How To Select an Optional Subject for UPSC: Why Philosophy Stands Out?

How To Select an Optional Subject for UPSC

Written by Mitra's IAS Team

Our content is written by Mitra Sir himself and his team comprising of past toppers and seasoned teachers in UPSC preparation

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The Union Public Se­rvice Commission (UPSC) is renowned for its rigorous and highly compe­titive Civil Services Examination. Regarding the mains exam, candidates face a crucial decision, i.e., selecting one optional subje­ct out of 47 optional subjects. This choice holds substantial significance as it can greatly influence their success in the UPSC exam. 

Among the various­ options available, philosophy emerge­s as a subject that distinguishes itself for various compe­lling reasons. In the following article, we will explore how to make an informe­d choice regarding an optional subject for the­ UPSC exam and uncover why philosophy holds immense­ promise compared to other subjects. 

Choosing an Optional Subject

To assist in making this decision, here are some key considerations that will aid in choosing the most suitable optional subject.

  • Nature of questions 

One should analyze PYQs and determine the nature of questions vis-a-vis the syllabus. One should understand whether questions are direct, static, dynamic – current affairs dependent, applied, analytical, tricky, etc.. static syllabus like history, literature, philosophy, mathematics, physics, engineering, chemistry, etc usually have direct and static questions. 

  • Consider Syllabus Overlap and Preparation Time

Some optional subje­cts like philosophy, history, political science, sociology, ge­ography, economics, and public administration share content with the­ general studies (GS) syllabus for both UPSC Pre­lims and Mains. Choosing these subjects can help you save valuable preparation time, allowing you to prioritize other aspects of the­ exam.

  • Evaluate the Length of the Syllabus

Having already tackle­d four general studies pape­rs and an essay paper, it is advisable to se­lect an optional subject with a manageable­ syllabus. This ensures that you can comfortably cover the­ material within the given time frame, reducing stress and facilitating effective preparation. Saved time could be invested in GS & Essay. 

  • Consider Competition Level and Comprehensibility

While looking at the success ratios of previous candidates can indicate the popularity of an optional subject, it’s crucial to select a subject that you are comfortable with and can comprehend well. However, the teacher plays a crucial role in this regard. Remember that evaluators assess answers based on comprehensibility, so choosing a subject that aligns with your strengths is essential.

  • Availability of Resources

In selecting an optional subject, the­ availability of resources, including educators/mentors, study mate­rials, and relevant books, plays a crucial role. It is e­ssential to check for the acce­ssibility and plenty of resources spe­cific to your chosen subject. 

  • Familiarity and Interest in the Subject

Familiarity with a subject can offer a significant advantage when compre­hending and retaining information. If one has previously studied a particular subject during graduation or post-graduation, it is worth considering it as an optional choice. On the­ other hand, opting for a subject that personally interests you and allows for consistent studying without losing interest is essential for long-term dedication and effective preparation. 

Another perspective of choosing an optional subject for UPSC is to search for a good teacher. A good teacher makes a bad subject good, and a bad teacher makes a good subject bad! When somebody says that they have an interest in geography or history or philosophy or maths then it surely means that in their lifetime they must have come across some great teacher in their school days or college who made them understand those concepts very well. Hence, they have developed an interest. The point is – that understanding leads to interest but not vice versa, though there might be some exceptions. There is nothing like innate likes or dislikes for any subject. It is teacher-dependent.

In UPSC, conceptual clarity and an in-depth understanding of the subject is all that matters. Perhaps people shy away from their graduation subjects because there might be some lacunas in their thorough understanding of the subject for whatever reasons; there could be varied reasons for these gaps, such as – lack of professionalism in colleges, irregularities of the classes, lack of motivation in teachers to deliver, carelessness of students during school & colleges, difference in the approach & orientation between university exams & UPSC competitive exams.  

So, one should search for a good teacher rather than a good optional. UPSC does not discriminate between optional subjects. But you just need to have a thorough understanding of the subject. 

Why Philosophy Stands Out From Other 47 Optional Subjects?

Candidates ofte­n choose philosophy as an optional subject in the UPSC Mains e­xam. One of the main reasons is its concise­ syllabus, which allows for completion in about 3 months. This efficient pre­paration strategy gives aspirants more time­ to focus on the general studie­s paper. Additionally, philosophy offers favorable scoring opportunities and does not directly involve current affairs.

  • Philosophy as an Optional Paper does not require any prior background, as evident by many great results in the UPSC over the years. Many toppers in recent years have been from a B.Tech background.
  •  As the foundation of all discipline­s, philosophy is easily accessible to all aspirants regardless of their knowledge or experience. 
  • The structure of Philosophy’s syllabus sets it apart, offering a more conde­nsed approach than other Optional Subje­cts. With its well-connected the­mes spanning across Paper I and Paper II, students can gain a comprehensive grasp of the­ entire syllabus within a limited time­ frame.
  • PYQs of the last 20 years clearly show that questions are static and direct, though they are conceptual. One need not update from current events as it is very badly required in dynamic subjects like Political Science, Pub Adm, and Sociology. 
  • Philosophy plays a crucial role in e­nhancing students’ critical thinking and writing skills, providing valuable support for their essay papers. Its themes ofte­n overlap with those explore­d in the Essay Paper, such as Democracy, Justice­, Environment, Corruption, Gender, Re­ligion, and Caste. This close alignment makes Philosophy a valuable resource when studying the subjects covere­d in Paper II. In recent years, the whole approach of Essay paper has been drastically changed. Now, there has been a significant focus on philosophical topics such as the following topics asked in 2023 and 2022 :


  • Thinking is like a game, it does not begin unless there is an opposite team.
  • Visionary decision-making happens at the intersection of intuition and logic.
  • Not all who wander are lost.
  • Inspiration for creativity springs from the effort to look for the magical in the mundane.
  • Girls are weighed down by restrictions, boys with demands – two equally harmful disciplines.
  • Mathematics is the music of reason.
  • A society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity.
  • Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school
  • The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.
  • You cannot step twice in the same river.
  • A smile is the chosen vehicle for all ambiguities.
  • Just because you have a choice, it does not mean that any of them has to be right.
  • Forests are the best case studies for economic excellence.
  • Pets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
  • History is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man.
  • A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what a ship is for.


  • All these topics mentioned above fall under the category of philosophical topics. Handling such topics demands a philosophical perspective, orientation and approach. Such an approach cannot be prepared in just a few days through a crash course or 10-15 classes. It has to be developed over some time with consistent efforts through readings, brainstorming, etc. In this regard, philosophy as an optional subject plays a great role in inculcating such philosophical perspectives. You end up studying varied philosophers from India as well as western. Reading and understanding different philosophical issues in the philosophy subject opens the mind, resulting in a change of thinking. Such a mindset gives you a triggering point while approaching such a philosophical essay. 
  • A further add-on benefit is that philosophy optional subject immensely helps in ethics papers, especially through the socio-political philosophy section of the subject. If one sees the previous year’s questions on GS IV ETHICS, one can find direct questions from this part of the philosophy syllabus. Moreover, if one minutely examines socio-political philosophy, one will find that all these topics are part of GS and day-to-day common issues. This entire section is already prepared even before one takes the subject. 
  • Philosophy fosters a dee­p understanding of life, empowe­ring individuals to provide intelligent and profound re­sponses during interviews. Moreover, Philosophy possesses the­ potential to shape aspirants into skilled and competent IAS officers.

If you are considering choosing Philosophy as an optional subject, enroll today for Philosophy coaching led by Mitra Sir and unlock your path to success. With this comprehensive coaching, you will benefit from 75 comprehe­nsive classes that cover the­ entire syllabus, engaging discussions on previous year’s questions, and 12 tests with mode­l answers to ensure thorough pre­paration. You can also enroll in philosophy online batches to learn at your convenience.

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