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What’s The Best Optional Subject For UPSC Mains? Civil Servants Share Thumb Rule

With 48 subjects to choose from, which optional subject would be best if you’re appearing for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC)’s Civil Service Exam (CSE) mains? Here’s what these civil servants had to say.

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As per the latest syllabus, candidates appearing for UPSC only need to pick one out of 48 optional subjects — which makes “What is the best optional subject to choose?” an imperative question. While the weightage of the optional paper is only 500 marks out of 2025, the contribution of a candidate’s performance in this area is important when considering the final rank. 

So naturally, if you’re about to appear for the UPSC, you’d be asking yourself what subject to go for, or how you can go about picking the “right” one. 

Thankfully, a few civil servants have offered some help to guide you. 

“No optional is good or bad.” – Nikhil Srivas, Deputy Controller — Delhi, UPSC CSE 2016 

Nikhil Srivas, deputy controller with the Government of India, said the answer lies in what you find most interesting. “There is neither a good nor a bad optional [subject]. Your optional subject is one that you love studying and want deeper insight into. Yes! That’s it. That’s all,” he said in this post

He advised candidates to look beyond “popular market rumours” or “interest-driven suggestions from coaching institutes”, and not “fall for the results of a particular year”. The only factor that matters is if you find the subject interesting, he noted, because it will drive you to immerse yourself in the topic and study it well. 

Nikhil has a detailed post on how you can go about choosing the “best” optional subject. Some things he pointed out include that candidates should consider if they can choose their graduation subject as their subject. “Do not fall for talks that ‘your graduation subject is not scoring’ if you have interest and knowledge of it, you will make it happen,” he opined.

For those whose graduation subject is not available, or those who would like to pick something else, Nikhil advised, “Read general studies, explore your interests. Try to find which subject attracts you more or you have a good understanding of. Once you find it, read about the subject a bit, its syllabus, and [take] a cursory glance of the previous year papers. This would help you understand if it suits your interest. Once you find it suitable, go for it wholeheartedly.”

You can read his entire post on the subject here

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“Choose what you love.” — Ira Singhal, IAS Officer

IAS Officer Ira Singhal, who was also the first person with disability to top the UPSC exams, said, “[Choose] the subject that you can fall in love with! You have to study that subject again and again, and have to do a very in-depth coverage of all its topics! So it should be a subject that you enjoy studying. If you don’t…then you won’t be able to do justice to it.” 

“The rule of thumb is that you find it interesting.” — Debotosh Chatterjee, IRS (C&IT), 2016

Debotosh was of the same opinion as Ira when he said, “There is no such ‘best subject’. It’s a myth. The thumb rule of choosing an optional subject for UPSC CSE, accepted by most successful and aspiring candidates, is that you must be interested in it.

Debotosh said that while he is a graduate in chemical engineering, he chose political science and international relations as his optional subject, and despite people calling him “crazy” for this choice, he got through his first attempt with five to six months of preparation. 

Some points Debotosh discussed about what to keep in mind before settling on a particular subject are: 

  1. Divide your attention between science and humanities, and ask yourself which line of thought you are more “comfortable” with. 
  2. Look at the list of optional subjects in UPSC CSE notification, and discard what you don’t like right away. “There are 25 such subjects, excluding the regional languages, and you can easily make out which ones just don’t appeal to you,” he said. 
  3. Once the list has been narrowed down, you should not be left with more than eight to 10 subjects after the first first steps, Debotosh noted. For the remaining subjects, check the syllabus, previous years’ question papers, and availability of material for self study. 
  4. If you’re still left with two to three options and can’t decide, Debotosh advised that you pick up the most basic book ideally a Class 11 or 12 NCERT for each of the remaining subjects and go through each in two to three days. “You will yourself know the option that you will be going ahead with now,” he explained. 

Debotosh also noted that while science subjects are more scoring than their humanities counterparts, they require much more prep time. Meanwhile, humanities subjects are difficult to score in but take less time to complete, and find more relevance in essays, ethics, interviews and general studies. 

For more UPSC-related material, you can check out our Civil Servants section here.

Image credit: LinkedIn

Edited by Yoshita Rao

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