When a civil services aspirant begins his or her journey to become the top bureaucrat, one of the biggest hurdles that the aspirant faces is that of choosing the best optional subject. Generally, students flood the google searches with a common question: Which is the best optional subject for UPSC? Today, in this article we are going to investigate in totality as to which optional is best for UPSC examination.

Why so much buzz about Optional Subjects?

Every candidate who begins his or her preparation knows the importance of choosing the right optional subject. For those who are noob in this field and do not know the answer, we are there to help you understand the importance of optional subjects in your UPSC journey. Folks, optional subject is the make-or-break game in UPSC. Though its weightage in the mains examination is little more than 28% but the variability in the marks that students score in optional subjects make optional the make-or-break game in UPSC. There are students who score 300 out of 500 marks and there are students who score 200 out of 500 marks and all the difference lies in this range of 100 marks where you can be out of the merit list of in the merit list or you may miss your favorite service just because you didn’t do well in your optional subject. In case of General Studies, the marks of the candidates generally lie in a band and there is not much variation of marks of the serious aspirants. Having learnt the importance of optional subjects, let us now learn what are the different options you have in your optional subject choice list.

What all optional subjects are available for me to choose?

In the examination notification USPC provides a list of 27 optional subjects to choose from. These 27 optional subjects can be divided into two categories – generalist subjects and specialist subjects. The specialist subjects are those subjects which are chosen by the aspirants who have done their graduation in such subjects. These subjects are the best optional for UPSC for such candidates because these subjects require a lot of specialized knowledge that cannot be mastered in a matter of a few months’ preparation. These subjects mostly include – engineering subjects, science subjects, medical science subjects, and economics.

On the other hand, there are generalist subjects that can be prepared and mastered in a matter of months, and they easily become the best optional subjects for UPSC for any candidate who wishes to take a subject different from his or her graduation subject. These generalist subjects include subjects such as – sociology, anthropology, political science and international relations, history, geography, public administration, psychology, and philosophy. Now that we are acquainted with different optional subjects’ categories in the UPSC exam, let us expound what are the parameters of the best optional subject for UPSC?

What parameters determine the best optional subject for UPSC?

In this section we will primarily discuss the generalist subjects and what parameters will make one of these generalist subjects the best subject for UPSC. The best optional subject for UPSC is the one which imbibe the spirit of following characteristics:

  1. It must be a short subject – Optional subject is a part of the UPSC examination and not the only part of the UPSC examination. Therefore, the shorter the optional subject, the easier it is to prepare it and revise it.
  2. It must not be technical – Technicalities make your life hard, and it applies to UPSC too. Those optional subjects that involve a lot of technical jargon are difficult to remember and score in examinations.
  3. It must have a relevance to your environment – Books are not the only teachers. Sometimes people learn from their physical and social milieu more than books. So, if you choose an optional subject whose learnings you can see applying around you makes it easier to learn and remember it.
  4. It must have a good overlap with the General Studies syllabus – UPSC General Studies syllabus is like a huge ocean. It is better if your optional subjects also help you in preparing your General Studies and vice versa as your burden would be reduced to half.
  5. Consistent performance – Those optional subjects that are producing results throughout the decades are among the top preference candidates and makes them top the charts of the best optional subject for UPSC.

Now, let us analyze the previously listed generalist subjects across these parameters and see which generalist optional turns out to be the winner.

Analyzing the generalist subjects for a verdict

If we compare the generalist optional subjects such as sociology, anthropology, political science and international relations, history, geography, public administration, psychology, and philosophy with respect to their length, only sociology, anthropology, public administration, psychology, and philosophy emerge as winners. The subjects such as history, political science and international relations, and geography have a huge syllabus and lose on this front.

Out of the remaining subjects, if we test such subjects on the second parameter of technicality, psychology and philosophy are ruled out as they have their own vocabulary and require the candidate to use the precise words or they will not fetch a good score. On the other hand, sociology, anthropology, and public administration have no such technical jargon of their own.

With respect to the third parameter i.e., application of the subject in your social and physical milieu, anthropology loses the battle as anthropology is about the studies of primitive societies and the societies today are modern. Therefore, one cannot see the principles studied in anthropology being applicable today. On the other hand, sociology which is the study of modern society can be seen applying in the present society and public administration which is about the modern-day governance and bureaucracy can be seen applying in modern day social and administrative milieu.

With respect to the fourth parameters i.e., overlap with the General Studies syllabus, both sociology and public administration emerge victorious equally. Sociology helps in all the four GS papers i.e., Indian Society section of GS paper 1, Social Justice section of GS Paper 2, Internal Security Challenges and Development section of GS Paper 3 and entire GS Paper 4 – Ethics Integrity and Aptitude. Public administration also helps in the entire GS Paper 2 and GS Paper 4 particularly the section dealing with Ethics in Governance section.

Lastly, if we compare sociology and public administration with respect to their past performance sociology emerges as a single winner as since 2012 onwards public administration has been butchered by the UPSC.

Sociology – The best optional for UPSC Exam

As sociology satisfy all the parameters that we earmarked for best optional for UPSC, it is the best optional indeed. It is a short syllabus with a significant overlapping with General Studies syllabus. It is a commonsensical subject as you can see the principles applying in the society around you. It is a non-technical subject with no specific technical jargon and a normal linguistically capable person can write good sociology answers. Lastly, it is indeed having a bias in favor from the UPSC. UPSC has demonstrated that it seldom gives very less marks in sociology. The average marks for sociology are almost and always more than other generalist subjects.


Sociology is undoubtedly the best optional for UPSC and it is evident from the number of successful candidates that come out victorious with sociology as their optional subject. There are always 3 to 4 candidates in the top 10 that have sociology as their optional subjects. In terms of the total number of selections, every year around 10-12% of the successful candidates are from sociology, this number is certainly large compared to other optional subjects.

Now that we have come to the understanding that sociology is the best optional subject for UPSC, in the next blogs we will discuss various aspects like strategy, books, coaching and teachers available for sociology.

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