History as an Optional Subject for Civil Services

In the history of All India Service examinations such as the IAS, ‘History’ has been one of the most popular of the Optional subjects. The selection of the right subject as optional has a bearing on the overall score of the candidate.

History can strategically be chosen as an optional subject since a huge chunk of the GS syllabus in the Prelims and Mains gets covered. Since it is non-technical in nature, it can be opted by non-History students also. In addition, standard material is easily available on the subject both in print and on the internet. History is both enlightening and all-encompassing in nature, and the fact that socio-political situations have their roots in history, gives students of this subject a better analytical capability and perspective on important issues of the day. It also helps in answering the compulsory Essay paper where knowledge of history helps, not to mention its value in the UPSC Interview.

The likely drawbacks of the subject are its vast syllabus and abundance of material which can confuse students and hamper focussed preparation.Therefore, the strategy to deal with the subject becomes very important.

History is a thoroughly engrossing and insightful subject.It is as scoring as any other optional subject under Humanities. However, it is the interest and aptitude of a candidate in a particular subject along with a good strategy that makes it scoring or otherwise. According to trends over the past few years, at least 1-2 candidates having history as their optional come among the top 15 and about 150-200 odd selections every year are from this optional.

History Optional Strategy UPSC

The strategy for the IAS Mains examination involves developing a proper perspective and acquiring a thorough understanding of the subject.Therefore, greater attention should be paid to the honing of the analytical capability rather than mere collection of information.

To acquire a thorough understanding of the subject, the following pertinent questions should be posed and duly answered on each and every theme/topic of the subject.



What is it? (or) What happened?


Why was it done? (or) Why did it happen?


How was it done? (or) How did it happen?



What was the outcome/impact?



In carrying out the above task, some standard textbooks ought to be consulted. But it is neither feasible nor advisable to prepare elaborate essays on all the topics. Instead, detailed synopses on all the topics may be prepared, which would be invaluable for quick and easy revision.

A crucial part of the preparation involves question-analysis. An analysis of the last three decades question paper reveals that several types of questions have appeared in the examination. On the basis of the terms and words attached to them, the questions can be classified into the following categories/types.








Merits & demerits/advantages & disadvantages/failures &

achievements/for & against



an account of/enumerate/list


Going into the details or elaboration



Explaining with the help of relevant examples


Account for

Giving reasons or causes


Trace out

Dealing in a chronological order


Of the above five categories of questions, the analytical types are the most frequently asked ones accounting for almost fifty percent and are potentially high-scoring. The other four categories together make up the rest and are average in scoring.

In writing answers to all types of questions, there is a three-fold criterion that has to be fulfilled. Every answer is evaluated for its relevancy, clarity and precision. Relevancy shows subject command; clarity of thought gets expressed in lucidity of presentation; and precision demonstrates not only comprehending skills but also articulation.

So, after acquiring a thorough understanding of the subject, a candidate should concentrate on the ways and means of applying it to the examination in the most effective fashion. Writing answers to as many previous and potential questions as possible and getting them evaluated is indispensable and highly rewarding in this examination. Possession of knowledge is a prerequisite, but only the application of it in the most effective fashion yields the desired result.

Thus, in the final analysis, it may be reiterated that History is definitely a safe optional. Any candidate who puts in the required effort with systematic planning can hope to not only cross the fifty percent mark but also post the winning score of sixty.

Reference Books:

Ancient India

  • A history of Ancient and Early Medieval India – Upinder Singh
  • IGNOU M.A.( Selective reading)
  • NCERTs(Old and New)
  • L.Basham:The Wonder that was India,Vol I
  • Internet

Medieval India

  • Satish Chandra
  • IGNOU B.A., M.A. (Selective Reading)
  • NCERTs( New)
  • A.A.Rizvi:The Wonder that was India,Vol 2
  • Internet
  • For Map Practice, Spectrum’s Historical Atlas. According to the time scale it is advised to divide the location (prehistoric/historic) and then map them in practice maps state-wise.Also visit Self Study History website
  • Spectrum Culture Book

Modern India

  • Plassey to Partition – Sekhar Bandopadhyay
  • A New Look at Modern Indian History – B.L. Grover
  • India Since Independence – Bipan Chandra OR India After Gandhi-Ramachandra Guha
  • Modern Indian History-Spectrum
  • Internet

World History

  • Mastering Modern World History-Norman Lowe
  • L Mukherjee (Selective reading)
  • World History-Jain & Mathur
  • Internet

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