Best Optional Subject for UPSC IAS MAINS- An Easy Detailed Guide

optional subject for upsc
February 3, 2021
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Everyone who plans to appear for the civil services exam spends a lot of time planning to choose the best optional subject for UPSC. Though the number of subjects to be chosen for UPSC is one. But this one subject could either end the candidate in a be all or end all situation.

The weightage of the nonobligatory paper is just five hundred marks out of 2025. But due to the unpredictability related to General Studies Paper, the optional paper becomes very crucial. The General Studies paper consists of 1000 marks paper, 250 marks essay, and 275 marks interview.

Because there is a certain level on uncertainty here, the optional paper becomes prime for any aspirant. The optional paper consists of two exams of 250 marks each. For this reason, the best optional subject to be chosen for UPSC mains becomes very crucial.

Is Choosing IAS Main Paper a Big Deal or Not?

Since a lot of aspirants does not come under the category of preparing the General Studies paper with a cent per cent confidence. Choosing the best optional subject for UPSC automatically becomes important for aspirants. As then the candidates become confident of scoring high marks in UPSC mains.

Here a lot of factors play importance in choosing the subject in your comfort zone. A candidate’s familiarity with the subject, availability of subject material and how much a candidate has an interest in the particular subject (so that if he is even devoting less time)

If the subject you have graduated in is in the list of the optional subjects. Then by choosing it, you will have the opportunity of devoting more time to the General Studies paper, and chances of scoring more in Optional paper becomes more.

What should you consider while choosing Optional Subject for UPSC?

Go thoroughly through the list of optional subjects. Simultaneously think about the subjects you have found interest in; it could be same as any subject from the General Studies paper list or any other literature/language other than their mother tongue.

By following the above step, you may at least end up choosing 4-5 subjects. Go through the syllabus precisely of all the subjects. And then look through the kind of study material which would be available. Then also go through previous years questions papers to check your level of interest.

The plus point of choosing a non-technical subject is that it could be more or less done with self-study, provided you constantly work on your writing skills. There are other factors too, which count while choosing best optional subjects for UPSC.

For example, the success rate of literature subjects is a bit high. So, if you tend to choose any literature of your native language, it may prove to be beneficial for you.

Sl. No.Literature Optional SubjectCandidates AppearedNo. of Candidates RecommendedSuccess Rate

It is not only any literature but as a matter of fact, it is different for different people. For example, someone who has worked with any big organization or either is working or have quit their job. Then Public Administration is a good option for them. Anyone with Science or Medical background may find Anthropology, zoology or medical science related to their field. So, choosing the best optional subject for UPSC mains may vary from person to person.

The Strategy of choosing an Optional Subject which overlaps with General Studies Syllabus

It is as simple as it may sound when it comes to choosing best optional subject for UPSC, the strategy of choosing an optional subject with general studies syllabus may or may not be beneficial for all. Of course, it has a big plus point of saving time because in a single stroke you will be preparing for 2 papers at a time.

If you’re thinking to choose a subject which has you feel is scoring but at the same time, it may require a vast area to cover. If you have limited time then you must select an optional subject that may require less time for preparation.

List of top ten Optional Subjects for UPSC

optional subject for UPSC mains

This is a list of optional subjects best suited for UPSC:

Optional SubjectThe approximate number of candidates selected in the non-mandatory exam
GeographyAround 3000
HistoryAround 1500
Public AdministrationAround 1500
SociologyAround 1500
Philosophy + Psychology + Political Science + Economics+ Anthropology<3000
All other science/art subjects
(in total)
All literature subjects
(in total)
TotalAround 12,000-15000

The optional subjects offered for UPSC mains can be broadly classified into technical and non-technical subjects. Aspirants from Arts or Science background generally choose non-technical subjects.

Political Science and International Relations

It is one of the most chosen optional paper for UPSC. It is considered as one of the most scoring paper. It is because to understand the subject you need not to be from a political science background. Basic awareness about current affairs and a constant read of editorials will give you an edge. It is good for people who have a good hand on writing. As you need to present information in a creative manner and almost answer in an essay manner, writing skills become essential here.

Since both the papers are theoretical, part1 and part2. Apart from writing skills, the candidates choosing Political Science should also be good at learning and mugging up. Because of the vastness of the syllabus, understanding them from the beginning can be very time-consuming.

This subject also has an emphasis to maintain the current aspects of the topics. Meaning which you will have to keep a track on contemporary events and keep updating your notes throughout.


optional subject for UPSC mains- Anthoropology

Anthropology is the study of human evolution, societies and their developments. It is considered as one of the subjects which is gaining momentum being chosen as the best optional paper for UPSC.  Not only it is very interesting to study but since it is a very static subject the syllabus is very les. Its syllabus includes topics like Marriage, Kinship, Evolution, Prehistoric cultures etc., which by and large require mugging and remembering only.

It is famous among science students as well, because like other Arts subjects it does not require long answers but instead diagrams and flow charts.

Public Administration

It is one of the most favourite subject chosen by UPSC aspirants. The success rate for this is much higher than any other subject. A good point about choosing Public Administration is that there is a lot of overlapping syllabi. For example, it overlaps the Policy and Governance paper in General Studies. Not only this will save your time and energy but also give you different perspectives to write your answers. Since everything for this subject depends on conceptual clarity mugging up will not be very useful here.

It is very relevant to your future role as an administrator. Topics like Accountability, Personnel & monetary Administration, Organizations etc., in Paper I, likewise because the entire subject material of Paper-II (Indian Administration), are helpful in the setting you will eventually be a part of. This makes the subject very vital and sensible.


It is one of the best optional subjects for UPSC main. Sociology is the study of patterns of society’s social interactions and cultures. Of course, it is one of the most scoring subjects for UPSC mains. As it has always been the favourite of candidates, there is a lot of study material available.  The best thing is, the syllabus of the subject is static, you don’t have to keep adding to your notes. As the topics of Paper1 and Paper 2 are inter-related, it gives you an edge by reducing the time to give on the optional subject.

It will also give you a better hand for the interview as by studying Sociology you will have detailed knowledge about the Indian society and the problems which are holding back the Indian society. Since, you would be able to comprehend the problems and think about solutions, scoring good marks in the interview will become easy.


Philosophy is the best optional subject for UPSC mains, but only if you have your interest in it. It is a study of knowledge, behavior of mind and existence.  You really can’t study Philosophy with full focus, until and unless you have full interest thinking of Indian or foreign philosophers.

Not only it has the shortest syllabus but also it has again a static syllabus, meaning that nothing really changes, more or less it is the same. The second-best thing is that while preparing for philosophy as a main optional paper, you can automatically prepare for your General studies Paper.  For example, the ethics and essay paper drive a lot from philosophy. Topics like gender, religion, justice, democracy are the same for both philosophy and essay writing.

You don’t need any guidance or coaching for it, all you need is a flair of writing because the subject material is readily available in abundance.


optional subject for UPSC mains- Geography

Geography is the most opted optional subject for UPSC main. Not only because it is easy to understand and is scoring. But also, because this subject is a mix of both technical and non-technical subject matter candidates of both science and arts background choose it as optional subject for UPSC exam. There is an abundance of study material available not only online but offline as well.

When opting to choose Geography as an optional subject for the UPSC, you must remember there will be a lot of topics which you will be doing a repeated reading. This is because you will find the same topics for your General studies paper, environment, International Relations. You will take less time to cover the syllabus and re-reading will help you in more retention.

The only thing to remember is that you will be needing to cover a vast syllabus. There will be a lot of theories, but you can’t even leave the theories which you feel are unimportant. There will be contemporary issues and issues related to regional planning. And of course, a lot of maps. If you are not good with maps, then it would be suggested to leave Geography as an optional subject, because maps are mandatory.

Preparing for UPSC and simultaneously earning money?

You can easily become a subject expert at Chegg and earn money. Because UPSC requires a thorough study of the optional paper or even General Studies as well. So, when you are preparing for the optional exam, you can use that through knowledge to become a subject expert at Chegg.

A subject expert can help cater to the specific needs of the students and put their expertise to  good use. You can easily earn 30000 to 80000 per month.  Not only it will add to your academics’ development but also it will add up to your problem-solving skills.

Chegg India is an educational service company. It helps student in the area of homework help by granting accessible and affordable education. These subject matter experts are paid per question and are open to all from undergraduates to PHDs to people seeking a job, anybody who can educate.

Following is the list of subjects you can become subject experts of while preparing for UPSC or you can keep in mind while choosing the best optional subject for UPSC main.

  • Business: Economics Accounting Operations Management Finance
  • Engineering: Chemical Engineering Electrical Engineering Computer Science Civil Engineering Mechanical Engineering
  • Science: Physics Advanced Physics Chemistry Biology
  • Mathematics: Advanced Math Statistics and Probability Other Math
  • Health Care: Nursing and Psychology (Clinical & Social)
  • Earth Science: Earth Sciences, , Remote sensing and Geology

Final Thoughts

It becomes very important to research to the fullest first and then take the decision of choosing the best optional subject for UPSC. There may be different subjects, some technical or some non-technical subjects. But the best way to choose is by picking the ones you have your most interest in and then elimination on the basis of pros and cons.

While reading the article there might be 3-4 subjects at least which would have pop up your mind. Go through the syllabus in detail. List out the pros and cons. And keep slashing on its basis.

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