Part-7 Optional Subject and Essay Paper. Game-changing Papers

Importance of Optional Subject; Factors keep in mind while choosing Optional subject; Brief overview of some Optional subjects; How to prepare for Essay paper? How to write good essay? Etc.
By IT's Research & Analysis Wing
May 02, 2017


  • Importance of Optional Subject
  • Factors keep in mind while choosing Optional subject
  • History
  • Geography
  • Public Administration
  • Political Science
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology
  • Literature (Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada etc.)
  • Essay
  • Definition of essay
  • What an examiner expects from you?
  • Common problem with essay paper:
  • How to prepare for Essay paper?
  • How to write good essay?

This is the seventh part of the series of Strategy for UPSC Civil Services Examination by IASToppers. To read previous or subsequent parts, click here.

Importance of Optional Subject

What are the deciding factors on which aspirant should select his/her optional subject?

It is the most difficult decision to take while preparing for the examination. This only decision is so instrumental in your success that if it is wrong you will be far away from success.

Out of 1750 marks of Mains written examination, two Optional papers (two papers of the same subject of your choice) contain total 500 marks (each paper contains 250 marks). The importance of the optional subject can be seen from the above numbers.

Selection of optional subject should not be based on the things like one year one particular group of aspirants having a particular subject benefited more, so I should choose the same subject even if it is not suitable for me.


Factors keep in mind while choosing Optional subject

Here we suggest you some important and deciding factors, you should keep in mind while selecting your optional subject.

  1. Interest: Aspirant should choose only that subject with which he/she has a deep interest. Interest in your selected optional subject can help you to study more on that subject with less number of hours. You never feel exhausted while reading subject of your interest.
  2. Small size of syllabus: There are so much variations in the length of the optional subjects UPSC provides. Syllabus of some subjects like History, Geography, Political Science etc. is really very lengthy in comparison to the other subjects like Sociology, Public Administration etc. Everyone want to save his/her time so choose the subject accordingly.
  3. Scoring: The fact cannot be denied that few subjects are more scoring in comparison to the others. Firstly, you should make a short list of your choice of subjects and then check mark sheets of last few years’ toppers who had optional subjects the same as yours’ list. Then compare their marks in their optional subjects and you can easily find out which subjects are more scoring than others.
  4. Background: If you opt optional subject in which you have completed your graduation or post-graduation, then things will be more easy and smooth.
  5. Multi-purpose usage: Here the meaning of the phrase ‘multi-purpose usage’ is that you should select those subjects which are more connected to the General Studies papers e.g. History, Geography, Political Science, Public Administration and Economics, these are the subjects which directly relieve your burden of General Studies preparation. Few other subjects are also helpful in your Essay and Ethics paper e.g. Philosophy and Sociology. If above points 1,2,3 and 4 go right, it is preferable to choose those subjects which are multi-purpose in their usage.     
  6. Miscellaneous: Apart from the above major factors, there are some other important factor also which helps you to decide your optional subject like availability of books/references of your choice of subject; stability of subject i.e. History is called stable subject, no current stuffs needed while subjects like Public Administration and Political Science are a blend of stable and dynamic contents; and requirement of guidance of your choice of subject i.e. few subjects cannot be prepared without its proper guidance.

These above factors are instrumental not only to smooth your preparation but also deciding in your final selection in merit list as this single subject covers a big chunk of marks in total number of Mains marks.


Brief overview of some Optional subjects:



  • It takes around 5 to 6 months to prepare. On the other side, your preparation time for General Studies History is also saved by this.
  • Highly beneficial in General Studies papers of Prelims & Mains.
  • It is completely a static subject. No need of current updates.
  • Anyone (means coming from any background) can choose History as optional as it can be prepared easily without any help.



  • It takes around 5 to 7 months to prepare. On the other side, it has an advantage too. Your preparation time for General Studies Geography is also saved by this.
  • Highly beneficial in General Studies papers of Prelims & Mains.
  • Generally, it is static in nature. Only few parts are dynamic.
  • It is a quite scientific subject but not as difficult as pure science-based subjects like physics, medical, zoology etc. So, you are advised to choose this subject only if you have a deep interest in it.
  • Can be prepare by self, but few difficulties are there in this subject.


Public Administration

  • It takes around 3 to 4 months to prepare.
  • It is very dynamic in nature. You have to update yourself with current developments.
  • Highly beneficial in General Studies papers of Prelims & Mains.
  • No need of any academic background to prepare. Can be prepare by self, but few difficulties are there in this subject.


Political Science

  • It takes around 5 to 7 months to prepare.
  • It is very dynamic subject. You have to keep yourself updated with all current developments.
  • Beneficial in General Studies papers of Prelims & Mains (more helpful in Mains GS Paper-2). No wonder, it is also beneficial in your personality test (interview) if your interview is oriented towards foreign policy of India and international relations.
  • Academic background is not needed to prepare Political Science. But right approach is needed to get good marks in this subject.



  • It takes around 3 to 4 months to prepare.
  • It is completely a static subject. No need of current updates.
  • It is least helpful in General Studies papers of Prelims & Mains. However, your philosophical approach to write answers especially in Essay and GS paper-4 Ethics paper will help you to fetch more marks in these papers.
  • Although this subject doesn’t require any specific academic background, it is preferable to choose this subject only if you have a deep interest in it.
  • The subject requires your logical abilities to understand and score good marks. So, if your analytical ability is sound, you can easily handle its dryness.



  • It takes around 3 to 4 months to prepare.
  • Generally, it is static in nature. Only few parts are dynamic.
  • Beneficial especially in Essay and Mains GS paper-1.
  • Academic background is not needed to prepare. But right approach is needed to get good marks in this subject.


Literature (Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada etc.)

  • It takes around 3 to 4 months to prepare.
  • Completely static subjects. No need of current updates.
  • No help in any paper of Prelims or Mains.
  • Academic background is not needed to prepare. But, hold on specific language is must.
  • Its study resources are not easily available. 
  • Literature as optional subject is quite preferable to other subjects only because of few factors like
  1. Competition is limited. Only at regional level
  2. Syllabus is comparatively short in size
  3. Examiner has soft-corner to its regional aspirants and most of times they give comparatively more marks to literature subjects. (strange but true fact)
  4. Act as a mood-freshener among the reading of never-ending General Studies papers.
  5. If you prepare it with making notes before Prelims, you can revise it multiple times between Prelims and Mains. And its revision takes comparatively less time.





Along with your Optional paper, the Essay paper of the Mains written examination is the deciding factor to get a secured place in the final merit list.

We are aware of the essay paper from our childhood to youth to maturity. The difference is that you never wrote an essay of not less than 250 marks before now. In CSE Mains, you have to write a 1000-2000 word long essay.

However, the syllabus as well as the word-limit of the essay paper is not defined by the UPSC. You are given a set of essays divided in two sections i.e. Section-A and Section-B. You are required to write any one essay each from these two sections.

You will get enough time to write your essay (2000 words max in 3 hours compare with 4500 in General Studies). So, be extra cautious in selection of your topic.


Definition of essay

“An essay is a focused, descriptive and analytical writing on any particular topic and also reflect the perceptions and understanding of the writer, which may be supported by facts, quotes and findings.”

An essay shows your thinking; your ability to respond critically and personally to a problem or issue, your acumen to select and use information to support an argument and to present this argument in a structured and impressive way.


What an examiner expects from you?

An examiner check the depth and breadth of your knowledge in your written essays. You are expected to be focused, descriptive and analytical in your writings. Balanced opinions are always welcomed but your prejudices and half-baked opinions can never help you to impress any examiner.


Common problem with essay paper:

We all suffer from information overload and in an outright attempt to impress the examiner with our knowledge and intellectual prowess, we tend to dump everything we know even if it is only remotely linked to the asked theme.

In this attempt, we not only deviate from the core theme of the essay, write a number of irrelevant things, waste out precious time but also end up frustrating the examiner.


How to prepare for Essay paper?

Your knowledge of General Studies, your reading habits and your decent command over a language (the language you choose as your medium to write) are the tools to write a good essay.

You are suggested not to devote too much time for Essay preparation. You just need to practice to reproduce your knowledge in systematic and structured way. And this demands a practice, practice and practice.

Suggested Readings:

  1. Newspapers
  2. Yojana and Kurukshetra
  3. TMH book on Essay
  4. Spectrum book on Essay

Newspapers reading is the most helpful tool in paper like Essay. Magazines like Yojana and Kurukshetra (selectively) should also be read. You can refer essay books by either TMH or Spectrum publication for better understanding of how essay should be framed.

You can write essay from previous years’ papers. We suggest you to write minimum one essay per week after your prelims examination.


How to write good essay?

Selection of topic:

First of all, take around five to ten minutes to choose your topic. Make sure that you have sufficient understanding and material to write, before choosing the topic.

Patience and perseverance must be maintained while writing a topic.

Outline your ideas:

Before start writing an essay, ask yourself 5-6 question which explains the central theme in details and write them on last pages. Also, write down important keywords and key phrases related to the asked theme.

Now in entire essay just answer these 5-6 questions and you will always be focussed on the theme of essay without diverting. You can make a chart depicting the whole roadmap of the topic.

Arrange your ideas:

A good essay consists of three distinct parts— Introduction, Description and Conclusion. After collecting your ideas on your selected topic, try to structure them in orderly manner.

Arrange your ideas in such a way that their logical consistency is maintained. After ordering your points, think of a suitable introduction and conclusion.


A well written and insightful introduction would lead the reader into reading the essay with much interested and heightened curiosity.

Some of the important characteristics that make an introduction appealing are (i) its relevance to the topic (ii) it should be interesting (iii) it should suggestive of the direction of the central theme of the essay.

You can start introduction part by writing general statement or a quote or an anecdote (shot story) or conversational introduction or by asking rhetorical questions.

In short, your introduction part should be hard hitting and impact full.

Concise writing

Writing ideas into small sentences are preferable. Writing long sentences with lots of commas and many ifs and buts should be avoided. The arguments should be brief and concise and write only relevant things in the essay.

Lucid language

Simple language and short sentences are suggested. Don’t try to fill your essay with flowery language. Avoid grammatical errors and spelling mistakes.


Represent your views in an exact and effective manner. Clarity of expression and uninterrupted and logical flow of thoughts in paragraphs are another requirements of a good essay.

Clarity of your ideas straightaway appeal to the reader and can help you maximise score.


Write essay in multiple paragraphs. Each individual paragraph should be focused on a single idea that supports your thesis.

Begin paragraphs with topic sentences, support assertions with evidence, and expound your ideas in the clearest, most sensible way you can. In other words, instead of writing the essay, try to talk through essay.


Only towards the end, examiner would be giving marks to the essay. Your conclusion is the single most important part of your essay. Take time to think over it and form a conclusion with a sense of closure to the essay.

Don’t stop on negative annotations. Your conclusion should be assertive and positive. You can conclude by answering the main theme or by introducing a fresh argument.



This is the end of the part-7. In the next part, we’ll discuss in detail about the Time Management and other vital issues.

If you find this part of Series on Strategy helpful, please like and share.

Thank you

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