Choose an Optional that Gives an Edge over Others in IAS Mains

The 2017 UPSC Civil Services Prelims exam is scheduled to be held on 18th June this year. If you are an IAS aspirant you must be well into your IAS preparation by now. The IAS prelims is the first hurdle you have to cross to reach your IAS dream. On clearing the prelims and getting the required cut-off you will be able to take the UPSC mains exam. The mains exam, as you would know, consists of nine papers. This is scheduled to begin in October 2017. The nine papers in the IAS mains exam are as follows:

  1. Paper A: Compulsory Indian Language – 300 marks
  2. Paper B: English – 300 marks
  3. Paper I: Essay – 250 marks
  4. Paper II: General Studies Paper I – 250 marks
  5. Paper III: General Studies Paper II – 250 marks
  6. Paper IV: General Studies Paper III – 250 marks
  7. Paper V: General Studies Paper IV – 250 marks
  8. Paper VI: Optional Paper I – 250 marks
  9. Paper VII: Optional Paper II – 250 marks

As you see, the optional papers total to 500 marks which is crucial to your final marks in the mains exam. So, it is essential that you choose an optional which can work to your advantage and be prudent about it. See the list of optionals you can choose from here.

Many an aspirant break their heads trying to figure out what optional subject to choose so that they can maximise their final tally. If you are clever and go about it the right way, you can choose an optional that can give you an edge over your fellow IAS hopefuls.

Choosing an optional that can give you an edge over your competitors:-

The rules are simple. You have to first select a handful of subjects that we can call ‘probables’.

Then, you have to weigh the pros and cons of each probable from the point of view of the below given ‘factors’:

Background – You have to see if you have prior knowledge about the subject. If you choose your graduation subject as the optional, you have an advantage in that you don’t have to study the subject from scratch. Again, if you have absolutely no interest in your graduation subject, you might be better off choosing a new optional subject.

Scoring – A lot of people go for what is considered a scoring optional. Subjects like public administration, geography, science subjects and some literature subjects are scoring. But you must remember ‘scoring’ is subject to your preparation.

General studies overlap – This is a rule followed by most aspirants. They go for an optional that has maximum coverage in the GS papers also. The biggest advantage here is that you can save a lot of time during your preparation. Examples of such subjects are history, geography, economics, political science, law, etc.

Popular – A few candidates just follow the crowd. They pick the optional that has been chosen by most aspirants in the past. Public administration, geography, history, anthropology and sociology are popular optionals.

Coaching – Sometimes you have to look at the coaching criterion for optionals. If you have opted for coaching, then you must look at the coaching available for the subject and decide accordingly. But beware of joining classes for a subject which doesn’t enthuse you at all!

Study material – This is a valid reason. You would be safe if you opted for an optional for which you can get enough standard reference material for studies.

Success rate – Some candidates look at the success rates of each optional before deciding their optional subject. Check out the optional success rates here.


Once you have weighed your ‘probables’ with the factors, you will get a fair idea of what optional to fix on. At the end of the day, you should follow your own intuition and decide. It doesn’t matter what optional has the biggest or shortest syllabus. There is no optional subject for which you can get away without studying. So, assess your own strengths and weaknesses along with the optional subjects and come to a conclusion. And, there should be no wavering once you come to a decision. So,

  • Make a decision.
  • Stick to it.
  • Study it diligently.
  • Don’t worry about competition.


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