Preliminary Test- One paper on General Studies and One paper on an Optional Subject.
Main Examination- Two Papers on General Studies, Compulsory Papers- One Paper each on English and Indian Language, One paper on Essay writing, Two papers each on any two optional chosen for the Main Examination.
Personality Test- Viva voce format
Preliminary test is of Objective questions type and is mainly an elimination round. With the introduction of negative marking in this round, the emphasis has shifted from rote learning to thorough understanding of the topic. Moreover it is an effective way of getting rid of non serious candidates. While GS is of all encompassing nature, the optional can be much more predictive because the syllabus is already specified by the UPSC. Further the weightage of Optional paper is twice that of GS paper, which makes it even more important from the qualification point of view. But that doesn’t mean that GS is anyway less important. GS still contribute one third to the total maximum marks. Same is true with the Main examination also. Here Optional subjects are two in number and have double the weight as compared to GS. But the pattern of exam as well as desiderata is different in Main as compared to Preliminary. Main exam expects essay type answers to the questions. It is a thorough test of analytical capabilities of the examinee. The selection of the Optional subjects has to be guided by these general considerations regarding the nature of the exam.
One major consideration of IAS aspirants is to go for the subject which is most scoring. UPSC does not prescribe any qualifications for selecting an optional which means anybody can take any optional subject. This freedom sometimes translate into people going for optional which they think they can handle and score just because others have scored heavily in it. This may result in getting stuck in an optional which may not appeal to intellectual capabilities of the candidate resulting in below par performance and resulting demoralization. Further it must be kept in mind that the disparities in marks generated by inclusion of technical optionals like Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Life Sciences has largely been tackled by the ‘Scaling Process’ undertaken by UPSC while evaluating Main Examination Answer Script of various optional. This process ensures that candidates with optional subjects in high scoring basic sciences do not get any unfair advantage over Arts’ candidates. This process is applied to all the subjects to bring a uniform and objective assessment of final scores of the examinees.
Ideally one should go for the optional subjects which one has studied in graduation. But this is not a hard and fast rule and is more ignored than adhered to. In fact there is nothing wrong in taking an optional which does not match with your graduation subjects as long as this change in preference is based on a genuine interest in the optional subject. Thus it is interest which should guide one’s choice and not some extraneous consideration. But interest alone is not enough, some prior experience or at least a broad understanding of the subject is absolutely mandatory. If you don’t find any such subject then stick to optional subjects matching your graduate curriculum. Further one should also deeply research the availability of quality study material before choosing an optional and also the availability of some reputed coaching class if the candidate finds it necessary. Another very important aspect is to thoroughly research the previous years’ question papers. One must try to solve some of the questions even before taking up the preparation and get them evaluated by some person who has experience in the subject. It will help gauge one’s mental preparedness for the challenge ahead. This will give a realistic picture regarding the difficulty level of the questions and also show the extent of incongruence between expected and actual amount of preparation required.
Another very important aspect one should keep in mind is amount of overlap amongst various optional subjects and also between optional and General Studies. As an indicative example, let’s take a look at a combination of GS, Public Administration and Sociology. A large portion of Public Administration viz. Union and State Government, Financial Administration and Development Administration find its use in General Studies’ Indian Polity, Indian Economy and Social Issues sections. Similarly Sociology’s sections viz. Planning and Development, Social Issues, Tribal Development, Family laws and socio- economic legislation find their utility mainly in Indian Economy, Indian Polity and Social Issues sections. As far as convergence between Sociology and Public Administration is concerned the areas are many. Public administration borrows heavily from Organizational theory, Concept of Bureaucracy, Socio-Economic Planning, Financial Administration, Issues in Development Administration, Current social and political issues, Tribal Development, welfare programs etc. What we can infer from here is that both the optional must have some synergy amongst each other as well as with GS. Some other popular combinations are- Political Science & Sociology, Public Administration & Economics, Public Administration and Pyschology, Sociology and Psychology, History and Sociology etc. In fact Psychology is getting popular with persons of scientific and engineering backgrounds also. For examples one successful candidate had opted for Physics and Psychology as his optional.
Last but not the least one must take into account of the combinations which are prohibited by UPSC itself. It has been done due to highly significant overlapping between two subjects, for example Public Administration and Political Science are not allowed to be taken together, and similarly Sociology and Anthropology can’t be clubbed together. For other forbidden combinations visit UPSC website.
These are few basic and general points on choosing the optional subjects for the exam. The discussion is indicative and not exhaustive, there are separate dynamics associated with each optional subject and while choosing to commit one’s career for one year on any optional one must go into all the possible scenarios around that optional. Further, it must be remembered that barring a few exceptions changing one’s optional across the different attempts or in the same attempt itself (i.e. different optional subjects for PT and Main exam) does not yield any positive result unless it is very well thought of strategy and there actually are three subjects over which a candidate can claim equal mastery, which is very rare indeed. Once optional subjects are chosen, a candidate must devote himself totally in acquiring the required expertise in the subjects and capability to tackle the examination. In the end it’s the amount of ‘intelligent’ hard work which is the deciding factor in one’s success.