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As Mains approaches – Strategy and a few words. – Mittali Sethi

As Mains approaches – Strategy and a few words

Mittali Sethi, IAS


Hi everyone! I am hoping that your preparation for Mains is in full swing, and that you are enjoying the journey. This is an exceptional time – time that you will remember always, so don’t forget to savour it, even if you are fearful and anxious.


I have constantly debated with myself the need for this write-up – but since I am regularly getting e-mails for it, and I had promised one of these in my first article, I thought this is a good time to write one. At the time that I write this, there are nearly 75 days for Mains -which is a good enough time still. Also, at this point, you might have some formed doubts in your mind – doubts you are free to ask in the comments, and I promise I will try to answer all of them.


Last year, around this time, I was still stuck with GS1, specifically World History. It took me a while (almost 1.5 months) after Prelims to realise that it is not going to be possible to complete Norman Lowe! Yes, I was trying to do that, and I sincerely hope you are not, except if it forms a part of your optional.


Giving you a booklist is the least of my intentions, since many brilliant articles have already been written here on Insights. But, still, I will be putting it up at the end of the article, just in case it helps someone. Right now, let’s just talk about a few things that are relevant:


  1. First things first. It is important that you don’t be scared.You have won the right to write Mains – that means that you must have something that it takes. Believe in that something and make sure that you build upon that. If you have anxiety as your new friend, it is absolutely normal – just consider it as the good kind of anxiety that will make you work hard. Mood swings will lead to fluctuations in motivation, fluctuations in will power. Let it. The only thing that should not fluctuate is the work you put into this. The only constant should be your hard work. Sleep, eat, drink, work your exam. Give it your best fight.
  2. I hope that you have your syllabus up in front of you by now. At the times that you are saturated with your studies, just get up and look at the syllabus and ask yourself if you can write a 30-60 marks answer for the topics in the syllabus. Try to recollect points without any support of books or material. As and when you keep studying, this should improve – in fact, you will be able to see the change yourself. Having an idea of how much syllabus is done and how much is left is important – you must know the enemy in and out.
  3. Except for GS1, most of the topics are mostly current affairs oriented – so that is where your focal point should be. For example, if role of NGOs is in syllabus, see which particular NGOs were in news and for what issues(eg the foreign funding, restrictions on foreign travel etc.). Those are the things you should be making an opinion on – don’t keep on reading the history or geography of NGOs, neither are those kind of questions asked, nor will you have that kind of time or space to write in the exam sheet.
  4. Do not be only opinionated without a strong backing of information or facts. If you and me have a discussion on something, don’t you think you will be able to outnumber me by saying that “XYZ report has quoted this” or “An article written by ABC supports this viewpoint”? It is the same with your answers. Your opinions are allowed to take any side if you can prove them to be rational, logical and sensible. Starting now, if you haven’t done this already, keep a small diary or make space in a notebook to write some data facts or report results – and try to have data that is more general in nature and that can be used across questions/papers.
  5. Spend time on books, but also spend a part of it in thinking about issues and possibly, framing your own question. In fact, just try to ask yourself one question per day – just any one. Find out the answer to that by the end of the day. For example, I would perhaps take up a question like : Can child labor really be eradicated only with education or are there other factors involved? This exercise keeps you emotionally in touch with your preparation, since you are not looking for an answer to someone else’s question, but your own.
  6. Your answer writing practice should shift into full-paper mode or at least half paper mode now. Writing 1 or 2 answers will not help, now is the time to practice writing under pressure. The more you do that, the better it will be. Try writing at least one full exam each weekend. There will be a bit of delayed checking of answer sheets at various places right now, let it be. Your answer writing practice is a component of both speed and content – work on both. As and when you keep on reading, content will improve. But until then, you must practice the speed at least. Also, just to elaborate on speed part – try making flowcharts, diagrams, maps in your answer – do those innovations now so that they come naturally to you in the exam.
    Two things about them – firstly, these innovations save time in the exam as also bring out content in a clearer pattern, so that is a good thing. But that brings me to the second point – they are not your saviours in cases of poor content. Nothing will save you from poor content and material. Don’t go on drawing something until and unless it has some relevance to the answer.
  7. Elaborating on the checking of answer sheets – you should be able to choose your feedback. Don’t start taking every advise taken by everybody. Many a times, what coaching institutes try to do is – they try to make you adapt to a standard pattern of writing – but you should not lose your own personal touch of writing. If everyone starts writing in the same manner – what a boring exam this would be!
  8. Finishing the exam versus writing quality answers – From personal experience, I would choose the latter. I could not finish any of my papers except, perhaps, GS4. The only way I could have gotten marks regardless of that is by writing good answers where I did write them. I don’t see how can and why should one attend questions where one has absolutely no idea about subject matter. You can choose your own strategy based on your experiences and advice around, but make sure you practise it a few times and see how you actually do under exam pressure. Simulate your exam environments to the maximum limit possible. If you don’t have any coaching available or you write tests at home, just take a test paper and ask a friend or family member to keep the time limit for you.
  9. A final word about writing answers: I will be writing in detail about this on the blog, but one thing that one must always keep in mind, in my opinion, is being RELEVANT to the question. In the past days, I have seen a few answer copies where answers are brilliantly written but there is only one problem – they aren’t answering the question asked! Let me give you an example. A question was asked which said – How has the government met with the challenges thrown by LPG reforms? When I read the answer, it was written quite nicely but it only talked about how great the reforms were and what were the challenges; the response part was only in the last 5 lines – when the question was only about the response! When you go into the exam hall on 28th October, you must forget all your notes, all your lectures. Your mind should be a clean slate that is ready to respond to what is given to you. If you go with presumptions, then you will not be able to respond in the desired manner. When you enter exam hall, you must forget insecurities, anxieties and consequences. Just sit there and enjoy those 3 hours that you have earned for yourself. If you enjoy them, believe me, they will bring out the best in you. Let out a smile!

    As I close, I want to share with you what I shared on my blog – a small quote that summarises hard work and patience in such a beautiful way!


My Mains Sources:


Essay: No special preparation, A lot of it is derived from your GS preparation. I wrote down two essays and took a general feedback on them.  Will be writing an article on Essay preparation in a few days.



  1. History part : For World history – I took up the World History compilation by Vision – it is comprehensive and covers everything in the syllabus. Tried to do Norman Lowe, only to realize that it cannot be finished in a limited time. For one or two questions that you get in the paper, it is not worth that effort. Also saw a few videos on Crash Course Youtube channel.


  1. Indian history + Art and Culture – Revise whatever you did for Prelims. I used the notes of Nitin Singhania, CCRT and the Fine arts NCERT book for A&C. Books by R.S. Sharma, Satish Chandra and Spectrum for covering ancient, medieval and modern Indian history respectively.

With history, it is important to remember that what you are reading is not important, how you correlate it is. Ask the what, why and how of it and relate it to culture, geography and even economics.


  1. Geography part – Same as Prelims – NCERT from 6th to 12th, Goh Cheng Leong. See videos on concepts that are unclear and make sure you look up previous year questions to get an idea about the depth you need to go into.


  1. Society, women etc – No special preparation. Club this with GS2 preparation.




  1. For the static part – You must have read Laxmikanth, as well as NCERTs for Political Science.
  2. You can also refer to this link for preparation of a few static areas if you have time. Some of these links are old, but you can get a general idea as well as some wonderful articles that will give you points to analyze.


  1. For the dynamic part, have a notebook with you where you write down a few points for the common topics. Make sure you leave some space to add the developments that will happen in its context.
  2. You might need to use a few compilations for schemes and a few dynamic areas if you haven’t been regular with newspapers. That works too, no issues.
  3. RSTV Video – one daily – this will be a huge help.




  1. Let me talk about areas other than Economics first. For science and technology, the Prelims preparation plus current affairs is enough. Make sure you read about common as well as indigenous/revolutionary technologies – eg ISRO(all missions), Graphite, nano technology, indigenous vaccines etc.
  2. For internal security topic – There is a book by Mr Rajkumar Ponnusamy that is very comprehensive, that can be used.
  3. Disaster management – If one has time, ARC report can be read, otherwise read IGNOU notes and more importantly, the recent National Policy. Also find out the problem areas and management of each calamity/disaster.
  4. For economics – If you have done a basic book – Sanjiv Verma/Ramesh Singh, that plus Economic Survey is enough. Mrunal videos are also helpful.




I did very little preparation for this, owing to the paucity of time. You can choose to do a book – Lexicon/Subbarao although it is not necessary. In my opinion, syllabus centric preparation on your own rather than a book centric approach will be better.

I also saw Justice series on Youtube, that helped a lot.

Write a few tests for case studies.


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All the best!