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Change in the UPSC exam pattern over the years

UPSC, UPSC IAS exam, UPSC civil services exam, UPSC CSAT The UPSC CSE exam papers, both prelims and mains, have been revised many times by the Commission since the 90s.

Over the years, the UPSC civil services exam pattern has undergone a number of changes. From the change in the number of optional papers, the introduction of aptitude-based CSAT paper to an increase in the number of general studies paper and elimination of foreign languages from the language paper; the UPSC CSE exam papers, both prelims and mains, have been revised many times by the Commission since the 90s.

Let’s review some of the major changes in the last 8 years

Till 2009, the UPSC prelims mainly focused on current affairs, history and geography. But from 2010 onwards, the focus shifted to science, polity, environment, history, etc. The rough structure of the GS prelims paper before 2010 was:

— History: 20 questions— Geography: 30 to 40 questions— Science: 40 questions

A few questions on current affairs, that were usually repeated, were mainly related to sports, books and authors, science and technology, news specific personalities or places and others. The other sections mainly dealt with aptitude and polity. There was also a paper for an optional subject.

Back then, the question patterns were simple and predictable. Questions in the multiple-choice pattern could be easily prepared from various competitive exam magazines or current affairs books and called for the age-old “mugging-up”. However, the current UPSC prelims question paper has been greatly modified. At present, the question pattern follows a structure where the candidate needs to identify the correct answer from multiple tricky true/false statements related to the topic. For this, a candidate with a good understanding of relevant important issues and concepts has a higher chance of cracking the exam.

Like prelims, the question pattern for UPSC mains has also gone through several changes. There are no more direct questions from history and geography. Also, the subjective type, 2 marks questions are no longer a part of the question paper. The focus has now shifted to technology and science, environment, current affairs and public health. A number of questions also get repeated or re-articulated from the previous years’ question papers.

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Let’s now review the changes in the question pattern year wise:


The optional subject was replaced with CSAT.


UPSC decided to keep the CSE mains syllabus a bit more generic in nature, leading to a change in the question pattern entirely. There were two additional papers for each exam. Similarly, 2012 pattern incorporated two papers on general studies along with one essay

In addition to this, the CSAT and GS marks were accounted for the preparation of merit list for the prelims exam.


The number of optional subjects decreased from two to one.

The number of general studies paper increased from two to four. The previous two GS papers got divided into three, along with the introduction of a new paper, ‘Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude’ (Paper 4).

The total allotted marks for essay increased from 200 to 250.

There was an increase in the total number of questions and a decrease in the word limit.


The number of essays increased to two. Unlike earlier, where there was one section with four optional choices, the change resulted in two sections with four optional choices.

The total number of permissible attempts for the exam was increased from four to six.

Also, the maximum permissible age limit for general candidates was increased from 30 years to 32 years


Before 2015, both CSAT and GS results were accounted for merit. In 2015, only GS marks were considered for merit and CSAT was considered for qualifying exam.


The 2018 notification of UPSC did not discuss any changes in the exam pattern. Instead, it discussed the vacancies and introduced a new section in their existing interview scheme.

UPSC vacancies have been observed to decrease year on year and this year recorded the lowest vacancies compared to the previous years. It announced 782 vacancies which are 198 less than last year and 511 jobs less than the best year-2014

The latest introduction in the interview scheme allows the UPSC authorities to share the details and results of the appearing candidates with other public and private recruiting agencies. The introduction is to aid any unsuccessful candidate to find a suitable job for themselves. However, the introduction also allows any candidate to opt out of this if they are not interested

Implication of the changes

Since the questions are now more direct and straightforward, candidates can now crack the exam with their intelligence, skills and smart learning techniques. The art of mugging up is no longer critical and the importance of analysis and smart learning has increased. For the current affairs section, candidates need to thoroughly revise the newspapers and other relevant general studies course material. Today’s UPSC preparation demands that the candidates not only be aware of the current affairs but also form an opinion on them.

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Due to the reduced vacancies announced this year, there will be higher competition among aspiring candidates to land their dream job. This calls for a much more focused preparation strategy and an increased amount of practice to ace the exams

The current UPSC exam pattern demands that candidates go through the previous year’s question papers to help them devise a smart strategic preparation plan. Days of mugging up are long gone and a clear understanding of the concepts is enough to crack the exam. Following a strict and organised study plan is a fool-proof way for the candidates to get through the UPSC exam effortlessly. Ensure that you practice mock tests from a reliable online test preparation platform which also give you a performance analysis.

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Authored article by Abhishek Patil, CEO & Co-founder at Oliveboard

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