In the year 2013, the UPSC has reduced the number of optional subjects for the UPSC Mains exam from two to one. This reduction of subject besides more emphasis on General studies means, on one hand, the total marks of the optional subject is reduced, whereas the preference of optional subject prevails a decisive factor for the overall success.


Why is the Preference of an Optional Subject Vital For UPSC


For this, you need to know the exam pattern for UPSC. The exam consists of 3 crucial levels- Prelims, Mains and Personality test or Interview. Among these three stages, the marks scored for the last two stages form the basis for the ultimate Merit list.


Nearly 50% total marks(Mains and personality test) are required to be a part of the merit list. The General studies portion for the Mains exam is broad and diverse. Owing to this it is crucial from the exam outlook to discover the important areas where you can score more by putting in a reasonable effort.


To be precise, there are three key areas for aspirants who fancy to score more without getting hindering you from making progress due to the extensive UPSC syllabus:


  • Optional Subject: Two papers with a maximum of 500 marks for each.
  • Essay: Two essays with a maximum of 125 marks for each.
  • Interview: 20 minutes of discussion with distinguished UPSC board members.


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The UPSC offers 48 optional subjects and you are supposed to pick one. Below you can find all the optional subjects for the theory part of Mains exam.


Agriculture Geology Management Gujarati Punjabi
Animal husbandry and Veterinary science History Mechanical engineering Kashmiri Sanskrit
Anthropology Philosophy Medical science Konkani Santhali
Botany Political science Zoology Kannada Sindhi
Chemistry Psychology Assamese Maithili Tamil
Civil engineering Public administration Bengali Malayalam Telugu
Commerce Physics Bodo Manipuri Urdu
Economics Sociology Dogri Marathi
Electrical engineering Law English Nepali
Geography Mathematics Hindi Oriya


The 23 literature subjects offered by the UPSC doesn’t overlap with General studies or rest parts of the UPSC CSE examination. But a lot of IAS toppers have taken those subjects.


Even though the weightage is 500 marks for the optional paper, and that too out of the total 2025 marks, based on the latest exam pattern of the UPSC exam, it prevails to be a vital factor for the final ranks.


Your choice of optional subject is much vital. Your choice should be something which you feel is comfortable with, to score more for the optional subject.


The comfort level depends on a lot of elements such as the accessibility of study materials and knowledge of the subject. It also relies on the difficulty level, trends of marks, last years question papers and availability of coaching.


If the subject you have studied for your bachelor’s programme is there in the list of optional subjects above, or a related alternative will be the comfortable choice. If not, look for an alternative optional which you can cover in a period bound manner without enroaching the amount of time to prepare for General studies.


Optional Subject Best For Doctors and Medical Students


Among the subjects available(please refer to the table above), the optional subject medical science is a common preference. There are plenty of IAS toppers who are either doctors or medical students who opted for medical science as the optional subject.

To an extent, if you have a medical background, you can consider optional subjects such as Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Science, Zoology. But when it comes to medical science as an optional subject, if you aren’t willing to go for medical science as the optional, then subjects with some overlap with General studies can be your practical option.

When it comes to BDS graduates, you can take a look at the optional subject-Medical science. If you do have the required knowledge on the subject, then opt for it. Plus, Medical science also has a great success ratio. Otherwise, you can consider another optional- Anthropology, which is the study of humanity inclusive of some elements of science in it.


Optional Subject Best For Those With Engineering Background


A number of students with a background in engineering have performed excellently in the UPSC exam with a broad array of optionals. But when it comes to optionals on the basis of their earlier knowledge, then the choices reduce to Electrical, Civil and Mechanical Engg. It goes without saying that it won’t make much sense to prefer an engg subject unless you have learned it during your bachelor’s programme. When it comes to computer science graduates, there are a few options which you can consider. Also, there is no computer science optional in the list of optional subjects offered by the UPSC. So you can instead opt for physics, mathematics or electrical engineering as these are subjects that are taught in the Computer science program during the initial stages.

If you have an engineering background, you can also consider optional subjects such as Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. To an extent, these three subjects lessen the subjectivity in marking, but the hard work and time to prepare are substantial. Owing to that first you have to study the previous year question papers and syllabus.


Optional Subject Best For Aspirants With Commerce Background


Being a commerce graduate, you have the choice to opt for a general subject and a technical subject as an optional. If you have commerce background, and still wish to settle for the subjects you’ve learned in college, then you can opt for economics, accountancy, management(only opt for any of these subjects provided you have more interest as these subjects are broad and you won’t easily get tutors). And one of the widely opted optional by aspirants with commerce background is Public Administration. It includes theories that you’ve learned during your bachelor’s or post-graduate programme.


Optional Subject Best For Aspirants With Agriculture Degree


For the UPSC exam, agriculture is a very scoring optional, especially for those aspirants with an agriculture background. Besides aspirants with an agriculture degree, those with an academic background in Botany, Zoology, Dairy sciences, Biomedical sciences can also opt for Agriculture optional. But the subject proved to be tough for those aspirants without any prior background in it, so such aspirants should stay away from this subject. Even though this optional is a technical subject, and with the right strategy, you can ace the subject in their first attempt itself.


Best Optional Subject For Architecture Students


As there is no such subject linked to 48 optional subjects offered by the UPSC, you can opt for a subject which you can cover without losing interest, since excluding Medicine, engineering and law all subjects are of honours degree level. It will be better if you go for a subject that covers portions of GS also such as Philosophy, Geography, Political science, history, Public administration, sociology, International relations, since it will significantly lessen the effort to complete general studies syllabus. As well as if your interest permits, you can opt one of the 23 literature subjects offered by the UPSC. For all the above-mentioned subjects, both study materials and training are easily available.


Best Optional Subject For Management Graduates


Management is the ideal option as it is the subject of your graduation and don’t need to put in more efforts to begin the subject from scratch. If you’ve a strong base of the concepts and enjoy management subject, then this optional subject can be your best bet. As this subject is not that subjective, it is pretty scoring than humanities.

Then another best subject is public administration. It is more of an obvious choice for MBA graduates as it talks about the administration. Added to that, it is a scoring subject just as management subject and when compared to the rest of the optional subjects can be covered within a short amount of time.

Economics is also the best optional subject for you as this subject is included in the MBA program. Just like both Public administration and management, Economics is a scoring subject. But when you settle for this subject, you should have a genuine interest in economics.


How to Prefer the Best Optional Subject For UPSC Mains Exam


From an individual’s point of view, there are numerous factors that link to form the best optional subject. Prior to hastily choosing a subject, you need to ask yourself a few questions:


  • How broad is the syllabus of the optional subject?
  • What is the amount of time for preparation?
  • Have you studied the subject during your graduate or PG level?
  • Is there a syllabus overlap between the General studies portion in Prelims or mains and your optional?
  • Is coaching and study material available for the subject?
  • Do you have a genuine interest to study the subject?


Based on the answers to all of these questions, you need to make an individual preference as to the best subject for you. A person with a sociology background will regard the optional Sociology as the best optional subject, whereas a person with a medical background will opt for the medical science optional. The optional subject syllabus is quite midway among the Bachelor’s degree level and post-graduate degree level. So the very first step that you need to do is to read the UPSC optional syllabus, as well as previous years question papers(up to 3-4 years) of the subjects that you favour prior to taking the ultimate decision.


Which Optional Overlaps the Most With General Studies


The subjects below are most-sought after among UPSC candidates who come from both technical and non-technical backgrounds due to the greater overlap with general studies or rest parts of the civil services exam.


Public Administration: This subject possesses a compact syllabus, and most importantly of greater relevance. And there is more overlap with governance and polity of General science 2 for the Paper 2 of Public Administration.


  • Political science: This optional is relevant for General studies 2 and prelims.
  • Sociology: As it deals with the study of society, scores of material that can be utilised in General studies 1, Ethics paper and for the essay.
  • History: This optional is relevant for General studies 1 and for prelims.
  • Law: This optional is relevant for General Studies 2 and for the prelims.
  • Geography: This optional is relevant for General studies 1 and for prelims.


Optionals such as Anthropology, Economics and Philosophy are also excellent options.


Through the years, a lot of them have got top 10 All India Rank in UPSC exam with a wide array of subjects. Be it Engineering, Management or Medical Science, it is the preference and determination of a person which makes all the difference. The better way to begin is to pick the subject according to what suits your scenario the most and then peruse the toppers strategy who have opted for the same optional subject like you.


The Qualities of a Best Optional Subject


Easy to Score


A lot of aspirants regard scoring as the key reason to get selected. And some of the optionals that are easy to score are Public Administration, geography and Sociology.

A lot of candidates have secured above 400 marks for these optional subjects(in the light of last years civil services exam results). It considerably affects your ultimate AIR.


Popularity of the Subject


The optional of your preference needs to be popular among the coaching institute. Never go for a rare optional. A few of the popular subjects are Public administration, Sociology, History, Psychology and Geography.

The syllabus of these subjects is not vast. So, you can complete the subject in a matter of five months. And neither are the topics much complicated. To score well, you need decent UPSC coaching. Without any worries, you can go for self-study too.

From the side of UPSC, there are no restrictions regarding the selection of an Optional for the Mains exam. You are free to make a decision but be mindful that you are constrained by the repercussions(extensive syllabus, convoluted theories, changing nature of questions asked and substantial time to prepare) to make that decision.