Strategy for History Optional for UPSC

History is a popular optional among UPSC aspirants. As a subject, it has tremendous overlap with General Studies Paper I and the UPSC Prelims exam too. So, in any case, if you are an IAS aspirant, there is no getting away from reading history! History is generally considered a vast optional which deters some students from venturing into this optional. But, the reality is, with proper strategies and a sound preparation plan, thus subject can be covered within 5 months. Moreover, because of the great overlap with the prelims and GS, you can actually cover a good portion of the IAS syllabus with this optional. In this article, we discuss everything you need to know about the history optional including its benefits, booklist, preparation strategy, past performance of the optional, etc.

How many candidates take History optional?

As per the latest released annual report of the UPSC, in 2015, 1821 candidates had opted for the history optional. 102 candidates were recommended to the merit list giving a success rate of 5.6%. Let us take a look at the next table which gives the number of candidates opting for history vis-a-vis the number of candidates who make it to the merit list.

Table for history optional success rate

Year No. of candidates appeared No. of candidates recommended Success rate (%)
2012 2090 174 8.3
2013 1303 100 7.7
2014 1560 102 6.5
2015 1821 102 5.6
2017 1074 59 5.5

As you can see from the above table, on an average, between 1500 and 2000 candidates select history as their optional subject. No doubt, this is due to the huge overlap history has with the GS papers, especially paper I and the UPSC prelims exam.

Toppers with History optional

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

Name Year Rank
Aparajita 2017 40
Ishwar Kumar Kandoo* 2017 187
Gazal Bharadwaj 2015 40
Agam Jain 2015 133
Surabhi Malik 2011 51

*Ishwar Kumar Kandoo secured the highest marks in history optional in 2017. He secured 160 and 156 in paper I and II respectively, giving him a total of 316/500.

History optional pros and cons

A lot of candidates take up this optional every year. In fact, history optional offers many advantages particularly because of the overlap with the general studies papers. Some of the pros and cons of this optional are given in this section.

History optional advantages

Overlap with GS

General studies I in the UPSC prelims exam and General Studies Paper I in the UPSC Mains exam has a good amount of history in the respective syllabi.

A look at the subject-wise breakup of the IAS prelims questions will reveal the importance of history in the scheme of things.

Year No. of questions from History
2011 11
2012 19
2013 16
2014 20
2015 17
2016 15
2017 14
2018 22

In GS paper I of the UPSC Mains exam, Indian art and culture, ancient, medieval and modern history, freedom struggle and world history form a good chunk of the syllabus. So, studying history as an optional will help you cover a great deal in the GS papers. Moreover, concepts like the industrial revolution, world after the Second World War that you read about in history will help you understand concepts in the economy, political science, and international relations also. Adding a historical perspective of things adds weight to your answers in every GS paper.

Essay paper

Studying history will also help in the essay paper because you will get a deeper perception about current events. To understand the way things are today, you must understand the history behind them. Studying about the past helps you comprehend the present better, and also helps you prepare for the future in the light of things learnt, mistakes made and experience gained.

Easy to understand

Another advantage associated with history is that it is easier to understand when compared to some conceptual subjects like political science. Here, there are no big formulas to remember or difficult and abstract theories to learn. You can read and enjoy history like a story. In addition, there are some wonderful documentaries and programs on television that talk about historical events and people. Whenever you are bogged down by the daunting preparation, you can unwind by watching them, and also learn something useful for your exam.

Static versus dynamic

History is predominantly a static subject. Although the UPSC adds dynamism to every subject (except hardcore science subjects like physics and mathematics), history is unlike polity and public administration where every question can perhaps be looked at from the current affairs angle. And, of course, history doesn’t change. So, it doesn’t require constant upkeep like international relations or economy.

Ample study material

There is ample study material available for history optional.

History optional disadvantages

Some of the disadvantages of history are:

  1. If you are genuinely not interested in history, studying it can be boring and tiresome.
  2. It is generally considered that a good writing skill helps to score more marks in this subject.
  3. This is a pet peeve associated with history right from school days. You do have to remember facts here. Not all dates and names need to be crammed, but it does add to your score if you can quote correct dates, places and relevant facts.
  4. The syllabus is generally considered vast.

History optional syllabus

You can check the history optional syllabus for IAS mains from the following link. Even though the syllabus is vast, as explained before, the overlap with General Studies papers makes it a worthy option for interested students.

History Optional Syllabus for UPSC PDF

History optional strategy

In this section, we discuss a few tips and approaches you can adopt in your history optional preparation.

Tip #1: Start with the NCERTs

This is a good history optional strategy especially if you are a novice to this subject and have forgotten your high school history. A lot of candidates prefer the old NCERTs as they give history in the correct chronological order. This helps to understand the timeline of rulers and events, knowledge of which can give you a clearer picture of things. The NCERTs are also simple to follow and understand.

You can download the NCERT history books from this link for free.

Tip #2: Divide and conquer

History becomes easier if you divide it into parts. Indian history is conveniently divided into ancient, medieval and modern. You should ideally know the syllabus of all these parts before you start your preparation. You should also make a timeline of events in each section so that revision becomes easier.

Tip #3: Note making

For a subject with a huge syllabus, it is important that you make notes and study. For every topic, make points under headings such as causes, features, significance, criticism/failure, achievement, impact, etc. This will help you in answering indirect questions. For instance, the failure of the Cripps Mission led to the Congress Party calling for a large-scale mass movement of civil disobedience. This was one of the causes of the Quit India Movement. This way, you can relate events.

Similarly, for every topic, make sub-headings and make notes. For easy note-making, we have prepared NCERT notes for history which you can use as a reference or as a ready-reckoner.

NCERT Notes: Ancient Indian History Notes For UPSC
NCERT Notes: Medieval Indian History Notes For UPSC
NCERT Notes: Modern Indian History Notes For UPSC

Tip #4: Travellers and sources

It is important to read about the various travellers who visited India in the past such as Al Biruni, Fa Hein, etc. You should know their observations about Indian society, economy, polity during their time here, what we can learn about our history from their writings, etc.

Tip #5: Connect the dots

It is important to connect the dots in history. You could relate personalities, circumstances, etc. You can make tabular comparisons of Gandhi and Lincoln/Mandela, Akbar and Sher Shar, Hitler and Bismarck, etc.

Tip #6: Previous year question papers

You must go through the previous year question papers, especially the last 10 years. Many questions have been repeated, so this task makes it easy to understand the most important areas of the syllabus.

Tip #7: Relate to modern times

If possible, while writing answers, make a connection to contemporary times’ polity and economy. This will add value to your answers.

  • When you talk about the industrial revolution, you must remember that many of the things that happen in a mechanised manner today were all done manually before the industrial revolution. You can also talk about how the advent of the industrial revolution led to the growth of urban settlements and also led to poverty in cities in Europe. This can be compared to the problem of poverty and migration to cities that is happening in cities today in India.
  • Communalism reared its ugly head in India even before independence, during the freedom struggle. The tussle between the INC and the Muslim League had its part in the partition of the country. In many ways, its ramifications are felt even today as seen in the sour relations between India and Pakistan.

Tip #8: Maps

You must practice maps regularly as questions are asked from this section. Refer multiple sources for this section as some sources may not give the correct information. Only rigouros practice can help you score marks here.

History optional Strategy (booklist)

  1. History of Modern India – Bipan Chandra
  2. India’s Struggle for Independence – Bipan Chandra
  3. India’s Ancient Past – RS Sharma
  4. The Wonder that was India – Al Basham
  5. Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas – Romila Thapar
  6. Medieval India: From Sultanate to Mughals – 1 – Satish Chandra
  7. Medieval India: From Sultanate to Mughals – 2 – Satish Chandra
  8. History of the World – Arjun Dev
  9. Mastering Modern World History – Norman Lowe
  10. NCERT History Books
  11. Indian Art and Culture – Nitin Singhania
  12. Historical Atlas of India
  13. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century – Upinder Singh

There are a few extra books that you don’t have to study per se for the UPSC exam. However, if you are interested in knowing more about history and getting multiple perspectives about concepts and issues, you may peruse them if time permits.

  1. The Making of Modern India – From Marx to Gandhi
  2. The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India: Economic Policies of Indian National Leadership

FAQ on UPSC History


Q.1. Is history optional easy?

Ans. UPSC Civil Service examination is very tough to clear, irrespective of the subjects that one picks up. The competition is too high. Hence, it all comes down to the level of comfort and interest in a particular subject and how meticulously one prepares history optional notes while preparing for the examination.

Q.2. How do you start a history optional?

Ans. First and foremost understand the syllabus that is needed to be covered in the history optional subject. Once it is clear, refer to the previous year’s question papers of history optional subjects to get a better idea about the kind of questions asked in the examination. Later on, make a timetable and prepare very good history optional notes which will come in very handy at the very end of the preparation when the examination is approaching.

Related Links:

Bipin Chandra Books for UPSC Key Tips to cover Bipan Chandra’s ‘India’s Struggle for Independence’
How to Study Prepare History for IAS Important Battles Fought to be remembered for History UPSC IAS Exam


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