In the present scheme of exam for Civil Services, optionals hold a position of paramount importance. Choosing the wrong optional could mean whether you become IAS, IPS or not even clear the mains.
So what are the parameters you should have in mind when you choose an optional? The usual parameters are possibility of getting high marks, overlapping with GS syllabus, availability of guidance and material, number of people in service and also your personal interest in the subject. Lets look at them one by one:
1.Possibility of scoring High Marks
The bottom line in Mains examination is the marks you score. Optionals which help you score high are in great demand as it usually increases the probability of you getting into the top services.
Analysis of past 10 years UPSC marks shows that subjects like Mathematics, Physics, Engineering subjects and the Literature of Regional Subjects are those which fetch the absolute premium marks.
However, except the Literature subjects every other subject also comes with the risk of “hit or miss”, i.e. subjects like Mathematics or Physics you may score really low as well.
Public Administration and Geography are two subjects which usually return high scores as well.
Both also have the same issue of “hit or miss” as certain years the paper is tough.
Political Science and International Relations, Anthropology have also been doing well in the past 2 or 3 years.
Economics died very well for a couple of years (2012 and 2013) but has been under the radar now mostly.
Sociology is one optional which may not always touch the real high marks but is always a stable subject.
2.Overlapping with GS Syllabus
Certain optionals have very high overlapping with GS syllabus which will help with the preparation for General Studies for prelims, mains and even interview. The overlapping can greatly reduce the overall load on the student during preparation.
Public Administration is the subject which overlaps maximum with GS syllabus. Starting with polity topics Public administration is present in all four GS papers and will definitely help with personality test/interview as well.
Political Science and International Relations has an overlap especially with General Studies Paper II in mains. It also covers polity topics which are important for prelims. It covers various topics which come for Personality Test as well.
Sociology has good linkages with mains and also is helpful for personality test or interview
Geography has overlap with Paper I and III of General Studies mainly and would be really helpful if you also want to try for Indian Forest Service exam.
History is another subject which would helpful in Paper I (and a bit of Paper II/III) and in personality test/interview.
Philosophy and Psychology would be a tiny bit helpful in General Studies Paper IV i.e. Ethics.
3.Availability of Guidance and Material
The major subjects like Public Administration, Geography, Sociology, History, Political Science etc. have tonnes of free material and guidance available in the internet. However, it is still advised that you go to a proper course for these topics in case you choose one of them.
Economics and science subjects are taken up at specialised institutes in Delhi only.
FortuneIAS offers Sociology, Public Administration, Political Science and International Relations, Geography, Anthropology, English Literature and has a tie up for Malayalam Literature.
4.Number of people who cleared with an optional
As per data from UPSC annual reports over the past 10 years, Public Administration is optional with maximum number of selections. . The annual average has been ranging between 15 pc to 35 pc in final selections
Geography comes second with an annual average ranging from 32 pc to 9 pc in final selections.
Political Science and International Relations is one optional which has had good number selections and also a very good conversion ratio of about 10 pc.
Sociology has a maintained a stable number in most years in final selections over the past 10 years.
Literature of Malayalam Language has had excellent results and conversion ratio.
This perhaps is the most determining factor in deciding the optional. Even the toughest optional for general public can be easy for certain people with aptitude for it.
If you are good in Physics or Maths you can take it and clear with it. There are people who take Agriculture and clear as well.
All these aspects in mind, you must do soul searching and decide on the topic after reading essential material, conversing with the people who have cleared with the optional and also looking up good institutes for the same.