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.

Selection 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.

Coverage of topics in Optional Subjects:

The scope of the syllabus for optional subject papers (Paper VI and Paper VII) for the

examination is broadly of the honours degree level i.e. a level higher than the bachelors’ degree

and lower than the masters’ degree. In the case of Engineering, Medical Science and law, the level

corresponds to the bachelors’ degree

Important factors to keep in mind while choosing an 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 in which he/she has a deep interest. You won’t feel exhausted while reading subject of your interest and you can study more of it.
  2. Small size of syllabus: There are so much variations in the length of the optional subjects that 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: It 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 the same optional subject as yours. Then compare their marks in their optional subjects and easily find out which subjects are more scoring than others.
  4. Background: If you for an 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 you choose your optional subject based on the above points, then it is preferable to choose those subjects which are multi-purpose in their usage.
  6. Miscellaneous: Some other important factors which helps you to decide your optional subjects are availability of books/references of your choice of subject; stability of subject (History is called stable subject, as no current information is 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 (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. At the same time 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. It has an added advantage too that your preparation time for General Studies Geography gets 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.

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.

Political Science

  • It takes around 5 to 7 months to prepare.
  • It is very dynamic subject. You have to keep yourself abreast 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.
  • Does not 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
  • Competition is limited. Only at regional level
  • Syllabus is comparatively short.
  • Examiner has soft-corner to its regional aspirants and most of times they give comparatively more marks to literature subjects. (strange but true fact)
  • Act as a mood-freshener among reading of never-ending General Studies papers.
  • 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. The difference is that you would have never written an essay of more than 500 words. In CSE Mains, you have to write two essays of 1000-1200 words each and that would fetch you of total 250 marks.

However, the syllabus 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 those two sections within 3 hours. 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?

As per UPSC notification:

Candidates may be required to write essays on multiple topics. They will be expected to keep closely to the subject of the essay to arrange their ideas in orderly fashion, and to write concisely. Credit will be given for effective and exact expression.

An examiner checks 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 appreciated but you are more than welcome to express your opinions provided they are supported by facts and examples.  Keep in mind that your prejudices and half-baked opinions would never help you to impress the examiner.

How to prepare for Essay paper?

Your knowledge of General Studies, your reading habits and 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 practice, practice and practice!

Suggested Readings:

  1. Newspapers
  2. Yojana and Kurukshetra.
  3. Do refer toppers essays
  4. Previous year essay papers

Newspaper reading is the most helpful tool in paper like Essay. Magazines like Yojana and Kurukshetra (selectively) should also be read. We suggest you to write minimum one essay per week, after your prelims examination.

Do not forget to make a collection of news or events or personalities which you find interesting. These can be used as case studies, w

hich can enrich your essay or answers in other subjects

How to write good essay?

Selection the topic:

First of all, take around five to ten minutes to choose your topic and make sure that you have sufficient understanding and content to write.

Patience and perseverance must be maintained while writing an essay.

Frame your ideas:

Ask yourself 5-6 questions which explains the central theme in detail and write them on the last page. Also, write down important keywords and key phrases related to the asked theme.

Now in the 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.

Structure your essay:

For writing a complete essay you need to form a rough framework based on your ideas and then put down your thoughts in an organised way. So that you won’t slipped out of the central idea of the theme. Structuring helps you to bring in relevant dimensions and content to your essay.

A good essay consists of three distinct parts— Introduction, Description and Conclusion. After collecting your ideas on your selected topic. Arrange your ideas in such a way that their logical consistency is maintained.



An Impactful Introduction:

A well written and insightful introduction would lead the reader into reading the essay with much interest 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 be suggestive of the direction of the central theme of the essay

You can start the 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 impactful.

Concise writing

Writing ideas into small sentences are preferable. Writing long sentences with lots of commas and many if`s and but`s should be avoided. The arguments should be brief and concise and should contain only relevant things.

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.

Paragraphs in a logical order:

Write essay in multiple paragraphs. Make your paragraphs follow a logical order. Begin paragraphs with topic sentences, support assertions with evidence and expound your ideas in the clearest, most sensible way. In other words, instead of writing the essay, try to talk through essay.


Examiner would be giving marks to the essay only towards the end. So 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 but positive. You can conclude by answering the main theme or by introducing a fresh argument.

Common problems faced while writing essay paper:

We all suffer from information overload and in an outright attempt to impress the examiner 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 but also write a number of irrelevant things, waste our precious time and end up frustrating the examiner.

The above mentioned approach will surely help you to tackle these commonly occurring problems.

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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