Best Optional Subject for UPSC: An Ultimate Guide

best optional subject for upsc

The UPSC Civil Services Examination is a highly sought-after exam that draws aspirants from various backgrounds and professions. While the exam is known for its rigorous syllabus and challenging nature, choosing the right optional subject can play a crucial role in a candidate’s success.

With the optional subject carrying a weightage of 500 maximum marks, it can make a significant difference in a candidate’s overall score and rank.

Thus, selecting the best optional subject for UPSC is not just important, but also a critical step toward achieving success in the exam.

In this article, we will delve into some of the best optional subjects for UPSC that can give aspirants an edge in their preparation and help them score well.

From Humanities to Science and Technology, we will explore a diverse range of subjects that can offer ample scope for candidates to showcase their proficiency and excel in the UPSC exam. So, let’s dive into the world of optional choices and uncover the ones that can lead aspirants to the path of success.

Why it is Essential to Choose the Best Optional Subject for UPSC Mains Exam?

The UPSC Civil Services Examination is one of the most competitive exams in the country, and every year, lakhs of aspirants appear for it to realize their dream of serving the nation. However, with the vast syllabus and intense competition, choosing the right optional subject can make all the difference in a candidate’s success.

The optional subject carries a weightage of 500 marks, and a high score in this section can significantly boost a candidate’s overall score and help them secure a good rank. Therefore, it is essential to select the best optional subject for UPSC, which aligns with a candidate’s strengths, interests, and academic background.

The choice of optional subjects plays a significant role in determining a candidate’s success in the exam. It can impact a candidate’s score, rank, and career aspirations. Moreover, selecting the right optional subject can also help candidates balance their preparation for the exam and improve their chances of qualifying for the interview round.

Therefore, it is crucial to make an informed decision while selecting the optional subject for UPSC. Candidates should consider several factors such as their interest, availability of study material and coaching, the scoring potential of the subject, and their academic background before making the final choice.

In conclusion, the selection of the best optional subject for UPSC is an essential step toward achieving success in the exam. It is a decision that should be made after careful consideration of various factors, and it can significantly impact a candidate’s future. So, choose wisely and pave the way for a successful career in civil services.

Also read: How Many Optional Subjects In UPSC?

Choosing the Optional Subject

You have a wide selection of theoretical subjects to pick from because the UPSC CSE exams are not standardized. Whether you choose to take them will depend on your preference, as well as your strengths, weaknesses, and availability of study material.

The ideal way is to research and consider all possible options before you make a decision.

To find out the ideal optional subject, you should analyze the syllabus thoroughly and the question papers from previous years. By doing so, you can gauge your decent level of knowledge and interest. Only then should you take the plunge and enlist in the chosen optional subject.

Take time to make the final decision.

There are several questions one can ask themselves and the answers to those questions will streamline the process of choosing the best optional subject for UPSC.

  1. How many hours can you devote to preparation?
  2. How vast or comprehensive is the optional subject’s syllabus?
  3. How much of your background knowledge is at the graduate level?
  4. Are the necessary learning resources readily available?
  5. What part of the curriculum overlaps with GS Subject papers?
  6. Are you genuinely interested in and eager to learn about the subject?
  7. Have you looked at the grade trends, the level of difficulty, and the papers from the prior year?

By responding to these inquiries, you will be able to choose the best optional subject for the UPSC with less uncertainty and thus have a starting point for your list of optionals to study.

Which Optional Papers Have the Highest Success Rate in the IAS/UPSC Examination?

As an aspirant, you may be wondering: which alternative choice has the best rate of success? The good news is that there are several options available. The trick is to choose wisely!

First of all, determine which alternative paper interests you the most. Then, eliminate the ones you cannot study in a reasonable amount of time, or which require an academic background.

The following tables detail the success rate of optionals in UPSC CSE Mains, including literature for the year 2019:

Optional SubjectNumber of Candidates (Appeared)Number of Candidates (Recommended)Success Rate (Percent)
Political Science and International Relations16621378.2%
Public Administration705588.2%
Medical Science2472610.5%
Animal Husbandry & Veterinary Science16318.8%
Electrical Engineering200168.0%
Civil Engineering1461510.3%

Note: The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) has revised the success rate of the optional subjects for the UPSC Mains 2019 examination. This information can be seen in the most recent UPSC 71st Year report.

The following table indicates the percentage of students who passed each Literature optional in the 2019 IAS mains examination:

Literature Optional Number of Candidates (Appeared)Number of Candidates (Recommended)Success Rate (Percent)
Kannada 1241713.7%
Malayalam 1051312.4%
Bengali 100.0%
Assamese 300.0%
English Language3139.7%
Hindi 191136.8%
Tamil 7756.5%
Urdu 18211.1%
Sanskrit 5323.8%
Maithili Language5323.8%
Gujarati 8533.5%
Telugu 3213.1%
Oriya 300.0%
Marathi 600.0%
Sindhi(Devanagari) 2150.0%

The Year 2017

Here are the optional subjects that have the highest percentage of success in the UPSC Exam are tabulated below:

No.Optional SubjectCandidates AppearedCandidates RecommendedSuccess Rate
4Mechanical Engineering1701911.2
6Medical Science3133210.2
7Public Administration116511910.2
9Electrical Engineering193199.8
12Political Science12461179.4
13Civil Engineering124118.9
15Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Science2328.7

The following table provides information regarding the percentage of candidates who passed the IAS Mains Literature optional in 2017:

Language PapersCandidates AppearedCandidates RecommendedSuccess Rate

The Year 2016

No.OptionalsCandidates AppearedCandidates RecommendedSuccess Rate
2Medical science981616.3
3Animal husbandry65812.3
8Political science1320856.4
11Public administration320133710.5
12Commerce & Accountancy266155.6

The success rates for the 2016 UPSC Mains Literature examination are shown in the table below:

Optional SubjectCandidates AppearedCandidates RecommendedSuccess Rate

Note: If you have a strong academic background, you can consider the one in which you are well-versed. Many IAS aspirants have achieved higher scores in subjects that aren’t commonly chosen. This doesn’t mean that you should choose an optional stream just because it has a higher success rate.

What Optional is Taken the Most Often by IAS Candidates?

IAS hopefuls have shown a remarkable degree of consistency over the years with regard to the selection of a selective group of subjects.

The fact that these alternative papers have the highest number of applicants is due to the fact that their curriculum overlaps with that of other portions of the CSE exam (like UPSC Prelims, GS I, II, III or IV, Essay paper).

Optionals(Approx) Number of AspirantsSyllabus Overlaps with
History3500Prelims, GS I
Geography3500Prelims, GS I and GS III
Political Science1800Prelims, GS II
Philosophy1000GS IV, Essay
Public Administration3000Prelims, GS II
Sociology1800GS I, GS II, Essay

This table now shows the optional subjects in order of their scoring potential, with the highest potential subjects listed at the top. This can be useful for aspirants who are looking to maximize their scores in the UPSC exam.

Note that the choice of subject for the optional exam should still be based on individual interests, strengths, and availability of study material and coaching.

Also read: Toppers Optional Subject in UPSC

What are the Highest-Scoring Optional Subjects for the IAS?

Some alternative papers have a higher pass percentage than others. However, if we consider the broader perspective, both technical and non-technical courses have yielded excellent results for UPSC top scorers, with scores of 320 or more.

Candidates may perceive certain papers as having low scores due to a lack of effort or choosing an optional subject that doesn’t align with their strengths.

Philosophy is one of the optional papers with a concise syllabus, making it easier for candidates to cover the material.

Technical papers like Mathematics are generally regarded as advantageous because of their lower “subjectivity quotient.”

In other words, compared to humanities subjects, examiner preferences, and biases have less influence on the candidate’s score.

However, non-technical subjects offer plenty of study material, which can lead to a higher overall score in the Mains, especially those that overlap with the General Studies syllabus.

Also read: Most Scoring Optional Subject In UPSC

Which is the Best Optional Paper for UPSC?

There is no one “best” optional subject for UPSC IAS Exam that can be recommended universally to all aspirants. The optional choice for UPSC should be made based on a candidate’s interest, academic background, and the subject’s scoring potential.

Every optional course has its pros and cons, and the best subject for one candidate may not be suitable for another. Therefore, candidates should select the subject that aligns with their strengths and interests and can help them score well in the exam.

There are several well-known alternative subjects that aspirants often choose for the UPSC Mains exam. Some of them are History, Geography, Political Science, Sociology, Public Administration, Anthropology, Philosophy, and Literature in either English, Hindi, or Urdu.

These subjects have been known to provide good scores, and there is adequate study material and IAS coaching classes are available for them.

However, the choice of an optional field is a personal one, and candidates should make an informed decision based on their own strengths and interests. With the right choice, candidates can pave the way for a successful career in civil services and serve the nation with dedication and excellence.

Which UPSC Optional Papers Overlap the Most with General Studies?

Following is an optional list for UPSC Exam that IAS aspirants from both technical and non-technical domains frequently choose.

These subjects may seem more popular among IAS aspirants due to their substantial overlap with the General Studies papers or other areas of the exam.

  1. Public Administration: It has a highly relevant and compact syllabus. Its paper II (Indian Administration) has a lot of overlap with the governance and polity part in General Studies Paper 2.
  2. Sociology: This subject deals with the study of society and offers a lot of material that can be used in GS I, essays, and even in Ethics papers.
  3. History: This subject is relevant for prelims as well as GS I.
  4. Geography: This subject is also relevant for prelims as well as GS I.
  5. Political Science: This subject is relevant for prelims as well as GS II.
  6. Law: Law is also relevant for prelims as well as GS II.

Apart from these, there are several other optional disciplines at UPSC that are also good to study, including economics, philosophy, and agriculture.

Ultimately, it is essential to choose a subject that aligns with your strengths and interests while also providing you with the best chance of success in the UPSC exam.

The optional subject of choice at IAS that is also good to study include philosophy, economics, and agriculture.

How to Narrow Out the Best UPSC Optional Paper?

Choosing the right optional subject for the UPSC CSE Mains examination can be a challenging task. To make the process easier, you can follow these steps:

  1. Begin by creating a list of 4-5 subjects that you are interested in. Next, read the syllabus for each of the subjects carefully, and mark the topics that you are familiar with or interested in.
  2. Once you have narrowed down your list, it’s time to review the previous year’s papers for each of the subjects. Try to answer the questions to the best of your ability and evaluate your level of knowledge and interest in each subject.
  3. Consider the availability of study materials and guidance for each subject. Some subjects may have more comprehensive study materials or coaching available, which can make preparation easier.
  4. Keep in mind that some subjects are more technical than others and require self-study. Consider your strengths and weaknesses while making your final decision.
  5. Finally, consider the success rate of each subject in previous years. Literature subjects, for example, have traditionally performed well. If you have a good command of your native language, you may want to consider choosing the literature of your language as your optional paper.

By following these steps, you can shortlist the best optional subject for the UPSC exam based on your interests, strengths, and the availability of study materials and guidance.

Additional Considerations for Shortlisting

Public administration is an excellent alternative for some people who have worked in large corporations. It also has really been the option that working candidates or individuals who have worked in the past have most frequently chosen.

The papers in medical science, zoology, or anthropology may be chosen by medical students. This is because these papers are associated with their specialty.

Also Read: How To Select Optional Subject For UPSC Exam?

Top 10 Optional Papers for UPSC

The top 10 optional subjects for the UPSC can be ranked as follows after taking into account the statistics provided above, the most recent UPSC CSE curriculum, and the most recent IAS results:

  1. Sociology
  2. Agriculture
  3. Medical Science
  4. Literature Subject (Any)
  5. Anthropology
  6. Public Administration
  7. Psychology
  8. Law
  9. Geography
  10. History

IAS applicants should nevertheless treat the data with caution because they are still only broad indicators. The best elective for applicant A may not be the same for applicant B. So, the ideal subject for the IAS Mains Optional must be determined from the viewpoint of the individual.

Which IAS Optional Subjects are the Best for Doctors and Medical Students?

Medical Science is the obvious pick among the various possibilities. Several IAS best performers with medical backgrounds choose medical science as their optional.

In some cases, courses in veterinary science, animal husbandry, and zoology can also be taken into consideration. In contrast, non-technical courses that overlap with GS become the candidate’s choice if they are unwilling to choose medical science as their optional subject.

Which are the Best Optional Papers for UPSC for Engineering Hopefuls?

Several applicants with engineering backgrounds score highly on the IAS exams. However, there are relatively fewer alternatives for engineering subjects, mainly civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering, if a candidate wants to select an optional course depending on their prior expertise.

If one does not have graduate-level knowledge of the paper, one may be reluctant to pursue a technical field.

Mathematics, physics, and chemistry are a few additional options. Although there is still some subjectivity in the marking, these subjects take a lot of time and effort to prepare for. Thus, it is usually preferable to review the IAS curriculum and sample questions beforehand.

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Best UPSC Optional Subject for Self-Study

Choosing the best optional subject for UPSC is subjective and depends on the individual’s interests, aptitude, and background. However, some of the optional subjects that are considered popular and suitable for self-study are:

  1. History: History is a popular choice as it involves reading and analyzing events from the past, which can be studied independently.
  2. Geography: Geography is another subject that can be studied independently, as it involves understanding the earth’s physical and cultural features.
  3. Political Science: Political Science is a subject that can be studied independently, as it deals with political systems, institutions, and theories.
  4. Public Administration: Public Administration is a popular subject among aspirants with a background in management, as it deals with the administration and governance of public institutions.
  5. Sociology: Sociology is a subject that involves the study of society, culture, and social structures, which can be studied independently.

Ultimately, the choice of the optional subject depends on the individual’s strengths and interests. It is important to choose a subject that one is passionate about and can study consistently.

Which Optional in UPSC has the Shortest Syllabus?

Of all the optional papers for the UPSC Civil Services Exam, philosophy has the smallest syllabus. When compared to the remainder, other options including Anthropology, Sociology, and Public Administration are likewise thought to have a smaller curriculum.

Also read: Easiest Optional Subject For UPSC


In conclusion, the best optional subject for UPSC Exam is subjective and varies from individual to individual. While some aspirants may find certain subjects more suitable based on their background, interests, and aptitude, others may prefer a different subject.

However, one should choose an optional subject that they are passionate about and can study consistently.

It is also essential to keep in mind that each optional subject requires thorough preparation and understanding of the exam syllabus to score well in the UPSC Exam. Therefore, aspirants should choose a subject that they can commit to and prepare accordingly to achieve success in the UPSC Exam.

For UPSC prepaaration check out the following related articles:

How to Prepare Current Affairs for UPSC?5 Best Current Affairs Magazines for UPSC Exam
11 Tips: How To Start Answer Writing Practice For UPSC2023 Guide: How to Write Answers in UPSC Mains?
Booklist for UPSC by Toppers – Ultimate Guide7 Ways: Develop Critical Thinking for UPSC Exam Preparation 


Should I choose the same optional paper as past IAS Toppers did?

No, aspirants should not choose an optional subject solely based on the success of a previous topper. Each aspirant has unique strengths, interests, and aptitudes, and selecting an optional subject should be based on several factors, including educational background, interest, and previous performance in the subject. Thorough research and informed decision-making based on one’s strengths and interests can help aspirants achieve success in the UPSC Exam.

What should you avoid when selecting an optional subject for the UPSC?

While choosing an optional subject in UPSC, aspirants should avoid the following:
1. Peer pressure: Aspirants should not choose an optional subject based on their friend’s preferences or because it is considered popular.
2. Limited availability of study material: Aspirants should avoid selecting a subject that has limited study material or is not easily accessible.
3. Lack of interest: Aspirants should not choose a subject just because it is considered scoring or because of the fear of missing out.
4. Difficulty level: Aspirants should avoid selecting a subject that is too difficult or requires a higher level of prior knowledge, as it may lead to frustration and lack of interest.
By avoiding these common mistakes, aspirants can make a well-informed decision and select an optional subject that aligns with their strengths and interests, leading to better chances of success in the UPSC CSE Exam.

Should I choose an optional paper that is already covered in the General Studies?

It is always a better idea to select an optional paper for the UPSC that is already covered in the syllabus for the GS paper. This is because it would save the student a tonne of preparation time. This is not the only choice, though. Many students, including past year’s top students, choose to major in the topic they know best. Many people opt for a topic they studied for their master’s or graduation. Hence, choosing a subject you are knowledgeable about is even smarter than choosing an optional subject that overlaps.

Is it a good idea to take a discipline outside of my graduation course?

While it may seem like a good idea to choose a paper that aligns with your graduation subject, it is not always possible or desirable. Many aspirants may find themselves in a situation where they have to study a subject that they didn’t initially intend to pursue. For instance, an aspirant who has completed a graduation course in Mathematics may be more interested in Law and may choose to take Law as an optional subject. On the other hand, you will need to devote a great deal more time to studying for it. Because of this, if you want to save some time, the better idea is to stick with the curriculum that you have already learned.

Which is the best optional subject in UPSC CSE?

Choosing the best optional subject for the UPSC Exam can be a challenging task, as it can greatly impact an aspirant’s chances of success. However, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to selecting an optional subject. The ideal optional subject is one that aligns with an aspirant’s interests and aptitude. With consistent and focused preparation, any optional subject can be a scoring subject, and aspirants can achieve success in the UPSC Exam.

What are the 25 optional subjects in UPSC CSE?

25 optional subjects are as follows:
1. Agriculture
2. Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Science
3. Anthropology
4. Botany
5. Chemistry
6. Civil Engineering
7. Commerce
8. Economics
9. Electrical Engineering
10. Geography
11. Geology
12. Indian History
13. Law
14. Management
15. Mathematics
16. Mechanical Engineering
17. Medical Science
18. Philosophy
19. Physics
20. Political Science
21. Psychology
22. Public Administration
23. Sociology
24. Statistics
25. Zoology

Which optional subject is easy for UPSC?

The subjects of sociology, geography, and public administration are easy to score well in. According to the results from the previous year, many applicants received scores of more than 400 in these optional subjects.

What number of optional subjects does the UPSC offer?

Each candidate for the UPSC must select one subject from a list of 48 to be used for both Papers I and II. Each paper has 250 points. The optional syllabus is of the graduate level. Elective subjects are available for candidates to select based on their graduating degree or a topic of interest.

Which UPSC elective is the most scoring in IAS?

Because it has a smaller syllabus than other subjects, philosophy has one of the highest scorings among other optionals. Outside of these, other high-scoring fields include Sociology and Public Administration. Nonetheless, a candidate’s level of interest in and familiarity with the subject also plays a role in their ability to perform well on the UPSC.

Which is the toughest optional in UPSC?

There is no definitive answer to which optional subject is the toughest in UPSC CSE, as the difficulty level varies from individual to individual based on their aptitude and interests. Hard work is the only thing that matters in the eyes of a UPSC candidate. Increase your focus on learning since it has the potential to pay off in remarkable ways.

What is the ideal elective subject for IAS candidates with a background in commerce?

Those having a background in commerce are likely to choose either management or commerce.

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