How to select Optional Subject in UPSC Civil Services Mains Exam

How to select Optional Subject in UPSC Civil Services Mains Exam

Selecting the right optional subject for the UPSC Civil Services Examination is a crucial decision that can significantly impact your chances of success. While the General Studies papers are mandatory, the optional subject allows you to delve deeper into an area of interest or expertise.

This article aims to provide valuable insights and guidelines to help you make an informed choice.

“Choosing the right optional subject is the single most crucial decision you have to make.”   

Importance of Optional subjects in UPSC Mains exam

For the benefit of those aspirants who have just been initiated into preparations of UPSC civil services exam (CSE), let us quickly understand the relevance of optional subject in the overall merit. In the IAS Mains Exam, out of seven papers which are considered towards the merit list – 

  1. Essay paper – 250 marks 
  2. GS Paper I – 250 marks
  3. GS Paper II – 250 marks
  4. GS Paper III – 250 marks 
  5. GS Paper IV – 250 marks 
  6. Optional Paper I – 250 marks
  7. Optional Paper II – 250 marks 

– the two papers of the Optional Subject, each comprising 250 marks, add up to 25% of the marks making the merit list.

And that is precisely the importance of an optional subject. It constitutes one fourth of the total marks in UPSC Mains exam and therefore plays a critical role in determining your final rank in the merit. Needless to highlight, that the allocation of Service is done based on the rank in the final merit. 

List of optional subjects

  1. Agriculture
  2. Animal Husbandry & Veterinary Science
  3. Anthropology
  4. Botany
  5. Chemistry
  6. Civil Engineering
  7. Commerce & Accountancy
  8. Economics
  9. Electrical Engineering
  10. Geography
  11. Geology
  12. History
  13. Law
  14. Management
  15. Mathematics
  16. Mechanical Engineering
  17. Medical Science
  18. Philosophy
  19. Physics
  20. Political Science and International Relations
  21. Psychology
  22. Public Administration
  23. Sociology
  24. Statistics
  25. Zoology
  26. Literature of any one of the following languages: Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu and English
  • No restriction on selection of any optional: Candidates may choose any optional subject from amongst the UPSC’s list of subjects for Civil Services Examination, irrespective of their educational background in it. This mean that aspirants from Science background can select any subject from Arts according to their choice or love for subject.
    • In fact, 87% of optional subjects opted by the selected candidates in the year 2015 were related to humanities, followed by 5.5%, 5.4% and 2.1% related to Medical Science, Science and Engineering respectively. This shows that most of the candidates made a cross domain shift from their original stream (i.e., Engineering, Science and Medical Science) to humanities.
  • The scope of the syllabus for optional subject papers for the examination is broadly of the honours degree level i.e. a level higher than the bachelors’ degree and lower than the masters’ degree. In the case of Engineering, Medical Science and Law, the level corresponds to the bachelors’ degree.

How to choose the right optional subject?

It’s a known fact that some of the IAS aspirants end up making a wrong choice of optional subject in UPSC Mains because of lack of information and also due to certain misgivings and myths regarding some subjects. 

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that selection of an unsuitable optional subject could become Achilles Heels for any civil services aspirant! Once an optional subject has been chosen and humongous effort has been invested in preparing for it, it becomes very difficult, if not impractical, to change it in between. It also becomes a conundrum to consider changing it for the next exam attempt as aspirant would face this dilemma to either prepare a new subject altogether leaving the one which he or she has studied already or to continue with the same one with a nagging doubt about scoring well in it the next time. It is thus imperative that optional subject be chosen wisely. 

The optional subject must be carefully picked basis the following aspects only:

  1. Explore your interest: Choose a subject that you have an (a) aptitude for and (b) the one in which you have more than just a passing interest. Aspirant should be prepared to spend hundreds of hours with the chosen subject. 

How to explore interest?

  • Recall your school and college days and explore subject(s) which excited you. Which you would read more than any other subjects because it did not put you to sleep.  Subject(s) in which you scored better marks.
  • Evaluate your interest among the compulsory General Studies subjects you are reading. Figure which areas of newspaper you are more interested in.
  • Think about the subject(s) you would be interested in gaining mastery in – developing in depth understanding.
  1. Figure out overlap with syllabus of General Studies: From the list of optional subjects, figure out such subjects which have overlap with the syllabus of GS. Picking such an optional subject helps save preparation time which can be consequently devoted towards other themes of the exam. Such subjects are: 
  1. Availability of Guidance and Resources

The availability of materials and guidance in the form of coaching matters a lot. For some subjects it is difficult to get standard books, for some coaching may not be available. Generally stating, guidance or study material in technical subjects, like Science/Engineering/Commerce & Accountancy, is not readily available which makes preparing for these subjects comparatively more time consuming/difficult. Availability of quality guidance certainly makes learning of the subject easy and enjoyable.

  1. Choosing an optional with some previous background 

If your Graduation or Masters subject is available in the list of UPSC optional subjects, you must evaluate your subject knowledge in that first. Opting for your graduation/post-graduation subject could be really helpful as you’re already familiar and comfortable with the subject. That will certainly help in the preparation since you have good knowledge base in it. 

But do not take it if you had only a passing interest in it in college.

How to evaluate your comfort and competency level in graduation/post-graduation subject?

Get hold of (1) syllabus and (2) previous 10 years’ question papers in your subject to check your comfort level. Gauge the level of interest you have or residual knowledge you still possess to answer these questions. If you feel good, then go for your subject, else pick another based on the top two factors.

Before finalizing an optional

  • Analyse the syllabus in detail
  • Analyse the last ten years question paper to figure out a subject’s difficulty level
  • Don’t take a subject just because everyone else is taking it – because it is popular or considered scoring
    • The subject that you opt for should work for you only then it’ll become scoring for you
  • Science subjects should be handled by people with ONLY science background
  • Art subjects can be handled by ALL

Choosing the right optional subject is a crucial step towards UPSC success. It requires a thoughtful and informed decision based on your background, interests, available resources, and overall strategy. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and what works for one candidate may not necessarily work for another.

Take your time, conduct thorough research, and select the subject that resonates with you the most. With the right choice, coupled with dedicated preparation, you’ll be well on your way to achieving your UPSC goals.

Free UPSC MasterClass
This is default text for notification bar