Optional Subject

How to Choose the Best Optional Subject for UPSC Exam


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. 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.

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.
  • 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
  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
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. 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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