Strategy for Geography Optional for UPSC

Geography is a highly popular optional subject in the UPSC mains exam. It is especially popular with candidates with a science or engineering background because of the nature of the subject itself. It is a science and this makes it attractive for such candidates. It is also popular because of the overlap with the syllabus for UPSC. We discuss all this and more including a strategy for Geography optional in this article.

How many candidates take Geography optional?

In 2016, a whopping 4049 candidates had opted for Geography out of which 236 candidates cleared the exam. In the table given below, the success rate of geography optional through the years 2012 to 2016 are given:

Geography optional success rate

Year No. of candidates appeared No. of candidates recommended Success rate (%)
2012 4351 314 7.2
2013 3158 178 5.6
2014 3515 255 7.3
2015 3391 115 3.4
2016 4049 236 5.8

As you can see from the table, the number of candidates who take Geography optional is high and hovers around the 4000 mark on an average.

Toppers with Geography optional

The following table gives the names of a few IAS toppers who had taken Geography as their optional subject.

Name Year Rank
Pratham Kaushik 2017 5
Ayush Sinha 2017 7
Saad Miya Khan 2017 25
Digvijay Bodke 2017 54
Saumya Pandey 2016 4
Shweta Chauhan 2016 8
Athul J 2016 13
Abhishek Chourasiya 2016 72
Sibi Adhithya Senthil Kumar 2015 72
Ira Singhal 2014 1
Suharsha Bhagat 2014 5
Charusree Thiagarajan 2014 6
Aditya Uppal 2014 19
Chanchal Rana 2013 7
Mangesh Kumar 2012 4

As evident from the table above, toppers with Geography optional are not hard to find. There have been many for whom this optional has been extremely fruitful and helped them realise their IAS dream.

Geography optional pros and cons

There are many benefits of taking geography as an optional in the civil services mains exam like overlap, scientific nature of the subject, etc. There are also a few hiccups such as the rather vast syllabus. In this section, we discuss the pros and cons of the Geography optional in the IAS mains exam.

Advantages of Geography optional

Geography, as an optional, has a number of advantages which will help candidates up their final tally in the UPSC exam.

Overlap with General Studies

There is tremendous overlap with the GS paper I. This is true for both the prelims and the mains exams. The next table will list the marks accounted by geography in the IAS prelims exam from 2011 to 2018.

Year No. of questions
2011 11
2012 17
2013 18
2014 14
2015 16
2016 7
2017 9
2018 10

Overlap with the Mains GS papers:

There is a whole section for Geography in the GS paper I. Even some topics like tribal issues, reorganisations, etc. are covered in the optional subject. About 80 – 100 marks worth questions are asked in the General Studies I paper which you would have covered while preparing for your optional.

Even though there are not many topics in GS II with a direct overlap, some topics from International Relations finds links with Geography such as geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region, SAARC, India and her neighbours, BIMSTEC, and so on. Opinion-based questions like in geopolitics and regional geography is also a part of international relations and current affairs.

In GS III, the topics that can be covered from the Geography optional include agriculture, cross-border crimes, planning, development, infrastructure, industries and resources, transportation, demographic dividend, etc.

Geography also has a lot of overlap with subjects like economy, environment and conservation.

Help in the UPSC Personality Test

Even in the interview, you may be asked about the regional geography of your hometown, such as the climate, soil type, vegetation, etc. which can be answered better with a specialised knowledge of geography.

Nature of the subject

Geography is a multidisciplinary subject. Hence, it is popular with a lot of candidates with a science/engineering background. Once the concepts or the theory behind any phenomenon are understood, you can easily write the answers in your own words.

Scoring subject

Many consider geography a scoring subject because of many factors:

  1. In theories, there are conceptual and fact-based questions where there is less margin to reduce marks.
  2. You can draw diagrams, flowcharts and tables to represent your answers better and drive the point home. A single good diagram speaks for about a hundred words. This saves time in the mains exam.
  3. Map-based questions are particularly scoring.

Disadvantages of Geography optional

The chief pitfall of this optional is that it has a vast syllabus. Also, the competition in this subject is also huge as almost 4000 candidates opt for this optional subject.

Geography optional Syllabus

You can download the Geography Optional Syllabus from the link below.

Download Geography Optional Syllabus PDF

Geography optional strategy

How to start?

To start with this optional, the NCERTs and GC Leong are excellent sources. NCERTs present the concepts in a clear and simple language. They are easy to read and understand, especially if you are a newbie to the subject. Both the NCERTs and GC Leong have very good diagrams which are very important for scoring marks in this subject.  

Geography and current affairs

Until a few years ago, many questions asked used to be static in this subject and only Paper II had more of a dynamic nature. But now, most of the questions asked (both in Papers I and II) are linked to current affairs. It is very important to maintain a separate file of notes for Geography-related current affairs. The newspapers are the best source for this. Almost on a daily basis, you will find some news or editorials on topics like agriculture, industries, fisheries, monsoons, climate change, conservation, wildlife, energy, etc. So, you must jot down important and exam-related points from those news items. For example, a discovery of a new species of flora can be a potential question for the prelims. Along with the notes, you must also preserve any map or diagram given in the newspapers related to the event. Another example, if a particular year saw crop failure, you must understand the climatic reason behind it and the underlying phenomenon of seasons. Please remember, more than the raw facts and numbers, it is the underlying phenomenon or concept that is more important to study.

In 2018, Paper I had a question directly linked to current events.

  1. Explain the unusual intensity of dust storms and thunder storms across India in the pre-monsoon period of year 2018. (10 marks)

Atlas by your side

It is essential that you keep an atlas by your side while preparing for this optional. Whether it is the static or the dynamic portions you are reading, having an atlas by your side will help you visually see what you are reading about. This will help you understand the concepts better and also helps in better retention. For example, when you learn about the geo-politics of the Indian Ocean region, an atlas will help you locate the countries and islands that are important to the issue.

Note making

Notes are very important during preparation, particularly when you are tackling a vast subject like geography. Make sure you make notes only for those topics for which textbooks do not provide a readable content. Otherwise, it would be a waste of time. Do not make notes for every topic. Note making is especially important for current affairs. Your sources for notes should be newspapers, magazines like Down to Earth, government reports, Economic Survey, etc. Augment your notes with diagrams and flowcharts.

Previous year question papers

It is important to solve previous year papers as it gives you a sense of the of the most important topics.

Maps

You must practice maps as these questions, if done correctly, fetch great marks. It is advisable to prepare region-wise maps from standard textbooks covering topics like physical features, terrain, soil, rivers, agriculture, monsoons, industries, resources, drainage, etc.

Types of questions

There are basically three types of questions in the Geography optional.

  1. Direct questions

These are direct questions straight from the syllabus such as difference between tropical and temperate cyclones and the like. In such cases, since everybody writes the same thing, it is important to present your answer appealingly. Make the answer neat and precise. Draw diagrams wherever possible.

  1. Open-ended questions

For these questions, there is more freedom to add positive and negative aspects of concepts. You should also cover multiple dimensions of the issue or concept asked in the question. As usual, do include drawings and map locations if possible.

  1. Map-based questions

Practice the map-based questions that were asked in the last 20 years in the IAS mains. Practice daily so that you can internalise important locations, markings, etc.

Answer writing in geography

  • Diagrams are very important. They help you explain concepts with fewer words. You can save time by including diagrams in your answers. They also fetch more marks. For example, in a question where you are writing about the intensity of the energy crisis in the world, you can draw a map of the world showing the areas of low crisis, moderate crisis and severe crisis.
  • Try to incorporate aspects of both physical and human geography in your answers. Wherever possible, try to present the human angle also. This will also provide an administrative angle to the issue. For example, in a question about Himalayan and Peninsular drainage systems, you can talk about the differences in cropping patterns also.
  • According to topper Pratham Kaushik, when you write answers, make them along the lines of the syllabus like illustrated below:

  1. Examine the role of small towns in the regional development process.

Divide your answer into the following segments: Population and Settlement, Regional Development and Planning, Industries, Resources, Agriculture, Transport and Trade, Political Geography, and Cultural Setting. This will make the answer more diverse and multidimensional.

Tackling the huge syllabus

It is important to read the syllabus thoroughly before starting with the preparation. Basically, we can divide the syllabus into three:

  1. Physical Geography
  2. Human Geography
  3. Indian Geography

The first two sections form a part of Paper I and Indian Geography forms a part of Paper II. When you prepare, try to link paper I and paper II. Topics like population, regional development, climatology, settlement geography and so on can be used for both papers. Examples from one section can be used to make your answers of the other section more relevant.

Geography Books for UPSC

Books for Paper I

  • Physical Geography – Savindra Singh
  • Certificate Physical and Human Geography – GC Leong
  • Human Geography – Majid Hussain
  • Rupa Made Simple Economic and Social Geography
  • Models and Theories in Geography – K Siddhartha and S Mukherjee
  • Climatology by Lal

Books for Paper II

  • Geography of India – Majid Hussain
  • India A Comprehensive Geography – Khuller
  • Map Entries in Geography – K Siddhartha
  • Orient Blackswan/Oxford Atlas
  • Class XI and XII NCERT Books

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