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How to Choose Optional Subject for UPSC A Detailed Guide

There are quite a few decisions which might turn out to be the defining moments of life. They can push our dreams forward to unprecedented levels or can retard the growth in our life.

Choosing the optional subject in civil services is one of those decisions of life. So make no mistake, this has the potential to make or break your preparation. Given the changing trends in the pattern and nature of examination, importance of optional subject has only grown by leaps and bounds. This is playing a significant role in not just ensuring the entry in divine merit list but has become one of the determining factors for securing top ranks.

It’s natural for any beginner to feel the heat when it comes to selecting the right optional subject. But believe me, it’s not a rocket science at all. It’s as simple as it gets if you know the methodology of choosing the subject.

Nothing works in life well if it is not planned well. So due thought must be given to finalize the subject for the very edifice of your civil services dreams will be built on this strong platform provided by choosing the most suitable subject.

The purpose of this article is to introduce you to the most important factors which must be kept in mind while selecting an optional subject. Certain myths prevalent currently would also be denounced in the process.

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Interest in the Subject

This is the primary factor leading you to select any subject. In fact, you have decided to prepare for civil services because you find it an interesting career keeping aside other reasons. Unless we are interested in doing something from the core of our heart we cannot excel in that arena. Same rule should be applied here. You should go through the list of optional subjects in the notification by UPSC. Then apply the rejection method to go for selection.

Short list at least 4-5 subjects which you really found interesting. These subjects should be such that they don’t bore you even if you have to study them for hours or days. You must find something in these subjects which gives you the driving force to keep going with preparation. These subjects should generate curiosity and not force you to sleep even if you are required to study at midnight. You should be forced to think out of the box if the subject is interesting for you. This is what I mean by interest in the subject.

Background/Familiarity of the Subject

It is always advisable to choose a subject which you feel confident about. Graduation subject can be taken as optional subject if one has sincerely pursued the subject in college. It is important that one possess an excellent command over the subject. So only if you have genuine interest in the graduation subject then only you should go ahead with it. Most of the engineering students don’t choose their graduation subjects because of obvious reasons. And most of them go for humanities subjects, geography, philosophy, public administration etc., as they feel that they can do far better with these subjects.

So, you should also analyse your interest in the particular subject despite it being your subject of graduation. Don’t just fall for the familiarity; interest must be there as well because the Mains syllabus will require you to go much deeper conceptually. Though It is like icing on the cake to select the subject which one already knows a lot about but must be supplemented with other factors discussed here.

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Don’t Decide in A Haste

One should not jump too early into deciding the subject. Usually, decision is taken based on discussions with successful candidates, seniors, friends and at recommendations of coaching faculties. In the process, the decision is not owned by the aspirant. So, it is better to devote some time in choosing the subject given the importance it holds. As suggested in previous paras, based on interest and background you should shortlist 4-5 subjects. Thereafter, one by one go through the syllabus of each subject. The syllabus should strike a chord with you to draw your attention to it.

Also give a look at the length of the syllabus but don’t overemphasize it. Based on that, you could further reduce your shortlisted subjects to 2-3. Now you should pick any basic theoretical reading about the subject and go through them for each subject. It may be few chapters but this would let you get a feel of subject. You should also go through the previous year Mains question papers as this will help you decide the subject you find more comfortable with. You would realize that any particular subject aroused your interest more than the others. You can study this subject for years, if required. This may take some time, around 15-20 days but it is worth it to decide the right subject. Again saying, have patience and don’t decide in a haste.

Study Materials/Coaching Availability

It is important to ensure that reading materials related to the chosen subject are available in market. If a subject is picked without any background then the role of study materials and coaching only grows stronger. One should also see if he is required to join any coaching and if so, whether available or not at their place.

Nowadays, given the spread of digital technology it is not a cumbersome task to get access to the best of the study materials available in Delhi right from any other part of India. Also, online classes are available which can be availed thus need not be required to go all the way to Delhi or any other place for that matter. Still, availability of quality academic content is something which must be explored before finalizing the subject.

Is the Optional subject chosen a scoring one?

This is quite a common question being asked by beginners to decide the subject. It is so because there is a common perception that some subjects are more scoring than the rest. This misconception has developed based on analysis of past few years scoring pattern of any subject. And all of a sudden there is a flurry of aspirants in that subject without giving due importance to their interest and background in the subject. And many realize soon into the preparation that they should not have chosen this one. They did not go by their interests rather went by the common perception.

Thus, genuine interest is not there. Please avoid this blunder. It is you who have to score in the subject. No subject will score it for you. Every subject howsoever popular has a huge range in terms of marks scored. If anthropology gave the topper, then hundreds did not get select from the same. This story is with all the subjects. So take your decision, don’t let the common sentiment overpower your decision making ability.

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Take a rational and wise decision keeping in mind what would be the best for you. Don’t think about past scores, live in present, every attempt is a new attempt. You should focus only on what you are required to do. Rest will take care of itself.

Syllabus Overlapping with the General Studies

This is a factor highly explored by aspirants while deciding the optional subject. They are of the view that overlaps with GS syllabus as subjects will reduce their burden in General Studies preparation and give some edge over others. Despite some merit in the argument, I am of the view that this should not be the only reason for choosing an optional subject. Just because public administration has some overlapping with GS paper 2 syllabus, should everyone start choosing this one?

Most of the optional subjects such as Sociology, Political Science, Philosophy, Economics, History etc., have some overlapping with GS. There are many subjects without any such overlapping of syllabus but still are highly preferred due to their interests and familiarity.

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Don’t read too much into these arguments rather choose what you feel would be best for you irrespective of anything else. You have to score well in that subject, and that is what matters. Better to keep things simple than to complicate them. One should try to play by their own strengths.

Answer Writing Skills

One should understand some subjects test the writing skills of the aspirants more than the rest. Humanities subjects such as Sociology, Psychology etc., are few of them. One must be prepared to sharpen their writing skills to score well. These subjects demand a lot of writing practice thus serious efforts would have to be put into preparation. This does not mean that other subjects don’t require such extensive and rigorous preparation.

Science subjects such as Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics etc., do not test writing skills but something else. You should analyse your strength and choose accordingly. If you believe that you want to avoid such extensive writing practice then may avoid related subjects. But GS would anyway force you to sharpen your writing skills so don’t read too much into this as a deciding criterion for choosing the subject. You should still go by your strengths.

Time Available for Preparation

any optional subject takes anything around 4-7 months of preparation with 3-4 hours of study every day. There is a bit of variation among the subjects. Usually, a newer subject without any past background may take more time. Also, science subjects are a bit known for their vastness of syllabus and longevity with the preparation.

So better be informed before choosing any subject. If you have started preparation late as per your target year, then you may choose subjects with shorter syllabus such as sociology, philosophy etc.

But this should not be a strong criterion for selection since if you don’t find much interest into the subject then it does not help at all and changing the subject later has been a common phenomenon with aspirants. It would just turn out to be a waste of time and delay your success.

Science Vs Humanity Subjects

Often it has been compared which is the better option among these two type of subjects for civil services examination. It varies from person to person. Science subjects are generally not everyone’s cup of tea if having no background at all with subject.

With some serious efforts, humanities subjects can be managed well in minimum time say, 3-4 months. It is also prevalent nowadays that scoring varies a lot with subjects. Both have their pros and cons. Science subjects require specific answer. Either you know or don’t know.

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There are no marks for writing something related to concepts as in humanities. For example, you have solved a Maths question correctly with all steps then may be given nearly full marks since your answer is absolutely correct. But this is not the case with humanities, as there is a bit of subjectivity. Here you write some opinion which may not go well with the examiner.

Objectivity here howsoever desirable but is not possible to great extent due to obvious reasons. So be a bit prepared to face the unpredictable in worst case. Otherwise, selection of subject has to be an individual decision based on logical reasons. Don’t go by what others have to say, look within to find what you think would be the best for you.

Demystifying Some Common Myths

There is nothing like good or bad optional, lengthy, and small optional, the perception varies from person to person depending on individual capabilities and circumstances. One should not decide the optional on the basis of success of others. No optional is high scoring or low scoring, it all depends on how well you have prepared it.

Don’t go by the popularity of the subject as it has nothing to do with you doing well in that subject. Also don’t overemphasize the overlapping of syllabus with GS as it serves no purpose if you score badly in subject per se.

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Just because some subjects have few takers, you should not fall a prey to popular subjects thus keeping your interest aside. Every subject has lot of competition so don’t be afraid to choose a subject on this ground.

Every subject has some shortcomings or the other. Once you have narrowed down upon your subject, then don’t look for anything else and just put your mind and soul religiously into that. Past results have shown that aspirants with agriculture, zoology which has very few takers have top 100 ranks as well. It’s not the popularity or difficulty but your sincere attempts and performance in the exam which matters. Eventually, always remember that, “Subject does not score, individual does”.


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