UPSC civil service exam 2021: Here’s how to choose right optional subject

UPSC civil service exam 2021: An important aspect of the UPSC civil services examination is the vastness and diversity of its syllabus; especially of the general studies papers. This vastness of the syllabus brings about an element of unpredictability. The optional subject of an aspirant can thus help in bringing a certain level of stability in one’s preparation.

Also, analysis shows that the marks of the successful candidates are generally not vastly different in the general studies papers. It is the essay and the optional papers which end up being the deciding factors for one’s rank in the merit list.

In fact, a look at the mark sheets of previous years’ top-ranking successful candidates shows that most of them have done very well in their optional subject. Even when their performance in the general studies papers may not be spectacular.

Another important thing is that once you have decided on your optional subject, it is difficult to change it. After all, the aspirant spends substantial time and effort preparing it. Thus, the importance of choosing the right optional in the beginning cannot be stressed enough.

UPSC civil service exam 2021: Criteria to keep in mind while choosing an optional subject

1. Aptitude and interest in the subject

The foremost thing is that your optional should be a subject that you enjoy reading. It is very difficult to sustain your enthusiasm over multiple attempts if you do not find the subject to your taste. An aptitude for the subject is a personal decision of an aspirant. For example, if you have a scientific bend of mind, you might feel comfortable with an optional like mathematics. If you have a keen interest in social problems, a humanities subject like sociology may be more suitable.

2. Availability of guidance and study material

While coaching is a not a necessity, correct guidance is. You will need to analyze the availability of quality guidance especially if you are not a graduate in the optional subjects that you are considering.

While there is enough study material available for the popular humanities optionals, research needs to be done regarding the availability of resource materials for an offbeat option like agriculture or animal husbandry.

3. Time required to complete the optional syllabus

Some of the optional subjects require more time to prepare compared to others. For instance, optionals like mathematics and political science have a lengthier syllabus than subjects like sociology and philosophy.

4. Overlap with other portions of the UPSC exam syllabus

Most of the humanities subjects like sociology and public administration have many topics which overlap with the General Studies syllabus and also help in the Essay paper. Subjects like Mathematics or animal husbandry will be of lesser utility in the other portions of the exam.

5. Graduation stream

Choosing your optional from your graduation stream does help since you have already spent three or four years studying it. Thus, you may have a good foundation in it already. However, you should not choose the optional from your graduation stream if you had not developed an interest in it while in college.

6. Stay away from myths around the optional subjects

There are many myths surrounding the optional subjects. There is no such thing as the ‘best optional’, only the right optional for a particular aspirant. Every year, hype gets created around a subject depending on the optional choice of the top rankers in the UPSC final list. However, statistical analysis shows that a very broad range of optional subjects have a good chance of faring well in the examination. As per the UPSC’s annual report (available on its website), more than 100 candidates were recommended from 4 optional subjects; namely Geography, Sociology, Public Administration and Political Science.

Strategy to choose the right optional subject:

– Take a printout of the list of optional subjects offered by UPSC. Cut out the names of optionals that are impossible for you to study in a reasonable time frame. For example, a humanities background student cannot prepare the medical science optional or the many engineering optionals.

– Narrow down to a couple of subjects that you find interesting at the first glance.

– Do research about the availability of preparation material, coaching and length of the subject’s syllabus from other aspirants, mentors and online.

– If you have already started your General Studies preparation, try to figure out which subject you prefer to read more. This may give you a clue to the right optional for you.

– Carefully go through the syllabus, previous years’ question papers and some introductory textbooks (such as 11th and 12th NCERT books) of the subjects in your consideration set. You can also watch a few lecture videos of the subjects you are considering to gauge your interest in them.

– Consult others – friends, teachers and mentors. But ensure that the final decision is your own. Learn from but avoid blindly following the successful candidates while selecting your optional. Identify your own area of interest and choose accordingly.


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