UPSC Best Optional Subject: Top 10 Optional Subjects For IAS Mains

The prestigious IAS exam is conducted by the UPSC (Union Public Service Commission). The examination has three stages (Prelims, Mains, Personality Test), and every year lakhs of hopeful candidates apply for it. Overall, the exam process for every individual candidate is the same. However, in the Mains stage of the IAS exam, a candidate has to choose an optional subject (2 papers, total 500 marks), and selecting the best optional subject can make a lot of difference.

Read on to know which optional subjects are most popular, most scoring or have the highest success rate in UPSC and whether a candidate should select his/her optional based on trends.

Optional subjects for UPSC exam

There are many factors to consider before selecting the best optional subject for IAS exam such as syllabi, time available for preparation, etc. The syllabus of the subjects offered by UPSC is somewhere midway between the graduate and PG levels.

To begin with, the question in most candidates’ minds is perhaps “How Many Optional Subjects in IAS Mains“. Refer to the link to find out the number of optional subjects and the syllabus for the same.

Which optional subjects have the highest success rate in the IAS/UPSC exam?

According to the latest UPSC 69th Year report, the Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT) updated the success rate of the optional subjects for the UPSC 2017:

The tables below mention the success-rate of optional subjects, including literature subjects in the UPSC 2017:

Success-Rate of Optionals in UPSC 2017

Optional Subject Candidates Appeared  Candidates Recommended Success Rate
Agriculture 89 11 12.4
Animal husbandry and veterinary science 23 2 8.7
Anthropology 880 85 9.7
Botany 44 5 11.4
Chemistry 126 11 8.7
Civil Engineering 124 11 8.9
Commerce & Accountancy 224 28 12.5
Economics 233 16 6.9
Electrical Engineering 193 19 9.8
Geography 2669 147 5.5
Geology 37 2 5.4
History 1074 59 5.5
Law 304 43 14.1
Philosophy 755 53 7
Political Science & International Relations 1246 117 9.4
Zoology 484 18 3.7
Mathematics 441 26 5.9
Management 86 7 8.1
Mechanical Engineering 170 19 11.2
Medical Science 313 32 10.2
Physics 140 14 10
Psychology 193 21 10.9
Public Administration 1165 119 10.2
Sociology 1421 137 9.6
Statistics 3 0 0
Zoology 55 1 1.8

The table below gives the success rates of the Literature subjects in the IAS mains exam 2017:

Optional Subject

Candidates Appeared Candidates Recommended

Success Rate

Assamese 3 0 0
Punjabi 39 6 15.4
Bengali 3 0 0
Gujarati 101 8 7.9
Kannada 115 4 3.5
Marathi 17 0 0
English 21 2 9.5
Urdu 26 5 19.2
Tamil 107 5 4.7
Sanskrit 70 5 7.1
Malayalam 111 8 7.2
Manipuri 13 1 7.7
Telugu 72 1 1.4
Hindi 267 19 7.1
Bodo 1 1 100
Maithili 78 5 6.4
Nepali 1 0 0
Oriya 5 0 0
Sindhi 2 1 50

Success Rate of Optional Subjects in UPSC 2016

The following data is taken from the figures of the 2016 civil services examination.

Optional Subject Candidates Appeared Candidates Recommended Success Rate
Agriculture 220 41 18.6
Medical science 98 16 16.3
Animal husbandry and veterinary science 65 8 12.3
Economics 326 37 11.3
Psychology 1061 116 10.9
Anthropology 345 37 10.7
Public administration 3201 337 10.5
Political science 1320 85 6.4
Geography 4049 236 5.8
Sociology 1555 89 5.7
Chemistry 124 7 5.6
Commerce and Accountancy 266 15 5.6
History 3870 212 5.5
Law 365 19 5.2
Philosophy 2092 84 4
Zoology 484 18 3.7
Mathematics 277 8 2.9

The table below gives the success rates of the Literature subjects in the IAS mains exam.

Optional Subject Candidates Appeared Candidates Recommended Success Rate
Assamese 5 2 40
Punjabi 19 5 26.3
Gujarati 42 7 16.7
Kannada 84 14 16.7
Marathi 42 7 16.7
English 40 6 15
Urdu 29 4 13.8
Tamil 225 29 12.9
Sanskrit 122 10 8.2
Malayalam 67 5 7.5
Pali 255 18 7.1
Telugu 147 9 6.1
Hindi 974 56 5.7

Based on the data given above, Assamese Literature has the highest success rate of 40%. It is so because only five IAS aspirants chose that in the particular UPSC exam year and out of those, two cleared. The success rate is at best a broad indicator as popular subjects are selected by a lot of IAS aspirants, hence dragging the success rate downwards.

Which is the most opted optional subject in IAS mains?

Over the years, a few subjects are consistently chosen by the vast majority of IAS aspirants. These most popular or most opted optional subjects are so because their syllabus overlaps with other parts of the IAS exam ( Prelims, GS I, II, III or IV, Essay).

Optional Subject (Approx) Number of Aspirants Syllabus Overlaps with
History 3500 Prelims, GS I
Geography 3500 Prelims, GS I and GS III
Public Administration 3000 Prelims, GS II
Political Science 1800 Prelims, GS II
Sociology 1800 GS I, GS II, Essay
Philosophy 1000 GS IV. Essay

As far as UPSC exam strategies go, choosing a subject with some overlap with GS remains quite popular. However, there are many candidates who don’t opt for popular choices either because they are more interested in or have prior knowledge of some other subject. Also, candidates often feel that scoring in a popular optional subject can be tough as there is more competition.

However, the decision to choose the IAS mains optional should consider the popularity factor to some extent as a popular subject has both subject material and experts readily available.

Which are the most scoring optional subjects for UPSC mains?

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 (e.g., Mathematics) can theoretically fetch you high marks, as the ‘subjectivity quotient’ is somewhat limited. 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 diligently.

Top 10 optional subjects for UPSC

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

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

However, these are still broad indicators, and IAS aspirants should consider the data with a grain of salt. The best optional subject for candidate A is not necessarily the same for candidate B. So, the question “Which Subject is best for IAS Mains Optional” has to be answered from an individual’s perspective.

Also, read:

11 Comments

  1. thanks for your kind service

  2. Thanks it is really helpful!

  3. Good and useful information thanks.

  4. Interesting and helpful

  5. Which optional is more scoring in upsc
    Which is best optional

    1. Hi Dhruva
      An aspirant should an optional subject gong by his/her interest. However, to get and idea on how scoring the subject is, check the link given – Scoring Optional in UPSC.

  6. Which books required for upsc prelims and meins

    1. Hi
      You can refer to UPSC Books page for detailed information. Also, you can refer to NCERT Books for UPSC too.

  7. Hi,
    There is optional language and optional subject. Is it compulsory to take one from both or do we have a choice to make?
    If I’m taking Agriculture as optional subject which are the best book for this?
    As I completed my degree in animation is it okay to take agriculture as optional?
    Thank You

    1. You have to choose only one optional subject. And, you can choose any of your interest. You can check Strategy for Agriculture Optional in the linked article.

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