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UPSC Essentials: Expert talk- History optional in UPSC-CSE has many advantages

History is one of the most popular optional subjects among the aspirants of UPSC. S. Baliyan suggests best ways to prepare for this subject.

"Questions in History optional are repeated in one form or the other," says S. Baliyan. (Express)

S. Baliyan has an experience of almost 20 years of teaching and guiding UPSC Aspirants. As an expert in History Optional for UPSC CSE, he answers some very relevant questions for UPSC Aspirants where he talks about the benefits and strategies to deal with the History optional in UPSC- CSE.

What are the pros of taking History as an optional subject in UPSC- CSE?

I have seen students struggling with choosing the right optional subject every year. One should consider the relevance of any optional subject in their overall preparation for UPSC-CSE. History optional has great relevance in GS Mains syllabus, especially since the change of syllabus in 2012.

In GS I Mains paper History of Modern India, Post Independence History and World History completely overlaps with the History optional paper II. Similarly, Ancient History, Medieval History, Art and Culture of the GS coincide with optional paper I. Also, I would like to mention that History has great relevance in Prelims too. For example, Ancient and Medieval History along with Art and Culture, on average have six-eight questions or 12-16 marks in prelims. The weightage of Modern India in prelims is also very high. Therefore, an aspirant with History optional has an extra edge in qualifying for the prelims exam as well. Knowledge of History also pulls a lot of attention both in essays and interviews.

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Remember, questions in History optional are repeated in one form or the other. This is a plus point again for aspirants. Secondly, the syllabus of History is static in nature. The element of dynamism is limited. This, in my view, is a very relevant point for aspirants to know. Gandhiji will not be born again to start something new. What is done, is done. So it becomes beneficial for students as they don’t need to update/upgrade their notes every time. This reduces the burden on students post prelim exams. The only thing left for them after the notes are made is revision through answer writing practice.

What should be the first step that a student should take once the aspirant has decided on the optional?

The first step is to look at the syllabus. Japanese and History are not part of your syllabus. Good books will have these topics but one should not waste their time doing these topics as they aren’t part of your UPSC optional syllabus. The second step is to look at the previous year’s questions. The previous year’s questions help in aligning the questions as per the syllabus. We can say that the previous year’s questions help in subtopic mapping. Knowing the syllabus and previous year’s questions helps you to know which questions or topics are repeated. At the same time, you can anticipate what topics can be asked if they have not been touched upon yet by UPSC. Remember, anticipation is the key.


What do you have to say to those aspirants who feel that History optional has a vast syllabus and they might not be able to complete it?

The aspirants should not be afraid after looking at the length of the syllabus. The syllabus of History optional is very detailed and not open-ended; that is an advantage. Every small aspect of any topic is mentioned in the syllabus. So, look at it as a detailed syllabus, a precise syllabus and not a lengthy syllabus. Also, if you understand History, a lot of periods had elements of continuity. For example, in ancient and medieval India, the polity was monarchical. As we progress, there are some additional changes to the monarchical form of government like despotic, democratic, devine etc. One just needs to keep adding those changes while elements of continuity remain the same. This feature of continuity and change makes History a very systematic subject to study. One needs to imagine or visualise these changes to have clarity. I often tell my students to try to connect the dots in different phases of History. Then, everything runs like a movie in front of your eyes.

How much weightage one must give to historiography while writing an answer in UPSC, considering the lack of time and space?


Historiography is an important part of History. How a particular event of the past is viewed by different sets of scholars is very essential to mention as it broadens our view on a particular issue. You cannot answer a debate-based question like the origin of the Indus Civilization if you don’t know the Historiography. One must definitely know the demand of the question to understand how much historiography should they write. This will come with practice.

How should aspirants deal with topics which seem controversial in nature?

History, you should know, is a scientific subject. It is based on literary and archaeological sources. One cannot support their arguments without the historical sources as evidence. So, if you are dealing with any controversial topic, try to base it on the original sources of History. Kalhana said something similar that a true historian should critically analyse all the sources. Good guidance and practice will help you to overcome this fear of controversial topics in History.

Which section should aspirants begin preparing first — Ancient, Medieval, Modern, or World History?

Paper I of History comprises Ancient and Medieval Indian History. The Paper-II of History comprises Modern and World History. World History is independent of all the other sections, so one can either start with it or take it at the end. There are internal choices in each section. A total five questions have to be selected for each paper. Therefore, one can choose to cover Ancient History comprehensively over Medieval History. A lot of students do not prepare for Ancient History properly. So, those who prepare Ancient History comprehensively have an edge over the other set of students. In paper II, it makes more sense to cover Modern Indian History over World History because Modern History will come in Prelims also. World History is not a part of the Prelims syllabus.


How to deal with the Map work in the paper I of History? It can be scoring as well as can ruin section A of paper 1, considering it is a compulsory question.

Definitely, the map question is very important. There are 20 sites marked on the map in the question paper itself. UPSC gives a short description of that site (trade center, megalithic culture, etc.) and the students are supposed to identify and write a short note on those sites in 30 words. Students often ignore this section. In reality, this section requires 1/3 of your time. Say, you are giving 30 days to Ancient History, then at least one hour should be given to the map work. There are around 400 sites to be mastered. Sites should be covered chronologically. I will suggest using Google Maps to know the exact location of the sites. The map is based on photo memory or visual memory, so dedicate a good amount of time to map work if you want to do justice to it.


How should students who are new to History kick start their preparation?

I would like to suggest that in order to develop an interest in History, try to see some videos on YouTube. One can do that while travelling or in their free time. For understanding the basics, start with NCERT or basic books. Students from any academic background can develop an interest in History. Students from non-History backgrounds are doing very well with History optional.


What should students do to revise History optional in a better way?

There are a few points which I would like to suggest for revision. Try to make micro-notes on the topics. Pay attention to keywords. They tell you the scope and content of your answers. One can also make charts and diagrams both for revision and final answer writing. Also, have ready-made introductions and conclusions for different topics. It is a good time-saving technique.

What is your message for UPSC aspirants in general and for History optional students?

I believe every person should prepare for civil services at least once in their lifetime as it makes one a better person and a good citizen. Such people are fit candidates for taking up any responsibility in any sphere of life like government projects or in their personal lives.

History optional syllabus takes four to five months for completion. The second stage is the revision which takes a couple of months. Post prelims it will take only 15-30 days to revise. If you are looking at History optional, it will reduce your burden by 40 percent in GS as well.

S.Baliyan’s recommendations

Ancient Indian History- Old and New NCERT, History of Ancient India (Romila Thapar), A History of Ancient and Medieval India (Upinder Singh)
Medieval India- Medieval India (Satish Chandra), Advanced Study in the History of Medieval India (JL Mehta)
Modern India- History of Modern India (Bipan Chandra), A New Look at Modern Indian History (BL Grover)
World History- Mastering Modern World History (Norman Lewis), A Study of Modern History (L. Mukherjee)

S.Baliyan’s motto

I believe in living in the moment. Even after teaching for almost 20 years, every day before taking a class, I go with the aim that it should be my best class. I believe everyone should make the best use of the present time they have in their hands.

First published on: 19-05-2022 at 06:32:22 pm
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