How to Choose Correct Optional for IAS Preparation?

Continuing with our series to guide you from being an aspirant to an officer, here is our take on the selection of the optional for IAS Preparation.

And unless your answer resonates with Alia Bhatt’s, you should stick with us and bear with this long-ish post of ours 😉



CSE syllabus and pattern underwent a sea change in 2013 when UPSC introduced a paper on Ethics, did away with one optional and scattered GS across three papers while still keeping the Essay paper. A candidate is to choose an optional from the list of the available 25 + 1 (Literature) subjects at the time of applying for the examination and the subject so chosen cannot be changed while filling up the DAF (earlier the change was allowed).

The optional subjects were a big deciding factors in a candidate’s success till 2012, when they carried a weight of 1200 out of a total of 2000 in the Mains. From 2013, the optional carries a weight of 500 marks out of 1750. On the face of it, the utility of optional as a deciding factor in the selection appears diminished, however, nothing can be farther from the truth.

Optional subject still play a crucial a crucial role in the final selection of the aspirants. Why? Because the marks obtained by the aspirants in GS and Essay papers have not varied drastically (very few could cross 110-120, in fact few toppers even got marks in 90s especially in Ethics paper) but the double digit rankers scored really well in their optional. And, therefore, choosing an optional is a decision which should be based on sound logic and nothing else. Be Wise, Be Safe should be the guiding principle while selecting the optional.

It can be safely asserted that the number and variety of criterion for preferring one optional over others varies directly with the number of candidates making the selection. However, let us see if we can settle down on some common criterion which can guide an aspirant through the final choice.

#Factors-For, which should guide your selection of the optional:

  1. Your interest in the subject. In fact, it should be the paramount criterion. The reason behind this factor to be paramount is simple enough. If you are interested in a subject, you shall not get bored easily, you shall ponder over it more and in general you would not mind spending more hours to it compared to a subject that you have to study with no inherent interest in it.
  2. Familiarity with the subject. Candidates do look for a subject that they might have studied at graduation level for they are already familiar the syllabus, the books and with what it takes to be at it for a long time.
  3. Overlap with the GS syllabus. If the optional selected by you can also supplement your preparation for certain portions of the GS, nothing like it!
  4. Availability of a reliable coaching institute if you have decided to go for classroom coaching.
  5. Availability of study material (This particular criterion has been rendered redundant  in certain cases with the advent of internet but still for certain other optional, the material available on internet may not suffice from the exam point of view).
  6. The topics in the syllabus to be covered is a natural concern for the aspirants. But generally it helps when you are already familiar with the subject and therefore with the topics.
  7. Few candidates also look for the type of questions that are being asked in the paper but, here, we shall suggest you to be cautious as no-one and nothing prevents UPSC from changing the type of questions. (One year they might ask fact-based questions in a subject making it appear easy but next year might make it entirely opinion/analysis based and difficult to handle)

To be practical, none of the above criterion can be used in isolation while choosing an optional but an approach guided by using above points together can certainly be beneficial in making you pick-up the right optional.

#Factors-Against, which must not guide your selection of the optional:

  1. Do not choose an optional because a friend or a family member suggested it. None of them shall own responsibility in case the choice does not work out well. They shall simply say, they only made a suggestion and you decided.
  2. Because it is the most common optional (Believe it or not many serious candidates fall prey to this and waste attempts before they even realize it and still many realize it after exhausting their attempts). Time and again I hear candidates choosing an optional because it has high ‘success-rate’. I could never comprehend this terminology because I believe, it is the candidates who become successful in this exam and not the subjects.
  3. Because it is more scoring. Candidates have cleared this exam with almost every optional in the list and not just with the so called scoring optional. In UPSC there is no high scoring-low scoring optional but only a paper, an innocent examinee and a ruthless examiner. High scoring-Low scoring optional is a myth.
  4. Don’t let your judgment be guided by the optional chosen by the previous year toppers. Probably they topped the examination because they did not base their choice of options on the subjects chosen by still past toppers. I have not seen any ranker exhorting any candidate to choose an optional selected by them simply because they topped with it.

#So how should we go about this process?

  1. First go through the list of all the optional subjects available before you.
  2. Then take a pen and strike off the optional that you shall certainly not choose. For example a computer engineer shall immediately strike off subjects like Literature or may be subjects like Zoology and Biology. Medical students may strike off subjects like History or Geography or Law. Clear?
  3. Now go back to your school/college days and try to recollect the subject that interested you the most. The subject for which you never bunked the classes. The subject for which you were all ears in the class and that made you learn more and more about it.
  4. Go back to the list of remaining subjects.
  5. Now use the Factors-For and Factors-Against to choose the optional from the remaining list.

In the end, go with the optional take strikes a chord with you and not the one which is most successful or most popular. Happy Selection!


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By Amit Bhardwaj

Engineer by training | Educationist at heart | Indulgences? Reading, Quizzing and Teaching.

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