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 exam 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 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. Broadly speaking, the syllabus of the subjects offered by UPSC is somewhere midway between graduate and PG level.

To begin with, the question in most candidates’ mind 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 IAS/UPSC exam

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 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, 2 cleared. Success rate is at best a broad indicator as popular subjects are chosen 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 (for e.g., Mathematics) can theoretically fetch you high marks, as the ‘subjectivity quotient’ is rather 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

Considering various data given above, 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.

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