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How to choose Optional for UPSC/CSE/IAS?

Many people have asked this question and i wrote this reply to someone on this very forum. I think it may help others as well.

Hello buddy...

Choosing optional is the most difficult task in CSE exam. I also faced similar problem and I couldnt get any good gyan from internet. All I got was fatte and I went with the wind of that time PubAd. So, after 3 years into this area, I think the following method would be best suited objective evaluation and help you in choosing your optional.

This is an objective way to reach an optional best suited for a particular person in general. Of course there can be exceptions.

1) What is your field of interest- Always pick what excites you cause IAS exam is a marathon and not a sprint which can be done away with pure muscle power. If you like what you read and enjoy it, then you can top it. Gaurav Agrawal, Rank 1, 2013, took the most unconventional optional which was Economics cause he liked it and he was good at it. The sheep mentality in UPSC doesnt work anymore, where everyone used to take PubAd and more than 60% of the selected students had PubAd as their optional. If you like your subject you can dig deeper and the optional wont be a burden to you. So pick up XII NCERT of any subject that you feel you like, and see if you are good at it. (Almost all subject has NCERT on it even Business Administration). And remember you should be able to learn even the most boring part of your chosen optional. Cause, every optional has a boring part. Even if you love History or Maths, there are many boring parts in it and thats what makes the mastery of optional very difficult. Give 5 weightage to it.

2) Availability of subject material - This is the second most important thing. If you cant acess great material, then the battle is already lost. You are done. Even with best brains and aptitude in the given optional you cant make it. There is dearth of good optional material in PubAd. No coaching has yet come up with comprehensive material on pubad adn claim that 90% of teh questions will be from their material or notes. Even the standard books are not enough. However in sociology, the material avaialable is very good as it is taught at university level throughout the world and you can get tonnes of material. Same is with Geography or maths etc. Give it 4 weightage

3) What you have already studied lessens your burden. Choosing an optional from your graduation year can be a great boost. As you are already familiar with the subject. All you have to do is expertise in that subject. Taking a new optional is not the best idea as you have to start from scratch and you will have to do 5 year course in one year. And also there is a very good probability that what you chose in graduation was mainly because you were good at it and so choosing that optional will help boost your performance, take less time, bore you less and will be less of a burden. Gaurav Agarawal chose Economics cause he had studied it extensively in his MBA program and also cause he was interested in it. This made it easier for him to concentrate on other new areas GS1 to GS4 and essay. Tina Dabi Rank 1, 2015 had studied Political science in her 10+2 and in graduation as well. ie 5 years of continuous exposure made her good in her optional and required lesser preperation and lesser time to develop writing skills needed for her optional sparing her more time for GS and Essay. Give it 4 weightage.

4) Dyanamic/Static nature of the subject. Very important in current scenario. The pattern of current exam is such that in dynamics subject such as PubAd and IR(International relations), the landscape is changing quickly. As you might have heard, PubAd is still not a fully developed subject and its roots are very new. And so a lot of new changes keep taking place. IR also changes very rapidly due to so many conferences and meetings. Thats why people are not able to get good marks in GS2 due to dynamic nature of subject IR. But IR still has the advantage of being discussed widely and so material is available. PubAd is an esoteric field, only understood by a few professors in IIPA or the working IAS at top rung of their job who have undergone good amount of training and very few reports. ARC 2 reports are out dated now. Almost 10 years have gone by. Static subjects such as Psycology, History, Maths etc are doing good in such new scenario. So, I will give this aspect 4 weightage

5) Availability of proper Guidance There is a need for proper guidance on your subject. It can be through a blog of topper or through coaching institute or through some topper you know and is ready to guide you. There is tonnes of material to be studied for optional and if you are not sure what to study and what to leave, you are going to decrease your cost-benefit ratio. In fact what you dont need to study is more important than what you need to study. Cause many times we study useless books and find our time is gone. Here guidance is very important. But still, if you have great enthusiasm for your optional and can analyse your weakness and concentrate on what to study without being affected by market forces(i.e. millions of books and magzines in market), then guidance may not be that important as happened with Gaurav Agarwal with his Economics optional. There was not much good optional guidance available but he still made it after studing million new papers from EPW. In PubAd also, good guidance is not available. So, I will give Guidance3 weightage.

6)Optional doing well This can be one way to choose. Sometimes UPSC does favour a few optionals. Antropology did great during the 1980s. During 1995-2000 it was science especially Maths. Then from 2002-2012, PubAd had a dream run. 2012-2014 Sociology, Philosophy and literature were doing good. Literature is still doing great. Law, Maths and Medical science are other optional that are doing great. Someone pointed out that for past 3 years, one question in Pali has been repeated every year. And students give special focus on that question and get good marks out of 25 marks. Also Literature according to many have very small syllabus and can be completed in 15days to 1 month leaving a lot of time for other subjects. Anthropology seems to make a comeback these years. That was one of the main reason, UPSC tried to delete the Literature optional in 2013 but public pressure forced them to make it stay. But, still I dont think that is a good way to choose optional. So if your choice of optional is within currently good optionals, you can give it a try. But you never know, UPSC can give stepmotherly treatment to any optional any year. This has happened to many and can happen to you. So, give UPSC current favourite optional 2 weightage.

After doing this objective exercise and reading basic NCERTs of optionals you are trying to chose for a week, you can arrive at an optional best suited for you. Hope it will help you all new aspiring students.

Good Luck to all.


  • Choose a subject with fewer takers, this will benefit in scaling. Extreme marks are not common in uncommon optionals. Moreover, you have to outperform less candidates.

    A case in point: 29 people took Mains with English Literature in 2013. 5 people made it through, making it the fourth successful optional in percentage terms. 33 people appeared with it in 2014. How many passed will be declared in the next UPSC annual report.
    Only 1 person appeared with Santhali literature in 2013 and he made it through, relegating English to 4th. Otherwise it would've been 3rd most successful.
    When there are around 50 people with your optional, you have to write better answers than only 49 students, as compared to the 2500 students that you've to compete with in case of PubAd or geography.

    That being said, taking a lesser opted optional does not guarantee success, it just reduces the uncertainty of marks to some extent.

    This is what I've observed in the past 2 years, other more experienced people can correct me if I'm wrong.

    I dont think choosing unconventional option matters.... Its the level of preperation that matters....

    Many people(around 50) do take Mechanical Engineering and for past 3-4 years there has been zero selection. This year there was one selection.

    Those who choose unconventional option do so only because of their interest in such subjects and because they already have sufficient knowledge about it... so they tend to do well.... Not because they just chose unconventional subject....
  • @beast You asked about, choosing an optional, This has been already answered above in great detail, here is my reply:

    Choosing a right optional is very important, but as there are so many optional in the current pattern, which one to choose is really difficult. Everybody will have different take on optional, whom to ask for the right guidance ? seniors or teachers? Should I take optional with highest success rate? which one is smallest? which one demands less hard work ? Will the optional help in General studies or essay? My friend has taken it, so should I also take it ? etc. so many questions cross our minds. It makes one very frustrated at times and clueless. But don't worry its natural, every aspirant has to go through it.

    Well answer to all of your questions is with you and nobody can really answer these questions for you, as nobody would really know what do you really like.
    Let me explain this- Suppose a person with optional "X" will tell you that, its the best optional take it, you took it blindly and after few months/say 1 failed attempt, you realized that you don't like the optional and you need to change it. Well its never too late, you can change it but by then you already have wasted 1 attempt. You will be cursing the person who asked you to take that optional. I have seen people changing optional even in their last attempt (6th) Imagine !!

    Importance of interest/liking factor ?

    Every optional has great chances of success, provided you really like the subject and can study it for few months without hating it. Hard work/smart work is required in all of them, so you can't escape from it, you will have to work hard, harder and harder till you kill it. Availability of good teachers/coaching or quality study material/ reference books will certainly help to add value but these are not the sole criteria. What if I have got the best teacher in the world, but no interest in the subject? Interest in the subject is very important factor.
    Every year we hear about success/failure of a particular optional but wait, its temporary, it's not gonna happen always, thats the UPSC, we can't do anything about it. I have seen people getting marks in 2 digits in an optional paper (less than 50 out of 250) and the same people got marks around 125-140 next year. so we can't do anything about it. If its gonna happen, its gonna happen! Not to worry that way you too will have your chances someday, isn't it?

    How to choose then ?
    • Never choose any optional because of popularity factor/success rate - As there is nothing called good/bad optional in UPSC. Any optional which has performed very bad for 2-3 years might turn out to be best performing optional next year.
    • If you are from humanities background, your graduation subject can be your savior, as you have already studied the subject in detail for 3 years. I hope you have done that, can't say the same thing for engineers!
    कभी किसी को मुकम्मल जहाँ नहीं मिलता..
    कहीं ज़मीं तो कहीं आसमां नहीं मिलता.....

  • Part 2 :

    For Engineering graduates :
    A. You can choose your engineering subject, if you have that passion for the subject.
    B. If you are from engineering background, and want to choose a humanities subject then ?
    • Go through the syllabus of various subject given in the notification. Try to zero down on few of them as your heart tell you. Your heart somehow know what's you really like. For an example while I was going through the same procedure, I chose Philosophy, because some of it's syllabus was familiar like- Socio-political philosophy, philosophy of religion looked very interesting so I thought Paper 2 will be easy for me, as it's as per my interest though I had no idea about the paper 1. I am sure you are not going to select Medical Science as your optional if you are a computer science graduate, isn't it ?
    • Once you choose/shortlist few optional subject- then it's time to go through last 2-3 years question papers!! yeah that's right, I know what I am talking about ! Some might feel as if I am asking a nursery student to write 10th standard exam, nope I am not asking that. Just go through the questions, see if you can comprehend something. It will help you for sure to arrive at the right decision.
    • By now you will have answers to few questions which you had in the beginning. That's for sure ! You can't be as clueless about choosing the optional as you were in the beginning !
    • Now it's time to discuss with the friends/ seniors/ forum members/ teachers/ Quora/ selected candidates or anyone you may like. Listen to what they have to say, ask them the counter questions if you get a chance. But never make your decision based on their suggestions, just listen, let your heart do it's job. Trust me.
    • So by now I hope you will take a decision to go with an optional. Now it's time to check whether you really like it or not ? Yeah testing time- Start reading few parts of it from the standard books only! Never follow any coaching material in this phase at least, later you can, if you finally decide to take this optional. Read for few days then only you would know how it is.
    • Do the above exercise for optional subjects you shortlisted. Yes all of them !! That way only you can figure out. Well don't purchase books for all of them, take help of fellow aspirants.
    • It's time to take the final call- if you have done everything sincerely as suggested above, you will have answers to all of your questions regarding choosing an optional.
    • It's time taking process, it might take 10-15 days but it's worth trying. Blindly following someone and then regretting later won't help you.

    कभी किसी को मुकम्मल जहाँ नहीं मिलता..
    कहीं ज़मीं तो कहीं आसमां नहीं मिलता.....

  • Part 3 :

    Its possible that even after so much, you choose an optional which you don't like reading after few months. In that case don't have ego problems, if you can't manage it, just change it. That's the only way out, but make sure you don't have to do such thing in your nth attempt. Its generally seen that after 1 or 2 unsuccessful attempts, students have that temptation to change the optional, but you need to be very rational about your approach, always take decisions wisely. That's it.
    I wish you good luck, I hope this post will help you in the right direction.
    कभी किसी को मुकम्मल जहाँ नहीं मिलता..
    कहीं ज़मीं तो कहीं आसमां नहीं मिलता.....

  • @MARCOS thanks a ton !
  • @beast since you had inboxed me about choosing optional here is my response:

    I agree with what has been said above and frankly speaking I don't have anything worthwhile to add without being repetitive. So I would suggest you to keep the above suggestions in mind while deciding.

    In case if you still have any doubts or insecurities I would suggest you just follow the simple rule: just like they say that you should do a job which you can love doing, you should marry someone you can spend the rest of life with, similarly you should take a subject which you can just read and read and read without ever thinking of it as a Burden or from Marks and exam perspective. If there is something you can really Enjoy reading and even after doing so your heart says 'yeh dil maange more' take the subject without thinking about competition or previous years marks trend.

    Baki to aap khud samajhdaar honge hi :)
    2013-Failed Pre by 7 marks
    2014-Failed Pre by 1 marks
    2015-Failed Mains by 25 marks
    2016-Failed Pre
    2017-Final Battle
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