The second stage of the civil services exam, the UPSC Mains Exam, includes optional subjects and you have the full freedom to choose your preferred UPSC optional subjects from the given list of optional subjects.MPSC has also brought about a change in the examination pattern, which would be applicable from 2025. The crucial part of the change is the introduction of the optional paper along the lines of UPSC CSE. The Optional Subject plays a great role in being the score-differentiator for aspirants. In the CSE Main exam, out of the nine papers, two papers, Paper VI and Paper VII are from the optional subject for UPSC. They are optional Subject Paper 1 and Optional Subject Paper 2. Each of them carries 250 marks. So, the UPSC optional subject carries 500 out of 1750 marks in the UPSC Mains Exam. The marks obtained in the UPSC optional subjects are considered for the preparation of final merit i.e selection. Hence, the choice of an optional subject for UPSC must be made cautiously. Unlike the earlier times, candidates have to now choose just one optional subject, and hence, “how to choose the best optional subject for UPSC” remains the most frequently asked question by UPSC aspirants!
In this article, we have listed the UPSC optional subjects that a candidate can choose. However, it needs to be done with an expert strategy on how to choose the best optional subject for UPSC. You can click on the hyperlinks to check out the syllabus of a particular subject.
The selection of the best and most appropriate optional subject is a confusing task for the aspirants. And especially with respect to MPSC in the present scenario, where the change has been recently introduced, it becomes even more imperative. It should be decided only after proper analysis of all the syllabi as well as by understanding the Pros and Cons of the optional subject that we hope to choose. Many students are usually confused by the sheer list of all the optional subjects. Generally, students are confused between various subjects of humanities background like Political Science and International Relations, History, Sociology, Anthropology, Geography, Public Administration, Economics etc.
There are many important aspects to be kept in mind while choosing an Optional Subject –
Kindly identify your interest in a subject by exploring it through school-level NCERTs (Class 11th and 12th preferably), going through the Optional subject syllabus, and your comfort level in reading the subject.
a.For example: If you are from Commerce background, look for what you have already studied in college and choose accordingly between Commerce, Management or Public Administration.
b.If you are from an Engineering background, check the syllabus and content of optional subjects like Physics, Chemistry, Maths., Engineering optional – Civil, Electrical, Mechanical etc. If you are not comfortable with the science subjects mentioned, check other optional subjects such as Geography, Psychology, Anthropology, Political Science, Sociology, Public Administration, Philosophy, etc.
And it is also imperative to understand if you have really studied your graduation subjects carefully or completed your graduations just for the sake of it.
Check from your peers, friends, and civil servants who have already qualified, for identifying the best coaching/Guidance/Study Materials.
Study material from a good coaching along with the classes conducted will accelerate your preparation manifolds.
Find out on your own from the past question papers and the syllabus regarding the contribution of the optional subject towards General Studies and Essay Paper of the Mains exam.
(This won’t be possible for MPSC,but you can still use the UPSC Previous Years Question Paper as the Yardstick) A candidate’s individual performance can vary on a large number of parameters compared to his competitors. But there can be Optional Subject (s) that do not fetch the marks desired as compared to the effort put in by candidates. A few Optional Subjects also at times, go through a few years of toughness, either in the questions asked or the marks awarded.
(You can study this from the annual report of the UPSC, Link Below)
https://www.upsc.gov.in/annual-reports. In these voluminous reports, the important area of focus in this regard could be a table mentioning “Distribution of Candidates who Appeared vis-à-vis Recommended by Optional Subjects – Civil Services (Main) Examination. For e.g. refer to Page number 100 of the 71st UPSC Report that is available on this URL.”
Apart from the comprehension ability, a candidate should decide on how much time he/she would be able to spend on studying an Optional Subject. A few candidates might be working while preparing or studying at a university etc, and should be able to estimate the amount of time required to study the chosen optional subject along with General Studies.
You can follow the methodology given below for selecting your optional subject :
Step 1: Go through the list of all optional subjects. The list is mentioned in
UPSC/MPSC notification.(Hyperlink for syllabus)
Step 2: Shortlist at least 3-4 optional subjects which you feel like opting.
Step 3: You can think about your degree subject as an optional subject or any other
subject you find interesting.
Step 4: Read one good basic book of a shortlisted optional subject.
Step 5: Finalise your optional subject based on what you like and what you
Step 6: Feel Free to Connect with any of the faculty & Subject Matter Expert at Chanakya Mandal Pariwar who can guide you through this process.
Selecting the optional subject for the UPSC civil service mains exam is a personal decision. Every individual has unique strengths and weaknesses; they also have different educational and professional backgrounds. A candidate must weigh the pros and cons of a particular optional subject and if the pros outweigh the cons, he/she can zero in on that subject. We herein discuss certain optional subjects along with their Pros and Cons.
History As Optional
“A generation which ignores history has no past and no future.”
History is a popular optional among aspirants. As a subject, it has tremendous overlap with General Studies Paper I and the Prelims exam too. So, in any case, if you are an MPSC/UPSC 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, this subject can be covered within the time frame. Moreover, because of the great overlap with the prelims and GS, you can actually cover a good portion of the syllabus with this optional.
History can strategically be chosen as an optional subject since a huge chunk of the GS syllabus in the Prelims and Mains gets covered. Since it is non-technical in nature, it can be opted for by non-History students also. In addition, standard material is easily available on the subject both in print and on the internet. History is both enlightening and all-encompassing in nature, and the fact that socio-political situations have their roots in history gives students of this subject a better analytical capability and perspective on important issues of the day. It also helps in answering the compulsory Essay paper where knowledge of history helps, not to mention its value in the UPSC Interview.
The likely drawbacks of the subject are its vast syllabus and abundance of material which can confuse students and hamper focussed preparation. Therefore, the strategy to deal with the subject becomes very important.
History is a thoroughly engrossing and insightful subject. It is as scoring as any other optional subject under Humanities. However, it is the interest and aptitude of a candidate in a particular subject along with a good strategy that makes it scoring or otherwise. According to trends over the past few years, at least 1-2 candidates having The History as their optional come among the top 15 and about 150-200 odd selections every year are from this optional. Incidentally, Shruti Sharma (AIR 1, UPSC CSE 2021) had History as Optional and has scored 306/500.
Geography As Optional
Everything has to do with geography — Judy Martz
Geography is one of the most popular optional subjects in the UPSC civil services exam. There have been toppers with this optional in previous years. The most famous topper is Ira Singhal who topped the civil services exam in 2015. Also, in the 2016 UPSC exam, rank 4 holder Saumya Pandey had taken Geography as her optional subject. While many aspirants swear by Geography as their optional, many others don’t regard this as the ideal optional for them.
There is tremendous overlap with the GS paper I. This is true for both the prelims and the main exams.
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.
Many consider geography a scoring subject because of many factors:
Anthropology As Optional
The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences. —-Ruth Benedict
Anthropology as an optional subject in the civil services mains exam can also be a popular choice for aspirants, especially for those with a science or engineering background. It is also an interesting subject and is considered scoring by many. UPSC topper Anudeep Durishetty (AIR 1, CSE 2017) had anthropology as his optional subject.
Anthropology is probably the sole optional in the UPSC Syllabus of which a considerable portion has been cut down. Due to the removal of topics namely Development Anthropology, Ethnicity, Reproductive Biology, Twins, and so on, the subject is hoped to be a popular optional for the IAS exam like it was a few years before. Some of the reasons why candidates select anthropology as their optional are less material to read in areas like anthropological theory, research methodology, and demography among others.
Anthropology is thought of as an easy subject for graduates of science. The subject is peppered with concepts of science. This makes the subject easier to grasp for science students. The Exam oriented reading material for this subject is also easily available.
Anthropology is science-oriented. So, while answering the question for the Civil service mains examination the answers should be crisp and to the point. One should add diagrams and flowcharts appropriately.
The updated syllabus is more scoring in nature.
According to the trend, many candidates have obtained good marks and gained the attention of candidates to choose the same as their optional for the UPSC IAS Exam. But always keep in mind that, if you have no interest in this optional subject and it is judicious not to choose it as your optional subject. The most vital thing when you select an optional subject should be your interest in it. If you are enthusiastic to learn more about a subject and love reading about it, you should go for that subject.
Political Science and International Relations as Optional
Political Science and International Relations is one of the optional subjects offered by the MPSC/UPSC in the mains exam. It is a popular optional subject and one that many toppers have chosen for UPSC Exam. Incidentally, after Tina Dabi got selected with AIR 1 in 2015-16, having PSIR as her optional subject, many students have been taking up this optional subject. It has been observed that the syllabus for this optional subject is broad, and due to this students desist from taking Political Science and International Relations (PSIR) as their optional subject.
Some key points that will help you to opt for PSIR as your optional:
There are many advantages to choosing Political Science Optional for the Civil services examination. viz.
Overlap with General Studies (GS)
Political science has a good overlap with the general studies papers, especially GS Paper II. This overlap is true for both the prelims and the mains exam
As you can see, the entire GS paper II syllabus is covered under this optional. Also, a portion of GS Paper III such as security and even environment are covered under this subject. In GS Paper IV, ‘ethical thinkers’ is a topic that is covered if you take up this optional. Paper I of this optional has the topic ‘Political strategies of India’s freedom struggle. This will also give you a bit of an overlap with history in GS I. Even topics like modern India and World History (post-1900) can be covered better through this optional.
Moreover, even in the essay paper, a topic on politics or related issues is generally asked. So, a candidate who studies this optional will get enough fodder to write about related topics in the essay paper.
So, it can be safely said that there is considerable overlap of subject material if you take political science and international relations optional. You can successfully integrate your prelims and mains preparation and also save a lot of time during the preparation process.
Help in current affairs coverage
Many topics in this optional are related to current affairs, especially in section B of both Paper I and Paper II of this optional subject. As such, this will help in your current affairs preparation. Conversely, this subject has a contemporary nature and so, answers can be embellished by quoting examples and anecdotes from the daily newspaper reading as well.
No background in the subject needed
Another advantage of political science is that this is not a very technical subject. Hence, a candidate need not have any prior knowledge or experience in this subject. It can be read and understood if you access the right books and online sources. So, anyone with an interest in the subject can take it up.
Help in the UPSC interview
A knowledge of polity and international relations will also comprehensively help in the UPSC interview as many of the panellists are either retired diplomats or defence experts. This is because of the strong linkage of polity and IR with current affairs. An understanding of political theories will also help candidates present their views better and in a more convincing manner.
Cons of Political Science optional
No doubt, there are many advantages of political science optional. But, there could be a few difficulties also, especially if candidates do not think through before selecting this optional. Political science has a lot of theory-based concepts which might sound too abstract and difficult to comprehend for many students. This means the answers should be presented in a very crisp manner. Generally, it is thought that good answer writing skills are essential to ace this paper. Even though this is true of all the UPSC papers, it is especially true for such optionals, particularly when you compare it with more technical subjects like maths, science subjects, or even geography and anthropology.
Public Administration as Optional
Public administration is one of the most popular optional subjects candidates opt for in the UPSC civil services exam. For instance, in 2012 almost 50% of the successful candidates had public administration as their optional subject. That is indeed a high number. But later on, the number kept on declining. But, it is still one of the most preferred optional subjects. E.g. Pradeep Singh AIR 1, 2019.
Pros of Public Administration Optional
Public administration overlaps with General Studies:
Public administration covers almost 60% of the GS papers.
General Studies Paper-II – Topics Overlap with Public Administration:
General Studies Paper III – Topics Overlap with Public Administration:
General Studies Paper IV (Ethics) – Topics Related to Public Administration:
Public Administration and Essay Paper:
There will mostly be an essay topic from ‘Polity, Governance, and Democracy.
A few examples from previous UPSC question papers are given below:
Cons of Public Administration Optional
Sociology as Optional
UPSC Civil Services Mains Exam has Sociology as one of the Optional Subjects with 2 papers (Optional Paper I and Paper II). Sociology subject matter has overlap with General Studies Paper 1 in MPSC Mains (Indian Society part) and it is also helpful for GS 2, GS 3, and Essay paper. The nature of the Sociology MPSC/UPSC Syllabus focuses on contemporary issues in society.
Moreover, sociology optional has gained such immense popularity owing to several reasons including:
Economics as Optional
Adam Smith, the Father of Modern Economics defined Economics as, “an inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations.” Economics, one of the most popular social science subjects, is one of the most important aspects of a country. Any civil servant should be aware of the Indian Economy and the position of India in World Economics. This makes Economics an essential optional subject in UPSC Mains.
Although not as popular as optional subjects like Anthropology and Sociology, Economics as optional has seen a pretty good number of candidates achieving the topmost ranks. This includes the top-rank holder of CSE 2013, Gaurav Agarwal.
Economics optional Advantages/Pros
Economics optional disadvantages/cons
Note: We are using the UPSC CSE’s previous Year’s Question Paper as a yardstick for understanding & analysing the optional subjects, as we have no reference whatsoever to MPSC, but given the fact that MPSC has copied the UPSC in matters of the syllabus, therefore comparison between them can be made safely.