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.

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 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      

IAS Mains Optional: 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 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 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.

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Factors Affecting the Choice of the 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.


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.

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 Optional with GS

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.


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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 Mains Exam 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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