How to choose the right optional subject or how to choose an optional subject in a right way, this is the one question that haunts most of the IAS aspirants whether they are beginners or already attempted the exam once or more than once.
With the exam pattern changed, since 2013 when the UPSC has done away with second optional subjects and now a candidate has to choose only one optional subject for UPSC Mains that has two papers for 250 marks each. Also, UPSC has eliminated specific subjects at the preliminary level that would have narrowed down the preparation, which perhaps would have relieved the IAS aspirants. Yet, it is advised to choose the optional subject for mains well ahead of time, so that the candidate will get sufficient time to make a list of books to refer, collect relevant notes as well as to form a study group.
Importance of optional for IAS Exam
Optional papers (Paper VI and Paper VII) of the IAS Mains Examination carry 500 marks together which is almost 25% of the total marks (2025) of the written and personality tests put together. So, with so much weightage, the IAS Mains optional can be a deal maker or a deal breaker. If you’d have analysed the IAS Mains General Studies marks of a particular year’s topper and the person who’d scored the 100th rank, the range of their marks will not be at much variance. Toppers become IAS toppers through their Optional subject and the Essay paper. These are the most controllable parts of the IAS Mains written Test. So to say, if you perform very well in these two areas, the chances of you becoming a topper are very high, if you fairly perform well in the General Studies part of IAS Mains Exam. Marks in the IAS Optional paper decide whether or not you’ll get your Interview call, your dream service and your dream cadre. Now having stressed upon the importance of IAS Optional let me first tell you “How not to choose an IAS optional Subject” before suggesting how to choose one.
Factors Affecting the Choice of the UPSC Mains Optional Subject
Interest towards the subject
In order to select the best optional subject for IAS Exam, the first criteria should be the interest towards the subject. When an aspirant is interested in studying the subject, the process becomes much easier.
Syllabus of UPSC Optional Subject
The syllabus and the requirement for coaching for IAS optional subject preparation should be considered next. An IAS optional Subject 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 IAS optional Subject within a period of 5-6 months. The decision to choose a particular UPSC optional subject should never be based on its popularity.
Availability of coaching and reference materials for IAS optional Subject
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.
UPSC 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 IAS Mains Optional with IAS Mains GS Topics
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.
How Not To Choose an Optional Subject for IAS Exam
1. Believing in the myth of the ‘Trend’
People in civil service exam circles often say “This optional is trending now with UPSC. You better pick it up for you to be able to score good marks.” Some others say, “This IAS optional Subject is being taken up by too many people now. Don’t take it. The possibility of you scoring a good mark is less”. Both these propositions are unscientific at best. In any given year if UPSC were to ‘favour’ one optional over the other, most of the toppers that year would have been people who picked that particular optional. This is clearly not the case. Even if coincidentally this were to happen, it is not because UPSC is ‘favouring’ one optional over the other. In any case, the knowledge that many of the IAS toppers had picked the same IAS optional Subject is gained only after the exam results are finally published. This so called ‘trend’ changes from year to year, so what’s the use in going with it when you don’t know whether it will be ‘favoured’ again? The same logic applies to the negative trend of not picking an optional picked up by many aspirants. So never believe in the myth of the ‘trend’. It will get you nowhere.
2. Going with the flow
Some people ‘go with flow’ i.e they choose their IAS optional Subject because their friend has chosen the same optional. Just for the ‘company’ they say. Some people go along the flow directed by the IAS coaching institutes they study in.
The above two are the major criteria on which AS optional Subject ‘should not be picked’. There are other myths to be busted regarding selection of IAS optional Subject. I’ll take it up some other day.
How To Choose An Optional For IAS Exam
I’ve told you how important choosing an IAS optional Subject is and how it’s like your spouse. So before deciding upon your IAS optional Subject, you should take some time.
Download the latest Civil Services Examination notification from UPSC’s website and take a print out of it.
Find the IAS optional Subject list in the notification. There is a list of 26 optional subjects.
Start by striking out the subjects you definitely know that you cannot take up. For example, if you are a Mechanical Engineering graduate there’s a high possibility that you may want to strike out Medical Science or Commerce and Accountancy.
While striking off subjects you should also consider your own aptitude for a particular subject. For example, if you are someone with a humanities background such as Sociology, you may want to strike off a science based subject such as Physics or Chemistry
In any case, take a look at the detailed syllabus of the IAS optional Subject provided in the notification before striking off a particular subject.
As the choices become lesser, eliminate subjects with more care. Eliminate a subject only after being 100% sure that you cannot pick it up.
At the end of the above iterative process you should ideally be left with 2-3 IAS optional Subject for you IAS Mains Exam. Ideally, one of the subjects out of the three should be the subject you graduated in. For example if you have graduated as a doctor, then there is already enough reason for you to pick Medical Science as your optional subject. But for some reason if you don’t like the subject, you can pick allied subjects like Sociology, Psychology or Zoology. I recommend that you pick a subject you graduated in, unless you have strong reasons to not do so.
It is also good to pick subjects which have more spread over other IAS Mains General Studies papers. That way your IAS preparation can be holistic and will take lesser time. For example picking Geography, History or Political Science will help you in other papers.
Carefully consider the options by repeatedly going through the UPSC IAs syllabus because all the 3 have an equal chance to be selected by you.
Next, make sure good source materials are available for the IAS optional Subjects selected for IAS Exam. If any of the three falls short on this count, then that optional can be eliminated, having good sources for the selected optional is a very important criterion. You do not want to be left scrambling for credible sources after zeroing upon an optional. For example literature of Dogri may or may not have sufficient sources.
Finally, go through previous years question papers of UPSC for the selected IAS optional Subject and make sure that the questions asked can be tackled through the sources/guidance that you have. If you think that the questions asked do not conform with your resources, either change the resources or consider a different optional for IAS Exam.
After zeroing upon an optional subject for IAS Exam, read the basic source book for the respective subject for at least a week. In a week’s time you’ll be able to clearly analyse your aptitude for the subject and whether or not you’ll be able to study it for a long time and repeatedly. If you are not comfortable with the subject please change it. Just because you’ve zeroed in upon it, you are under no compulsion to stay with it. You can move on to the other optional and follow the same process with it.