How to Choose Optional Subject for UPSC

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.

Though, now with one optional subject to choose for IAS mains exam, most of the candidate still find it difficult in choosing the optional subject. Most of the candidate before joining any IAS coaching center, the question they ask the faculty is which optional subject to choose. There is no one subject that can be called the easiest optional subject for IAS mains, and it depends on each aspirant what is easy and what is not.

Hopefully, this article would be useful for the beginners who have never appeared for the IAS Mains yet and those who have appeared once or more than once but are still in a dilemma whether to switch over the present optional subject with the different optional subject or to continue with the same.

What does the best optional really mean to the IAS candidates?

In recent counselling with the candidates, one thing for sure, we understood that most of the students were in confusion about which optional subject to choose for UPSC Mains exam. And, we also asked the students “how do they choose the optional subject for mains exam” and we were not surprised with their answers and the most repeated answers are as given below:

  • A scoring optional subject
  • Most popular optional subject
  • An optional subject that is easy to understand or which they find interesting
  • The subject for which notes and study materials are easily available
  • Optional for which best coaching is available
  • The subject they have a background in graduation or post-graduation


  • The optional subject with which the most candidates have cracked the IAS mains exam

These are some majority of the reasons given by the students which they consider while choosing an optional subject for the Mains exam. IAS aspirants may consider one of the above reasons or multiples when it comes to choosing an optional subject for mains exam. Now let’s look at each of these reasons and analyse how an optional subject is categorised into scoring, popular and others.

Check out the optional subjects’ syllabus from the table given at the end of this article.

What makes an Optional a scoring subject?

Most IAS beginners choose an optional just because they consider it as a scoring subject and some of the subjects that are considered as scoring are Geography and Public Administration. What makes these optional as scoring subjects? When we see the scores of these subjects in the past few years in IAS mains exam, candidates have scored with 400+, while in Public Administration, many candidates have been scoring 340+ and 350+.

What makes an Optional a scoring subject

It is seen that subjects like public administration might seem like the highest scoring optional in IAS exam. But again, there is no guarantee for this. Any subject can be scoring or not. It depends on how the candidate performs! Now, you may think that just on the basis of scoring criteria, one can choose the optional subject for the Mains exam. So, here’s the next criteria to clear what you think.

A Popular Optional

Under this criteria comes again the subjects geography and public administration along with history, sociology and Anthropology. Among the 27 optional subjects including the Literature subject, these five optional subjects almost cover the 50 percent share of mains optional subjects as these are the most chosen subjects as optional by candidates. Now you would have got some idea why these are the popular optional subjects. But what makes them popular, here are some reasons:

  • A subject like Anthropology is popular as well as scoring subject and interesting as well, easy to grasp for science students, students have to memorize diagrams, importance to tribal issues and relate topics to current affairs.
  • While a subject like Public Administration has a definite syllabus and quite limited especially for Paper-II and one can cover it within 5 months or so, it requires limited coaching and most syllabus involves self-study.
  • Geography also is a subject with a definite syllabus but bit vast and candidates with this optional need to concentrate on conceptual questions that require deep analysis. Students should also be aware of current affairs as well as should be good in India and World Maps. Moreover, Geography is a semi-scientific subject and a preferred among Doctors, Engineers and most of the candidates for its laws, principles, and map-based questions.
  • The History optional for IAS is quite popular simply because everyone has studied history in school and most of the graduates and postgraduates candidate would have taken history has the main Also, one will find History as an interesting subject along with even scoring. History needs more understanding and interpretation because the questions asked in the exam are in such a way where candidates have to link the concepts with some facts in their answers.
  • Sociology is easy to understand and very interesting as the topics covered concern humanity and the very society we are a part of. It requires the ability to distinguish between abstract theories and concepts.

However, the popular and scoring optional is nothing to do with the exam it’s just a perspective, as there are few remarkable people who have cracked this toughest exam by taking the not-so-popular optional subjects. If one observes these candidates who cracked the exam successfully one thing could be noticed that they chose the optional subject based on the interest and background and not based on the scoring or popular one.

So how about the coaching criteria?

Now let’s have a look at the optional subject which most of the candidates choose based on the coaching available. Here, what we advise the candidates before choosing an optional based on this reason should think once whether the coaching is required for whatever optional they have chosen. If you have already decided to choose the optional subject just based on this criteria and you think that without taking the coaching cannot clear the civil services exam then you are completely relying on coaching, hope you find best IAS coaching centre as the IAS Exam has become unpredictable now not only for the candidates but also for the most well-known coaching classes as well.

To choose an optional subject with some previous background

Many people who have graduated or done Masters in some subject choose the same subject as optional in the Civil Services Exam. This is a plus point that the candidates’ are already familiar with the subject and need not put much effort into preparing for the optional. This is where graduation in humanities really helps as most of the popular IAS optional subjects’ mentioned above are involved within the “Arts” subjects. So if candidates are pursuing graduation or masters in any of the Arts subjects and desire to take IAS Exam then it is advised them to pursue it seriously and focus more on the UPSC Syllabus that is common to their degree as well as the IAS Mains Exam.

With these criteria, one can understand that having some background about the subject along with interest are the more important factors in choosing the right optional for IAS than merely depending on the popularity of the subject or the scoring potential. Some of the candidates who had taken the most ambiguous subjects like Veterinary Science, Literature, Mathematics and others have scored profoundly in the Mains just because they opted the subject they were pursuing and which they loved.

There is a myth that there are easy optional subjects for IAs. But it is not true. The hard work and effort put forward by the aspirants make the subject easy.

Here are a few flip-through rules in short for selecting the right Optional Subject for IAS Exam

How to Choose Optional Subject UPSC

The subject should:

  • Enthuse you
  • Make you be acquainted with more about it
  • Should not bore you
  • Make you think out of the box
  • Have books easily available

It is well-advised to all the candidates while choosing an optional subject not to think of the score, so choose a subject with the above-mentioned qualities and one thing to keep in mind that these qualities may differ from one aspirant to the other.

Once you have understood the syllabus and have ample writing practice then nothing will stop in scoring big as the marks will follow.

The fact that the candidates who have succeeded in the IAS Exam and scored well in the optional prove that it’s not just the popular subjects are equally scoring. So selecting an optional subject based only on the scoring criteria is inappropriate. If you still have doubts about choosing an optional subject, please register with us for free counselling and get on the right track for IAS Mains preparation.

If you are still wondering which are the most scoring subjects for IAS exam, you should understand that there is no right answer to that question; there is only the right fit for every individual. We have provided you with a few points to ponder over before finalizing on an optional subject. Think through them and finally come to a decision based on what you truly want. It is better to go by your own judgment rather than on what other toppers did in the past. Whatever optional you select, you should study hard and turn it into a most scoring subject for IAS exam!

We hope this article would help you in deciding which optional subject to choose for your UPSC Civil Services Mains. Whatever optional subject you choose, know that it is your effort and work that will make it into a scoring subject. So, once you have come to a decision as to your optional, stick with it and pursue it ardently. You are sure to get positive results.

In case you are wondering which is the highest scoring optional subject in the IAS exam, you can go through the success rates of the different optionals in the UPSC exam from the link below:

Choosing the Right Optional Subject for UPSC Civil Services Mains Most Popular Optionals in the UPSC Mains Exam
What is the Success Rate of Different Optional Subjects in the UPSC Exam Mains? Syllabus for Optional Subjects for UPSC Mains


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  1. Hello sir,
    This is Siddhi Jadhav wanted to enquire about the current affairs , how many days prior the current affair should read if I am attending the examination in 2021.

  2. Hi sir,
    I am Shambhavi Upadhyay, I am currently starting out as a first year student of Journalism and Mass Communication and I am worried that I would not have a solid background for any optional subject as such except arts based subjects which are very common. What do you suggest I do?

    • Hi Shambhavi
      Though there is no such subject as Journalism offered by UPSC in the optional subjects’ list. One can still opt for subjects like Sociology, Public Administration, History and Geography.

  3. Hello sir,
    M not able to opt for my optional subject as m from engineering background and all subjects are new for me with so much vast syllabus. How do i choose which subject will be best for me. As i have started my prep from September only so I am not having vast knowledge of any subject. Can u guide me for this please.

  4. Hi sir how to choose optional paper in ias .
    My intrest to zoology its worth for ias

  5. Sir, i am geetha i am interested to take geography subject in mains and i have a strong practice over it but i am CSE student studying engineering . Sir, so can i opt for geography or else should we take our under graduate subject. I need a faster reply sir Thanking you.

  6. Can an arts student choose science subjects as optional if he has intrest in that subject. Im from arts background but love to study physics. Can i choose physics as optional.

  7. Hi sir
    I’m Priyanka i was in 1st year of bsc agriculture is there any optinal subject for this.

  8. Hi Sir
    I have recently graduated in Bsc. MLT . I can’t decide on which optional subject to choose as only Medical science is related to my graduation , but it’s syllabus is far vast than my field .

    • Hi,
      You can also opt for non-technical subjects like sociology, public administration, geography, or history. If you are interested in Indian Polity, you can also take Indian Polity and IR. These are few subjects that most of the students opt for if they have a different graduation subject.