Guidance for Geography as an optional in UPSC Mains

(This article is written by Chanchal Rana, Rank 7, UPSC CSE 2013. He is currently undergoing training as an IPS and shall be joining IAS soon)

Disclaimer: All that the esteemed reader is to find below are based solely on my experiences with the subject for 3 consecutive attempts. The tips or the sources are not full or final and hence not prescriptive in nature and the reader is expected to use his own wisdom in the course of preparation for the subject.

[I plan to answer/ help all my dear aspirants (HEREINAFTER ADDRESSED as SIR) in the form of FAQs]

My Credibility (if at all it is !!!)  for scribbling in this blog::

Attempt Paper-1 Paper-II
1st (CSE 2011) /600 marks 120 145
2nd (CSE 2012)/600 marks 95 170
3rd (CSE 2013)/500 marks 88 130

1.  Why should SIR choose Geography as an optional?

Ans: The importance of optional although is in a decline, has still been one of the major deciding factor for being recommended by UPSC at the end of years of patience. I choose the optional not by any rational decision but because some of my friends opted for it and because I had heard that it fetched good marks. I swear, I knew nothing more than that earth has 3 layers and that tsunami was a giant wave and had seen India and world map. But I would suggest it as an optional because :-

  • It is scientific in nature unlike other Arts optional. Hence, logical and rational. Good for engineers like me.
  • It is heavily covered directly in GS Paper-1 and also indirectly in many areas of GS Paper-3
  • Sufficient material is available in the form of books by Indian Authors as well as coaching institute materials.
  • Ample scope for diagrammatic representation.
  • Helps a great deal in interview.

  1. Now that SIR has chosen Geography, you would ask which/is any coaching institute is better before even looking at the syllabus??

Ans: I took classroom coaching for a few months with DIRECTION IAS (Neetu Singh mam) and thereafter opted for test series with DIRECTION IAS and also with VAJIRAM for a while. My experiences with Coaching institute:-

  • If you haven’t read even the basic NCERT books and opted for GEO coaching, then probably u have invested your money well.
  • If SIR has already gone through the NCERT books and some of the standard ones like Majid Hussain, Lal etc, I would rather say, please use the money to stay healthy for the exam instead. Most of them teach from Savindra singh & Majid hussain & they would suggest you not to open those unworthy books. J
  • FOCUS on the way the institute makes u understand a particular topic (that the institute is well known for); how the inter linkages are made; which diagrams were relevant….
  • Its better to opt for test series with them, even though u don’t appear them. But make sure you at least attend the answer sessions. The test series just helps you manage the syllabus on schedule.
  • DIRECTION IAS is good with paper-2, VAJIRAM good with ‘Geographical Thought’ and some theories of paper 1 (Models in Geography).
  • Don’t follow any coaching institute blindly as all of those with geography optionals will end up scribbling same answers in the exam. This would be disastrous. Moreover coaching institutes just “coach”, you alone are going to play. So play your own game using your wisdom.
  1. Where from can SIR possibly refer the topics mentioned in the syllabus?

Ans: These are possibly the sources that I referred to during my preparation. I missed a number of topics for the exam. UPSC is not about learning all that you can, its about leaving all that you should. I am not suggesting to try your luck, must asking you to have confidence to write at least 5 sentences on the topic even if you have not gone through any material anywhere. (viz. the noise pollution question that appeared this year)


Geomorphology: I went through the notes both of Alok ranjan, and Neetu Singh—-PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY by Savindra singh——-NCERT text books along with the diagrams there. APPLIED GEOMORPHOLOGY is a very important part, so trying searching the internet for the various applications like in dam construction, oil exploration & surveying. etc——–Imp: Read the various other names of the same theories as in the name of the authors or any other peculiar names.

Climatology- I read the coaching notes——SAVINDRA SINGH——–NCERT Book——-Prepare well on applied climatology & urban climatology from internet. ——World climatic maps on the Atlases.

Oceanography: NCERT—– coaching notes——-SAVINDRA SINGH (see the diagrams especially) especially the local variations in salinity along with the theories of tide & coral formation.—–for marine resources & pollution refer to internet, any coaching notes & GS knowledge.

Biogeography: NCERT—-RUPA made simple for soil geography——SAVINDRA Singh for factors deciding plant & animal distribution——–internet for some topics like gene pool centres, deforestation——-KURUKSHETRA magazine for social & agro forestry as they come up with interesting examples & classification.

Environmental geography: SAVINDRA SINGH for basic concepts on ecology & cycles————-rest please refer topic wise on internet rather than buying truckload of materials from market. Use your GS knowledge extensively in your answers.

Perspectives in Human Geography: I referred to Vajiram Notes, DIRECTION IAS notes but cross checked & improvised & cross checked them from internet along with a lot of relevant examples. Please remember a timeline of the various developments in this topic. This is the most important topic in the entire optional.

Laws, Models & Theories in Geography- Coaching notes- Majid Hussain book on models in geography——diagrams very important along with the shortcomings in each models.

Regional Planning– Little bit of coaching institute notes but more of internet. (This was a topic which I never prepared extensively).

Population & settlement Geography: NCERT—-coaching notes——-A few topic from Majid Hussain on Human Geography——understand the subtle difference along with diagrams between satellite towns, Rural urban fringe, sub-urban towns, metropolitan city, leap frog & ribbon settlements—–UN departments websites on population  & use internet.———spatial map on population distribution, composition very important.

Economic geography– Read Whittakers classification & the industrial location models————try to figure out their current application or the reasons for non application——-UN websites for famine, hunger (like refer to the Rio+20 document or FAO website)———-internet for mineral resources & forest resources——-human resources from UNDP HDI website.


For topics on Physical setting, agriculture, industries, trade & transportation, resources, cultural setting, settlement & some contemporary issues:-KHULLAR ——-coaching institute notes———Yojana magazine———NCERT text books———some latest developments from INDIA YEAR BOOK. Emphasis be given more on maps & diagrams in these topics.

Regional Development & planning: Refer to internet on these specific topics——–Planning Commission Website——-Indian Year Book———-Planning history in India from any source.(Special focus on Geographical aspect)

Political Aspects- GS knowledge——–international affairs websites & newspapers or magazines. (Pl. Note: All these topics must have a strong linkage to geography as in physical or human geography. Eg: discussion on india Bangladesh issues should mention land, rivers disputes, migration, ethnicity, their climate thus industries thus import export, trade & transportation links etc rather than much of political or diplomatic angles)

Contemporary Issues- Only internet or any GS material. ———keep yourselves updated on the documents released on important forums such as RIO+20, Cancun, BRICS on humanitarian & disaster issues, Planning commission reports on website (not necessarily only the 12th FYP)—–Yojana magazine.

  1. What should be SIR’s answer like?
  • Every SIR writing the Mains are almost or even more sound than the one who  topped in geography, but the rank depends on how you market your knowledge. [JO DIKHTA HAI, WAHI BIKTA HAI]
  • Remember it’s a geography Paper and not any GS paper. So all that you presume to be of current affairs must be viewed & attempted from a GEOGRAPHY angle.
  • Its better to put diversity of points than to keep on explaining a single point.
  • Give introduction in every answer even if its just a single line; the introduction should make the evaluator acknowledge that you have figured out which topic in being mentioned in the question. Eg: for the question that asked about impact of monsoons on climate of Gujarat Realm, you could possibly mention that Gujarat realm is one of the divisions of Planning commission classification and covers so and so areas, and then begin your main content.
  • Once can try using both point and paragraph format of representation. Whenever there is a classification & explanation to that, go for point wise. Detailed paragraph format could be used for short notes & like.
  • Try to put at least one pictorial representation in every answer—be it a map, a small chart, a summary diagram, a timeline or a graph etc.
  • Try underlining important words. This need not be done using colours as many do. And underlining should not be a pastime in exam.
  • Show some arbitrary figures where possible such as in population, migration figures, climate change etc. UPSC is surely not going to google them.
  • Try to use the concepts of “PERSPECTIVES OF GEOGRAPHY” chapter wherever one finds a opportunity. This makes a matured answer. Remember, “PERSPECTIVES OF GEOGRAPHY” domain shows that you love the subject. Even if fake, pretend to do so in exam.
  • Please try writing to the point & don’t write the same sentence once in active voice, next time in passive voice just to show that you have filled the page. Its very necessary to underline the important words in the question itself first.
  • Map: Practice the map whenever you are done with a particular chapter. Make the most use of it while studying resource geography. Refer Orient Blackswan & Oxford publications. Also don’t forget to pray to god in the break between Paper 1 & 2, so that the surprise names fall in your state or your GS memory. Pointing correctly matters more than explanations.
  •  Try interconnecting various topics & papers of Geography. Detailed explanation in the next answer.
  • Also TRY NOT to leave any question. Every mark counts. And anyways, you won’t be reprimanded for writing wrong answers.
  1. How should SIR tackle the unconventional questions that have made the subject dreadful?

Ans: I acknowledge to be a victim of so many surprising, bouncing questions in this optional that had made me time & again think to doing away with the optional. But what needs to be remembered that UPSC is running out of fuel itself, as in new set of questions. So, it has started pouring old wine in new bottle.

  • Barring some exceptions, there are no unconventional questions, there is an unconventional way of putting them. Eg: Secondary cities asked in CSE 2012 probably was very much linked to the concepts of Satellite & Suburban towns.
  • Try to immediately figure out which chapter can the question be related to. In most of the cases, they cover multiple topics. Eg: “Earthquake zones in India & their management” is linked to contemporary issues as well as physical setting of geography.
  • Try to mention the theories & concepts of Paper 1 while answering paper 2. This composes a beautiful, comprehensive answer. Eg: in the earthquake question above, one could use concepts of Geomorphology & plate tectonics.
  • Use “Perspectives of Geography” chapter content to address many human geography related issues in Paper 2. Eg: Behaviouralism, Humanism, & welfare geography concepts in addressing tribal issues in India.
  • As said earlier, try to go through the authors of various theories and the different names used in the theory. Eg: Bosche & Haldenhalg was a part of Pencks theory.
  • Lastly, there will be some weird questions everytime, else the rigour & toughness of the exam will be diluted. To confront this, as I told earlier, JUST PRAY 🙂
  1. Geography and Personality Test?

Revise the Paper 2 (at least a overview) and some models of Paper 1 before PT.

Try to link the news with your optional for at least a month prior to PT such as earthquakes, Hunger, Drought situation in India, Agriculture policy, etc.

Remember geography is not only a good but a scoring optional as well. Neither go by the suggestions of your neighbour who has just opted out of the subject, or a qualifier as me. I myself took 3 attempts with the subject prior to this rank. You all will get through when your time comes. Your effort can just bring the moment nearer.

Wish you all the very best. Waiting for you all my dear “to be colleagues” .


An aspirant just recommended.

9 thoughts on “Guidance for Geography as an optional in UPSC Mains”

  1. Sir
    I am pursuing B.Tech 4th yr. I am an UPSC aspirant. Since I have started my preparation from now only in order to apply for 2016 exams, I am in a dilemma that how should I ignite the flame.i am also planning to opt for geography. Kindly guide me for the same.

    1. Anshika, follow newspapers regularly to start with. You may also find it interesting to watch news debates on current issues on national and international channels (like BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera). Afterwards, you can start with prelims prep and then move on to mains prep.

  2. Maam
    you have mentioned some books in the article on prelims.where could I get these books in Delhi?

  3. Sir/Mam,
    there is lot of speculation regarding removal of optional in 2016. Reputed coaching in my city(bhopal) has suggested me not to join coaching for optional in 2016 because there are 90% chances of its removal. I’m very anxious, as they are saying that you should join only after notification. But i fear after notification only 3-4 months will be left, leaving very less time for revision.
    So what would u suggest..??

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