Selecting the Best Optional Subject for IAS the Right Way
At least 10 percent of the comments this blog receives is about how to select the the right optional for IAS Mains so I thought instead of replying individually why not post an article on choosing the optional subject for the IAS exam which would benefit all the blog readers. And this includes those who have never appeared for the IAS Mains yet and even those who have appeared but are thinking about switching over to some different optional.
As you know, from 2013 Mains onward UPSC has done away with the second optional subject. So now you have to select just ONE optional subject that will consist of two papers of 250 marks each. So our task of selecting the best optional subject has become much easier.
But what does the Best Optional for IAS mean?
I am sure it means differently to different people but what does it mean to you:
- A scoring optional?
- The most popular optional?
- Easy to understand or which you find interesting?
- Subject with easy availability of study materials like books and notes?
- Optional for which one ‘best’ coaching is available?
- Subject with some previous base in graduation or post-graduation?
- The optional with the best results in the IAS exam?
I hope I have covered all the points that majority of the IAS aspirants consider before selecting the right optional for Mains. Obviously, you might consider only one of the above points as the basis for selecting your Mains optional or consider multiple criteria. So let’s take them up one by one.
A Scoring Optional
Most IAS beginners choose an optional simply because it is considered ‘scoring’. Some of the optionals that are considered scoring are Public Administration and Geography. While Geography has returned marks with 400+ in IAS Mains, many candidates have been scoring 340+ and 350+ in Public Administration in the past few years. In fact the average marks scored by Mains candidates in Pub Ad in 2008 Mains was 266 which is quite high considering that it is the most preferred optional among IAS aspirants.
But should score be the sole criteria for selecting the Mains optional or are there other related basis for selecting your mains optional? This gets us to the second point.
A Popular Optional
Optionals that come within this definition are Geography, Public Ad, Sociology, History, and Psychology. These four IAS optionals alone account for about 50 percent share of the Mains pie and the rest 22 optionals, taking Literature subjects as one, for the rest.
This gives you some idea about the ‘popular optionals for IAS’. But why are these optionals so popular while the rest aren’t so popular? Here are some reasons:
- Subjects like Pub Ad and Geog have definite syllabus and Pub Ad has quite limited syllabus especially for P2 so you can cover it within 5 months or so.
- You require limited coaching for Pub Ad as most of the syllabus involves self-study.
- The History optional for IAS is quite popular simply because there are so many History post graduates and even graduates with history as a subject. Also we all studied History as part of our school curriculum and most of us found it interesting and some, even scoring.
- Geography is a semi-scientific subjects and a favourite among Engineers and Doctors for its laws, principles, and map-based questions. No wonder so many IAS aspirants opt for it.
- Sociology is easy to understand and very interesting as the topics covered concern the very society we are a part of.
- Psychology has pulled, I feel, simply because it is a combination of all the above attributes and also due to the fact that it is probably the only optional where only one name prevails for coaching: Mukul Pathak of Vajiram.
With this we come to another related question, are all popular optionals scoring or to put it another way are the not-so-popular optionals for IAS not scoring as well?
Let me put it bluntly. Popularity has actually got nothing to do with the scoring potential of an optional. If you want proof, read on. Shah Faesal topped the 2010 IAS exam with Urdu Litt. as one of the optionals, second being Pub Ad. Mona Pruthi, the 2006 IAS topper chose English Litt. and Sociology. Mutyala Raju, the 2007 topper took Electrical Engineering and Mathematics. Karthik Adapa aced the 2008 IAS exam with Zoology and Psychology.
What’s common to all these IAS toppers? Except one, all opted for one non-popular optional. And let me also mention that if you read their interviews they chose the optionals based on their interest and background and not because they were scoring or popular.
The fact that they have scored well in both the optionals (that’s why they topped) and not just the popular ones proves that all subjects are equally scoring. So choosing an optional based only on the scoring criteria is incorrect.
So how about the coaching criteria?
Before deciding to select an optional on the basis of the coaching available first determine whether you require coaching in the first place? You must’ve realized this can only be determined after you’ve selected an optional, not before it. So I feel selecting an optional simply on the basis of the coaching available is like saying ” I can never clear the Civil Services exam without coaching”. And once you become completely dependent on coaching then good luck to you as I have already written in my Mains 2010 GS analysis how unpredictable the IAS exam is becoming not just for you but the most well known coaching classes as well.
Of course, it does help if there is good coaching available for the IAS optionals you’ve already selected.
Choosing an optional with some previous background
Many people who’ve graduated or done Masters in some subject opt for it in the CSE. This is really helpful as you’re already familiar with the subject and will need to study just one subject from scratch. This is where graduation in humanities really helps as the most popular IAS optionals listed above are included within the “Arts” subjects. So if you’re pursuing graduation or masters in any of the Arts subjects and plan to take it up in the IAS mains, make sure you pursue it seriously and focus more on the syllabus common to your degree as well as the IAS Mains.
This point again proves that previous base and interest are more important factors in selecting the right optional for IAS than merely popularity or scoring potential. People who have opted for the most obscure subjects like Literature, Veterinary Science, Mathematics have scored heavily in the Mains simply because they were so much in love with their optionals.
I had the good fortune of having a chat with the 2008 IAS topper Karthik Adapa when we had enrolled for mock interview at Vajiram. He was already in the IPS that time and I asked him about the reason for choosing Psychology and he said he simply loved Psychology, that’s why. Nothing about the score or popularity.
Some thumb rules for selecting the right optional for IAS
The subject should..
- Excite you
- Make you know more about it
- Should not put you to sleep
- Make you think out of the box
- Have books available easily
Don’t think about the score at this stage, just focus on selecting an optional with the above qualities and remember, this will differ for different aspirants. Once you have mastered the syllabus and have adequate writing practice the marks will follow.
Some common queries
I have chosen Public Administration but I find it quite boring, especially Paper 1
Remember, Pub Ad usually seems boring to most people but many fall in love with it once they have read and re-read the important books. If you still find it going over your head ask yourself why did you choose Pub Ad? Is it simply because of its popularity?
I love xyz optional but I cannot answer the questions correctly
The fact that you find the optional interesting is half the battle won. As far answer writing is concerned you might consider joining some good test series to hone your writing skills. Once you have enough writing practice marks will not be an issue.
I don’t have any previous base in any of the optionals or I don’t want to choose my graduation subjects, what should I do?
Simply go through the above thumb rules again and try reading something from the basic books of the optional you plan to take up. If you feel you can cope up with the subject then go for it otherwise try another one.
Suggest some optional subject that will be useful from GS Mains point of view
Again this is for reference purpose only. Actually every optional in some way or the other contributes towards the GS or Essay preparation.
- Pol Sc. covers polity and India and the world part
- Pub Ad covers polity and governance part
- History covers the history part 🙂
- Mathematics covers Statistics. Ditto for Statistics optional
- Geography covers GS geography, climate change, environment and other related sections
- Law also covers polity
- Economics covers the Economy part of GS mains
- Socio covers questions on social issues as well as one Essay option
Some popular IAS optionals for IAS exam
This is just for your knowledge. Nowhere am I suggesting you take up the same otherwise what I said above would be idiotic.
- Public Administration. Click here for Pub Ad books.
- History. Click here for History books.
- Geography. Click here for Geography books.
- Sociology. Click here for Sociology books.
- Political Science. Click here for Pol. Science books.
To summarize this long post (couldn’t help it), any optional that you find interesting, stimulating, fun to learn is right for you. Don’t worry about popularity or scoring potential. Both are just an indicator. Every optional is equally scoring provided you have mastered the syllabus and the answer writing aspect. I hope this post helped selecting the right optionals for IAS a much easier task. Eagerly awaiting your feedback!
Recommended Reference Books for Prelims
Recommended Topic Books for Prelims