Which Subject Is Best For IAS Mains Optional

Since 2013, UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) has reduced the number of optional subjects for the theory part (Mains) of the IAS exam process to one. Prior to 2013, candidates had to choose two optional subjects. This change, along with more stress on GS has meant that on the one hand, overall weightage of the optional subject has decreased vis-a-vis GS while the choice of optional remains a crucial factor in the overall success.

Why is the choice of an optional subject important in IAS exam

To answer this question, one must understand the UPSC exam pattern. The IAS exam comprises three stages, namely Prelims, Mains and Interview. Out of which, marks in Mains and Interview form the basis of Final Merit List.

To be a part of the final list of recommended candidates, usually close to 50% marks are needed in total (Mains + Interview). The GS part in Mains is diverse and comprehensive, so it becomes essential from the exam point of view to identify key areas which can fetch more marks with reasonable effort.

Broadly speaking, there are three focus areas for candidates who wish to score high marks without getting bogged down by the vast UPSC syllabus.

  • Interview (275 marks) – 20-odd minute discussion with the UPSC panel
  • Essay (250 marks) – two essay topics of 125 marks each
  • Optional (500 marks) – two papers of 250 marks each

How many optional subject choices are offered by UPSC

In total, there are 48 optional subjects, out of which, a candidate has to choose one. The table below contains the names of all the available optional choices for IAS.

Table of optional subjects for UPSC

Agriculture Animal Husbandry & Vet Science Anthropology Manipuri (Literature)
Botany Chemistry Civil Engineering Marathi (Literature)
Commerce Economics Electrical Engineering Nepali (Literature)
Geography Geology History Oriya (Literature)
Philosophy Political Science Psychology Punjabi (Literature)
Public Administration Physics Sociology Sanskrit (Literature)
Law Mathematics Management Santhali (Literature)
Medical Science Statistics Mechanical Engg Sindhi (Literature)
Zoology Assamese (Literature) Bengali (Literature) Tamil (Literature)
Bodo (Literature) Hindi (Literature) Konkani (Literature) Telugu (Literature)
Dogri (Literature) Kannada (Literature) Maithili (Literature) Urdu (Literature)
Gujarati (Literature) Kashmiri (Literature) Malayalam (Literature) English (Literature)

The Literature papers have almost no overlap with the GS or other parts of the UPSC exam; however, there have been IAS toppers with those subjects. Refer this to understand the Pros and Cons of taking Literature optionals in UPSC Mains Exam.

How to select the best optional subject for UPSC

There are many factors which combine to form the ‘best’ optional from an individual’s perspective. Before impulsively deciding on a subject, a candidate must ask herself/himself the following six questions.

  • How vast is the syllabus of the optional?
  • How much preparation time do you have?
  • Do you have prior knowledge of the subject at the graduate/PG level?
  • How much syllabus overlap is there between your optional choice and GS part in Prelims/Mains?
  • Are the study material and coaching readily available?
  • Do you have the requisite drive/interest to study the subject for UPSC exam?

Depending on the answers to the above six questions, a candidate should make an ‘individual’ choice as to the best optional for them.

As the saying goes, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. A candidate who is MA in Sociology will view Sociology optional as the best subject while a candidate from a medical background will prefer the medical optional. The UPSC syllabus for optional subjects is almost midway between graduate and PG level. The first step for any candidate should be to peruse the UPSC Mains syllabus for optional subjects and, then refer to 3-4 years of past question papers for the subjects one is interested in before making their final choice.

Which optional subject has the most overlap with GS in the IAS exam

The following subjects are popular among IAS aspirants from both technical and non-technical backgrounds because of the high overlap with GS or other parts of the UPSC exam:

  • Public Administration – Highly relevant, compact syllabus, paper II (Indian Administration) has a lot of overlap with polity and governance part in GS II.
  • Sociology – the study of society, lots of material which can be used in GS I, Essay and even in Ethics paper.
  • History – relevant for prelims as well as GS I.
  • Geography -relevant for prelims as well as GS I
  • Political Science – relevant for prelims as well as GS II
  • Law – relevant for prelims as well as GS II

Optional subjects like Economics, Philosophy, Anthropology, and Agriculture are also good choices.

Which is the best UPSC optional subject for medical students and doctors

Out of the available options (refer to the table of subjects above), Medical Science is a natural choice. There have been several IAS toppers with a medical background who took medical science as their optional.

To some extent, subjects like Zoology and Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Science can also be considered. However, if a candidate from a medical background isn’t willing to opt for medical science as the choice of optional, then non-technical subjects which have some overlap with GS become the pragmatic choice.

Which is the best IAS optional subject for engineering background candidates

A lot of candidates from an engineering background have performed well in the IAS exam with a wide range of optional subjects. However, if a candidate wants to choose an optional subject based on their previous knowledge, then the options reduce to Civil, Mechanical and Electrical engineering. Obviously, it does not make a lot of sense to opt for an engineering subject unless one studied the same at the graduate level.

Subjects like Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry can also be considered. These technical subjects reduce the subjectivity in marking to some extent, but the preparation time and effort is substantial. So, it’s always better to go through the respective syllabi and past question papers first.

Which is the best optional subject for commerce background IAS aspirants

Both Commerce and Management are organic choices for the UPSC exam. However, it depends on the individual.

‘XYZ’ IAS topper scored with ‘ABC’ optional. Should I take the same?

Over the years, candidates have got top 10 AIR in IAS exam with a broad range of subjects. Be it Medical Science or Political Science or even Sanskrit Literature; it is the choice and the drive of the individual that makes the difference.

The better way to go about it would be first to choose the subject based on what fits your scenario the best and then reading about the strategy of toppers who took the same optional subject for UPSC exam.


As such, there is no restriction from UPSC’s side on the choice of optional subject in IAS exam. A candidate is both free to make his/her own choice but is also constrained by the repercussions (vast syllabus, complex theories, substantial preparation time, dynamic nature of questions, etc.) of making that choice.

While it remains an individual choice, candidates should also view and understand the trends like the most opted optional subject in IAS mains and the optional subjects which have the highest success rate in IAS exam or the most scoring optional subjects for UPSC mains. You can refer to UPSC Best Optional Subject: Top 10 Optional Subjects for Mains to get more information on the same.

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  1. Will it be a good choice if I choose Botany as an optional subject for UPSC Mains as I am currently studying it for my undergraduation?

    1. Yes, Jennifer.
      It is a plus point to have a subject that you already have studied in your graduation. However, make sure that you complete the syllabus mentioned by UPSC on time and thoroughly. Analyse previous year question papers of Botany optional beforehand.

  2. Mallikarjungouda Gandigoudra

    Can a 5 times failed and passed in 6th chance in PUC exam and completed degree may apply for UPSC exam

    1. Anyone with a graduation degree and who meets all the eligibility criteria may sit for the UPSC exam.

  3. If I want to take political science as optional subject for upsc, then which stream would be good to take in class 11

    1. Hi
      If you want you can take humanities’ subjects at your school. Know how to prepare for IAS at home here.

  4. I had completed my graduation in 2013 and want to give upsc exam in 2021 exam, can I appear in that.

    1. Hi
      One has to be within the age limits set by the UPSC to sit for the UPSC examination. There are different age limits for different categories. Please check the UPSC eligibility criteria at the linked article where you will find all the required qualification for UPSC Exam.

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