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How to select the best optional for UPSC Civil services (IAS/IPS) examination

Updated on December 9, 2016

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How to select the best optional for UPSC Civil services (IAS/IPS) examination

One of the most frequently questions asked by Civil service exam (IAS/IPS) aspirants is how to select the best optional subject for the mains examination.

Before shedding light on the above, let me give a little insight into the historic trend and recent changes made in the Mains examination. For years, the optionals subjects in the mains examination were the deciding factor in determining the overall written marks of the candidates and ultimately their rank and service. Till 2012, it was not uncommon to see candidates getting top ranks solely with their optionals' scores, despite scoring poorly in the General studies (GS) papers and Essay. IIT graduates and graduates from reputed institutions have often scored in excess of 380 out of 600 marks in their optional papers, which were the subjects they studies in their colleges. Similarly, candidates proficient in literature often scored in the range of 360-400 in their literature optionals. This boosted their overall score even if they didn't perform well in the other optional subject, and they ended up with good ranks.

From 2013, UPSC removed one optional from the syllabus, therefore leaving the choice of a single optional subject to candidates. This has undermined the weightage of optionals paper score to some extent, though it still determines the overall score to a large extent. Right now, a score of 260- 280 marks in optionals is considered as "very good". It would take you within the top 300 ranks easily. In 2014, a friend of mine came within the top 40 ranks, largely due to his score of 280+ in his optional papers.

So which optional should I choose?

Having appeared in the Mains examination 5 times, I have a fair knowlegde of the nuances of the optional papers. In my experience , generalistic subjects such as Public administration, Sociology, political science etc are relatively easy for candidates to study and obtain decent marks. However, these optionals do not always fetch 'extravagant' scores although a handful of candidates score very high marks each year. However, these are considered as smarter choice because a candidate with a simple academic background can easily master these subjects. You don't need to be an alumnus of an elite institution to learn these subjects. An Arts graduate can easily score 250+ if he studies the optional subject with goodconcentration and hardwork

On the other hand, science subjects and core subjects such as Anthropology, zoology, Botany, economics etc can fetch even higher scores in the range of 270-300. In the mains exam, even a difference of 15-20 marks per paper is considered great and it can decide the fate of your rank and service.

What is the Latest Trend of Scores?

Over the last 4-5 years, Optionals like Geography and Public administration have become "Low- scoring" optionals. Sociology and Political science are "Moderate-Scoring" and Anthropology is an "High-scoring" optional. However, this trend is not permanent and may change after some years.

So How must one go about choosing an optional?

Interest: One must consider their inherent interest in an optional before going for it because if the subject seems dry or difficult, there is no point in going for it even if it has high-scoring feasibility. It will be a story of sour grapes. The subject must be appealing to you and you must be able to study the topics in the syllabus without much difficulty. For example, most people would find Sociology an appealing optional, because it studies about society, its evolution and its various sub structures such as Religion, economy, Politics and Family. Same is the case with Political Science. Though public administration is more related to our daily life, the subject may seem dry to some people as it involves many theories and thinkers

Usage in General Studies: If you choose Geography or History, it will be largely useful to your General Studies papers as well. On the other hand, if you choose a science or core subject such as Botany, it many not be useful to General Studies

Scoring Potential: Already explained above. Choose an optional that will fetch you decent marks. Choosing an optional just for interest sake is of no use. Remember that you are sacrificing substantial effort and time for the exam, so make sure that you reap benefits. One must not waste time in acquiring knowledge alone, as success is most important

Please go through the UPSC Syllabus on the internet to get a fair picture of the optionals papers and the topics they contain. Simultaneously, go through previous years' question papers. You must be able to get a good idea and make a decision.


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    • JvicIndia profile image

      John 21 months ago from India

      In 2016, candidates who wrote with Geography, Public administration got hit the most and were awarded low marks. Sociology was ambivalent. Niche optionals like Psychology, Anthropology etc continued to be highly productive