A Complete Strategy To Geography Optional For UPSC

Geography is arguably the most preferred optional subject chosen by aspirants for the Civil Services Mains Exam. A quick glance at the UPSC annual report shows the data from CS Mains 2015. A total of 3391 candidates opted for Geography out of a total of 14,642 making it the most popular optional. In fact, it continues to be the most opted for over the years.

This provides certain distinct advantages to the subject:

  1. Vast variety of material in the market, both offline and online
  2. Several guidance/coaching options to choose from
  3. Various test series to opt for
  4. Multiple strategies of toppers to learn from

While this may seem tempting , there are certain facts that one needs to be aware of. The same data from 2015 also shows that the success ratio for Geography was 3.4% i.e. only 115 people were finally recommended for service. On the success ratio scale (recommended/appeared), it ranked 41 out of 45 optionals, which as data goes is not really appealing. However, it had the third highest number of selections among all optionals. Also, while marks in certain optionals tend to bunch quite closely around a median, the spread in geography is quite wide. People are spread from the 300+ score to sub-200. This is why geography is said to be an ‘optional of unbound potential!’

But statistics are merely statistics. Our aim here is to provide you with a comprehensive guided strategy that you can use to prepare and aim for a 300+ score in your Geography optional. For that, we need to start at the very beginning i.e. Why Geography?

  • Why Geography?

  • Overlap with General Studies

  • How to Study

  • Decoding Answer Writing

  • What to Study in Geography?

  • How to do Mapping?

  • Suggested Timeline for Preparation

  • Booklist for Geography Optional

Why Geography?

Geography as the name suggests is the study of the earth but is not limited to the domain of  physical geography as it is usually considered synonymous with. It encompasses far more - from distribution of minerals, resources and industries to design of settlements, development strategies and many other diverse areas. So, the first misunderstanding that you must clear before you choose geography is the extent of its syllabus and the areas it covers.

Now, coming directly to the question - why should you choose this subject?

  1. This is a subject that everyone has had a background in. The basic knowledge that one has been exposed to till high school is enough to get one started. This is why geography is easy to pick up.
  2. For people with a scientific background during graduation, geography is the easiest subject to shift to in humanities. This is because of the application of basic concepts of physical sciences to physical geography. Engineers looking to take up a subject apart from their subject of graduation should consider geography.
  3. It has a very wide overlap with the General Studies syllabus. The topics of GS that are covered in this optional include:
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Overlap with General Studies

General Studies 1

  • Post-independence consolidation and reorganization within the country.
  • Salient features of world’s physical geography.
  • Distribution of key natural resources across the world (including South Asia and the Indian subcontinent); factors responsible for the location of primary, secondary, and tertiary sector industries in various parts of the world (including India).
  • Important Geophysical phenomena such as earthquakes, Tsunami, Volcanic activity, cyclone etc., geographical features and their location - changes in critical geographical features (including water bodies and ice-caps) and in flora and fauna and the effects of such changes.

General Studies 2

(Mostly International relations related topics)

  • India and its neighborhood- relations.
  • Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests.
  • Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests, Indian diaspora.

General Studies 3

  • Indian Economy and issues relating to planning, mobilization of resources, growth, development and employment.
  • Inclusive growth and issues arising from it.
  • Major crops cropping patterns in various parts of the country, different types of irrigation and irrigation systems storage, transport and marketing of agricultural produce and issues and related constraints; e-technology in the aid of farmers.
  • Issues related to direct and indirect farm subsidies and minimum support prices; Public Distribution System- objectives, functioning, limitations, revamping; issues of buffer stocks and food security; Technology missions; economics of animal-rearing.
  • Food processing and related industries in India- scope and significance, location, upstream and downstream requirements, supply chain management.
  • Land reforms in India.
  • Effects of liberalization on the economy, changes in industrial policy and their effects on industrial growth.
  • Infrastructure: Energy, Ports, Roads, Airports, Railways, etc.
  • Investment models.
  • Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment.
  • Disaster and disaster management.
  1. As already mentioned, there is no shortage of resources to study and prepare from.
  2. Where there is geography, there are maps and diagrams, which translate to better presentation even in the GS papers.
  3. The knowledge of maps comes in extra useful while attempting questions in the preliminary examination where map based questions are bound to come either from environment, current affairs, culture or international relations.
  4. The wide extent of the Geography syllabus is very useful in adding to your Essay marks. Topics like Alternative Technologies for a Climate Change Resilient India (CSM 2018), Management of Indian Border Disputes - a complex task (CSM 2018) are relatively easy to attempt for a person with Geography optional.
  5. Since geographical knowledge often serves as an interlink between several subjects, it is quite useful in the Personality Test as well.

So, it is amply clear that Geography has a distinct advantage as a choice for the CSE Mains.

UPSC Mains GS Papers Preparation Strategies 

How To Study?

Geography has a large syllabus. Period. But, the beauty of this syllabus is that it can be covered within 4 months in a comprehensive and structured manner. A good strategy that you can follow is the following:

The paper is divided into 4 parts . Part A and Part B in both Paper 1 and Paper 2.

First Month

For those, who are appearing for the first time, it is always advisable that you begin with Paper 1, Part A - Physical Geography. This is something that you are familiar with. Start from the basics in Savindra Singh. If you do not understand that, it is alright, you can revert to the NCERT of Class XI and GC Leong to first build basics and then move to Savindra Singh. Since you will be preparing this alongside your general studies, try and keep 4-5  hours per day for your optional preparation. Study 5 days of the week, revise and write answers on the last two. For writing answers, you should refer to previous years’ papers (the last 10-15 years will do).

Believe it or not, geography optional papers have a lot of recurring questions/topics so doing previous years’ questions is a must!

Second Month

Begin Paper 1, Part B. Now, this part is usually considered the toughest to understand due to the unfamiliarity with the topics. By now you will have developed the kind of mindset required by a student of geography and it is essential that you study this section at this point. Follow the same drill, 5 days of study and 2 days of revision and answer writing. In this part, questions are often repeated. A good strategy is to write previous years’ questions and keep them as notes for revision.

Third Month and Fourth Month

Begin with Paper 2. Here, keep your syllabus open and mark out all the topics in Khullar’s Contents. This is needed so that you do not study anything unnecessary ( take manufacturing industries as an example - there are very few that you have to do from the entire chapter).

You need to practise answer writing. At Neostencil there is a Daily Answer writing Challenge for optionals that is done periodically. You can follow that schedule.  Or, you may opt for a test series (either on Neostencil or elsewhere). Nowadays all institutes allow for online submission of tests.

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Decoding Answer Writing

You may have heard everyone talk about ‘answer writing’ be it beginners, toppers or teachers and you may have wondered - what is the fuss all about? Well, given the proliferation of information and the easy availability of material on the internet and the market in general nearly everyone is studying the same sources and learning the same things.

  • Read the question carefully and understand what the question actually demands. Half of the battle is won in this very step. Misunderstood questions are a very prominent cause of low scores in Mains.
  • The differentiator that makes or breaks your chance at selection is how you present the content that everyone knows but only you remember.
  • No, this is not about decorating your answer (which is what most people take it to be). It is about articulating the information you know in a clear and precise manner presenting only what is needed.
  • Don’t beat around the bush in your answers, come to the point, add maps, diagrams, flowcharts or any other visual aids that you think are necessary.
  • Avoid duplication of information i.e. don’t write a paragraph and draw the flowchart for the same piece of information use them to complement each other.
  • Also, a better structure helps you present all the content that you need. It will help you add a point or two extra in each answer making a difference of one mark in each question and nearly 19 marks in the entire paper!
  • Link theory with practical examples. Geography has an abundance of them. For example, if you are talking about watershed management mention Ralegaon Siddhi. If you are describing melting ice caps - mention the break up of Larsen C ice shelf. There are examples for every phenomena. These examples when mentioned show your understanding of the subject.
  • While writing answers, you should keep in mind that geography has the great advantage of having diagrams and maps to supplement answers making them more presentable and allowing you additional leverage in presenting your knowledge. Use them well. Practice drawing maps of India and the world diligently along with your answer writing practice.

#TIP 1 for maps - If you are drawing a map that shows areas with roads and rail lines, try and use standard map markers for them. It makes it easier for the examiner to understand and shows that you have a good understanding of the subject.

#TIP 2 for maps - In world map, keep the Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn and Equator marked. It will be easier to use as a reference to draw the map as well as for marking any place in case the scale of your map varies.

#TIP 3 for maps - Label the locations properly and write them in the map as well, rather than just marking them without any text.

#TIP 4 for maps and diagrams - Always give the map/diagram/flowchart a heading to tell the examiner what you want to show.

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What To Study In Geography?

Now, the availability of a wide variety of material appears to be a boon as well as a bane. There are several sources and this may leave you confused as to how to go about your preparation. It is even more difficult if you do not have graduate level knowledge. But, do not worry, where you may have been chasing a wild goose for ages, here is a clear list of sources that you may refer to for various topics:

(Before we go any further, STOP and go through the syllabus for Geography - it will always be your first guide)

Part A, Paper 1


Begin with Physical Geography by Savindra Singh. For slope development and concepts of geomorphic cycles refer to Geomorphology book by the same author. This topic is covered fully in the above books. For topics of Applied geomorphology, the current affairs are your best source of study. Utilise concepts of geomorphology to understand current phenomena and form short notes on them to be revised and used before the exam.


Here Physical Geography by Savindra Singh will be sufficient except for marine resources. Remember to practice maps for the ocean bottom reliefs of all three oceans. A direct question from this topic is usually easy to handle. For marine resources, especially poly metallic nodules, ferromanganese crusts and poly metallic sulphides utilise the internet to supplement your existing notes. Here remember to cover UNCLOS and ISA.


Again, Savindra Singh’s book is sufficient. You can also add from GC Leong’s book to the climatic regions part to supplement it. All maps have to be done . Also, this is the part where diagrams fetch a lot of marks and the questions are extremely static so previous years’ questions are a must.


This topic is often missed, so it is advisable that you get hold of class notes of any reputed institute or if you are subscribing to any course on Neostencil then you have it covered. Divide it into the following parts - Soils , Phytogeography, Zoogeography, Biogeography and Forests and Deforestation. Do floristic kingdoms and zoogeographic regions from Savindra Singh’s Physical Geography. For biogeographic regions, the internet can be used.

Environmental Geography

A limited part from Environmental Geography by Savindra Singh covering Ecology and Human Ecological Adaptations. The first three chapters are sufficient. For the rest, current affairs magazines of any reputed institute, Down to Earth Magazine, Geography and You will keep you covered.

Part B, Paper 1

Perspectives in Human Geography

Fundamentals of Geographical Thought by Sudipta Adhikari for Determinism, Possiblism, Quantitative Revolution and Critical Revolution . A few topics such as cultural regions are not present. For them use the internet. The UN website for Human Development Index is sufficient.

Economic Geography

There is only one thing you need to read from Rupa Made Simple i.e. Typology of Agriculture by Whittlesey . For the rest , it is mostly current affairs based or can be studied off the internet. Study the major energy reserves of the world (coal, oil, shale gas, nuclear) and prepare short notes on them. Other important topics like Energy crisis, famine can be done separately from the internet.

Population and Settlement Geography

Cities, Urbanisation & Urban Systems by K Siddhartha is adequate for the Settlements portion. Human Geography by Majid Hussain is good for the Population section. This is a pretty straightforward section. You can supplement it with current affairs related to India and the world. Remember to read about UN Habitat.

Regional Planning

For this, the best source of study is either classroom notes of a good reputed coaching institute or topic wise study as the material is scattered. For concept of a region and methods  of regionalization are explained well in Regional Planning in India by Chand and Puri (first few chapters). However you will not find Thiessen Polygon method there. For such topics, the internet is your best friend. Regional Development strategies can be studied on the basis of case studies - For India, D R Khullar’s book is a good source for the others the internet.

Models, Theories and Laws in Human Geography

The book on Models and Theories by Majid Hussain is sufficient to cover this section.

Paper 2

The ebook by D R Khullar is sufficient to cover your syllabus along with current affairs supplements from newspapers or magazines. Yojana and Kurukshetra can be read for various government schemes.

Current Affairs

A lot of the syllabus in geography requires diligent study of the newspaper as well. For example, climate change, disasters, industrial policies, trade scenario etc. are usually in the news. So, you must be up to date in your current affairs notes with topics relevant to geography. You can maintain a separate notebook for Geography current affairs.

How To Do Mapping?

Paper 2 has a 20 mark question with 10 locations from across the country that are asked. These are often low hanging fruits. For this question, the sources of locations will be :

  1. Your static syllabus - mountain ranges, rivers, passes, lakes etc.
  2. Current Affairs - Places in the news from around India. For example, three islands in Andaman and Nicobar Islands were recently renamed by the Prime Minister, you should know the names. (Keep a separate list)
  3. Previous years’ questions of last 20 years. (Locations in India only)

You can do mapping practice from the first month itself by doing 5 locations daily. Start simple with mountain/hill ranges in India and then slowly build up to more locations.

NOTE: When showing a tributary also mark the parent river along with it.

Places that you must do/know (apart from current affairs’ locations):

  1. Major mountain and hill ranges
  2. Major mountain and hill passes
  3. Rivers and their tributaries (major ones)
  4. Large lakes and lagoons including man made reservoirs
  5. Major canals (related to river interlinking)
  6. Major wildlife sanctuaries/national parks/ tiger reserves
  7. State capitals/ National capital
  8. Major industrial centres/ centres for mineral extraction
  9. Major centres of nuclear/solar/wind power generation
  10. Major ports
  11. Important centres of scientific importance for e.g. Devsthal, Sriharikota etc.
  12. Important pilgrimage centres
  13. Important tourist centres
  14. Major freight road, rail and waterways
  15. Important islands in A&N Islands, Lakshadweep and others near the mainland coast.

Suggested Timeline For Preparation

A typical timeline for Optional Preparation should look something like this:


Paper 1, Part A


Paper 1, Part B


Paper 2, Part A


Paper 2, Part B


First Revision of Optional

March - May

Preliminary Examination Specific Preparation


Second Revision of Optional (Exclusively for optional)

July - September

General Studies Specific Preparation

September - October


IMPORTANT NOTE : Keep the weekly revision days for revision strictly as it will help you maximize your knowledge retention.


Physical Geography

Savindra Singh


Savindra Singh

Environmental Geography

Savindra Singh

Models and Theories

Majid Hussain

Fundamentals of Geographical Thought

Sudipta Adhikari

Cities, Urbanisation & Urban Systems

K Siddhartha

Human Geography

Majid Hussain

Regional Planning in India

Chand and Puri

India A Comprehensive Geography

D R Khullar

All the best!

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