Best optional subject in UPSC- Pro tips for civil services


The UPSC conducts the IAS exam. The examination has three stages Prelims, Mains and the Personality Test. Every year lakhs of candidates apply for it. Which optional subject in UPSC should you select? But, in the Mains stage of the exam, one has to choose an optional subject and that subject in can make a lot of difference. This decision of selecting an optional subject is a deep rooted situation for IAS aspirants. As per to the new syllabus, UPSC reduced the number of optional subjects for UPSC to one which makes choosing more difficult.

optional subject in upsc
January 21, 2022
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Table of Contents

How Important is the Decision of Choosing the best optional subject in UPSC?

In spite of the fact that the weightage of the optional paper is just 500 marks out of 2025 marks according to the most recent pattern of the UPSC Civil Services exam, it is still an integral factor in the final ranks. The break-up of the Papers is such 1000 marks General Studies + 250 marks essay and Interview 275 marks. The choice of IAS mains optional is exceptionally crucial. You have to choose an alternative subject in which you are comfortable to score high in UPSC mains. 

The level of comfort relies upon many elements like the knowledge of the subject and accessibility of study materials. It also depends on the availability of staff, trends of marks, the level of difficulty and previous question papers. If the subject you took for graduation is available in the rundown of subjects given, that or a similar alternative will turn out as a comfortable option. If not, search for an alternative subject that you can complete in a period bound way without encroaching the time for GS preparation. 

Read on to know which is the best optional subject in UPSC. We will tell you the subjects that are most popular, most scoring or have the highest success rate. There are many factors to consider before selecting the best optional subject for IAS exams such as the syllabi, time available for preparation and your interest. The syllabus of the subjects offered by UPSC is somewhere midway between the graduate and PG levels.

Lets also see the easiest optional subjects for UPSC mains.

Best optional subject in UPSC

There are some subjects which are more scoring than others. However, if we see the broader picture, IAS toppers have scored 320+ in both technical and non-technical subjects. The reason why some subjects are perceived as low scoring is that candidates are not able to put in the requisite effort or they have selected an optional subject which isn’t right for them.

Technical subjects (such as Mathematics) can fetch you high marks as the answers are absolute. Basically, unlike humanities subjects, the examiner’s biases or preferences have less of a role to play. However, non-technical subjects, especially those which have some overlap with the GS syllabus, give more preparation time and reading material overall, thus increasing the overall Mains score if studied well.

There are many factors to decide which is the best optional subject in UPSC. Before deciding on a subject, a candidate must ask herself/himself the following six questions.

  • How vast is the syllabus of the optional?
  • How much preparation time do you have?
  • Do you have prior knowledge of the subject at the graduate/PG level?
  • How much syllabus overlap is there between your optional choice and GS part in Prelims/Mains?
  • Are the study material and coaching readily available?
  • Do you have the requisite drive/interest to study the subject for UPSC exam?

Depending on the answers to the above six questions, a candidate should make an ‘individual’ choice as to the best optional in UPSC for them.

Which optional subject in UPSC has the most overlap with GS in the IAS exam

The following subjects are popular among IAS aspirants from both technical and non-technical because of the high overlap with GS or other parts of the UPSC exam:

  • Public Administration – Highly relevant, compact syllabus, paper II (Indian Administration) has a lot of overlap with polity and governance part in GS II.
  • Sociology – the study of society, lots of material which can be used in GS I, Essay, and even in Ethics paper.
  • History – relevant for prelims as well as GS I.
  • Geography -relevant for prelims as well as GS I
  • Political Science – relevant for prelims as well as GS II
  • Law – relevant for prelims as well as GS II

Optional subject in UPSC like Economics, Philosophy, and Agriculture are also good choices.

Agriculture Animal Husbandry & Vet Science Anthropology Manipuri
Botany Chemistry Civil Engineering Marathi
Commerce Economics Electrical Engineering Nepali
Geography Geology History Oriya
Philosophy Political Science Psychology Punjabi
Public Administration Physics Sociology Sanskrit
Law Maths Management Santhali
Medical Science Statistics Mechanical Sindhi
Zoology Assamese Bengali Tamil
Bodo Hindi Konkani Telugu
Dogri Kannada Maithili Urdu
Gujarati Kashmiri Malayalam English

Important Steps to Consider for Choosing the Optional Subject in UPSC

  • First, go through the list of all the optional subjects.
  • Consider your most liked subjects. Think about every subject in which you exceeded expectations, in which subject you showed more interest, in which subject you got great marks during your school days.
  • See which parts of news you are more interested in. Think which subjects of GS you like more. A few people like history, some like polity/ sociology and continue pursuing those books as though they are doing masters in those topics. Consider short-listing them as your alternative subject.
  • Some people have a pastime of reading the literature of their mother tongue.

How to Shortlist from the Initial List of Optional Subject in UPSC

  • Based on the above mentioned criteria, prepare a list of 4-5 subjects that you think you have interest in.
  • Now, go through the syllabus of each alternative subject. Read all topics precisely. Underline/ highlight the points that you think you know something about or have some interest in the syllabus of each shortlisted optional subject.
  • Now go through the previous year’s question papers (3-4 years) of the shortlisted subjects. Read all the questions. Then again, measure yourself the level of interest you have or the knowledge you hold to answer each question.

By following the above points, you will be able to understand how compatible you are with a specific subject.

Three More Steps to Shortlist

  • Finally, the availability of materials and guidance through training matters a lot. For a few papers, it is hard to get standard books, for some subjects tutions may not be available. Non-technical subjects can be prepared by doing self-study provided you consistently work on writing.
  • By now you will have a reasonable picture of choosing between 2-3 papers. For instance, if you are from an engineering background and especially good at your engineering subjects, in the meantime if you have broadly read the literature of your native language, will be in quandary to select between these two subjects.
  • In this scenario, the ‘success rate’ counts. Generally, literature subjects have performed well in all years. You may wind up choosing literature of your native language as your alternative paper. It’s a decent choice.

Other Factors that Matters While Shortlisting

For a few people who have worked in a big company, Public Administration is a great choice and in fact, it has been the most chosen option by working aspirants or with the people who have quit their jobs.

Medical students may settle on Medical Science, Zoology or Anthropology as these papers are related to their field.

Which is the best optional subject for UPSC for medical students and doctors?

Out of the available options (refer to the table of subjects above), Medical Science is a natural choice. There have been several IAS toppers with a medical background who took medical science as their optional.

To some extent, subjects like Zoology, Animal Husbandry, and Veterinary Science can also be considered. However, if a candidate from a medical background isn’t willing to opt for medical science as the choice of optional, then non-technical subjects that have some overlap with GS become their choice.

Which is the best optional subject for UPSC for engineering candidates?

A lot of candidates from an engineering background have performed well in the IAS exam. However, if a candidate wants to choose an optional subject based on their previous knowledge, then the options reduce to Civil, Mechanical and Electrical engineering.

Obviously, no one would prefer to opt for an technical subject unless one studied the same at the graduate level.

Subjects like Maths, Physics and Chemistry can also be considered. These subjects reduce the subjectivity in marking to some extent, but the preparation time and effort is huge. So, it’s always better to go through the syllabi and past question papers first.

What are the top 10 optional subjects in UPSC?

After considering the latest UPSC syllabus and recent IAS results, the top 10 optional subjects in UPSC can be listed as follows:

  1. Sociology
  2. Agriculture
  3. Medical Science
  4. Literature
  5. Anthropology
  6. Public Administration
  7. Psychology
  8. Law
  9. Geography
  10. History

While preparing for your IAS exam, you can enroll yourself as a subject expert with Chegg with a few steps below

This is the list of subjects you can choose from to become a subject expert.

Stream Subject
Business  EconomicsAccountingOperations ManagementFinance 
Engineering  ChemicalElectricalComputer ScienceCivilMechanical 
Science  PhysicsAdvanced PhysicsChemistryBiology 
Mathematics  Advanced MathStatistics and ProbabilityOther Math 
Health Care  NursingPsychology (Clinical & Social) 
Earth Science Earth Sciences, Geology, Remote sensing 

Practicing with Chegg will not only help you revise your subject but also help in making some extra bucks.

UPSC Exams: Format and Preparation 

While information about the option subjects is crucial, one must also be aware of what to expect on the exam day. Someone had put it beautifully when they said, “There is no destination without the journey”. And that’s what the preparation for the UPSC exam is, an incredible journey that will lead you to your destination – getting a well paying and respectable job in the different administrative services of the country.  

We know that the UPSC exam is conducted in three phases. While each phase has its own different approaches, the toughest one to crack for many is the UPSC Prelims. The Prelims consist of two examinations – General Studies I and II, which are also known as CSAT or the Civil Services Aptitude Test. These exams test the general knowledge of candidates in the different fields of Math, Sciences and English. Due to its complicated questions, UPSC Prelims are one of the hardest entrance exams in the country, and thus only the top students get through. However, if you heed the following steps, you can have a better chance at cracking this tough exam. 

Step 1 – Understand the Exam 

A student cannot excel in an exam if they do not know what the exam contains? While it is important to know the type of examination, it is equally important to understand the topics that can be covered within the examination. The UPSC released a document on their website consisting of all this information, including the syllabus for the exam, the type and format of the paper, and even the schedule. Students must also understand the eligibility criteria well before starting with their preparations. 

All of this is categorised as the pre-preparation of the examinations. This must be done as the first step so that the student is not left confused on, or a few days before the exams about these small details. Thus, starting with these important details lets you move through the preparation journey in a more systematic and organised manner. 

Step 2 – Start Reading 

After completing step 1, you must be aware of the syllabus and the format of the papers. With this knowledge, you can begin your actual studies for the exams. The easiest method of studying is picking up your old school books. All the syllabus for the UPSC exams can be studied from the NCERT books. If you are unable to find your old school books, then you can download them for free. While reading, you may remember most of the concepts, however, you must go over them twice to better prepare yourself. 

Additionally, you need to start reading the newspaper. Majority of the questions on the General CSAT exams come from current events. Thus, you must read newspapers, rather study them like you would study your books. If you make these two aspects into a habit, half of your syllabus can be completed. 

Step 3 – Read More 

Like I said earlier, reading your old NCERT books and the newspaper will only cover 50% of your syllabus. As the UPSC Prelims are extremely hard to crack, more reading is required. This comes from expanding your knowledge by reading books apart from the ones mentioned on the list. There are many books you can read separately about the different events in India, however,a collection of the books that give ample information to students who are preparing for the prelim exams. Watching YouTube videos on topics of History and Science can also help students better prepare for the exams. 

Step 4 – Read and Write 

One of the habits we leave after we complete our schooling is learning by writing. While many do it in school, after it ends, people focus more on glazing through the contents of a book in order to memorise it. While this may work in schools, but for the UPSC examinations, you must practice by writing. Writing helps you learn a particular topic twice over – once when you read it out loud and once when you write it. But, more importantly, it psychologically embeds the topic in your mind. Thus, when you are done through your first round of glancing over the books, you must find your old notebooks and begin penning down your subject matter. 

Step 5 – Write mock exams 

After you have prepared yourself well for the exam, you must take many practice exams. There are many websites that will provide you past exam question papers for you to attempt. This step is crucial in your preparation as it helps you understand what a real exam would be like. You must take it with honesty and stick to the time limits. This will not only help you in managing your time better, but it will also help you understand your mistakes and calm your nerves for the final paper.

Also read – Know more about upcoming Government Exam, Notification And Syllabus

Final Thoughts

The choice of which is the best optional subject for UPSC is anyone decision of every competitor as indicated by his/ her qualities and shortcomings. In any case, only the aspirant knows their strengths, weakness, taste, and availability of study materials.

‘XYZ’ IAS topper scored with ‘ABC’ optional. Should I take the same?

Over the years, candidates have got top 10 AIR in IAS exam with a broad range of subjects. Be it Medical or Political Science or even Sanskrit; it is the choice and the drive of the person that makes the difference. The better way to go about it would be first to choose the subject based on what fits your case the best and then reading about the strategy of toppers who took the same optional subject for the UPSC exam.

What To Avoid While Choosing The Optional Subject in UPSC?

Never choose an optional subject just because most of the candidates are opting for that subject. Don’t pick the subject solely based on the decision of the past years’ toppers. Choose the optional subject as per your interest, not because most of your friends or relatives have suggested it. Don’t follow others; choose the subject based on your area of interest.

As such, there is no restriction from UPSC’s side on the choice of optional subjects in the IAS exam. A candidate is both free to make his/her own choice but is also constrained by the effects of making that choice.

Should I take an optional subject which is already covered in the General Studies? 

It is always a smarter idea to choose an optional subjects for UPSC which is already covered in the GS paper syllabus because it is a great time saver for the student. However, this is not the only option. Many students, even toppers of previous years, end up taking the subject they have expertise in. Many choose a subject they have done in their master’s or graduation. So, while it is sometimes smarter to take an overlapping optional subject, it is even more smarter to take a subject you know well.

Is it wise to take a subject different from my Graduation course? 

UPSC examinations do not stop you from selecting any of the 50 available choices for optional subjects. While it is preferred to continue the course of your graduation for the optional subject, many of us are forced to study subjects that we didn’t want to initially. It all comes down to the individual. If you completed your graduation in Mathematics but are more interested in Law, then you can opt for that. However, you then will have to put in much more time to study for it. That is why, in order to save time, the wiser idea is to go with the course you have already studied. 

The rules and figures stated above may enable you to know a couple of your answers.

Do the research and settle on the best choice. All the best!

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