UPSC Optional Subjects – Choose the Best Optional Subjects for IAS

Candidates preparing for the IAS exam face the dilemma on 'How to choose between the optional subjects?'. Aspirants can choose the optional subject based on their graduation or a popular optional subject having higher success rates. Apart from this, candidates get numerous inputs and suggestions from seniors and mentors. This article hopes to help aspirants to make the right choice.

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IAS Mains Optional Subject: Basis of Selection

Your choice of the optional subject for IAS should be based on the following criteria:
  • Specifically defined and comparatively small syllabus
  • Easy availability of study material
  • Interesting and short subject material
  • Scoring nature of the subject
  • Availability of experienced guidance
The four papers of General Studies are divided as mentioned below:
  • Paper-I - General Studies-I - 250 Marks - (Indian Heritage and Culture, History, and Geography of the World and Society)
  • Paper-II - General Studies-II - 250 Marks - (Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social Justice and International relations)
  • Paper-III - General Studies-III - 250 Marks - (Technology, Economic Development, Bio-diversity, Environment, Security and Disaster Management)
  • Paper-IV - General Studies-IV - 250 Marks - (Ethics, Integrity, and Aptitude)

How important is the Decision of UPSC Mains Optional Subject?

The decision of UPSC Optional subject is very important. You need to select an optional subject in which you are comfortable to score high marks in the UPSC mains. The level of comfort depends on many factors such as familiarity of the subject, availability of books and other study material, availability of faculty, the scope of peer discussion, recent scoring trends, the level of difficulty as per the syllabus and previous question papers etc.

If the subject you studied in your graduation is available in the list of optional subjects, then students find that as the most comfortable option. You can also look for an optional subject which can be finished in a time-bound manner without disturbing the time for GS preparation.

Several candidates choose an optional subject because it is considered scoring. Marks should not be the sole criteria for making a choice. Depending on the interest of the individual, the optional subjects for IAS should be shortlisted. Based on the shortlisted subject, the candidate should take a thorough look at the syllabus of the respective optional subjects for IAS.

Factors Affecting the Choice of the UPSC Mains Optional Subject

Interest towards the subject

In order to select the best optional, the first criteria should be the interest towards the subject. When an aspirant is interested in studying the subject, the process becomes much easier.

Syllabus of UPSC Optional Subject

The syllabus and the requirement for coaching should be considered next. An optional with a limited syllabus is ideal since it will take lesser time for preparation and will have a chance of scoring higher marks. With a small and limited syllabus, it is possible to cover the subject within a period of 5-6 months. If the syllabus is limited, you may not even require coaching.  Even if the candidate opts for coaching for the subject, they may be able to cover the syllabus within 3-4 months, which means there will be more time to prepare for the other papers. The decision to choose a particular UPSC optional subject should never be based on its popularity.

Availability of coaching and reference materials

Coaching also plays a significant role in the selection of the optional subject for IAS. The aspirant will have to determine if coaching for the subject is easily available or not.

In addition to coaching, the availability of reference books should also be considered. Every subject will require extensive reading and preparation, hence the optional subject for IAS should be chosen after considering all the aspects.

UPSC Optional subject must not be confused with your favourite subject

Do not blindly choose your favourite subject without having a look at the syllabus. It might be your favourite subject but it could have an extensive syllabus which will take up a lot of your time for preparation. Look for other options and analyze the syllabus before making an informed decision.

An overlapping IAS Mains Optional with GS Topics

Another trick is to choose an optional similar/related to your GS paper. This will allow you to relate the concepts and also make the process of preparation easier. Any option you choose will help you in the GS paper. The GS paper forms the crux of the examination and the time you spent in preparing for the optional will also help you prepare for the specific GS subject. GS covers various topics and requires a thorough knowledge of the same.

Best Optional Subjects for IAS Mains 

S. No Optional Subject Number of Applicants Success rate in 2014 Success rate in 2015 Success rate in 2016
1. History 3000 +/- 50 8.3% 7.7% 6.5%
2. Geography 3000 +/- 50 7.2% 5.6% 9.8%
3. Public Administration 3000 +/- 50 5.1% 6.2% 5.3%
4. Sociology 3000 +/- 50 9.2% 9.1% 10.6%
5. Philosophy + Psychology + Political Science + Economics 2000-3000 Avg above 10% Avg above 10% Avg above 10%
6. All other science/art subjects (in total) 1000-1500 Avg above 12% Avg above 12% Avg above 12%
7. All Other Literature Subjects Less than 1000 Avg above 5% Avg above 5% Avg above 5%
  TOTAL Around 15000      

UPSC Preparation Tips and Suggestions

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List of Optional Subjects

Click on the icon to go to the respective optional subject syllabus page.

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How to Select Best Optional Subject for IAS

Selecting the Optional subject is a tricky task. Here are a few tips to help you choose:
  • Firstly, go through the list of all the optional subjects for IAS thoroughly. Invest a lot of time in reading and understanding the syllabus.
  • Think about your favourite subjects, the subjects you excelled in and the ones you showed more interest in.
  • Shortlist the types of news items you enjoy reading about and the topics in General Studies that interests you. This will help you in making a choice among the optional subjects for IAS.
  • Based on the above steps, make a list of yout top 4 UPSC optional subjects which captivate your interest and which will keep you hooked until the very end of your preparation.
  • Go through the previous year question papers (at least 3 years) of the shortlisted subjects. Read all the questions.
  • Test yourself on the level of interest you have or the knowledge you possess in order to be able to answer each question. This will help you understand your level of comfort with the subject.
  • Upon reviewing all the 4 subjects, you should be able to make the right choice.

IAS Mains Optional: What to avoid?

  • It is important to not choose a subject because a friend or a family member suggested it.
  • Do not opt for an optional just because it is what most of the aspirants have chosen.
  • Candidates have managed to clear the exam in every optional even the ones which aren't very scoring.
  • Do not make your decision based on the options chosen by the previous years' toppers.

Civil Services Mains Pattern in Detail

The IAS Mains Exam Pattern consists of 2 qualifying papers as described below:
  • One is English and the other is a paper on any of the enlisted Indian languages. Both carry 300 marks each. However, their marks are NOT taken into account in the main examination.
  • According to the new pattern, there are 4 General Studies papers, each comprising of 250 marks with a total of 1000 Marks.

Civil Services Mains Pattern & Marking Scheme

The latest pattern along with the marking scheme is as follows: 
No. Subject Marks
1 Indian Language (Qualifying) 300
2 English (Qualifying) 300
3 Essay 250
4 General Studies I 250
5 General Studies II 250
6 General Studies III 250
7 General Studies IV 250
8 Optional Subject Paper 1 250
9 Optional Subject Paper 1 250
  TOTAL 1750
  Interview (Personality Test) 275
  Grand Total 2025

Thus, choosing an optional subject for IAS should be based on an individual's interest and liking for a subject. There is no ideal optional subject to clear the examination; it always depends on the dedication in terms of preparation for the exam.

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FAQs related to UPSC Optional Subject

Q. How many optional subject in UPSC mains exam?
A. In IAS mains exam candidates need to choose one optional subject from the list of 48 subjects. 

Q. How to choose optional subject for UPSC exam?
A. Candidates should choose the optional subject based on various parameters like syllabus, study material availability, coaching accessibility, scoring and popular subject. Apart from the above, interest in the subject matters most. For more details read our article here.
Q. Which Optional Subject is Best for UPSC?
A. In UPSC civil services examination, there are certain optional are most popular and considered as best among aspirants due to its popularity, availability of study material, coaching and high scoring. In this context, optional subjects like Public Administration, Philosophy, Sociology, Anthropology, Geography, History, Political Science are considered as best.

Q. Which is the easiest optional subject in IAS?
A. In UPSC Preparation, there are certain optional subjects which are considered as easiest optional subject among preparing aspirants due to simplicity of the subject, short syllabus and easy to prepare. In this context optional subjects like Philosophy, Anthropology, Hindi Literature, Sociology are considered as easy optional in UPSC Mains exam.

Q. What are the optional subjects for IAS Prelims?
A. In 2011, UPSC has made few changes in the civil services exam, in that, it replaced the optional subject paper with GS Paper 2 - Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT) in IAS prelims exam. So, from 2011 onwards there is no optional subjects in UPSC prelims exam.

Q. How to write answers in UPSC mains?
A. It is said that every UPSC mains answer is a short essay, as you structure the essay, you need to write the IAS mains answer.

Q. How to write an essay for UPSC?
A. First need to choose a topic which you are comfortable and have a good command over the topic. Proper brainstorming and structuring of essay is key to score good marks. Finally, intriguing introduction and gripping conclusion is very important in the UPSC essay writing.

Q. How many papers in UPSC mains exam?
A. In UPSC mains exam, there are total 9 papers. 
English and Hindi/regional language paper (Qualifying papers)
1 Essay Paper (Need to write an essay on two topics)
4 GS Papers (GS Paper 1, GS Paper 2, GS Paper 3 and GS Paper 4)
2 Optional Papers (Candidate need to choose one subject from the list of 48 subjects)

Q. How much time is required to prepare for UPSC?
A. It depends upon individual, to crack UPSC Civil Services Exam, candidates should start the preparation one year prior to the IAS preliminary exam. So minimum 1 to 1.5 years preparation time is required to crack the IAS exam.

Q. How to prepare economics optional for UPSC mains?
A. Economics optional in UPSC exam demands subject matter expertise level. If you have already have economics background then you can prepare the economics optional. The strategy to prepare economics optional is to have good command over concepts, knowledge on economic theories and proper answer writing practice.

Q. How to prepare political science and international relations for UPSC?
A. Political Science optional preparation strategy should be more focused on the paradigm shifts in Indian and world politics, because that is what determines the pattern of the paper every year rather than the more intricate skeletal changes. This is to keep the aspirants and possible future IAS officers updated about the burning issues around the world and in their country. It can sometimes be overwhelming to prepare for such a vast syllabus without any predetermined frame of reference to follow.

Q. How to study philosophy for UPSC?
A. Philosophy optional has a lot of technical terms which need an in-depth understanding and the ability to relate the concept. This requires multiple revisions in order to be able to link the chapters. Make mind maps of how one concept relates to another and spend time forming an answer.

Q. How to prepare Public Administration optional for UPSC?
A. General Strategy needed to be followed in Public Administration 
  • Give importance to conceptual understanding while preparing for an optional subject. 
  • Regular note making. 
  • Spend some quality time on the optional subject. 
  • Answer writing practice. 
  • Revision before the exam. 
Q. How to prepare Sociology optional for UPSC?
A. Understand the sociology syllabus completely. Develop good command over the Sociological thinkers in the Paper 1. Properly use the thinkers name and their statement the UPSC Mains answers. While preparing try to interlink the sociological dimension in the social and current issues that are happening across the globe, that helps you to improve you sociological analytical skill to write good answers in UPSC mains exam.

Q. How to prepare Anthropology optional for UPSC?
A. When you begin preparing for the Anthropology optional, you need to get familiar with the basics of each topic. Further, develop an interrelationship among them. The key to score marks in every paper is to develop an interrelationship among the topics and develop a creative reorganization of facts.

Q. How to prepare History optional for UPSC?
A. History optional has vast syllabus, you need to prepare all the major historical events from a broader perspective and under the historical issues comprehensively, for this candidates need to read standard textbooks authored by historians. Develop a habit of note making for final revision.

Q. How to prepare Geography optional for UPSC?
A. In Geography optional preparation, candidates need to keep in mind that aspirants are not only studying about the countries and cities; they are going to do an in-depth preparation of the subject from every aspect. Candidates need to update the notes regularly on contemporary events as well as analyze the news from a geographical point of view. Lastly, answer writing is of significant importance for the examination.

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