Which optional is best for UPSC beginners

The decision of selection of the IAS Mains Optional is an age-old dilemma for Civil Services aspirants. As per the latest syllabus, the number of optional subjects to be selected is reduced to one, but aspirants are still confused if they make the right choice or not.

Though the weigtage of the optional paper is only 500 marks out of 2025 marks as per the latest pattern of UPSC Civil Services exam, it is still a deciding factor in the final ranks due to the unpredictability associated with General Studies Papers (1000 marks  GS + 250 marks essay) and Interview (275 marks).

How many marks are needed to clear the IAS Exam?

If we analyse the question papers and mark-list of the last 5-10 years of UPSC Civil Services Exams, we can collect a lot of interesting and valuable data.

The UPSC questions have evolved and now the bias is more towards current related aspects of polity, economy, international relations etc than conventional topics. (Please also keep in mind that there is no guarantee by UPSC that the case will remain the same for future exams!) Due to the high standard of questions and valuation, the marks scored by top candidates is coming down every year. The percentage of top ranks in IAS exam has come down from 58-60% in 3-4 years back to 50%, while the last rank of a successful candidate in the General category is around 40% marks.

In 2012, only the first rank holder Ms. Haritha V Kumar secured more than 1000/2000 marks in UPSC mains. In 2013, the AIR 1, Gaurav Agrawal scored 769/1750 (44%) during mains stage. Interview marks (206/275), along with marks for the optional paper (296/500) ensured his top rank.

There is every chance that the same trend of low scoring, tight competition to continue in coming years as well, as the weigtage has shifted towards GS in new UPSC syllabus, which is low scoring (as of now!). It is at this juncture, one cannot take a casual approach regarding the selection of an optional subject for mains.

How crucial is the decision of IAS Mains Optional?

If you are so strong in all your GS papers with consistent newspaper reading and note-making habits, the decision of IAS Mains optional might not play a big difference in your results. But unfortunately, very few aspirants fall into the “strong GS” category of students and it’s not easy to get into the club without serious long term preparation.

For all others, ClearIAS.com call them “average GS” category, the decision of IAS Mains optional is very crucial. You need to select an optional subject in which you are comfortable to score high in UPSC mains. The level of comfort depends on many factors like the – familiarity of the subject, availability of books and other study materials, availability of faculty, the scope of peer discussion, recent trends of marks, the level of difficulty as per the syllabus and previous question papers etc.

If the subject you took for graduation is available in the list of subjects given, in most cases the same option will turn out as a comfortable option. All others (who don’t have an option for optional subject:-)), look for an optional subject which you can finish in a time-bound manner without encroaching the time for GS preparation.

Also read: How To Make Sure That You Clear IAS mains?

Overlap for the IAS Mains optional subject with General Studies: Is this the right strategy?

Selecting an overlapping optional with General Studies is a good strategy, as the time required to study an optional subject not mentioned as per GS syllabus can be saved. This case not universally applicable though.

Take the case of Rachat Raj, UPSC 2013 Rank 3, who scored exceptionally well with Zoology optional. There are also many who made it to the top with optional subjects like Medical Science or Law. None of these overlaps with GS syllabus as subjects like History or Geography do.

Never take an optional just for the sole reason of GS overlap. Also never take an optional just based on advice from coaching institute gurus.

Trust good mentors, but by this age, you are grown up enough to realise the commercial interests behind promoting each optional subject – be it History, Geography, Sociology, Pub Ad, Psychology or anything like that.

Please understand that each and every optional subject is scoring. Due to the scaling effects, some optional might not turn high-scoring in some years, but there is no universal trend or theory. Your requirement is to score maximum marks for the optional subject as well as in GS. Time available, the effort required and the possibility of maximum marks are three crucial factors to consider before you select the option.

Optimisation of Optional and GS Marks

  1. Don’t take an overlapping optional if you are weak in it, there is every chance that it can turn counterproductive.
  2. Don’t take an optional subject which requires extensive preparation, if the time left before you is limited (say less than 4 months)
  3. A scoring overlapping optional subject, though which might require substantial preparation due to the vast nature of the syllabus can be adopted, if you have – background/ previous exposure in the subject, or if there is adequate time left. If you are running short of time, select an optional paper which requires less time for a decent level of preparation.
  4. If  1-2 years is available before the mains exam, a hardworking candidate might be able to finish standard textbooks of almost any optional subject. But compromising GS marks for Optional preparation can also turn suicidal, and hence not advised as per the latest pattern of the exam.

The popularity of IAS Mains Optional Subjects

In IAS exam preparation, certain optional subjects are very popular. Though the number of candidates selecting each optional for IAS mains can vary year to year, the below table gives an average estimate for the coming years based on past year trends of optional subjects (As per latest syllabus).

Optional SubjectProbable Number of Candidates  selecting
 each optional Subject in IAS Mains
GeographyAround 3000
HistoryAround 1500
Public AdministrationAround 1500
SociologyAround 1500
Philosophy + Psychology + Political Science + Economics+ Anthropology<3000
All other science/art subjects
(in total)
All literature subjects
(in total)
TotalAround 12,000-15000

PS: The above chart is just indicative in nature as the trend varies every year.

The never-ending questions and queries like best optional for IAS, scoring optional, highest success ratio etc queues up every year, but these questions are relative. If you examine the background of toppers in the exam, you will be amazed to see wide representation from almost all optional papers listed by UPSC, and that itself tells half of the story. Please keep in mind that all optional subjects are high scoring if you have knowledge in the subject and if you can answer the questions in an analytical frame of mind in line with the latest requirements of UPSC.


The decision of selecting the optional is a personal choice of each aspirant according to his/her strengths and weakness.

We get many queries from aspirants to select the right optional for them, but normally we don’t give personal advice regarding optional subject selection. Though we try to reply to most emails we get, it’s practically impossible for us to know each aspirant personally.

We know these queries are quite normal at the early stage of the preparation and we can understand the anxiety of every aspirant. But only you know your strength, weakness, taste and availability of study materials. We can give broad guidelines, but let the decision be yours.

Let this selection of optional subject be part of the decision-making process you will be starting soon in your career!

The guidelines and statistics listed above by ClearIAS.com might help you clarify a few of your doubts. Do the research and make the best decision. All the best!