Study Material-Strategy-Syllabus for IAS exam with English Optional Paper

Who should one opt for English Optional for IAS Mains?

UPSC Mains Optional Paper

Earlier only the literature graduates could take up English literature in IAS Mains exam, but this criteria has been waved off and the subject is now open for all. Ideally, you can safely go for English optional, if this subject fascinates you and you enjoy and have been reading from an early age. In fact, many candidates take this subject because the syllabus is more or less static and limited. Some reasons why literature edges over other subjects-

1.Literature subjects are less factual.

2.Good for who are creative

3.Not too difficult to understand

4.Depth in philosophy required

Scroll down to download syllabus and books list

Preparation Strategy for English Optional for IAS Mains

Due to dearth of proficient scholars in this subject, the aspirants opting English often feel misguided. However this is just a minor restrain. Here, they can find some useful suggestions and tips for IAS Mains exam preparation with English literature as optional paper.

English Literature as optional paper can be categorised in four sections for preparation of UPSC Mains exam.

Novel and Drama 

For English origin: Go by the novels and books prescribed in the Indian central universities. Read novels thoroughly with full concentration at least once. You can do it, if you will focus only on text while reading i.e. while reading you should not think about anything else.

For Indian origin: One has to be very explicit and should also search the internet for additional essays and criticism of the work to prepare English optional for IAS mains.

After first reading->

  • Make summary of each chapter in bullet points which should include main action, important character or thematic moments.
  • Make character profile of main characters.
  • Outline challenges, problems and conflicts which the main characters face.(For example, Problems of Shakespeare’s Hamlet : 1) Is the ghost of his father urging him to seek revenge trustworthy? 2) How can he take revenge on his uncle in a court full of people who are watching his every move? 3) How can he overcome his natural tendency to overthink things?)
  • Whether these problems are solved neatly or solved but not in ideal ways.
  • Memorize few important statements or speeches.

English optional

In nutshell, for this section of Novel and Drama, one has to understand 

  • Overall plot with its background
  • Theme of the content with symbols and motifs
  • Analysis of the work
  • Critical examination of the plot
  • Memorizing important points by heart.
  • Supplement content with material available on Internet.

List of few popular websites for English Optional Paper

Select any one or two only.

  • For English Origin you should have copy of any one book-
    • Worldview edition
    • Norton Critical edition


The prescribed syllabus of English optional is quite enough but one has look to and gather more in-depth knowledge of poem. Remembering important lines or verse is always added advantage but self-analysis of verse is equally important.

  • Understand type of poem by examining its rhyme scheme and meter
  • If it is in free verse, look for elements such as assonance, alliteration, repetition, etc.
  • Try to identify speaker and the audience
  • Find, if any symbol is there in poem (such as in William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey,” the eye is an important symbol that represents many things)
  • Understanding context of poem helps a lot.

Note:– IAS Syllabus for Common Papers

History of English Literature

The period between 1600-2000 is taken into account and syllabus of English optional itself reflects the major stress on certain periods. Wikipedia etc. on Internet also provides a good source on this work. Your IAS mains preparation strategy for English optional paper should include following points.

  • Divide Your IAS Mains Syllabus of English Optional in Major Periods.
  • From your syllabus,select two or three authors representative of that period.
  • Collect all information of those authors to get the cultural context.
  • Read at least the first 50 page of the assigned book for each author, to understand their writing style.
  • Make note of important points.

Few commonly used books for the section are…

Unforeseen Poetry and Prose

This is a section where one’s common sense and knowledge of literature becomes very handy. Extensive reading and once analytical/ critically acclaimed understanding helps into solve the questions.

In English optional IAS mains, both papers, Paper-I and paper-II in combined ask for questions based on unseen passages which constitute 100 marks (50 each) and are compulsory.

One can only increase speed of grasping the message with practice.

Books like…

Practical Criticism by Oxford University Press can be useful in this regard.


Basic guidelines for IAS Preparation with English Optional Paper

Acquaintance with the time frame

IAS Manis English Literature Optional

Taking note of the above given four aspects, the aspirants shall understand that the crucial key of IAS Mains English optional paper is the familiarization of yourself with the periods of history. This helps in understanding the time, literary contribution & cultural practices and more important the socio, political and economic circumstances of that era.

Whether one is reading novel, drama poetry the reader must have the knowledge or acquaintance with the time frame. When we start understanding time frame, we can easily relate them with their background. For example -If you are reading King Lear, try to appreciate the difficult times of Elizabethan period where the queen died without a fixed heir, and the nation was crumpling and dwindling in that scenario Shakespeare wrote in wake of a political void. Therefore, you need to analyse the texts using the historical background you read in Albert or Sanders.

  Basic Books to Start preparation of English Optional-

Understand Literature:

The flair of understanding literature is required. The knowledge of English is one aspect but critically examining the literary aspect is another or different angle to understand literature. If you are a beginner, you can start with summary of the stories with the help of following books. But, these are strictly recommended as supplementary books to develop interest or just to start.

These should not be used as core books-

  • Ramji Lal
  • Narayan series

Understand the Mood:

Try to understand the mood and trait of a particular literary period. This helps in understanding the various periods, without any extra effort.

Test of Language:

Refrain from explicitly using uncommon vocabulary words while writing answers in English optional paper of IAS mains. Portraying the proficiency in the literature rather than the language is essential for it; what evaluators are looking for.

Note-> Read about UPSC Interview Preparation

Learn Glossary in depth:

Insure that you are thorough with the all the literary terms used in the English literature. For the purpose you can refer to A Glossary of Literary Terms by M.H Abrams

Revision and Practise:

Nothing comes without practise as subconscious mind is too rigid too incorporate new data. So practice as many as question papers possible, check for standard expected answers and your deviation from them. Key point is solve question papers of  IAS mains English optional of last ten years.

Read-IAS Preparation Tips 

Practise of writing:

As much as you can because in IAS Mains exam with english literature as your option, your writing style is going to play the game on your behalf. Your word selection will play half the impact and remaining half is your argument. If you just narrate the story of the text, you are going to get fewer marks. You need to analyse the texts using the historical background.

Read-> Essay Writing Skills


If available, try seeking expertise and advice from literary scholars, vivid readers, professors to gain an insight into the subject. This will be immensely helpful in the preparation of IAS mains with English optional.

Core Books :

Do not consult guide book or help books because this is not a university exam for securing marks for passing. Use core or mother book for extensive preparation.

Download Free Copy of List- English Optional Core Books

Devote time for syllabus coverage:

An English graduate should aim at completing the prescribed UPSC syllabus within 3 months to equip them with sufficient time to prepare other subjects. However, the non graduated aspirants can take 6 months for the English optional subject as it is new to them.

Download your copy of UPSC Syllabus for English optional

Extensive Reading:

For unseen prose and verse-extensive reading is required, speed and comprehension skills both matter a lot here.

Working and channelizing efforts in the right direction is essential as you are in a time bounded exam preparation. So follow the aforementioned tips with utmost seriousness with some flexibility that suit you. Rigorous preparation will give you an upper edge over aspirants. Surely, your selection of English optional for IAS mains will take you to the final destination.

Prepare well as English Syllabus is vast. Visit link to know more about  UPSC Exam







About the author

Dr. SS


  • IAS preparation requires hard work and perseverance above all. When I was preparing for the exam, the center of learning was quite far from my place. I decided to take the risk and study online through platforms like . I think that might have changed a lot of things because I saved time in commute and learnt a lot through the tons of online resources. Keep at it without loosing faith guys and you will succeed.

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