Best Optional Subjects For UPSC: An Ultimate Guide

best optional subjects for upsc

UPSC preparation and examination is a marathon journey. Selecting the right optional subject can improve your rank and make your dream of becoming a Civil Servant come true. You should consider your academic background and interests when choosing the optional subject from the list of best optional subjects for UPSC. A strong UPSC optional counts on both these elements. It’s always better to select a subject that you’ve studied before since it is the best way to retain interest for the duration of the Civil Services Exam preparation time.

If you are planning to attempt the Civil Services Mains examination or preliminary exam this year, it’s important to understand the syllabus and which paper can be the best optional subject for UPSC for you. The optional paper has a weightage of 28 percent. This means that most civil services aspirants score between 35% and 40% of their total marks in this paper. Therefore, the best option for you is to choose one that is a strength and not a weakness. This decision will save your preparation time by a considerable margin.

How Critical Is The Decision Of Choosing IAS Mains Optional?

If you’re a candidate looking to gain more marks on the IAS Mains exam, then your decision about which subject is best for IAS is crucial for your preparation. There are several criteria that will play a role in making the choice of the best optional subject for UPSC, including whether it overlaps with your GS paper or not, level of difficulty with respect to UPSC syllabus, trends of marks, success rate, availability of study materials, subjects that are well-known to you, and question papers of last years. A good IAS optional paper choice can make all the difference between success and failure. If you’re unsure about the easiest optional subject for UPSC, we have put together a list of subjects that can help you get better marks on the IAS Mains exam.

While newspaper reading and note-making won’t make much of a difference in the IAS Mains optional result, they are still very important in the overall success in the examination. A good number of aspirants fail to enter the GS category, and getting into that club requires long-term preparation. Your choice of the top UPSC optional subject is therefore among the most important factors in the entire preparation process.

Although picking the ideal and easy optional subject for UPSC can be time-consuming, it is incredibly vital. Make sure to stick with your decision if you’re having trouble deciding, and avoid altering it in the middle. Rather, take adequate time to think about it and work on what might be holding you back.

Also Read: How To Select Optional Subject For UPSC Exam

Understanding The UPSC CSE Optional Subject List

There are many integral factors to consider while selecting the best optional subject for UPSC CSE. Many of us wonder which optional subject is best for UPSC. The Union Public Service Commission provides a list of optional subjects for the civil services exam. For the Civil Service mains examination, candidates must choose one optional subject. There are two 250-mark papers in the optional. Aspirants may opt from the UPSC Optional subject list, which includes literature subjects (Indian and English languages).

The Mains exam pattern is descriptive in nature. Each paper for the Mains examination will be given 3 hours of time. For the literature section, the medium of paper will be either Hindi or English. The optional subjects are very important in the Civil Service exam.

There are 25 optional courses and 23 literature optional subjects on the official UPSC list. The list of these topics is given below under the title “The Year 17.”

Also Read: UPSC Exam Pattern

Choosing The Optional Subject 

You have a wide selection of theoretical subjects to pick from because the UPSC CSE tests 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 enroll 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 prior graduate-level understanding of the area do you have?
  4. Are the necessary learning resources readily available?
  5. What part of the curriculum overlaps with General Studies?
  6. Are you genuinely interested in and eager to learn about the subject?
  7. Have you examined the subject’s mark trends, difficulty level, and previous year papers?

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 subjects to study.

How To Shortlist From The Initial List Of Optional Subjects?

Before this step, if you’ve answered the questions honestly, given every thought, and considered every angle you would have been ready with an initial list of 4-5 subjects.

Now You need to sieve more through these to shortlist your final choice for the best optional subject for UPSC. For this:

  1. You should review the curriculum of the initially shortlisted subjects and identify the topics that you think you have knowledge of beforehand. Also, identify the topics of your interest.
  2. After the previous step, go through at least 4-5 years of previous papers of every shortlisted subject. This will also enable you to examine your academic interests and gauge your level of expertise in certain areas.
  3. It is critical to check the availability of materials and guidance through training. Standard books are difficult to obtain for a few papers, and tutions for some subjects may not be available. If you practice writing often, you will be ready for non-technical areas through independent study.
  4. You should have a good idea of which papers to choose from now. You might be juggling between 2 or three subjects at most.
  5. The subject’s rate of success is the last parameter to take into account. Literature subjects have generally performed well across all years. As an alternative paper, you could choose literature in your native language. Undoubtedly, that is a well-chosen decision. 

These little pointers will surely lessen the burden of choosing an optional subject.

Things To Take into Account When Selecting UPSC Optional Subjects

When selecting an optional course, you must take the topic’s syllabi and your degree of interest into consideration. While choosing your subject, make sure to check out previous year papers and study the syllabus in detail. If you find any points interesting in a subject, you should select it. Also, make sure you’ve had enough writing practice. In addition, make sure to choose a subject that will be challenging but doable.

Various UPSC subjects have their own syllabuses. You should take a look at the syllabus and NCERTs of the optional areas before you select one. Do not select subjects that are too difficult to study in a reasonable time or that require a good academic background. If you feel you’re not ready for a particular subject, you can consider taking another optional subject. There are many options for subjects that you can take if you’re interested in them.

Go for a subject you love. Selecting an optional subject that you don’t like will only waste your precious time and efforts. You should select subjects that you’ve already been familiarized with at the graduation or post-graduation level or that interest you. Choosing the right optional is extremely important because once you choose it, you won’t be able to switch your mind later. Make sure you analyze any shortcomings that might occur while choosing the optional subject and work on them to improve yourself.

How Do Toppers choose The Best optional For UPSC?

The first-rank holders who have chosen optional subjects have done so by strategically planning their UPSC preparation. They chose the best optional subject for UPSC which played a crucial role in their final scores. For this reason, the IAS Toppers have also discussed their experiences with various optional subjects, their success ratio, and how important these subjects were to their final marks. These examples of top performers highlight the relevance of tactical planning in preparing for the UPSC Mains exam.

Year Rank 1 Holder  What Optional Subject They Opted Cadre
2020 Subham Kumar Anthropology Bihar
2019 Pradeep Singh  Public Administration Haryana
2018 Kanishak Kataria Mathematics Rajasthan
2017 Anudeep Durishetty Anthropology Telangana
2016 Nandini K. R. Kannada Literature Karnataka
2015 Tina Dabi Political Science Delhi
2014 Ira Singhal Geography Delhi
2013 Gaurav Aggarwal Economics Rajasthan
2012 Haritha V. Kumar Economics & Malayalam Literature Kerala
2011 Shena Aggarwal Medical Science and Psychology Haryana
What UPSC Toppers Chose as Optional Subjects Over the Years?

Optimization Of Optional Subject Marks And GS Marks

The optimal choice of the best optional subject for UPSC is important in order to maximize your GS score. If you have time to study optional subjects, you should choose those with the maximum marks in GS. Moreover, you can select that exam as your GS choice if you have prior knowledge of the optional subject. Otherwise, choose an optional subject with lower marks. If you have limited time, you can finish standard textbooks instead of studying optional subjects. However, as per the latest pattern, this strategy is not recommended.

The most effective way to optimize optional subject marks and GS marks is to select the subjects that you know you can easily study within the timeframe provided. If you are unsure about your optional choice, you can always refer to the charts for guidance. Geography, for example, is the most sought-for optional subject. But, the trend may change from year to year. If you can choose optional subjects that are relevant to your chosen specialization, you can score high on GS.

The UPSC syllabus is low-scoring and the weightage has shifted towards the GS section. Only a handful of aspirants are strong in GS and can get into this club without serious preparation. As such, it is essential to optimize your Optional Subject Marks and GS Marks. There are several online options to help you get started. This way, you’ll have the best chances of scoring well and boosting your GS score.

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Scoring Optional Subject In UPSC

One of the most preferred optional subjects for the UPSC Mains is geography. It is among the most sought-after subjects for UPSC applicants due to its close resemblance to the IAS examination. Other favored optional subjects are History, Sociology, and Philosophy. Public Administration is one subject that is highly relevant and has a compact syllabus.

 Top 10 Optional Papers for IAS Mains 

Based on the previously mentioned criteria, we selected these subjects as the top 10 optional subjects. This is after taking into account the rate of success of all subjects, the most popular subjects, and the overlap in syllabi.  

If you’re planning to appear for IAS Mains, sociology is considered the best optional subject for the UPSC Mains examination. Sociology is a subject that studies the patterns and interactions of human societies, cultures, and societies. While most people who take it have a science background, it is also a popular choice among art students. Because this subject is most scoring optional in UPSC, more aspirants are opting for it.

The top 10 optional subjects for IAS Mains exams are listed below:

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

Which Optional Papers Have The Highest Success Rate In The IAS/UPSC Examination?

As an aspirant, you may be wondering: which optional subjects have 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 subjects interest you the most. Then, eliminate the ones you cannot study in a reasonable amount of time, or which require an academic background.

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

The year 2017

No.  Optional Subject Candidates Appeared Candidates Recommended Success Rate
1 Accounts  224 28 12.5
2 Agriculture 89 11 12.4
3 Botany  44 5 11.4
4 Mechanical Engineering 170 19 11.2
5 Psychology  193 21 10.9
6 Medical Science  313 32 10.2
7 Public Administration 1165 119 10.2
8 Physics  140 14 10
9 Electrical Engineering 193 19 9.8
10 Anthropology 880 85 9.7
11 Sociology  1421 137 9.6
12 Political  Science  1246 117 9.4
13 Civil Engineering 124 11 8.9
14 Chemistry  126 11 8.7
15 Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Science 23 2 8.7
16 Management  86 7 8.1
17 Philosophy  755 53 7
18 Economics  233 16 6.9
19 Mathematics  441 26 5.9
20 Geography  2669 147 5.5
21 History  1074 59 5.5
22 Geology  37 2 5.4
23 Law  3041 43 4.1
24 Zoology  484 18 3.7
25 Statistics  3 0 0

The year 2016

No.  Optional Subject Candidates Appeared Candidates Recommended Success Rate
1 Agriculture 220 41 18.6
2 Medical science 98 16 16.3
3 Animal husbandry  65 8 12.3
4 Economics 326 37 11.3
5 Psychology 1061 116 10.9
6 Anthropology 345 37 10.7
7 Chemistry 124 7 5.6
8 Political science 1320 85 6.4
9 Geography 4049 236 5.8
10 Sociology 1555 89 5.7
11 Public administration 3201 337 10.5
12 Commerce & Accountancy 266 15 5.6
13 Mathematics 277 8 2.9
14 Law 365 19 5.2
15 Philosophy 2092 84 4
16 Zoology 484 18 3.7
17 History 3870 212 5.5

Note: If you have a strong academic background, you can consider the one that 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 a subject just because it has a higher success rate.

Which Optional Subject Has The Most Overlap With GS In The IAS Exam?

When taking the UPSC CSE Mains, you may want to consider which is the best optional paper for UPSC Civil Services whose syllabus overlaps most with GS. Not only can this save you some time but also help you maximize your total marks.

Find below some of the subjects that overlap the most with GS.

  1. Public Administration – Comparatively brief and relevant syllabus, Polity and Governance GS II overlap much Indian Administration(paper II)
  2. Sociology – Study of society. So, factual data can be put into use in GS I for essays, and in ethics papers to some extent
  3. History – both for prelims and GS-1 Paper
  4. Geography – both for prelims and GS-1 Paper
  5. Political Science both for prelims and GS-2 Paper
  6. Law – both for prelims and GS II

The most obvious choice is medical science, as this subject already has plenty of overlap with GS. However, if you don’t have this background, you can opt for subjects like Zoology or Animal Husbandry. If you’re not interested in technical subjects, you can also choose Maths and Physics. These subjects will help you reduce the subjectivity in the marking, while they will require you to devote a lot of time to your preparation.

If you have a background in humanities, it’s a good idea to consider choosing one of these subjects. Humanities subjects like history, philosophy, geography, and anthropology, have a high percentage of overlap with GS. If you are a college student, try selecting a subject you are familiar with, and one that you can study on your own time without losing interest.

It is ultimately up to you to select the finest optional subjects for the UPSC, but the only approach to guarantee success is to do it carefully. Remember, UPSC doesn’t restrict your choices, so do not choose the subject that has the highest popularity among other candidates. 

List Of Literature Subjects As Optional

Students should carefully select their literature subjects, and using the list of electives is one of the finest ways to do this. You can read a variety of works on this subject, and analyze their characters and context. In addition to analyzing the plot and characters, you should also examine the societal framework and political setup of the works you read. This way, you’ll be able to get a more comprehensive understanding of the works you read.

If you’re studying literature in college or university, you’ll likely have to take at least one literature subject. The literature subject has a high rate of success in the UPSC exams, but the number of students pursuing it is still low. The success rate is merely a generic indicator, as the selection of a subject depends on the study material and nature of the syllabus. And don’t forget that the selection of a literature subject is a personal decision.

English Literature is a good choice for candidates with a background in English literature. It’s also a good subject for candidates with good reading skills. For those candidates with a passion for literature, English Literature is an excellent choice as an optional subject. 

List of literature subjects for UPSC

S.No List of Literature Optional Subjects
1. Assamese
2. Bengali
3. Bodo
4. Dogri
5. Gujarati
6. Hindi
7. Kannada
8. Kashmiri
9. Konkani
10. Maithili
11. Malayalam
12. Manipuri
13. Marathi
14. Nepali
15. Oriya
16. Punjabi
17. Sanskrit
18. Santhali
19. Sindhi
20. Tamil
21. Telugu
22. Urdu
23. English

Optional Discipline Of The First-Rank Holders

The first-rank holders are often seen with options in hand, including physics. Despite its difficulty, many toppers have used it to boost their marks in the Mains examination.

The table below reveals the rate of success of the students who have chosen physics as an optional subject from 2014 to 2017:

Year Number of Candidates Appeared Number of Candidates Recommended Success Rate Percentage
2014 147 13 8.8
2015 266 17 6.4
2016 239 16 6.7
2017 140 14 10

Which Optional Subject Is Best For IAS For Engineering Candidates?

If you are a Civil Services aspirant and are from an engineering background, you may choose any of the subjects discussed in this part. Sociology, Geography, and Anthropology are sought-after among students from science and arts backgrounds as the best optional subjects for UPSC. Anthropology deals with the study of human evolution, societies, and the environment. In the UPSC examination, a good mark for an individual will determine how well a candidate will do in these subjects.

For those engineering students who are preparing for the UPSC Civil Services Exam, there are some factors that can help them get the top score. Public Administration is a good subject to opt for. Even though it is non-technical, it has the highest rate of success among other non-technical subjects. The exam is difficult, so it is crucial to choose the subjects wisely. In addition to English, students should consider Math, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology as optional subjects.

While deciding on an optional subject, students should also keep in mind the level of interest in each one. For instance, if maths is not their strongest subject, they should not choose it. If they find it hard to study, they should choose the subjects they’ve studied in school or college. Then, they should do a few revisions of each subject to ensure that they know the subject well.

A candidate with an experience in engineering can choose a subject based on their prior knowledge. If you have studied engineering subjects like electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering, you can choose a subject related to the engineering stream. However, if you’re an engineering student, any optional subject that matches your previous knowledge can opt. Some subjects that are good for UPSC are Maths, English, Sociology, Geography, and Anthropology.

Which Are The Best Optional Subjects For UPSCS For Medical Students And Doctors?

For aspiring doctors and medical students, an ideal optional subject for UPSC is the study of human anatomy, including the nerves, joints, and blood supply. In general, medical science is chosen by doctors. However, some non-medical subjects with GS overlap are also suitable.

Medical Science has the best rate of success among all optional subjects. Most medical students and doctors opt for this subject, but some may need help in their studies. The most important thing is to demonstrate competency in GS and the essay paper. The exam will test your knowledge of the subject and your ability to apply your knowledge.

Now that you know which subject is the best for your UPSC Exam for you! Head on to Examarly to 2x your UPSC preparation.


All said and done there is no one size fits all option for the best optional subject for UPSC Civil Services. It all boils down to your individual choice. We can also say that the best subject of choice is a myth. Just as for most things in life, don’t just go where the herd goes. One should always self-evaluate and identify the best subject for themselves. Although it is a crucial thing to define in the early stages of preparation, this should never be the reason for being anxious. You need to keep calm and decide. We tried to minimize your anxiety through the tips in this article. Apply all that is described and you will surely get the answer to your quest of choosing the best optional subject for UPSC for you.

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