How to Select Optional Subject for IAS (UPSC CSE) Exam

Updated On -

Mar 23, 2021

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IAS Exam is one of the most prominent exams conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) through which the top-most bureaucratic officers for IAS, IPS and IFoS are selected. The exam has three stages Prelims, Mains and Interview. The syllabus overall is huge and along with that, you have to prepare for optional subjects for the Mains. There are two optional papers for the chosen subject in IAs (UPSC CSE) Mains and individually, the chosen subject has a significant share in the syllabus to be covered. 500 marks are allotted for the optional subject in total. As of 2013, candidates can only choose 1 optional subject due to changes in the exam pattern. Currently, there are 26 optional subjects ranging over various domains and categories.

The IAS (UPSC CSE) Mains 2021 is scheduled for September 17-22, 2021 and the optional subject choice must be made during the registration. The option to apply online and the entire application process for UPSC 2021 is yet to start.

IAS (UPSC CSE)- Importance of Optional Subject

In addition to the weightage of the marks it carries, choosing the optional subject can either be a deal-breaker or a deal maker. Moreover, it is an exceptionally important decision for beginners as they may have little to no knowledge.

Must Read: UPSC IAS 2021 Preparation Tips

Also, it is noteworthy to point out that there is no one particular easy subject as they can be equally hard. The difficulty level of the optional subject actually depends on the candidates themselves.

Here are a few other points about why choosing an optional subject is an important decision.

  • You need to have an ample amount of time for preparation beforehand.
  • Have to check the availability of study materials, books, and other resources.
  • Decide whether coaching classes are required or not.
  • Choose between various categories such as science, arts, maths, etc.
  • One needs to be familiar and comfortable with the subject before the exams.

IAS (UPSC CSE)- Factors to Consider for choosing Optional Subject

Generally, candidates make the mistake of choosing their optional subject by “following the trends” or going for the “most scoring” ones. However, this is not how the optional subject should be chosen. As stated earlier, the difficulty of the optional subject depends on the candidate’s educational background and favorability.

Thus, the majority of the candidates choose their subject in one or more of the following ways.

  • Most popular subject choice.
  • Availability of study materials.
  • Best Coaching centers available for the same.
  • Subjects that were chosen by previous candidates who have cleared the IAS Exams.
  • High scoring subject as claimed by others.

According to previous year trends, Public Administration and Geography were among the most chosen subjects chosen by most of the candidates. The following table shows the other popular subjects and its number of candidates.

Optional Subject  No. of Candidates
Geography  3000
History  3000
Public Administration 3000
Economics, Psychology, Philosophy, etc.  Less than 2000
Other Science and Art Subjects  Less than 1000
All other Literature Subjects  Less than 1000
Total Candidates 13000-15000

Download IAS Previous Years’ Question Papers

Popular Optional Subjects for IAS (UPSC CSE) Exam

Currently, there are 27 optional subjects for the candidates to choose from. Based on previous year question papers, here are a few reasons why you may want to choose one subject over the other.


Candidates often choose Geography due to its semi-scientific nature. This means that the questions and answers are mostly factual in nature. However, there are a few conceptual questions that require attention from students.

The syllabus revolves around geographical areas of India and the world, principles, properties and other questions based on maps. Apart from this, some questions can come from current affairs related to Geography as well.


Similar to geography, history is another popular subject that has been taught since the early school days. However, it is more factual in nature as you have to remember important facts, dates and events.

This is a popular choice among both graduates and postgraduate candidates as they find it scoring. Moreover, the subject can be rather interesting, exciting and easy to understand.

Public Administration

In comparison to other subjects, Public Administration has a limited syllabus and is closely related to the main syllabus of the IAS Exams. As a result, this subject can be easily covered while preparing for the examination itself.

Coaching is entirely optional when it comes to studying this subject. Therefore, it is a good choice for those who are giving exams by self-studying.

Check IAS Exam Pattern & Syllabus


Based on humanity and society, Sociology is a good and interesting subject. It is ideal for candidates who can understand and distinguish both concepts and abstract theories.

The syllabus usually revolves around topics related to everyday life, daily events, social interaction and social order. However, it can be a bit confusing and difficult to understand if the candidate does not have relevant background knowledge on the subject.


Candidates with a science background can go for Anthropology as their optional subject. This subject deals with the study of human civilization, behavior and societies in general.

Some of the topics in the subject include topics related to current affairs as it deals with both the past and present events. Moreover, it is an interesting subject that can be quite scoring for IAS aspirants.


There are various subcategories that come under the Science group of optional subjects. These include Zoology, Engineering and Mathematics. One of the benefits of choosing either one of these is that their answers are definite in nature and are factual. Therefore, candidates do not have to worry much about conceptual questions.


On the flip side of Science, Humanities is a favorite subject for candidates who are comfortable with conceptual questions. In addition, it can be quite an interesting and knowledgeable subject as well.

Those who are not familiar with science or are not good in mathematics can easily go for this option. However, candidates need to strengthen their understanding of the various topics covered in the syllabus. At times, it can get quite difficult to grasp certain concepts.

Check IAS Previous Years’ Cutoff


Compared to mathematics, Statistics is a good option for candidates who are good with numbers. While there may be several ways to come to a definite answer in maths, statistics is pretty straightforward with limited formulas.

In addition, candidates can choose statistics if they have relevant knowledge due to their graduate or postgraduate background.


As a favorable option, candidates can choose Literature if they are more comfortable with languages. Here, the subject mostly covers the fundamentals of the language and its basic understanding. Hence, it can be an easy subject for most IAS aspirants. Therefore, it can be scoring as well.

These subjects' overview has been provided to act as a guide as to what one can expect from them. Therefore, it should be taken with a grain of salt and candidates should not follow it blindly to make their final decision.

Tips to Shortlist the Best Optional Subject

To begin with, there are a couple of Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to choosing the right optional subject for the IAS exam. First, go through the following list of Don’ts to make sure that you do not make a mistake.


  • Follow the trend
  • Go for the most popular choice
  • Choose what previous candidates chose to clear the IAS exams
  • Select the optional subject on a whim
  • Choose the “highest scoring” subject
  • Listen to others

Here are a few tips to help you make the correct choice for the optional subject in the IAS exam. Thus, follow the steps given below to help you make the final decision.

1. Strike off the hard subjects

As stated earlier, there are over 26 subjects to choose from in the IAS exam. Hence, you can opt for the process of elimination to choose the most viable option. For this, go through the following points to base your decision.

  • Amount of preparation time required
  • Previous background or familiarity with the subject
  • The difficulty of the syllabus
  • Possibility of scoring high marks
  • Availability of study materials

After taking the above points into consideration, you should be left with a few subjects to make the final decision. Thereafter, go through the next step given below.

2. Previous background in the subjects

Most candidates will find it easier to prepare for a subject if they are already familiar with it in the past. Hence, candidates can further rule out subjects that do not belong to their graduate or postgraduate curriculum.

Moreover, these subject choices will reduce the preparation time to a great extent. However, candidates should choose subjects that they are highly comfortable with or one that is preferable by you.

3. Go for subjects with the overlapping syllabus to IAS exams

Some subjects have a similar syllabus to those already present in the IAS examination. This can help to further reduce the preparation time of the optional subject. Generally, most of the questions in the IAS exam revolve around current affairs and general studies. Therefore, candidates can choose a subject that has both these topics in the syllabus.

4. Requirement of Coaching

Some subjects can have a few difficult topics in their syllabus. As a result, candidates may need to sign up for coaching classes for the same. Generally, you should opt for subjects that do not require coaching as it can involve a few other tasks at hand.

You would have to find a reliable coaching center with a good teacher. Additionally, you would sacrifice both time and money to study at a coaching institute. Moreover, each teacher has a different teaching style which may or may not be suitable for you.

5. Availability of Study Materials

Lastly, you should check whether your optional subject has enough study materials or not. Study materials for subjects with overlapping syllabi are pretty easy to find. Comparatively, subjects with previous educational backgrounds can be studied from their respective textbooks as well.

However, there may be a few optional subjects that have limited study materials. As a result, it is difficult to acquire them unless you already have them.

In summary, choose the best optional subject that is the right one for you. Do not go for the popular one or the highest-scoring one. There are no easy subjects and are different for each and every candidate.

Hence, one subject may be easy for some while it may be difficult for someone else. Apart from this, assess your own strengths and weaknesses while choosing an optional subject. Make your own decision and do not take advice from someone else.

Choosing a comfortable and familiar optional subject can greatly help you in clearing the IAS Exam. Lesser preparation time, overlapping syllabus, and previous background on the subject should be your deciding factor.

*The article might have information for the previous academic years, please refer the official website of the exam.