It is imminent that UPSC is trying to reduce the weightage of optional subject in CSE. In 2013, two papers of the optional subject were replaced by that of General studies. Before that, the two optional were of such importance that one could get through civil services by scoring 300 plus marks in both the optional paper even if GS scores were below average.

However, it is worth noting that even in the present scenario the optional papers determine selection and influence the rank to a large extent. We must acknowledge the fact that it is difficult to create a significant lead in GS. After a rigorous study of one year the serious competitors have more or less the same quantum of knowledge in GS. Some may have economics as a stronghold, others may fare better in history and geography. Therefore, at the end of the exam we realize that the range of marks of GS out of 1000 is not much. Here, the marks of optional subject become the rank booster. The target score in the optional subject should be 250, that is 50%. Anything above that is your bonus!

With the kind of importance the optional subject carries, it is imperative that one should do a lot of brainstorming before choosing any optional subject. If you revert back on your decision, that is, you change the optional subject at any time, the time of study increases by around 5 to 6 months at least. I have seen people changing their optional paper in the third attempt after two unsuccessful attempts and then managing to get into the list. But why to be baffled and tormented by wrong decision of the optional and waste even a single attempt? It is better to brainstorm for two months to decide which optional will go with the aspirant rather than take a quick decision and waste an attempt or two before reversing the earlier decision. For this, a broad understanding is required of the guidelines to decide the best optional subject. The final decision must rest with the aspirant, but that decision must be an informed one incorporating the following facts and factors;

1. Optional subjects must be looked upon as static or dynamic subjects:

Static subjects are those which have a well-defined syllabus that remains unchanging at the graduate level. For example, history and philosophy in art subjects, physics, chemistry and mathematics in science subjects and all engineering subjects, accountancy for commerce students, zoology and botany for medical students; these all can be categorized as static subjects. The content of these subjects remains same in any year. The variations can be made in the questions and that too in words, figures and inferences. The essence remains the same.

On the other hand, dynamic subjects are evolving subjects in both essence and content, such as, public administration, sociology, management, law. The questions from these subjects will take into account recent developments, trends, phenomenon and case studies. You have to be constantly updating your knowledge regarding these subjects. Then there may be some intermediate subject such as geography and psychology which involves both static as well as dynamic concepts in almost equal proportions.

But the question is which one to go for? Dear aspirant, you must be fully sovereign to decide for yourself. So that you can hold yourself accountable and no one else for the result of your examination. Do not be swayed by your peer circle. It does not mean that you should not hear others’ opinion. You must have a full ear for the experiences of others regarding an optional subject. Talk to those teachers and faculties who deal with general studies and extract their valuable views regarding the optional subjects. Nevertheless, don’t go to subject experts asking for which optional to choose. Why would a physics teacher advice you to go for public administration and vice-versa?

Some may find static subject more favorable as continuous deliberations on the subject is not required – once you do history you only have to revise it and not incorporate new knowledge or inferences with changing times. However, there is another school of thought which finds dynamic subjects interesting and possesses a keen eye to relate with the current issues and unfolding events to their optional subject, such as the one we find in public administration.

As far as my experience is concerned, I had no propensity for evolving dynamic subjects. I believe in one time effort, even if more than average is required, and then reaping out benefits for a longer period of time. Moreover, I was reluctant to take up arts subject as I felt already burdened with general studies portion. Thus, choice for me was limited, though apparent, that is, civil engineering – the subject of my graduation. This would also serve as my instrument to become professionally secure by competing and clearing engineering services examination.

However, the aspirant must know that I was met with severe resistance when I mooted the idea of taking up civil engineering as an optional in civil services. The general perception is that people do not make it into civil services while opting for engineering subjects as their optional subject. It is true because a miniscule proportion of aspirants go for engineering subjects. Thus, it is no surprise that when the notification for CSE 2013 quashed one optional subject, my mind was pulled in two different directions with philosophy and civil engineering competing with each other for the one optional subject that I had to fill in. Finally I decided to cling to civil engineering taking into account various repercussions and advantages of my decision and it paid hefty returns when I secured exactly 250 marks in the optional.

2. Subjective and objective optional subjects:

Where the answers are not subject to different interpretations the subject may be called as objective in its essence, such as, engineering subjects, science subjects, accountancy etc. On the other hand, some involve subjective interpretations such as arts subjects. Objective subjects are generally static while subjective subjects may be static or dynamic in its essence.

In the contemporary times where unpredictability in results have increased due to subjectivity involved in CSE owing to increased weightage of GS, it is better if one goes for objective optional subject. However, these are limited in scope. For example, mechanical optional would be taken by only a mechanical engineer and not by any other engineer or art student. Thus, subjective subjects of static nature should be the most preferable option for those aspirants who cannot opt for objective optional subject, such as, history, philosophy, anthropology etc.

3. The concept of normalization of marks in optional subjects:

The underlying concept of normalization of marks in different optional subjects is to eliminate or reduce the distortions in marks produced due to different toughness level of each distinct optional subject. How to counter the variations of marks resulting from different toughness of each paper? What will happen if most of the marks in geography are less as compared to those in sociology? Will the aspirants from geography be unsuccessful if for a particular year the paper is very tough and most of the scores are low? The answer to all these questions is normalization of marks in each optional subject across various subjects. I won’t dwell into the mathematical details of normalization as UPSC never discloses the methodology on its website or elsewhere. However, those aspirants who are interested in the nitty-gritty of the matter may go to the website of IIM Bangalore where full process has been disclosed and used in CAT every year.

The question to be addressed here is what we infer from the fact that normalization exists. The inferences are two;

a) One cannot choose an optional by saying that so and so optional is easier because it has fewer syllabuses or that the questions are easy in that optional. Because the easier paper of an optional would attract higher scores and these marks, when normalized, would be scaled downwards.
b) The second inference is of utmost importance. Whatever optional an aspirant may choose he/she must get into the top 1 or 2 percent of the scores in that optional. This makes it redundant the fact whether the paper is tough or easy. In the former case, normalization would inflate your scores (when the paper is tough) and in the latter it will lead to down scaling. But in both the cases you shall be among the top scorer in that particular optional and chances of making it in the final list would tremendously increase.

In the light of above facts I present and discuss with you the various myths and FAQs regarding the optional subjects;


A) I am from IIT, thus, I must take physics, chemistry and mathematics as an optional.

This is the most prevalent myth among the IITians, and why not it be so? They have cleared the toughest entrance to engineering field by playing with P/C/M. However, one must not extrapolate their knowledge without concrete facts. Whatever we have studied at intermediate level in P/C/M amounts to only a miniscule fraction of the course of these science subjects at graduate level for CSE. One must be aware of the fact that physics of CSE as an optional subject is very unlike to what we have studied in intermediate level, which called for least use of memory – most of the formulas can be derived if you are conceptually sound. This phenomenon is missing in the physics optional subject. You have to remember a lot and in that too in diversified area, empirical in nature with a set pattern of solving questions.

However, it is not that one should not take science subject – it is blessed with the static nature of the subject itself. Thus, a thorough study of the subject can work miracle for you. The point is that one should not take P/C/M as an optional in CSE solemnly because he/she finds the past performance in these subjects magnificent. The idea should be that a prior acquaintance with the subject along with the fact that it requires one time hard work because of its unchanging nature will work in the exam.

Digging deeper, if a comparative analysis of P/C/M is asked then I would prefer chemistry more than physics and mathematics because of the simple reason that course is a little well defined and lesser in chemistry than the other two. This is my personal feeling drawn from the experiences of my peers, consisting of their journey through the course, the practice required and finally the result that it yielded in various attempts. The aspirant may have his/her independent, different but firm views regarding the same.

B) People do not clear with engineering subjects as their optional.

This myth takes root because neither do we see many people opting for engineering subjects as optional and thus, nor we find many in the final list. This fear of engineering subject is the result of two things, firstly, those engineers who decide to sit for CSE are mostly average and below average students with no sufficient knowledge of their engineering subject taught in the college. Secondly, the coaching industry has yet to market engineering subjects as a fruitful optional in CSE.

Dear aspirants of engineering background do not be afraid of engineering subject inspite of performing poorly in your graduation. Though the subject will take more time to be thorough with, yet the results will be productive. These subjects are objective in essence, that is, you will get close to cent percent marks if your answer is correct.

Thus, I request you that in this scenario where the weightage of GS has increased leading to a high level of subjectivity in evaluation it is better to take an optional which is objective in its essence. Engineering subjects are fit in this regard, in fact, better than the science subjects!

C) One should take an optional that is interesting to study.

Not necessarily. It is another myth. Your solemn interest should be to clear CSE and nothing else. How can you decide before studying any subject, just by its name or its content, that this optional would be interesting enough to study? Further, study always suffers from procrastination (the habit of wasting time in activities apart from study). Thus, it is better to choose optional rationally than by what you perceive is your interest.
I will take my example. I had always been interested in psychology throughout my college days. Sigmund Freud fascinated me to an extent that I read his 7 books and made notes out of it rather than studying civil engineering which I was supposed to do as would be BTech civil engineer from IIT Roorkee. But even though I found psychology as an interesting subject I did not opt for it as my optional in CSE. My decision was based on pressing needs such as the urge to be secure professionally, reducing the subjectivity of assessment and introducing static study of one time hard work.

Thus, my dear aspirant let me assure you of the fact that no subject is interesting to study. The motivation to study will arise not from your interest in the subject but from your reason to achieve the goal.

D) Optional which is a part of GS or related to it should be taken. It will make your work easier.

This statement is partly correct. Look at the explicit listing of GS syllabus. Try to decipher which optional subjects share their course with GS. History, geography, political science, economics, philosophy, sociology, public administration. The list will expand further. In the above list some subjects are more closely represented in general studies while others are represented in miniscule extent. Thus, if we base our choice of optional only on the criterion that it should suffice our study for GS as far as that portion is concerned, then the clear choice is history and geography, in that order of preference.

E) Some optional subjects have a section that is generalist in nature. Taking that optional will reduce the effort.

This is a risky myth. Subjects such as sociology, political science, philosophy do contain a section of paper which even an engineering student may answer with the knowledge of general studies. However, this argument doesn’t absolve the aspirants from not studying those portions specifically. More insight and intellectual deliberations are expected of aspirants from these particular sections which are general in nature. In fact, on these sections aspirants have to work a bit harder to create the difference between their answers and those written in a generalist approach.

F) Some subjects that contain lesser course are easier to study.

Optional subjects have very different proportions of course content. Some are elaborate such as the science, engineering subjects and even some arts subjects such as history. While others are concise in their course such as philosophy, sociology etc. However, after going through the concept of normalization one must not decide the optional subject as per this solemn criterion. If the course of a particular optional is less then more number of students will opt for it, thereby increasing the competition and thus, to stand in top 1 or 2 percent of the students in that particular optional would become difficult. Therefore, the contention that lesser study is required in subjects with a fewer course is entirely frivolous. Dear aspirant, if you opt for such a subject then be prepared to revise it 2 or 3 times so that you may have the perfection to stand among the toppers in that optional subject.

Divey Sethi (IFS)

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