Strategy for English Literature Optional UPSC

Each aspirant’s strategy for UPSC comes from their own personal struggle, hence the following need not be taken as the sole way of preparation. The following English Literature Optional UPSC strategy is from a personal experience and takes a cue from successful aspirants like Hamna Mariyam (UPSC Rank- 28, 2016), Anjali S (UPSC Rank- 26, 2017), Deeksha Jain (UPSC Rank- 22, 2018).

English Literature optional UPSC can be pursued even by aspirants who have not studied the same for graduation, all one requires is a passion for reading and decent command over the English language for answer writing.

Can I prepare on my own or do I need to go for coaching?

It is a tricky question. You can go through the syllabus, check out a few prescribed texts and previous year questions and make the call for yourself. The material for this optional is freely available on the internet across myriad sources. If you still feel you would need coaching, go for it. Coaching currently is available only in Trivandrum, Kerala at Amrita IAS Academy and Prof P.G. Radhakrishnan Sir.

Is this English Literature UPSC  syllabus too vast?

How long would it take? What material should be used?

The syllabus is not vast, there 14 novels, 5 plays, around 60 poems, and some background knowledge of the history of English literature prescribed in the syllabus. The only thing that is non-negotiable about any literature optional is a compulsory reading of the prescribed texts. But unlike regional language optionals abundant analysis of works prescribed are freely available over the internet, one needn’t fret about the difficulty level. The aspirant should ensure all works are read and the time taken would vary as per the reading pace and level of the aspirant.

Stepwise Strategy For English Literature Optional UPSC 

Step-1 Previous Year Question Papers

Like every other UPSC subject, it is vital to look through previous year question papers to understand the question trend and pattern. One can easily observe the repetition of questions or similar thematic questions. Once this is done, group questions of each text from 2011- 2020 chronologically. This helps with preparation, once you are done with a text, you can go through the compiled list to understand how UPSC would frame questions.

Step-2 Background/ History

UPSC English Optional Syllabus provides a list of movements eg- Renaissance, Modernism, make short notes about key features of this period. This is necessary because not only does UPSC ask direct questions regarding it but also to place texts in the time frame it was written to understand the significance of the work. UPSC also asks indirect questions like relating the work to the time period it was written in and how it fits in. Example- “Critically examine if the treatment of Caliban in The Tempest is a reflection of the emergence of European Colonialism during the Elizabethan period” (2012- Paper I)

Step-3 Reading the text

This is the vital step that cannot be neglected. It will help you form your opinion of the text. There might be multiple synopsis available on the internet but nothing substitutes your understanding of the text. UPSC looks for the aspirant’s perspective and appreciates original answers rather than synopsis. While you read a particular text, some tips to keep in mind are- one, try to see how the text fits into the history; two, try to think of ways you would answer the previous year questions; three, once you start reading you can make linkages between texts and find similarities note them down, four, jot down important lines from the text which you feel like you can quote for answers this is a valuable mark booster technique. If you are not keen on reading, audio books of most texts are available, you can use that as an option as well.

Step-4 Note making

Once you are done reading the text, make a short note on the author of the text. A quick search on the internet would do, English literature optional notes should compromise of features of the author’s writing and how it is relevant to the period in which the author wrote. Post this you can make a synopsis/mind map that summarizes that major points/plot of the text. To this add you can analysis, themes, motifs. To add more value, you can write down two or three literary critics’ comments. Your notes must be precise and comprehensive because going through all the texts before exam is not possible hence these notes will help with revision.

Step-5 Revision

The revision would involve going through already prepared notes. For short poems, if you find the time you can go through them but since most works are long it is impossible to go through each of them for revision. If your notes are comprehensive, it is enough to study them as it saves time for answer writing.

Step-6 Answer Writing

Answer writing for literature optional is an altogether different ball game compared to GS papers. Since UPSC has a trend of repeating questions, you can write answers to previous year question papers and ask your mentors to review it.

Tips to writing a good answer

Like GS paper, understand the requirement of the question and answer to it. Adhere to the word limit. Always ensure you are able to answer all questions rather than skipping a few questions and perfecting answers for others. It is not necessary to use flowery language with sophisticated vocabulary rather clear and simple answers which address the essence of the question is crucial.


The introductory paragraph should directly start addressing the question by connecting it to the time period or theme of the work rather than introducing the work or the author. The next paragraph should include quotes or incidents from the text to substantiate your argument. This will make the evaluator understand you have read the text. Add critical comments at this point or conclusion if they connect with the questions, although it is not vital it boosts marks. In the conclusion, part take a general stance in contrast with the specific aspects addressed in the introduction.

UPSC considers original interpretations and analysis, hence any side can be picked up as long as it is supplemented with valid points. At the same time is is also important to provide your awareness of the other side.

In case you wish to enroll for test series, you can email for details.

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