How to Select Optional Subject

Optional subject has become a key part in deciding rank and cadre for last few years. The optional has high potential for improving score. Like, an extra effort in GS papers can push score by about 5-15 marks only, like from 105 to 120 or so.  But similar effort in optional can push score at-least by 30-40 marks in each paper. Making total of up to 60-75 marks in optional.

The highest marks in optional has even went as high as 370+. So considering the significance of optional, it is very important to choose optional correctly and prepare well. The optional selection is purely a personal thing and depends on each individual. But I have tried to put some basic criteria for selecting optional subjects.

  • Select based on your interest. Which-ever subject you feel comfortable to read, comprehend and present well. Since this subject you have to study for at-least 2 years, you have to have interest to read it for long hours and days.
  • In order to identify you interest, you can try reading NCERT or some basic books for one week or 10 days, if you feel comfortable reading for long hours, then you consider them for final selection
  • Go through the syllabus of the optional subjects, see how comfortable with them (rough idea). If possible please go through paper analysis of previous years ( you can get in you tube or google)
  • Look for availability of material and books in market. And also look for the guidance or coaching available for the subject along with test series for the same. For example some optional might not have too many test series available, like agriculture.  While some may have coaching in only few places etc…
  • You can look and do some basic research about the marking trend in last 3-4 years. Like how many people got about 300+, the success rate, the highest marks etc…

When I started picking optional subject – in order to identify which is my interest, I read NCERT Geography for 10 days and lost interest quickly and felt bored. Then I picked History and started reading. Initial readings History was good for me but during later stages I found it too boring.  So I could eliminate these two subjects (likewise you can do for others)

While reading news-paper I felt interested in International relations, I could go on to read for long hours so I shortlisted this one. I also felt comfortable with reading humanities subjects like Sociology and Anthropology (basic details through Wikipedia and internet). You can try to get some basic knowledge about subjects through attending some orientation classes, or by having some research or internet or by talking to people.

I also gave a serious consideration of taking Telugu Literature considering the positive trend of marks and people qualified each year. I later had to abort this plan when I spoke to my mother who is MA Telugu, and got to know it doesn’t suit me.

You can also look for optional subjects which can help you in other GS papers like Public Administration etc… I deliberately left subjects like Mathematics, Mechanical Engineering … because I did not want to burden my preparation with heavy subjects, and also had lost touch of my engineering long back. I looked for something which could be light, mostly from humanities.

  • When you do this exercise mostly you end up with few short listed optional subjects. Like I had short listed POLITICAL SCIENCE, SOCIOLOGY, and ANTHROPOLOGY.
  • You can speak with seniors or people those who cleared with this optional subject or some more internet research and you tube research or meet some teachers in those subjects.

I spoke with a friend of mine who is in this preparation; he guided me further and some more details about them. For example, over this interaction I realised that Political Science was more dynamic and had to be constantly updated and I do not want to do this all time and so eliminated this optional.

Coming to Anthropology and Sociology:  I found Anthropology was more static when compared to Sociology, I saw some few previous papers analysis for Anthropology, where I found some repetition of questions and also mostly straight questions. I also felt this has some +10 marks advantage over Sociology in past and also good material available for it. So I picked up Anthropology though Sociology has some advantage in GS paper 1.

I hope in most cases if you follow these points, you can choose a decent optional which suits you. Even if you cannot do it after doing this, I suggest you to wait for 20 -30 days and carry on  with preparation like reading newspaper, attending classes, NCERTs and other books. Over time you will develop maturity and so can choose optional in a better way. Its better to wait for a month and take a well informed decision rather than rush with wrong one.

General inputs

Choosing right optional is just the beginning; you have to continue this with right preparation. I suggest you to plan preparation or coaching for optional early. Few basic points here…

  • Complete coaching/ study for optional by November/December.
  • You should have got decent idea of syllabus, books to read, what types of questions asked, pattern and question spread in the exam by December or January
  • If you need to make notes for optional, please do it before December and be ready with that. It will give you edge over other candidates post prelims
  • You should be able to at least identify and frame answers (even roughly) for that year’s mains optional paper.
  • To put it simple you should have done one reading of optional with material and books ready to ready post prelims.
  • Post prelims spend good time on optional. Choose good test series and attempt all exams as per schedule. Do not break schedule. You can be flexible with your GS tests.
  • See some toppers test papers, talk to some people who consistently did well in that optional before you write tests. you can get first hand feel of exam requirements.
  • Get the test papers reviewed and keep improving.
  • Understand the presentation. Refer toppers papers for idea and some suggestions.
  • You should do at least 3-4 readings of optional before mains.

I would write detail plan for anthropology optional , how it worked for me…

Few don’ts:

  • Do not select them just because some friend has suggested or senior has suggested that.
  • Please do not do, seeing the topper that year.
  • So many coaching centres will tell their optional is safe, and suited to score more in current pattern. Don’t buy them there are no scoring and less scoring subjects in UPSC.
  • Do not worry about what if optional is removed or not. Don’t delay your preparation considering optional subject will be eliminated. That is not our job, our job is to get top rank in any format or any subject that UPSC conducts exam.
  • Do not run after too many materials or books. Prepare some good material or good books and get expertise with books.
  • Do not underestimate writing necessity / practice tests

All the Bes guys

I got 338 marks in Anthropology, a major contribution to my rank.

For me any discussion about optional can be done without mentioning my friend’s support and guidance. I could not have achieved this feat with- out my friend Abhishek Ranjan Dubey.  In fact I would credit this purely to his work.  Thank you  Dubey !!!


5 thoughts on “How to Select Optional Subject

  1. Sujitha Sannareddy June 1, 2018 — 6:08 am

    Ty sir…could u also please share your anthropology strategy sir


    1. Im in process of that …will do in a week or so..


      1. Sujitha Sannareddy June 1, 2018 — 6:23 am

        Ok sir..thank you


  2. sir plz upload ur anthro notes sources test copies


  3. Sir please guide me personally as mentor for mains…I got good marks in prelims….I expected that I may go for mains…. Please sir I need it support


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