One can imagine why IAS is such an elusive, yet achievable; dream for every Civil Services aspirants. IAS is one of most respected and direct way to serve the nation and the society, and bring a positive difference to the lives of people.

IAS offers ample opportunity for professional growth, as well as diverse experiences that help your personal growth and bring out the best in humanity. Attending to crisis situation where a large amount of resources are required to be mobilized within a short deadline and scarcity of logistical support, tests the mettle of people and brings out the best in them.

As a policy maker, one needs to have a bird’s eye view of the whole situation and how the strategies are to be employed to achieve the goal. It is a multidimensional career that is full of exciting challenges.

The job security, salary and generous perks are certain advantages that can be found only in IAS. The job security in IAS is unlike any other services. It is very difficult to fire an IAS officer and the process requires long and extensive departmental enquiries and investigations; after taking permission from the appropriate government.

Besides good salary and other monetary perquisites, IAS officers enjoy lifetime pension which is available to their spouse even after their death; and a host of other retirement benefits.

The authority to uplift the society, having people confide and have confidence in you to  redress their grievances and to help in the development of society; are a few of the rare privileges that come the way of IAS officers. No wonder, an IAS brings pride to his/her family and society. He/She is an embodiment of the empowerment that is required to change the lives of many others and contribute to the prosperity of the nation.

IAS has lots of advantages over any other job or career. More than anything, it is really a service; to the nation, to the people and oneself. There are certain distinct advantages that set it apart from any other service. A few of these are listed here.


Prestige, Power and Authority

An IAS officer is given a lot of power and authority by the government. In fact the country is actually run by the IAS officers and they form what is known as the bureaucracy. IAS officers are empowered to take charge of a district or divisions.

They are the top bosses in the department and ministries. They can influence and help make policies on several matters of public interest such as agriculture, education, health etc. This is a huge responsibility and the citizens of India depend on them so that the government services and utilities function effectively and efficiently.

This power to directly serve the country and its people is not available to officers of other services. An IAS is the epitome of the power of the state. It is through them that the government exercises its powers. These are the reason that IAS commands a great respect and prestige in the society.

Diversity in Career

Civil Services and especially IAS offers a very diverse career. While they start from the bottom of the ladder, they quickly rise up, while assuming important roles and discharging vital responsibilities entrusted to them. Almost all the ministries and the departments under the Indian government are headed by an IAS officer. As secretary, an IAS head different ministries of the government and also different public sector undertaking, educational and research institutions.

Here people from different background can find suitable assignments that make use of their technical backgrounds. An IAS officer with engineering background can head an organization that deals with technical matters.

A person with medical background can be placed in the Health and Community Health organizations. A person with scientific research background can head the administrative functions of such departments and organization created for specific purposes.


Tremendous Job Satisfaction

The job satisfaction offered by IAS is tremendous and incomparable. You have the satisfaction of observing the actual changes that have taken place due to the implementation of government policies. 

Whether it is about a village road constructed under PMGSY,  or implementing Water Harvesting schemes and regeneration of extinct ponds, lakes and other water bodies to minimize thr scarcity of water; the result are always before your eyes.

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The feeling of doing something vital for the society and the gratitude of people gives an ultimate this feeling of gratification, which is unique and available only to an IAS. This is one of the most important reasons that places IAS at the top of the most preferred job choices for millions of graduates in India.


Great Perks

The remuneration of an IAS in terms of salary may be less than many other jobs in MNCs which an engineer from a top engineering institution may get. However, IAS not just a job but a career of service to the nation and its citizen. Moreover, the perks that an IAS officer is entitled to, is sufficient to ensure a comfortable life for his family.

Some perks like good housing especially when he is posted outside the metros, are something unique and to be cherished. In the rural or non-metro areas, they are entitled to the best government bungalows which are in the best locations and are of considerably big sizes.

In addition, they get personal staff like gardener, orderlies and other domestic staff; not to speak of the fleet of government vehicles at their disposal.

When an IAS officer gets to the position of District Magistrate or above, they also get an escort for personal security.

Other perks like Leave Travel Concessions for self and family, as well as medical facilities for self and family are routine benefits extended to every IAS officer.

Career Progression of an IAS

Training: Once a candidate is selected for the IAS, he undergoes training at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie. At the end of the year-long training they visit government establishment all over India.

Probation: After the satisfactory completion of training, an IAS officer is placed on probation. During the probation period, he is attached to several government departments to learn how the government machinery functions and he is required to keep a probationer’s diary to record the learning. An examination is held at the end of the probation period.

Junior Time Scale: Upon satisfactory completion of his probation, he is posted as SDM or SDO at the Sub-division level of a district. During this period he is at the Junior Time Scale where he continues for four more years.

Senior Time Scale: After this, the IAS officer is promoted to Senior Time Scale and is given various types of posts like that of the Additional District Magistrate, CEO Zila Parishad, Chief Development Officer etc.

After two-three years, he is posted as the District Magistrate or District Collector and is responsible for the development and law and order of the district. In case of being posted in the ministry of a state, they become the Joint Secretary. In case of deputation, they are given the post of a director of a department.

Selection Grade: After about 12 years of service, the officers are promoted to the Selection Grade. Some may continue as District Magistrate ir become a Special Secretary of a government department.

Super Time Scale: After about 16 years of service, an IAS reaches the Super Time Scale, when he is posted as an Additional Secretary or Secretary of a department of a State Government. In case of field posting, he is posted as the Divisional Commissioner; or as a Joint Secretary of a ministry of the Government of India.

Higher Administrative Grade: After about 25 years of experience, an IAS reaches the Higher Administrative Grade, and becomes the Principal Secretary of a department under the state government. In the Central Government, he becomes an Additional Secretary.

Apex Scale: An IAS officer with a minimum experience of 30 years can be promoted to the Apex scale wherein they can be posted as the Secretaries in Central Government departments or even as the Chief Secretary of a state government. The highest position that an IAS can reach is the Cabinet Secretary.

The Opportunities of Deputation

An IAS officer can pick up several roles and assignments on deputation. He can be deputed to the Central Government from the states. IAS officers can get deputation postings in many PSU and autonomous bodies. This gives them opportunity to run a body or company, which proves to be invaluable when they join the private sector.

They can also avail of foreign deputations in various United Nations organizations, financial organizations like World Bank, IMF, ADB etc. They can also work in the secretariat of organizations like the Commonwealth, SAARC, WTO, International Court of Justice etc.

Unique Leave Benefits

After becoming an IAS, one enjoys certain unique benefits that are rare in any other job or career. A few of these are:

  • A lady IAS officer gets two year fully paid child care leave, which is in addition to the paid maternity leave;
  • An IAS officer can take up to 5 years of Extraordinary Leave, which is unpaid leave; for personal requirements.
  • IAS officers can go for higher studies in India or abroad. Called study leave, these are of two or three years duration and salary is paid during the leave.
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Post-retirement Assignments:

After retirement, the experiences of IAS officers are still put to good use by the government. They are appointed on contract or tenure to head the commissions or tribunals. Their services are also availed off by other government bodies or public sector unit as Advisors.

Senior IAS officers have been given charges of constitutional posts such as the Chief Election Commissioner of India, Comptroller and Auditor General of India, Chairman of Union Public Service Commission etc.

They have also been assigned to head tribunals, such as National Green Tribunal, Central Administrative Tribunal; or as chiefs of regulatory bodies such as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, Securities and Exchange Board of India etc. They can also be appointed as heads of statutory authorities, such as Central Information Commission,  National Commission for Women, and National Human Rights Commission etc.

Opportunities in Private Sector

For their talents and experiences, IAS officers are much sought after by the private sector. This is because of their experience with the government policies and their network. The corporate deals with several government departments and they seek such experienced people.

Many IAS officers who have worked in specialized roles, have even started their own consultancy and provide services to others.

Many IAS have been invited to join politics after retirement, and many of them have become ministers.

Ideally the preparation of IAS should begin at the school levels. The question papers on General Studies are those that are studied in schools and NCERT books are the best resources for it.  There is only one optional subject in the Main examination, which should be chosen with care. Engineering students can opt for their favorite subjects of engineering such as Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering or Mechanical Engineering.

A Bird’s eye view on the Plan of Examination

Every aspirant must be fully familiar with the plan of IAS examination. The pattern has changed over the years. It might be different in the year in which the candidate is taking the examination. Presently, the IAS examination has the following three stages:

  • The Civil Services Preliminary Examinations;
  • Civil Services Main) Examination, and
  • The Personality Test or the Interview

The Preliminary Examination

This is a screening test only; and is used to select candidates for the Main examination. The marks are not considered for aggregating in the final results. The number of candidates who qualify in the Preliminary examination is about twelve to fourteen times the number of vacancies to be filled up in that year.

The Preliminary examination consists of two compulsory papers of objective type multiple choice questions. The papers are of two hours durations. It is important to note that there is negative marking for incorrect answers. There are four alternatives of answers to every question, and for every wrong answer one-third or 0.33% of the marks assigned to that question are deducted.

The Main Examination

About 15,000 candidates qualify to appear in the Main examination. The Main examination is a written examination consisting of total 9 papers of conventional essay type questions. Out of these, 2 papers are Qualifying Papers of 300 marks each comprising of Paper- A; which is one of the Indian Language in the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution, to be selected by the candidate; while Paper- B is English. These papers are of Matriculation standard and the marks obtained are not counted for ranking.

The remaining 7 papers of 250 marks each are counted for merit. These papers have essay type questions and are of three hours duration. The papers are as given below:

Paper- I – Essay;

Paper- II – General Studies–I; comprising of Indian Heritage and Culture, History and Geography of the World and Society

Paper- III – General Studies –II; comprising of Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social Justice and International relations.        

Paper- IV – General Studies –III; comprising of Technology, Economic Development, Bio-diversity, Environment, Security and Disaster Management

Paper- V – General Studies –IV; comprising of Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude

Paper- VI – Optional Subject – Paper 1          

Paper- VII – Optional Subject – Paper 2         

For the Optional subjects, there are twenty-six subjects out of which any one can be selected by the candidate. Thus, the total marks for written tests in the Main examination, counted for merit; is 1750 marks.

Personality Test

Candidates who qualify in the Main Examination are called for an interview for the Personality Test which is of 275 marks. The interview has no minimum qualifying marks.

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In the Personality Test, candidates are interviewed by a Board comprising of competent and unbiased observers to assess the personal suitability of the candidate for a career in public service. This is done through a natural, directed and purposeful conversation intended to reveal the mental qualities of the candidate.

It is an assessment of intellectual qualities, social traits and interest in current affairs. Qualities which are judged are mental alertness, balance of judgment, variety and depth of interest, leadership abilities, and moral integrity.

The Final Tally

Total marks obtained in the Main Examination and Personality Test, are added; which determines the final ranking. The grand total of both comes to 2025 Marks. Candidates are allotted the various services according to their final ranks and the preferences made by them.

Passing the Preliminary Examination requires good understanding of the General Studies papers. For this purpose, clearing and refreshing the basic concepts is a must. NCERT books of up to tenth standard are the best resources for these. During this period one should also practice doing the mock question papers to develop accuracy and speed.

The second phase of the IAS examination comprises of descriptive type questions. It is necessary that the answers must be concise, to the point and well-presented. The answers must stand out from the crowd, to fetch better marks. Some tips for these are:

  • Answer must contain Headings and Sub-headings
  • Put diagrams wherever possible. A good, well- illustrated answer fetches better marks.
  • Attempt those questions first for which you can write impactful answers.
  • Leave enough room at the end of answers to add a few points that come as after-thoughts.

Sources for Preparation

For the general studies papers including current affairs, it is necessary to read at least one newspaper every day. A thoughtful reading of The Hindu and The Economic Times and making notes of the important events and facts make for an enjoyable activity that will give you an edge.

To keep yourself abreast with facts, details and data relating to relevant developments, you need to read good periodicals and magazines like Economic and Political Weekly, The Economist, Yojana, Kurukshetra etc.

For Indian Polity, Economy, History and Geography and other subjects on General studies; the NCERT books have been found to adequate and useful. There are specific books by well-known and popular authors for Indian History and Indian Polity.

Watch some important and authentic news channels that give wholesome, unbiased news and opinions like BBC, Doordarshan, Rajya Sabha TV and many more. For general Knowledge and Environment, you can also watch the Discovery and National Geographic channels.

For your optional paper of Engineering, your institute’s curriculum covers the whole syllabus of the main examination. All your concepts must be clear, and if you have been studying consistently for all semester, then you just need to revise the course material. 

You should feel comfortable, if you practice answering the questions of previous years. Solve as many problems as you can lay your hands upon. Being able to answer all the questions in time is crucial. 

So time yourself as you try out the mock tests, and try to bring in incremental improvement each time you attempt the tests. This will also relieve you of the stress during the examination.

  • On the last day, do not start studying a new topic; just revise those that you have already studied earlier.
  • The night before the examination is crucial. Avoid late night revision, sleep early to relax well.
  • On the day of the examination; reach the examination centre at least two hours before time.
  • Read the instructions on the question paper carefully before starting to answer.
  • In the Prelims, there is negative marking, so mark an answer only when you are confident about the answer.
  • Try to finish the paper before time, so that you get some time to review your answers.

The IAS examination is tough, but not an impossible task. Definitely, it is not as tough as it is made out to be. Do not get bogged down by the sheer number of applicants. A majority of them are neither serious, nor have the determination and discipline.

Your first priority should be to clear the Preliminaries; and you can be assured that the pattern of examinations and the wide range of questions asked provide a level playing field to candidates from every academic background.

When you have reached the Mains examination, remember that you need to be one among just five candidates to be invited for the Interview. Once you reach the Interview, you have an excellent chance to make it to the IAS.

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