You can't underestimate the choice of optional paper in the process of becoming an IAS. Before 2013, choosing an optional paper was twice as much challenging because students had to pick two subjects. But now only one paper has to be chosen, so I believe that this challenge has been reduced by half. In my experience, students seem more troubled when asked to choose 'another' optional subject; one is quite okay for them. For example, engineering students would choose a subject relevant to their stream which is simple and easy for them. The problem would arise when they had to opt for a second subject. Similarly, for post graduates, the subject of their post graduation is an obvious choice for an optional paper. Bu they would also face difficulty when choosing another subject. So now that candidates are not required to choose two optional papers, their difficulties must have eased.
But is that what has really happened? I regret writing this but the answer is no. Although, the challenge has somewhat diminished compared to before, it hasn't been wiped out. Eve now students ask me, 'Sir, what subject do I choose?' I fee sad because I have to disappoint them. But I also feel hurt thatthis student does not have the ability to even choose a subject for himself. At this initial stage only I detect this as a weakness in their personality and this is hardly ever wrong. You tell me, who else other than you can decide which subject you should take? After all, how much does the other person know you that he can tell which subject you should choose?
There is another danger in asking others. You will get different replies from different people about this. If there is someone who didn't get selected because he scored less in public administration, he may not advise you on which subject you should choose, put he would definitely suggest 'Do whatever, but do not choose public administration'. But it is quite possible that the same day you meet someone who scored very high in public administration. Obviously, before you can even finish questioning him, he will tell you to choose public administration. If you ask coaching centres they would tell you to opt for subjects which they are teaching. Remember, none of these people are wrong; they just view the truth differently. Even coaching centres teach subjects they think are important. This is their truth. The fact is you have your own truth and someone else's truth is not going to work for you.
On the basis of my years of experience of guiding civil services aspirants and my successful juniors, I say this with conviction that there is no subject in UPSC's list that no one has ever opted for or no one has passed. If there were a subject like that, UPSC would have removed it from its list.
I think this problem needs to be addressed in a more logical way, because students unnecessarily worry about this. Ponder over these questions-
(1) What is the reason that a subject in which one student succeeds becomes the reason for another's failure in the same year?
(2) Why is it that a subject that seems simple and interesting to one student appears difficult and boring to another?
(3) Why has UPSC introduced scaling of marks? Don't you think the aim of this move is to ensure equality in the marks scored in all optional subjects?
If you think about these questions seriously you will begin to see more clearly. This will save you from choosing the wrong subject. When I say 'wrong subject' here, let me clarify that no subject is wrong in itself, it may just be wrong for us.
What influences your decision the most while choosing a subject for yourself? It is 'rumours'. In the community of IAS aspirants, various subjects keep coming in the limelight. Some candidates think that because high numbers of people are being selected from a particular subject, their chances of selection will also increase if they opt for it. Both the facts are wrong here. People don't get selected because they choose a particular subject, more number of successful candidates from a subject means more students are opting for that subject. If you look at it from the point of view of percentage, you won't find much difference. If you just look at the numbers, they will appear higher, and this is what is happening here.
The other fact you are not considering here is that you can wear someone else's hat, but would it fit you? You need your own hat. You know how many students who opted for a subject got selected; do you know the number of people who didn't? I do not mean to say that you should shy away fromchoosing popular subjects. I'm not saying that at all. If you feel comfortable with the subject, there is no need to doubt whether you should take it.
There is one more thing. It has been observed that every year the paper of one subject or the other is very tough. This results in a bad score and the subject gets a bad reputation. This happens regularly. Sometimes this could happen with one subject continuously for two three years. But it will happen to one subject or the other that is for sure. In this situation, you should not think that since last year the paper was easy (or tough), it will be easy (or tough) this year too. UPSC creates high and low tides in these papers to strike a balance. So I think you should be very careful when deciding to opt for a subject based on its popularity.