How to Study Maps for UPSC? 13 Effective Tips with Examples

Studying maps effectively is crucial for acing the UPSC exam, as they serve as invaluable resources for understanding geographical relationships, historical contexts, and geopolitical scenarios.

Several questions are often asked directly or indirectly in Prelims examination from the maps section. It is equally important for the Mains exam as well, where a better understanding of maps can significantly enhance the value of your answers.

Although aspirants are familiar with the importance of Maps for UPSC examination, not everyone finds it easy or comfortable to prepare and understand them effectively.

The purpose of this article is to share with you important tips that you can apply to effectively study maps. You will learn practical strategies that cater to different learning styles, making the process more efficient and fruitful.

But remember, some of these tips are only suggestive and not mandatory. For example, if you are not comfortable with the idea of using coloured pens in your maps, feel free to avoid it and adopt the methods that work best for you.

Here are 13 tips on how to prepare Maps for UPSC examination:

1. Go Through Previous-Year Questions

Going through previous-year questions should be one of your first priorities in your preparation, not just for maps but for other subjects as well. It will give you a lot of clarity on what you should prepare, allowing you to identify recurring themes, patterns, and the depth of knowledge required.

Although questions asked in previous years do not guarantee that similar questions will be asked again, going through them will give you a rough idea of what types of questions can be expected so that you can tailor your preparation accordingly.

Going through questions from the past 10 to 15 years should be enough.

2. Break it Down into Manageable Chunks

Consider breaking down your map study sessions into smaller, manageable chunks. Instead of attempting to grasp an entire map in one go, focus on specific regions (Say, Middle East) or themes or features (say, Mountain Ranges). This approach will allow you to achieve a more in-depth understanding of the maps and will also prevent information overload.

For Example, if you are preparing India’s River System, take just one or two rivers at a time and prepare them thoroughly. You need to cover several aspects of the river system such as the source/origin of the river, where it finally drains into, States through which the river passes, major right-bank and left-bank tributaries, important cities lying along the riverbank, etc.

Similarly, if you are preparing National Parks in India, you can consider dividing them into several smaller regions like Northeastern, Northern, Southern, Western, Central, Eastern, etc.

3. Incorporate Visual Aids for Better Retention

Incorporate visual aids such as coloured pens, highlighters, etc. selectively to emphasize key features or categorize information. But remember not to overdo it. Striking a balance is crucial, as excessive use of colours can lead to confusion rather than clarity. And wherever possible, try to practice the map by drawing it yourself. This personalized touch will enhance retention and will also make the learning process enjoyable.

Let us consider the previous example – India’s River System. Suppose you are preparing the Ganges River System. Here’s a diagram showing one of the ways how you can approach it. Keep in mind, that it doesn’t need to be perfect; a rough diagram will suffice as long as it helps you remember.

Hand Drawn Ganga River System

Just looking at the above diagram, you can know so many details about the River Ganga – the source, where it drains, its tributaries, the states through which it passes, major cities along the river, etc.

4. Visualization and Learning Tricks

Visualization is your best friend when it comes to preparing maps. Without it, you will end up relying mostly on memorization, which will not be very helpful in the long term.

So, the trick is not just to study, but to visualize. Imagine yourself traveling through the map, connecting locations, or create a story featuring locations you want to remember. You can also make suitable abbreviations to help you remember. Try other tricks that work for you. In the beginning, you might feel this to be a little time-consuming, but I can assure you that it is totally worth it.

For example, I remembered the countries bordering the Caspian Sea as KRAIT – Kazakhstan, Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkmenistan.

Learning Trick for countries bordering Caspian Sea

For several states, I had created stories to remember the Tiger Reserves. To give you an idea, I will mention the one I made for Karnataka. It was in Hindi; I will roughly translate that into English and put the relevant Hindi words in (italics) and also the particular [Tiger Reserve].

“The story was about a girl named Anshi, who, with a stick (danda) in her hand [Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve] kidnapped (bandi banaya) a cat [Bandipur TR]. After traveling through the city (nagar) [Nagarhole TR], she finally came across the Bhadra River [Bhadra TR]. On the bank of the river was the Ranganatha Temple, where the cat fell (billi giri) [Biligiri Ranganatha Temple TR] off Anshi’s hand and ran away.”

Similarly for Kerala:

“When you go to Kerala, the lovely (pyare) [Periyar TR] people there welcome you with folded hands (pranam)[Parambikulam TR]

You see, just like that, you now know 7 Tiger Reserves already! 😊

Do not stress too much on creating sensible stories. As long as it does the trick, even stories that do not make much sense are fine.

5. Consistency is the Key

You must remain consistent. Studying maps for one whole day and then not touching it for the next one or two weeks is not going to be very helpful.  Try to establish a regular schedule, dedicating specific time slots (even if it is just for 30 minutes) throughout the week to focus on maps.

This steady and consistent approach will help you build upon your knowledge progressively and is going to be very rewarding in the end.

6. Study Some Specific Important Maps in Detail

There are some basic maps that you must prepare thoroughly. This includes (but not limited to) important Latitudes & Longitudes, Major Rivers, Lakes, Mountain Ranges, Mountain Passes, Major Ports, ISRO Centres, etc. in India.

Similarly, there are important World/Regional maps such as Major Deserts, Grasslands, Rivers, Straits, the Middle East Region, Eastern Europe, the South China Sea, etc. that you should cover extensively.

I would highly recommend you refer to my article on 28 Important Maps for UPSC Preparation, where I have covered all these maps in detail, along with the types of questions that you can expect from them. I have also provided free downloadable PDFs for each map.

7. Integrate Current Affairs in Maps Preparation.

Current affairs are an integral part of Maps preparation. You cannot afford to ignore them as several map-based questions asked in Prelims are often heavily based on current affairs. But remember that not every place, event, or feature that you read on the news on a daily basis are important for the exam.

For example, if a location/geographical feature is frequently in the news recently, or some important event (such as the G20 meet) has taken place there, it becomes important (although these are not the only criteria). With some practice, you will learn to identify these locations yourself.

8. Atlas and Wall Maps for Reference

You should always have a reliable atlas that you can refer to whenever you come across new and important locations while studying or reading the newspaper. Wall Maps are also useful in this regard for quick reference.

You must mark these important locations and understand the significance (if any) behind each one.

For example, you come across a news article that India and Germany are conducting a joint military exercise in the Gulf of Aden. If you just read the complete article and make no effort to know the location and significance of the Gulf of Aden, then you are not doing justice to your maps preparation.

For the above case (Gulf of Aden), you should also know the bordering countries.

9. Keep Outline Maps for Practice

You should keep some printed copies of outline maps of India and the World with you to practice on them whenever you need to. Besides, if you understand how to use them effectively, it is going to be extremely helpful.

Outline maps are useful in addition to the Atlas because it is not convenient to mark everything on the Atlas itself. And with time there will be many locations to mark.

Here’s a couple of examples showing how I used them:

GI Tags on Outline Map of India

Festivals marked on Outline Map of India

Both GI Tags and Festivals maps were based on current affairs. Some other instances where I used them: To mark States in which Atal Bhujal Yojana was to be implemented (Current Affairs), States under the fifth and sixth schedule (Scheduled Areas) in Indian Constitution (Static), National Waterways in India (Current Affairs), etc.

I also used to practice some specific maps like State Capitals, Biosphere Reserves, Tiger Reserves, etc to know their general location as sometimes questions are asked to arrange them from North to South or East to West. And plotting them on outline maps helped me retain better.

Biosphere Reserves on Outline Map

Tiger Reserves on Outline India Map

10. The Cost-Benefit Ratio

You might be aware of the cost-benefit ratio concept. Let me explain this with an example –

There are more than 550 Wildlife Sanctuaries in India. As a UPSC Aspirant, it is your duty to prepare those Wildlife Sanctuaries that are in the news.

But, sometimes, questions might be asked related to a Wildlife Sanctuary that you never came across in the news. Now does that mean you should go out of your way and prepare all those 550+ Wildlife sanctuaries in India?

I don’t think that would be a wise approach.

Similarly, if one of your co-aspirants remembers all 190+ countries in the world along with their Capitals and Currencies, should you also do the same? Is it really necessary?

Basically, bhavnao me nahi behna hain (Don’t get carried away). You should be aware of your strengths and weaknesses and understand how much is too much.

Remember, it’s not just maps that you are preparing. You have several other subjects and limited time to cover them all. Moreover, whatever you study, you have to revise them several times to gain confidence in the subject.

That brings me to the next very important point:

11. Revision is of Utmost Importance.

You must supplement your map study with regular revisions, as it is extremely important for retaining the details over a longer period.

Set aside dedicated time to revise what you have already studied. Regular revisions will solidify your knowledge and also help in identifying areas that may need further clarification.

Remember, consistent and strategic revisions will not only boost your confidence but also contribute significantly to your success in mastering maps for the UPSC examination.

12. Practice Map-Based Questions

As you progress in your preparation, start practicing map-based questions. You can do this through quizzes, mock tests, previous year questions, self-made questions, etc.

Additionally, you can consider forming study groups with your fellow aspirants where you can discuss map-related topics and ask map-related questions to each other. Besides, you can also share visualization and learning tricks to further improve your efficiency.

13. Learn to Draw the Map of India and the World

Learning to draw maps of India and the world can be immensely beneficial for the Mains exam. It enhances your presentation and adds a lot of value to your answer.

Remember, you do not need to be perfect; a rough representational map will suffice. You should practice enough so that you can draw these maps in less than 30 seconds.

Here’s an example of each – India Map and the World Map:

Hand Drawn India Map

Hand Drawn World Map

Further, you can go through some toppers’ sample answer sheets to see how they draw and use maps for their answers.

I hope that by incorporating these tips, you will be better equipped to successfully tackle different types of map-based questions asked in the UPSC exam.

Remember, mastering maps is a gradual process that requires dedication, consistency, and time. However, the ultimate rewards at the end will make it all very worthwhile!

All The Best!

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Subodh Sharma

I am Subodh Sharma, an IIT Roorkee graduate, committed to assisting UPSC aspirants in their map-based preparation journey. Having dedicated over four years to preparing for the UPSC examinations myself, I deeply understand the challenges and frustrations aspirants face in finding quality maps-based content. The years of preparation have given me...

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2 thoughts on “How to Study Maps for UPSC? 13 Effective Tips with Examples”

  1. Shweta Goswami

    Excellent article. It clearly shows that a lot of effort has been put in to gather this information. I liked several articles on this website especially the simple language and the conceptual clarity they provide. Thankyou for these tips. All the very best.

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