why it is important


selecting of the IAS Mains Optional has always been a tricky decision for Civil Services aspirants. As of now, the number of optional subjects to be selected is one, but aspirants are always divided on what represents the right choice. Among the many things that influence decision making are whether to go for so called scoring subjects or stick to what interests them or they should go for their academically familiar subjects.

Though the weightage of the optional paper is only 28% marks out of 1750 marks in the written part of civil service exam, it still packs more punch than its share in the exam.

How many marks are good enough to get an interview call?

Analysis of mark-list of last 5 years of mains written part of UPSC Civil Services Exams, shows a shift of around 80 to 100 marks in cut-off across categories reserved to general and all this is 10% variation over the period.


How important is the selection of BEST Optional in IAS Mains?

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,  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, good test series, 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.

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

Best optional - Selecting an optional having common areas 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.

Best optional - Do not disregard interest factor - your interest in a particular subject should be factored in.

Best optional - Some subjects are lengthy – keep in mind that certain subjects are lengthy & hence time available can be important.


Best optional - should not be 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.

Best optional - High scoring subjects  is a myth, avoid possible pitfalls - 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.

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 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 exam.

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 estimation for the coming years based on past year trends of optional subjects (As per latest syllabus).

Optional Subject Probable Number of Candidates  selecting
 each optional Subject in IAS Mains
History Around 3000
Geography Around 3000
Public Administration Around 3000
Sociology Around 3000
Philosophy + Psychology + Political Science + Economics <2000
All other science/art subjects
(in total)
All literature subjects
(in total)
Total Around 15,000

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 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 might help you clear a few of your doubts. Do your own analysis at what might suit you.

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Posted by ANKIT