How to Select an Optional Subject for the UPSC

How to select the right optional subject or how to select an optional subject correctly is a question that plagues the majority of IAS aspirants, whether they are new to the exam or have taken it before.

Since 2013, when the UPSC eliminated the second optional subject, candidates have had to choose only one optional subject for the UPSC Mains, which consists of two papers worth 250 marks each. Furthermore, UPSC has eliminated specific subjects at the preliminary level that would have narrowed the preparation, possibly relieving IAS aspirants. However, it is advised to choose the optional subject for mains well in advance so that the candidate has enough time to make a list of books to refer to, collect relevant notes, and form a study group.

Even though there is only one optional subject to choose from for the IAS mains exam, most candidates still need help. Most candidates ask the faculty which optional subject to take before enrolling in any IAS coaching center. There is no such thing as the easiest optional subject for IAS mains, and what is easy and what is not depends on the aspirant.

Ideally, this article will be helpful for novices who have never appeared for the IAS Mains before, as well as those who have appeared once or more but are still unsure whether to replace the current optional subject with a different optional subject or continue with the same subject.

What exactly does the ideal optional mean to IAS aspirants?

During recent candidate counseling, we learned that most students needed clarification about which optional subject to take for the UPSC Mains exam. We also asked the students, "How do they choose the optional subject for the mains exam?" and were not surprised by their answers, which are as follows:

  • A subject with a scoring option.
  • The most popular elective subject.
  • An optional subject that is simple to understand or that they are interested in.
  • The subject for which study materials and notes are readily available.
  • Which best coaching is available is optional.
  • They have a background in graduation or post-graduation subjects.


The optional subject within which the majority of candidates passed the IAS mains exam. 

These are the majority of the reasons students give when selecting an optional subject for the mains exam. When selecting an optional subject for the mains exam, IAS aspirants may consider one or more of the reasons listed above. Let us examine these reasons and how an optional subject is classified as scored, popular, or other.

What distinguishes an optional as a scoring subject?

Most IAS newcomers select optional simply because it is a scoring subject, and some of the scoring subjects are geography and public administration. What makes these scoring subjects optional? When we look at the scores of these subjects in the past few years in the IAS mains exam, candidates have scored 400+, while many candidates have scored 340+ and 350+ in Public Administration.

Subjects such as public administration appear to be the highest-scoring optionals in the IAS exam. However, there is no guarantee of this. Any subject can be graded or not. It is dependent on the candidate's performance! The optional subject for the Mains exam can be chosen solely based on scoring criteria. So, here are the following criteria to help you decide.

A well-liked optional:

This category covers the subjects of geography, public administration, history, sociology, and anthropology. Among the 27 optional subjects, including literature, these five optional subjects account for nearly half of the main optional subjects, as they are the most popular with candidates. It would help if you understood why these are the most popular optional subjects. Nevertheless, here are some of the reasons why they are so popular:

  • Anthropology is a popular, high-scoring, interesting subject; students must memorize diagrams, understand the significance of tribal issues, and relate topics to current events.
  • While a subject like Public Administration has a definite syllabus that is quite limited, especially for Paper II, and can be completed in about five months, it requires limited coaching and most syllabus involves self-study.
  • Geography is another subject with a set syllabus, but it is quite broad, so candidates with this option should focus on conceptual questions that require in-depth analysis. Students should also be aware of current events and be proficient in India and World Maps. Furthermore, geography is a semi-scientific subject popular among doctors, engineers, and most candidates due to its laws, principles, and map-based questions.
  • History is a popular optional for the IAS because everyone has studied history in school, and most graduates and postgraduate candidates have taken history as a major subject. History is also an exciting subject with consistent scoring. History requires more comprehension and interpretation because the exam questions require candidates to link concepts with specific facts in their answers.
  • Sociology is simple and fascinating because the topics covered are about humanity and our society. It necessitates the ability to differentiate between abstract concepts and theories.

Nevertheless, the prominent and high-scoring optional has nothing to do with the exam; it is simply a point of view, as a few remarkable people have passed this most challenging exam by taking the less-popular optional subjects. If one looks at the candidates who passed the exam, one thing that stands out is that they chose their optional subjects based on their interests and backgrounds, not their scores or popularity. 

To select an optional subject with some background experience:

Several people who have graduated or completed a Master's degree in a subject choose the same subject as an optional in the Civil Services Exam. This is an advantage because the aspirants are already acquainted with the subject and are not required to devote too much time making preparations for the optional. Most of the popular IAS optional subjects mentioned above are included within the "Arts" subjects, where a humanities degree comes in handy. So, suppose candidates are pursuing graduation or master's degrees in arts subjects and want to take the IAS Exam. In that case, it is advised that they take it seriously and concentrate more on the UPSC Syllabus common to their degree and the IAS Mains Exam.

With these criteria, it is clear that having some knowledge of the subject and an interest in it are more essential factors in selecting the suitable optional for IAS than relying solely on the subject's popularity or scoring potential. Some candidates who took the most ambiguous subjects, such as veterinary science, literature, mathematics, and others, performed exceptionally well in the mains simply because they chose the subject they were pursuing and loved.

There is a widespread misconception that optional subjects for IAs are simple. However, this is not the case. The aspirants' hard work and effort make the subject simple.

Here are a few quick spin rules for choosing the best optional subject for the IAS Exam:

Select the UPSC Optional Subjects that include these points:

  • It makes you more knowledgeable about it.
  • Make books easily accessible.
  • You should not be bored.
  • Inspire you.
  • It forces you to think outside the box.

Aspirants should consider something other than the score. It is strongly advised to all that, instead, they should select a subject that possesses the qualities listed above, keeping in mind that these qualities may differ from one aspirant to the next.

Nothing can stop you from scoring high once you understand the syllabus and have plenty of writing practice.