UPSC Optional Subjects – Choose the Best Optional Subjects for IAS

Candidates preparing for IAS exam have a huge dilemma on How to choose my optional subjects? Many aspirant have the confusion whether I need to choose my optional based on my graduation subject or I need to choose the popular optional subjects which have good success rates. Apart from this, candidates gets numerous inputs and suggestions from seniors and mentors. To address such issues we have come up with this article.

List of Optional Subjects

This is the complete list of UPSC Optional subjects for civil services main examination. You have to opt for any one subject.



  1. Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Science
  2. Anthropology
  3. Botany
  4. Chemistry
  5. Civil Engineering
  6. Commerce and Accountancy
  7. Economics
  8. Electrical Engineering
  9. Geography
  10. Geology
  11. History
  12. Law
  13. Management
  14. Mathematics
  15. Mechanical Engineering
  16. Medical Science
  17. Philosophy
  18. Physics
  19. Political Science and International Relations
  20. Psychology
  21. Public Administration
  22. Sociology
  23. Statistics
  24. Zoology
  25. Agriculture
  26. Literature of any one of the following language:



Best Optional Subjects for IAS Mains 


S. No Optional 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      

IAS Mains Optional: Basis of Selection

Your selection 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 Optional?

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


If the subject you took for graduation is available in the list of subjects given, in most cases the same option will turn out as a comfortable option. You can also look for an optional subject which you can finish in a time-bound manner without disturbing the time for GS preparation.

A lot of candidates choose an optional subject because it is considered as a scoring subject. The score 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.

Indian Economy by Amit Sinha

Factors Affecting Choice of Optional

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 learning the subject, the process becomes much easier.


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, there will be a lesser requirement for coaching. Even if the candidate opts for coaching for the subject, the time period will remain between 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 the 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.

Obsessiveness with 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 Optional with GS

Another trick is to choose two options which are related to one another. 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 subject of GS. GS covers various topics and requires a thorough knowledge of the same.


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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:
  • First 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. Think about the subjects you excelled in, in which subject you showed more interest and the subject on which you scored the most.
  • Now contemplate your current situation. See which areas of news you are more interested in. Think which topics of General Studies interest you. Some people like history, some like polity, some sociology, so on and so forth. Think of shortlisting them as your optional subjects for IAS.
  • Based on above criteria, make a list of 4 UPSC optional subjects which captivate your interest and which will keep you hooked until the very end of your preparation.
  • Now 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. It will help you understand your level of comfort with the subject.
  • After these steps, you will be able to make the right choice of optional subject for IAS.

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 and not a so-called high scoring optional.
  • Do not make your decision based on the option chosen for the past year toppers.

Civil Services Mains Pattern in Detail

The Mains Exam consists of 2 qualifying papers
  • 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, the Main examination has 9 papers. All of them are subjective in nature.

Thus, it can be rightly concluded that 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. The optional subject should be chosen keeping in mind your knowledge base and interest in the particular subject area.



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