Choosing the Right Optionals

Selecting right set of optionals is a big decision in Civil Services preparation. Think twice before you decide because later this will consume your money and energy and most crucially your time.

Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things...
I am tempted to think....
There are no little things.... -Bruce Burton

Remember that selecting the right set of Optionals is a big decision in Civil Services preparation. If you are nervous about what subjects to choose for Optionals, it means you are on the right track. This is because you are thinking and not jumping to conclusions. Many a time there is tremendous peer pressure on selecting Optionals. Keep yourself at arm's length from such advices. Any advice which promotes you to join the group, is bad because Civil Services Exam is quite a tailor-made examination where everybody should play to one's strength. There is a tendency among peer groups to magnify/underplay things. Please think twice before you decide because later this will consume your money and energy and most crucially, your time.

How do you assess yourself for Optionals?

In UPSC parlance, the two Optionals are called first and second Optionals. First Optional is that optional for any candidate that he takes in the Preliminary. It can be the subject of graduation/post graduation. Second Optional is that optional which a candidate selects. A candidate with three to five years familiarity with any subject makes first optional his natural choice. The decision on second optional is more crucial. Candidates from the Science background generally face more problems because they might have to prefer totally new subjects as their optionals.

Interest: This is the most crucial parameter. If your mind is where your heart is, half the battle is won. Interest keeps you attached and motivated during the stretched out course of preparation. There will be sustained desire to know more about the subject. Hence, even if it is difficult for a while, you will have enough motivation to see it through. Close your eyes and go back to your school days and recollect the subject where you scored maximum. The book you look forward to reading always. Think of the subjects you did not mind studying even in the eighth period.

Syllabus: If the factor of interest does not help you, get more realistic and turn to the syllabus of various Optionals. Select one Optional and stay with it a day or two. Read every sub topic mentioned in it. Reflect over it. See whether you can develop some chemistry with the subject.

Question Paper: If you still have not developed any particular liking for the Optional, turn to the question paper, which is one step more realistic than the syllabus. Generally everybody is either analytic or factual. Analytical people like questions where they have to discuss many things without giving many factual details, whereas some people like learning facts by pure memory and prefer questions which demand straight and factual answers. Read the questions of various Optionals and try to figure out which subject makes you more comfortable.

Coaching/Reading Materials/Company: These factors play a crucial role during your preparation period. Hence, if you are still non-committal on the above three parameters, you may go for any Optional which your "trusted" friend is taking and the two of you will form great company in preparation. Similarly, if there is a good teacher around (coaching) and you have "faith" in him, you may take an Optional on his advice. Availability of good reading material is another factor on which you may decide. However, the bottom line remains that ultimately it is between you and your Optional. Even if you are selecting an Optional based on external factors, adopt it as your choice and face it resolutely.

High-scoring and low-scoring Optionals

High and low-scoring Optionals is a widely contested topic. Many candidates believe that certain optionals score better than others do. There might be some truth in their observation. I would not be too idealistic to assume that everything is perfect in the world of Civil Services Exam. However, at the same time I must put on record that I have seen high scores in virtually all the subjects. That is, I have seen students scoring around 200 in every Optional paper. This makes 400 per Optional. The subjects that have crossed 400 are History, Sanskrit, Geography, Public Administration, Anthropology, English, Psychology, Hindi, etc. Other science and engineering subjects also do equally well.

High scoring depends upon two factors. First, you should have done well in the examination. And second, that UPSC has been kind enough to ask easy questions in that particular year. At times the assessment factor also helps. On observation, you would notice that a particular subject does exceedingly well in a given year. This is your lucky draw and you cannot do much about it. However, UPSC tries to bring parity between different subjects but such efforts bring only limited relief to candidates. A candidate must devote his energy to do his best in the exam by making sure that his fundamentals are right. These fundamentals are that he has picked the subject of his liking, he understands it well, and he is writing his answers well. This, to my mind, is an adequate state of preparedness. Managing more than this is not humanly possible.

Loyalty to Optionals

Imagine that you have selected Optionals with due deliberation. You underwent all the rigours demanded. You selected an optional of your choice. Your interest was also quite all right when you selected the optional. However, when you started your real preparation, somewhere down the line you realize that you have bitten off more than you can chew. Your interest is sagging and every time you open your textbook it feels like you are in the shoes of Hercules This is the moment of your truth and you are torn apart between continuing your Optional and leaving it midway. The fact that you have already invested lot of your time and money in it keeps lurking in your mind. Moreover, there is a feeling that you will be seen among your peers as fickle minded and somebody who cannot make the right decision.

I am sorry but there are no easy answers to this. I would not like to urge you to go ahead and change your Optional/s, for the simple reason: what if you do not like the new Optional also? Will you dump it again? I am sure by this time the game will be over for you. Changing an Optional midway also creates a sense of panic because there is the pressing need to make up the lost time, if not money. Fresh coaching requirements may also disturb the preparation cycle that you are in. Weighing all concerns, I would say that, it is not wise to change your Optional for ordinary constraints. It is better to fight one's way through, than experimenting afresh.

I would not be doing justice if I asked you to tie yourself to your Optional till the day of eternity. After all you do not have to prove any point against that particular Optional. Overall success in the examination is what a common aspirant is gunning for. Making a prestige issue over small things is low maturity. However, do not change your Optional for the following factors:

  • A friend has promised to help you in your new Optional,
  • Your coaching institute has just given you the merits of a new subject,
  • It is a hot new subject,
  • Your Optional is in minority,
  • You are surrounded by people who do not share your Optional,
  • The new Optional has a lot of reading material,
  • A good coach is in town.

Believe me, none of these factors and other factors which sound or mean similar should be the basis for switching Optionals. As I have reminded time and again, an Optional is an extremely personal matter and any other person intervening will only mess it up. Take your time and deliberate in isolation. Any decision to change the Optional should be yours. Briefly, look for the following indications before you change your Optional.

  • You are unable to understand major concepts of the subject even after help and guidance,
  • You are trying to learn it by cramming rather than by understanding,
  • You are particularly bad at something and that factor is the soul of the subject,
  • For you reading and understanding the subject is like flogging a dead horse,
  • You avoid any debate that relates to the subject,
  • You are perpetually at a loss and unsure,
  • You feel that the subject is not adding any kind of knowledge to you.

These are not the final set of situations that should motivate you to divorce your Optional. But as an indicator, any other factor should either resemble or reflect the same kind of feelings as listed above. A good judgement in the end, I must admit, is necessary.

One's first step in wisdom is to question everything - and one's last is to come to terms with everything.

-George Christopher