How to prepare for Essay paper of UPSC – Madhubalan IAS

(This article is written by Madhubalan IAS – AIR 71,UPSC 2017. His score was 149/275)

Essay paper in UPSC is like an elevator button. This is the only chance in the entire exam process where the candidate is the king of his choice.With four options at your disposal for each of the two essays that you’re required to write, you can either soar to the peak or ebb away to oblivion.

I have always had self doubts about handling this paper as I was never good at writing essays and my vocabulary was average too, modestly speaking. 

When prelims got over , there were exactly 120 days for mains. And before that I had not even written one essay. Just like every other aspirant, it became clear to me that ESSAY,ETHICS and OPTIONALS were the game changers of the examination as the is no denying the fact that GENERAL STUDIES is an unpredictable beast, difficult to tame.

The marks trend of my optional paper (Tamil Literature) in past 5 years were not encouraging. It hovered around an average of 260-270. So it became evident that I have no other option but to strengthen my score in essay and ethics. 

I got inputs from senior aspirants at Anna University on dealing with this essay paper and started going through previous years’ question papers. Check out the Analysis of previous year papers here – 




1. Preparing unique notes for each topic


Broadly the essay questions can be segregated into the following topics :

  1. Education
  2. Women empowerment or related issues / Gender equality
  3. Polity based – Democracy, Federalism , current issues based
  4. Environment – Agriculture , Sustainable development, Climate change threats 
  5. Science and Technology
  6. Economy based –  growth , development , capitalism,socialism, current issues based 
  7. International organisations – the disputes going on , their relevance , their utility
  8. Philosophical topics – quotes and sayings


I prepared notes for each of the topics(Hardly 4 pages) which comprised of

  • Quotes related to the topic
  • Illustrations, stories and real time examples that could add value to essay
  • Catchy intro and conclusion lines 
  • Facts and figures that add legitimacy to the content (possibly from reports of international organisations , government organisations)
  • Eye catchy Subheadings


2. Improving vocabulary

Since essay is a long piece of writing, it is very essential to keep the examiner engaged in your paper by kindling his interest so that the tempo of your writing finally gets converted into marks. To do that, good vocabulary is essential. It ensures you that your arguments are to the point and assures to the examiner that you are not beating around the bush.

For example : If you are writing an essay on poverty , you might be expected to use words like :

  • Vicious circle
  • Multidimensional poverty , crippling poverty
  • Bread and butter
  • Subsistence
  • Perpetrate
  • Materialism , consumerism
  • Gravest crime
  • Perils of poverty
  • Alleviation , Eradication
  • Sarvodya , Vasudeva Kutumbakam

This exercise may seem so trivial , but when followed can add immense value to your essay.


3. Writing practice 


I chose one topic per week. For eg : ‘Education’ for the week and spent just half an hour each day to collect information and notes. 

From monday to friday – Notes done! 

Saturday – Revision of notes.

Sunday –  Essay test ( i.e Two essays in 3 hours) 

I used to ask my seniors at the university back then (whom I have urged to launch an online platform to help aspirants like me in a formal way ) to give questions related to that week’s topic , wrote and got evaluated as soon as possible so that I could avoid similar mistakes following week. 

In all, I spent around 6 hours for this paper per week and the results turned out to be considerably positive. Scored 149 in the paper.




An example of how to approach essay using my own experience in Mains 2017 :


Q: Social media is inherently a selfish medium.


Rough work


>>> Find the key words in the statement.


  1. Social media 
  2. Inherently ( meaning : inseparably)
  3. Selfish medium 


>>> There are 2 ways in which you can proceed further.

First is : The commonly used  PESTEL strategy : Click here to understand 


Second method is 

Analysing the statement by rising questions : ( WHY WHEN HOW WHERE)

  1. Why social media is a selfish medium
  2. What has made it look selfish?
  3. Is it really selfish?( as the question says)
  4. What can be done to make it a selfless media
  5. What are the instances which proved that social media is selfish/selfless

>>> Finding Illustrations or quotes to substantiate your answers to the above questions generated.


Writing the essay :



Beginning the essay with an eye catching illustration 


I started the essay with an example, an inhumane incident that happened in Karnataka which was all across the news last year – A man hit by a vehicle was bleeding and begging the bystanders for help  while the bystanders kept on clicking pictures and taking videos to be uploaded on social media.


Social media originated to give people a platform to connect, traversing geographical boundaries, race, religion, language etc. But it is to be lamented that it’s making people selfish, hungry for fame and above all disconnecting people from basic principles of humanity.


Why social media is selfish?

Developing and promoting materialistic tendencies like – uploading photos of anything and everything in one’s possession, travelling solely for the purpose of ‘check ins’ and ‘ photo uploads’ and deriving contentment by making others envious – Unnecessary status updates- such as ‘Love my new OnePlus 5t’, Check ins – such as ‘enjoying Pizza at Dominos Facebook, Instagram etc – a craze among youngsters. Drives people to show off their possessions and spendings.


Misuse by political parties – mass scale propaganda by creating catchy memes – destroying the democracy by engineering ideas and ideology into the minds of voters – making the powerful much more powerful – US election example

Data theft by internet giants – tracking user behaviors and presenting information as per one’s taste like advertisements, news and content suggestions based on users search choices- google displaying its own products in search results (selfish growth) 

So overall it’s making the entire world a marketplace where everyone is competing with everyone.


Is it really selfish? Instances which proved that social media is selfless

However there is another side to it. Social media being used for bringing about huge societal changes. Recent ‘Me Too’ campaign was an eye opener to the injustice happening with our women by providing them a platform to open up.

Used by youngsters and social activists during the time of Chennai floods to reach out to the needy – saved many lives with the help of instant alerts over wide areas.

Many non profit organisations gather help for education and health using social media – investigative journalism and its reach has strengthened after arrival of social media .

It has made common man more knowledgeable . Writings and questions of common man are getting discussed and deliberated, leading to a more informed citizenry.

Thus beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. Our purview decides whether it is selfish or not.


What can be done to make it a selfless media?

Responsibility of internet giants – to make users data safe

International agency to check the spread of fake news via this medium since people of varied knowledge base are exposed

Active participation of intellectuals 

Basic education about social media – its pros and cons to school children

Tool for change

Social media is just like fire – it can be used to cook food –  it can even be used to burn down everything. Thus it is we who should take charge and decide its ultimate utility.



I came across the phrase “Men have become the tools of their tools.” – Henry David Thoreau.

Man should always be the master and never let its tools gain control over him. Though it looks selfish now, it can be used as the most selfless weapon. 


End of essay

Well planned and consistent effort is the key to score above average marks in essay paper. One need not be a master of the language to score well for UPSC always expects a generalist. 


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