The most preferred Optional subjects for IAS Exams as per 2014 and 2015 data are as below. We can see that Geography is by far a subject that is chosen by most candidates with history coming in second in the list.

Subject 2015 2014
Geography 3391 3515
History 1821 1560
Public Administration 1795 2852
Sociology 1479 1819

Success Rates of Optional Subjects

From the data that we have studied, the success rates for each optional subject don’t seem to correspond to the popularity of the subjects. Below is the success rate of each optional subject and then the literature subjects.

Optional Subject Candidates Appeared Candidates Recommended Success Rate
Agriculture 220 41 18.6
Medical science 98 16 16.3
Animal husbandry and veterinary science 65 8 12.3
Economics 326 37 11.3
Psychology 1061 116 10.9
Anthropology 345 37 10.7
Public administration 3201 337 10.5
Political science 1320 85 6.4
Geography 4049 236 5.8
Sociology 1555 89 5.7
Chemistry 124 7 5.6
Commerce and Accountancy 266 15 5.6
History 3870 212 5.5
Law 365 19 5.2
Philosophy 2092 84 4
Zoology 484 18 3.7
Mathematics 277 8 2.9
Optional Subject Candidates Appeared Candidates Recommended Success Rate
Assamese 5 2 40
Punjabi 19 5 26.3
Gujarati 42 7 16.7
Kannada 84 14 16.7
Marathi 42 7 16.7
English 40 6 15
Urdu 29 4 13.8
Tamil 225 29 12.9
Sanskrit 122 10 8.2
Malayalam 67 5 7.5
Pali 255 18 7.1
Telugu 147 9 6.1
Hindi 974 56 5.7

We can see that Assamese Literature has the highest success rate at around 40%, followed by Punjabi at 26.31%. We need to understand that these numbers are not absolute indicators of the success rate of an optional subject because the more popular subjects go down on success rate because of the number of applicants taking that subject as an optional. For example, there are 4049 candidates taking up Geography as against 5 taking up Assamese.

Also Read: 6 Best Optional Subjects in UPSC: Guide to Choose Most Scoring Non-technical Subjects

Most Scoring subjects:

Again, the most scoring subject seems to be another different list.

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

Choosing your optional

There are a few things to consider when choosing your optional subject for UPSC. First look at the subjects available and look at the overlap of the syllabus with the mains papers. Below is a table showing the overlap of a few subjects with the Mains papers.

Optional Subject Syllabus Overlaps with
History Prelims, GS I
Geography Prelims, GS I and GS III
Public Administration Prelims, GS II
Political Science Prelims, GS II
Sociology GS I, GS II, Essay
Philosophy GS IV. Essay

If any of these subjects interest you, you could choose that as an optional and make your preparation more through as the syllabus to be covered will be considerable lessened as compared to taking an optional with no overlap.

Some students take up technical subjects like Mathematics, that are theoretically supposed to fetch higher marks, as the subjectivity of the examiner is reduced in checking the paper. However, we have seen that even though 55.2% of the recommended candidates were from Engineering, followed by 25.3%, 13.7% and 5.8% from Humanities, Medical Science and Sciences respectively, 84% of optional subjects opted by the recommended candidates were related to Humanities (including literature of languages), followed by 7.2%, 6.1% and 2.7% related to Science, Medical Science and Engineering respectively.

Subject % of Students with Graduation Subject % of Students with Optional
Engineering 55.2% 2.7%
Humanities 25.3% 84%
Medical Science 13.7% 6.1%
Sciences 5.8% 7.2%

The reason behind such a shift could be the overlap of the subjects with the mains paper and also a question of availability of notes and material on the optional subject. Many coaching classes also push the students towards more popular optional simply because they don’t have capable faculty or material in each optional subject.

Finally, it should be a well thought out decision of the candidate, not based on herd mentality but by their interest, overlap of the subject with mains and availability of material and guidance for studying. If a candidate is confident enough, they can even go with an optional just based on their interest. One good way to figure out the interest is to check out the question papers of the last 3 years of the optional subjects you are considering.

Also Read: A Detailed Guide to Choosing the Best Optional Subject for UPSC Exam

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Payal Ghosh

Payal is an FRM and an XLRI Jamshedpur alumnus interested in things as diverse as Waste Management and photography. She has over 16 years of work experience and is passionate about writing, teaching and sustainable living. Helping students and seeing them succeed makes gives her motivation to push herself further.

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