Strategy to Select Best Optional Subject for 2021 UPSC Mains Examination

One of the most haunting questions UPSC CSE aspirants face right from the very start is picking the best optional subject for IAS exam. The importance of choosing the right optional subject can be gauged by this dilemma seen in aspirants. The current format has reduced the number of optional subjects to be selected to one comprising of 2 papers of 250 marks each.

The decision of selecting the right optional subject is very vital and also plays a very significant role in the aspirant’s overall score of the exam. There are various aspects which enable the aspirants to select a particular optional subject. While these factors may vary from person to person, they do play a crucial role for the right selection. Let’s have a closer look at these factors:


Certain optional subjects have gained immense popularity among the aspirants as they are considered scoring in nature. Optional subjects that have gained immense popularity are Public Administration, Geography, History, Sociology and Psychology. These five optional subjects alone account for about 50% share of the Mains pie. They are a prominent choice among aspirants because of the hype created that these subjects are well scoring.  There are multiple reasons for the same:

  • Public Administration and Geography have a well defined and definite syllabus. Public administration in general has quite limited syllabus especially for P2 that can be covered in a span of 4-5 months. One requires very limited coaching for Pub ad as a major part of the syllabus involves self-study.
  • Geography is a popular optional among students from science background as it is a semi-scientific subject for its principles, laws and map-based questions.
  • Sociology is a popular optional owing to the ease of understanding and interesting topics covered in the syllabus are concerning the very society that we all are a part of.
  • History is a scoring optional and very interesting. Most of us would have studied it as a part of the school curriculum.
  • Psychology has gained a lot of popularity of late as it is a combination of all the above attributes and also due to the availability of excellent coaching.

Being popular, a subject gets picked by a lot of aspirants. This increases competition and leads to high cut-offs. This way the chance of an aspirant clearing the cut-offs decreases because of the increase in the number of aspirants.

Scoring Optional

It is known that most aspirants select an optional simply because it is considered scoring. As we discussed above subjects like Public administration and Geography are considered scoring. In the past few years, while Geography has returned marks with 400 plus in Mains, many students have been scoring 350 plus in public administration but this shouldn’t be the sole criteria for selecting Mains optional.

Availability of Coaching

Most coaching institutes today largely have a money-making approach and it is rare where one comes across a few functioning ones with a nonprofit approach. Even before one selects an optional subject based on the availability of coaching institutes, it is very important to analyze if coaching is required for that subject at all. For this, an aspirant should first go through the syllabus of an optional and select the optional itself. Only after this step is when one should decide if the coaching is necessary.

Optional With Some Previous Background 

Many aspirants who have graduated or done Masters in some subject opt for it in the Mains exam. This can be an advantageous strategy if that person has a strong liking for the subject and finds it intriguing. The reason being he/she is already familiar with the subject and need not start from scratch. An aspirant who has graduated in a humanities subject will have an advantage as most popular optional subjects are included within the Arts subjects. This point makes a strong argument that previous background and interest are more vital factors in selecting the right optional rather than scoring potential or popularity.

Some Important Tips:

Most of the candidates who have achieved success in this exam are of the opinion that selection of the best optional subject gets you halfway through in this examination. Apart from the above-mentioned factors, we need to look into a few more sources.

  • The first step in optional selection is to go through the list of all the optional subjects in IAS Mains and narrow it down to one or two choices.
  • The next step is to analyze the entire syllabus of optional subjects, previous year’s papers, past trends and try to get feedback from other aspirants who are proficient in the subject.
  • A subject should be such that it excites one and makes you think out of the box.
  • Selection of optional differs for different aspirants and hence it wouldn’t be correct to base one’s choice on other’s opinion. An aspirant should go for it only if it ignites an interest.
  • Once the syllabus is mastered and you gain a good hold on the subject, marks will follow.
  • Loads of writing practice and an in-depth understanding will help one score well and it holds equally for all the subjects.
  • Other factors like the recent trend of marks, level of difficulty and familiarity of the subject etc. help one make an informed decision.
  • An ideal optional subject would be the one which wouldn’t hinder the time for General studies preparation and one can finish studying in a time-bound manner.


The overlapping strategy is followed by a lot of aspirants where one would choose an optional which forms a considerable part of General Studies as well. So, when one starts preparing for that chosen optional, a considerable part of GS is covered as well. This might seem like a luring strategy but one should choose an optional only when it interests them genuinely. Many optional in some way or the other contribute towards GS or Essay preparation.

  • Political Science optional overlaps with Polity and India and the world part.
  • Geography covers GS geography, environment, climate change etc.
  • Economics overlaps with the Economy part of GS mains.
  • Sociology overlaps with GS social issues and can also come in the Essay section.
  • Public administration and Law both cover Polity. Pub ad also overlaps with the governance part.

Few last pointers:

  1. Choose an overlapping optional only if you are strong in that subject else it might backfire.
  2. Depending on the time left for preparation for that optional, one should take a call. It is advised to avoid taking an optional subject which requires extensive preparation.

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