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State PCS

Optional Courses & Programmes

Geography Hindi Literature History
Law Philosophy PSIR
Public Administration Sociology

Optional and its Significance

What is the Criticality of the Optional Subject in UPSC CSE?

  • The Optional is the only type of subject that aspirants get to choose in Civil Services Exam (CSE) and whose marks are considered in merit calculation. All the remaining papers are either the same for everyone or are only qualifying in nature
  • Optional subject exam is the key to success in the UPSC CSE. In GS Mains exam, you may not be able to make much of a difference but in Optional, you can even have a lead of 20-50 marks if the choice is good and the efforts have been put in the right direction.

What Offers More - Optional or GS?

  • The act of choosing the right optional is quite significant in the UPSC CSE. It is so because the scope of achieving higher marks is more in optional than General Studies (GS) Mains exam or any other category:
    • Although the weightage of the GS Mains exam is 1000 marks, taking average of two-three years, the marks of a GS Mains topper range from 475-525 out of 1000, which is only 50% of the total marks of GS Mains.
    • However, in case of the toppers of optional subjects, the scores range from 350-370 out of 500 which is more than 70% marks.
    • So, even if the weightage of optional subject exam is less than the GS Mains, the possibility of scoring higher marks is much better in the optional exam as compared to GS Mains exam.

What about the Potential of Different Optional Subjects?

  • The potential of an optional subject in itself creates a huge difference in the total scores of the subjects.
  • For instance, two students appearing for the same optional subject have a higher probability of achieving marks in the same range if their level of preparation is the same.
    • However, if they have two different optional subjects then the difference in their scores is quite likely to be more even in the case of the same level of preparation.
  • Wrong choice of optional subject play a major role in being unable to clear UPSC CSE Mains exams.
    • For two serious candidates, the difference in their GS Mains exam will not be more than 10-15 marks whereas in case of optional subjects, this difference generally increases to 40-60 marks.

How Moderation in UPSC Optional Gives it an Edge?

UPSC, unlike the State PSC Exams, does not believe in scaling of optional subjects rather only moderation.

  • Scaling refers to equating the marks of two (or more) different optional subjects. It is done by making a presumption about similarity of level of students.
    • For instance, assuming that the top-scoring student in the Mathematics optional is at the similar level as the student scoring highest marks in Anthropology etc.
  • UPSC doesn’t take this premise to be correct, it rather takes the approach of Moderation.
    • For instance, if an examiner in a particular subject has given a student some extra marks then the chief examiner will reduce (moderate) the marks on the basis of his/her understanding.

Choosing Optional Subject

What should be the Criteria?

There are certain criteria for choosing the right optional, however, there are high possibilities that even the best suitable choice does not fulfil all of the criteria.

  • Subject Scorability: It should be of highest priority to consider how (comparatively) easy it is to score in a given optional subject.
    • It would be wrong to consider that all the optional subjects in the UPSC are equally scoring.
      • For instance, about a decade ago, Psychology was ‘the’ optional subject for the students. Out of the total 700 selections, about 300-350 had Psychology as the optional subject.
      • In 2005-06, Public Administration was the optional subject and in the 1990s, Anthropology was the subject most chosen by the students.
  • Students’ Own Abilities: One cannot be equally good for all the subjects and it is important to recognise what is the most suitable option for you and act accordingly.
    • For instance, if you have exceptionally good writing skills then you must choose a subject where subjectivity matters such as in Political Science, Sociology, Literature, Public Administration etc.
    • However, if writing skills are not your forte, but you can do well with flowcharts, maps, diagrams, then the right choice is going for an optional where diagramatic representation of the answers and maps works well such as Geography or an engineering subject like Physics.
  • One’s Own Interest: The subjects that you really love to study will make the journey of UPSC very easy. You will not easily get tired of studying it, the moments of monotony are quite less likely to occur.
    • The interest that you have in a subject is one of the criteria that should be given primacy, however, it should be considered after the above two criteria.
  • Commonality (Overlapping with GS): If an optional subject is also helpful in General Studies or in Essay or the Interview, then it automatically increases the preference for the particular subject.
    • The other things to consider in this regard is to see by how much marks the subject is helping you (what is the weightage of the contents of the subject in all the other exams.. GS, Interview, Essay etc.) and how much of your time is it saving (the time you are saving by not studying something extra that is comparatively less relevant).
  • Length of Syllabus: Optional subject must be chosen keeping in mind the time in which the syllabus can be covered.
    • If you are able to save one or two months in a subject then it means a lot from the CSE perspective.
    • However, it should also be kept in mind that in order to save a month or two, not a few years are getting ruined due to choosing an unsuitable subject just because because it’s syllabus is short.
  • Sources of Information/Study: Other important aspects for choosing the right optional subject include having enough study materials and proper guidance from seniors and teachers.
  • Dynamism of Subject: Lesser the dynamism, better the subject. In some subjects, questions are the same but answers change every year.
    • For instance, in Political Science Paper-II i.e., International Relations, almost every aspect in the subject is very dynamic and has to be updated regularly.
      • Even in Sociology and Public Administration, although not as much as political science, the aspects of dynamism are quite dynamic.
    • However, in subjects like History, Geography, any Literature subject, Philosophy, Psychology, the answers are not supposed to be changed every year.
  • Background: However, not as significant as others, but if you have a serious background in a subject which also satisfies other important criteria of choosing optional, then the background should be given a good weightage in the selection of the subject.

We believe that the hierarchy of parameters (priority that should be given to a criterion) while choosing an optional subject should be the same as the sequence in which these criteria are listed.

What about Competition as a Criteria for Choosing Optional?

  • The competition should not be a criteria because UPSC CSE optional exam is not an intra-subject competition, the competition is among all the students from all the optional subjects.
  • Moreover, there is not any reservation for subjects; no such criteria that a certain percentage of students will be selected from each subject, so competition for choosing a particular option should not be considered as a viable criteria.

Which Subjects have High Scorability (in English Medium)?

  • A good thing about choosing English as the medium of giving UPSC CSE exams is that the scoring does not vary much from one subject to another.
  • Based on the general trend, the subjects which have the potential to help you score about 330 marks in optional exams (with your immense dedication, ofcourse) are Mathematics, Anthropology, Sociology, any Literature, Public Administration and Geography.
    • Right after them comes History, Law, Management, Commerce & Accountancy.

How to Judge Scorability of a Subject?

  • A good criteria for judging the scorability of a particular subject is to avoid including the rare marks obtained in that subject in your analysis - either the highest ones or the lowest ones.
  • You should look for the subjects where more than 300 marks were scored by students in more than 10 cases (cumulatively not on yearly basis).
    • Also, avoid taking reference of subjects and marks before 2013 because that is when the curriculum of the UPSC Mains exams changed. Include the results of the following years in your analysis.
  • Don’t forget to calculate the average marks of those students (who scored more than 300) as it would give you a generally achievable score in that subject, provided you are a serious, dedicated candidate with very good writing skills.

Studying for Optional Exams

What should be the Right Strategy?

  • The strategy should be made ultimately by you. One of the right approaches would be to complete the whole GS syllabus once and then choose the right optional for you.
  • You can either study parallely (multiple exams; GS, essay, Optional, at once) or by pipelining (one by one).
    • Either of the two approaches is fine, provided you have completely studied your optional syllabus before appearing for UPSC Prelims.
    • You should have not only covered your optional syllabus but have also practised answer writing in that subject.

Objectivity or Subjectivity - What has More Preference?

  • Objectivity of a subject means that it is a factual subject and can have only one fixed, correct answer. Maths, Physics and upto some extent Geography are objective subjects.
    • People who do not have access to good writing and creative thinking skills should choose engineering/science subjects.
    • Geography would also be very helpful because in Geography Paper I, many questions can be managed with the help of maps, diagrams or flowcharts.
  • Subjectivity, on the other hand, means that a question (and subject) can have more than one correct/appropriate answer. Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology, Literature etc. are subjective in nature.
    • People who possess exceptional writing and linguistic skills with a good understanding of humanities should definitely go for subjective type subjects for choosing their optional.
  • Neither objective nor the subjective type subjects have higher marking patterns than the other, both have equal chances of providing you a good score. It is not an absolute criteria but the one relative to one’s own skills.

How much Time should be Devoted to Study an Optional Subject?

  • There are certain subjects that have less length and width but high depth such as Philosophy. History on the other hand is a very vast subject with a huge length and width but lesser depth.
    • If we include depth as a factor too, then the time for completely studying any optional subject would be almost the same.
  • In totality, you will need about 120 classes of 2.5 hours ~ 300 hours of classes to completely study an optional subject.
    • These 300 hours, however, do not include the practice of answer-writing for previous year questions.
      • Including this, the total time that should be devoted is 400 hours.
    • Including the revision and answer writing practice besides gaining basic understanding of the subject, practising previous year questions and mock papers and making short notes, around 700 to 1000 hours need to be devoted in totality in order to perform exceptionally well in the optional subject exam.
  • If you are studying only for optional subject and can devote 10 hours a day, then 100 days should suffice for all these processes combined.
    • However, if you are studying for other segments like GS, Essay etc parallelly and devote about 2.5-3 hours per day, then about 250 days will need to be devoted.
  • We believe a wise approach would be to spend about 2-3 months only on the optional subject and afterwards, spend 1 hour daily on revision, answer writing etc.

Is Self-Study Sufficient?

Yes, you can clear the optional exam by self-studying. If you are studying for optional subject without any guidance or coaching, here are a few suggestions:

  • Find out the institute that provides the best coaching in your optional subject and obtain its notes.
  • Solve the mock-test papers of those institutes that specialise in the subjects that you are studying for.
  • Find at least one person who can evaluate your answers.

Subjects, Sources and Efficiency

How Beneficial is it to Choose Literature Subjects (for Students appearing in English as the Medium)?

  • Any literature subject is highly scorable in the optional exam in English medium.
    • The reason for the same (although quite strange) is that the copies are evaluated by the subject experts only and it is believed that in all the regional literatures, the idea of helping the candidates (appearing in optional exams with regional literature as the subject) prevails.
  • Regional literature is quite subjective in nature, especially in Paper - 2.
    • Even if you do not know the right answers, you may make certain guesses and wite accordingly which pays well.
  • An issue in opting regional literature subjects is receiving guidance from subject experts.
    • If you manage to gain access to that guidance then choosing this subject really helps.

What to Choose if You have an Engineering Background?

  • The trend of performance in recent years for engineering subjects has been neither good nor bad, rather they have produced average results; the ones very good in their subjects have scored about 310-320 marks.
  • If you have the subject (of your graduation which you have dedicatedly studied) directly available in the list of optional subjects (such as in civil engineering), then you can go for it keeping in mind that the highest scorability has been 310-320 marks in average cases.
    • However, if you have not studied well in your graduation and would have to devote about 4-6 months additionally to your graduation subject (for optional), then it is advised to choose a subject that is a part of the GS Mains exams.
  • In case, a student from engineering background is not willing to choose a subject from the engineering field and neither has good linguistic/writing skills, then the most appropriate choice would be to go for Geography as an optional subject.
    • Anthropology, in such cases will also be a good choice as it is closely related to Science. Physical anthropology is also more objective in nature.

What about Law as an Optional Subject?

  • Law, just like engineering subjects, has been producing average results; neither too good nor too bad.
  • If you are not willing to pursue Law as an optional subject, then with the background of Law, the best optional subject would be Political Science because there is Jurisprudence and Constitution that are the common points in the two subjects.

Should NCERT Books be Given Preference for Optional Subjects? 

  • Reading NCERTs first will help you in two ways:
    • It will clarify your basic concepts. Sometimes in the higher level books for UPSC, all the valid content is given but the basic concepts.
      • Clearing your base by studying NCERTs really does the deed.
    • The biggest challenge in UPSC Mains is to write an answer in about 200-250 words which is easier to write in about 600 words.
      • The older NCERT books are so precise that one can easily understand by reading those books about how to write a good answer in a lesser word limit.
  • However, if you have not studied the NCERTs and are satisfied with your preparation, then going back to studying NCERTs is not a basic requirement, but a choice.

In the Examination Hall

What Kind of Answers do the Examiners Expect (Both GS and Optional)?

  • There are no certain patterns or expectations in the UPSC exams in terms of writing visual answers with flowcharts or writing elaborative paragraphs.
  • One may write in paragraphs, highlight the features, maps or diagrams, or use bullet points or headings.

What Kind of Answers do the Examiners Expect (Both GS and Optional)?

  • If the question is objective in nature or can be properly represented in the form of a map, flowchart or a diagram, for instance asking you to compare two states in terms of sex ratio, literacy etc., in such a case, a table will definitely help you write your answer in a way much better than a paragraph.
    • However, when there is an analytical question asking you to discuss the answer in detail, then giving flowcharts and tables would make the answer seem shallow and superficial. It will be missing depth.
  • Be it the GS Mains paper or the Optional subject paper, it should be decided according to the nature of the question (subjective or objective) if it is reasonable to represent the answer with flowcharts, diagrams and maps. The answers should not be unnecessarily overloaded with such things.
  • Let us understand this with the help of an example:
    • Case 1: The question is “Had Mahatma Gandhi not died in 1948, what do you think would be the nature of the Indian Constitution?
    • Case 2: The question is “What were the major differences between the ideologies of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar?”
    • In both cases, although the essence is the same, if you write answers in flowcharts and point format in Case 1, it would take away the depth of the question.
      • On the other hand, in Case 2, the question asks you to enlist the ideological differences which can be more easily explained in a table or by giving 5-6 headings.

Candidates may choose any one of the optional subjects from amongst the list of subjects given below:

Subjects Syllabus
Agriculture Link
Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Science Link
Anthropology Link
Botany Link
Chemistry Link
Civil Engineering Link
Commerce and Accountancy Link
Economics Link
Electrical Engineering Link
Geography Link
Geology Link
History Link
Law Link
Management Link
Mathematics Link
Mechanical Engineering Link
Medical Science Link
Philosophy Link
Physics Link
Political Science and International Relations Link
Psychology Link
Public Administration Link
Sociology Link
Statistics Link
Zoology Link

Literature of any one of the following languages:
Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Odia, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu and English.


  • The question papers for the examination will be of conventional (essay) type.
  • Each paper will be of three hours duration

Optionals Analysis: CSE (M), 2019

Optional Subject Number of Candidates Success Rate (Percent)
Appeared Recommended
Agriculture 124 13 10.5%
Animal Husbandary & Veterinary Science 16 3 18.8%
Anthropology 1189 108 9.1%
Botany 28 2 7.1%
Chemistry 156 13 8.3%
Civil Engineering 146 15 10.3%
Commerce & Accountancy 183 20 10.9%
Economics 243 26 10.7%
Electrical Engineering 200 16 8.0%
Geography 1916 105 5.5%
Geology 30 0 0.0%
History 751 51 6.8%
Law 186 19 10.2%
Management 54 6 11.1%
Mathematics 539 45 8.3%
Mechanical Engineering 213 12 5.6%
Medical Science 247 26 10.5%
Philosophy 439 27 6.2%
Physics 165 12 7.3%
Political Science & International Relations 1662 137 8.2%
Psychology 164 15 9.1%
Public Administration 705 58 8.2%
Sociology 1263 126 10.0%
Statistics 2 0 0.0%
Zoology 44 4 9.1%
Literature Of Assamese Language 3 0 0.0%
Literature Of Bengali Language 1 0 0.0%
Literature Of English Language 31 3 9.7%
Literature Of Gujarati Language 85 3 3.5%
Literature Of Hindi Language 191 13 6.8%
Literature Of Kannada Language 124 17 13.7%
Literature Of Maithili Language 53 2 3.8%
Literature Of Malayalam Language 105 13 12.4%
Literature Of Manipuri Language 7 0 0.0%
Literature Of Marathi Language 6 0 0.0%
Literature Of Oriya Language 3 0 0.0%
Literature Of Punjabi Language 18 1 5.6%
Literature Of Sanskrit Language 53 2 3.8%
Literature Of Sindhi(Devanagari) Language 2 1 50.0%
Literature Of Tamil Language 77 5 6.5%
Literature Of Telugu Language 32 1 3.1%
Literature Of Urdu Language 18 2 11.1%

Popular Optional

Geography was the most preferred subject among the optional subjects chosen by the candidates, followed by Political Science & International Relations and Sociology.

In the recent times, Hindi literature has been a popular optional subject among students writing the mains exam and clearing the CSE.

At Drishti IAS we provide various popular optional subjects whose success rate is highest among other optional subjects. Below is a list of these popular subjects -

Geography Hindi Literature History
Law Philosophy PSIR
Public Administration Sociology

Some Important Tips:

  • It is better to follow a good journal from your related subject. Study subject-specific journals and good articles from authentic sources and newspapers like The Hindu and Indian Express.
  • Try to quote recent reports, indices and surveys or the recommendations of a renowned committee in your answers. Quoting good sources makes the answer authentic and increases your chances of scoring higher.
    • UPSC gives weightage to the authentic answers.
  • While studying current affairs, do note down the recent researches, books, articles, indices, reports and the unique results/conclusions of the reports.
    • Using these unique facts in essays, optional subject exams or in GS Mains exams would be really helpful.
  • You should not be choosy while studying the syllabus of the Optional subject exam. Almost 90% of the syllabus of the subject has to be done.
    • You may leave only one or two topics without studying properly but still having an idea of the same.
    • Those who have studied selectively, are very much prone to risks in this exam.
  • Preparation for the optional subjects is completed only when you have practised all the previous year questions because in the optional exam, it is very much likely that the questions get repeated.

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