For Optional subjects, the UPSC Civil Services Exam notification list 25 subjects which can be opted for paper VI and VII in the mains examination.
The list consists most of the vast disciplines of academic study known to man, with subjects ranging from Agriculture to English literature.
Interestingly UPSC does not put any kind of academic restrictions on choosing an optional which means that you are completely free to choose law as your optional even though you have not done LLB and have a degree in History.
This is the best and the worst thing for you simultaneously.
Here’s what you need to know BEFORE you the best optional subject for you and WHY it is a critically important choice
Reason 1: Weightage in the Final Score in the UPSC Mains Exam
The optional subject is truly a heavy-weight. Out of the 7 papers in the UPSC Mains exam, the optional subject accounts for 2 papers which is roughly 28% of the total score in the written portion of the Mains exam which is a huge chunk of the total.
This implies that in a highly competitive examination like the UPSC, if you don’t perform well in your Optional subject, you will find it very hard to compensate for the loss from the other papers because most of your competitors will be at a similar level to yours in the rest of the papers including G.S and Ethics.
But if the optional subject is your strength and you are at a higher level than most people, then it is your competition who will find themselves struggling hard to keep up with your total score.
Reason 2: Your optional subject is only as good as your written answers on the day of the Mains Exam
You study the Optional subject simply because you must, in order to clear the exam. And for that, you need to write multiple essay-type answers which are asked in the Mains exam.
It is easy to forget that the only thing that matters in the end is how well you answer the questions asked in the Mains Examination. It should be obvious that you do not aim to become academicians or theorists when you study an optional subject like Psychology or Sociology for a competitive examination like the UPSC CSE.
Even if you were an expert, your knowledge wouldn’t count for much if you can’t communicate it effectively in the format prescribed the Exam. The UPSC examiner will judge your knowledge on a topic, by reading the 100 or so words which you will have written in the answer-sheet on the day of the exam, even if you spent 5 years doing a PhD on it.
Note that this holds true, not just for the optional subject, but also G.S, Ethics and every other paper in the Mains Exam.
All of this boils down to the fact that you need to be very good at Essay and answer-writing in order to clear the UPSC Exam. And for this, you will need intelligently designed practice and a powerful framework to develop your writing-skills in a short amount of time. Which is exactly what you will find detailed in the Ultimate Cheatbook of Essay and Answer-writing.
Reason 3: Level of testing and difficulty
The UPSC makes it clear the the level of expertise required in the Optional subject is up to the Master’s level. This means the level of testing will be the hardest and you will need extensive and deep knowledge of the Optional subject to do well.
This is because the process takes time and there will always be competitors who have invested much more time in polishing their preparation for the the Optional subject than you- perhaps in their graduation or during more than one attempt of the UPSC exam.
This implies, that unless you are exceptionally well-trained or otherwise highly attuned to a new subject, you will find it very hard to elevate your level beyond a certain level.
Of course, you may do well for a newcomer by working very hard but chances are that you wont be the best.
But if on the other hand, the optional subject is your strength, you may have already won half the battle.
Reason 4: Huge investment of Time and Energy
It follows from the above point that the Optional subject will demand a large chunk of your time and energy while preparing. Consider the fact that you may have to spend HUNDREDS of hours studying the subject of your choice.
This is important to think about because you will want to enjoy and have a good time while preparing for the same because the more you enjoy studying a subject, the richer your knowledge and the deeper your understanding will be.
A good choice of subject will have the additional benefit of imparting you with much needed self-confidence and assurance – a respite from the crippling insecurity and anxiety which all UPSC aspirants encounter.
A good choice of optional subject is one less mountain to conquer on your journey to Becoming IAS.
Reason 5: You must choose the optional subject at the outset
Earlier, you could choose your optional subject, after attempting the Prelims Exam but this is no longer the case.
Now, the DAF (Detailed Application Form) for the UPSC must be filled out before you embark on your preparation journey.
This means that you can no longer experiment and explore with different optional subjects and forces you to make your choice once and for all with limited experience.
In other words, once your submit your form, your fate in the exam, as far as the optional subject is concerned, is sealed.
And as a corollary, that if you make a bad choice, you will be stuck with it and will have to bear the consequences when the results are declared.
This does not mean that you will not improve your knowledge of the subject in the time being, but it does mean that if there is a better optional subject out there, you will never get the chance to use it to your advantage in the UPSC exam.
Reason 6: Where General Studies is the great equalizer, your Optional subject is the deal-clincher
It is the marks in your optional subject which will give you an edge over your competition. This fact is glaringly obvious year after year from the marks of toppers with some people scoring ridiculously high marks in the optional subjects.
Given the wide spectrum of General studies syllabus, no one can have absolute mastery over all the subjects involved. You may score high marks in one paper of G.S only to loose out in another paper.
This makes that the marks of General Studies papers I to V tend to somewhat similar for most aspirants which is why G.S is the great equalizer leveeing the playgoing field for people from different backgrounds.
But not so with the optional, which is the only portion where the UPSC allows you to take disproportionate advantage over your competitors.
The choice of your optional subject for the UPSC CSE is one of the most critically important decisions you must make during your preparation journey as an IAS aspirant.
The best optional subject is not Public Administration the subject in which you THINK you will score well. Or the subject which the last year’s topper chose.
If the UPSC exam is like a war, then your optional is your “Weapon of Choice”. You must be as comfortable with your optional as a soldier is with his weapon.
The best optional subject is the one which leads you straight along the fastest and most comfortable path towards your goal of clearing the UPSC exam and becoming an IAS/IPS officer.
I hope this brought some clarity to you.
Tc, stay healthy and all the best!
-Ravi Kapoor, IRS