Detailed Geography Optional Strategy (Marks 290) and Notes by Prajit Nair, IAS Rank 87

Prajit Nair had joined our Mains Guidance Program (MGP). This is what he says about the program – “I had joined this test series and it turned out to be a gem. My scores in UPSC also saw similar jump in this attempt. The level of improvement speaks for itself. In fact, this time all my friends from Mumbai and flatmates from Delhi are joining it. To be  honest, this entire jump in my score was not accidental, but because of lot of effort that went in planning and executing things and the tremendous help that ForumIAS mentors gave.

Here is his Strategy for Geography Optional:

Who am I?

Prajit Nair. I secured AIR-87 in CSE 2016 with geography optional. This was my third attempt. I had Geography as my optional subject throughout my preparation.

What was my knowledge of geography?

I have no background in Geography. I’m an engineer. The last time I touched this subject before CSE Preparation was in 10th grade. Also, I had serious issues with some skills considered elementary for geography. My map marking skills are next to zero. I confuse places and barely remember them even if I have read them only a minute ago. I thought that rivers contained salty water as sea water flowed inland. (I’m not kidding. I got to know that I was wrong while sitting in my optional class).

Why did I take Geo?

I was pretty naive when I took this subject. Interest was not the reason. My presumed simplicity of the subject attracted me towards it. My presumption was true, but only partly. The subject is easy but the questions asked in the mains are difficult.

How did I score through my 3 attempts?


P1 – 135

P2 – 101

Average scores – 220 – 230


P1 – 58

P2 – 101

Average scores – 180-190


P1 – 145

P2 – 145

Average scores – 240-250

Why am I writing this?

UPSC CSE exam is a very dynamic exam. The pattern has constantly changed. UPSC is known to break patterns than set them. I have personally observed it and have been affected by it over the course of my three attempts. My assessment of the exam may help future aspirants before taking up this subject. Till UPSC decides to junk the optional, people will have to adapt to the exam pattern. I would be glad if my analysis is of help to the aspirant community from whom I drew heavily from.

Over the years I have observed a few things which lead me to believe that any optional can be turned into a scoring subject provided you are ready to put in the hours and are ready to learn from your mistakes. I have seen the high, the low and the summit in optional marks. My experience can be useful for people wanting to reach the summit in their first attempt or next attempt. That is the main object of this article.

The background of my success in geography?

2014 – This was the golden year for geography. Questions were simple. The evaluation was liberal. The topper was with geography optional. I scored good marks compared to most people. My P1 score was good. P2 was a bit average. The only problem was, I did not know how I scored so much marks. I could not pinpoint the reasons. The result was that I tried too many things to improve scores in my next attempt.

2015 – I myself saw a depreciation of 87 marks. I lost 77 marks in P1. I was effectively erased from the competition. This made me introspect deeply about what could have possibly went wrong. I analyzed my two attempts to the very depth.

My analysis led me to some basic observations. These were:

On Questions
– these are getting more & more specific as opposed to previous years(pre-2013) in which they were usually on basic topics mentioned in the syllabus. Most questions asked in 2013 and 2015 pertained to obscure topics that no one read or prepared. Examples were:


  • Differences between arid cycle and normal cycle of Davis;
  • Uniqueness of fauna in Notogean realm;
  • Differentiate Storm Surges and Seiches;
  • Impact of Pleistocene Ice Age on the crust of the Earth;
  • Misra’s theoretical stages of Rural – Urban Process


  • Define the term ‘meander’ and describe the basic characteristics of entrenched meander and ingrown meander;
  • State the concept of plate tectonics. How does it help in explaining the formation of Himalayas and Appalachain Mountains; (Appalachian mountains formation is difficult)
  • Define zoogeographic region.Also describe he basic faunal makeup of the Neo-Arctic zoogeographic region;
  • Give an account of recent observation on coral bleaching with reference to Clive Wilkinson’s Report.


  • Classification of geomorphic process from zonal point of view;
  • Discuss the continuations of the American School of Denudation in geomorphology;
  • explain with example, as to how channel dynamic has been responsible for the development of alluvial fans and cones.

These questions give an impression that we need to read many sources for being able to attempt these questions. I have two strategies to tackle this problem. I’ll present them here

Strategy 1 – Most questions asked above can be answered from reading one standard book. Like for example Savinder Singh Physical Geography has answers to some obscure questions like Clive Wilkinson’s report. Savinder Singh’s Environment Geography book has Neo-Arctic zoogeographic region explained. So the strategy is to stick to this author and leave the remaining questions in the hope that no one knows it. Since the scores are relative, leaving the questions that you don’t know should not cost you much in the final tally.

Also, this author is a popular one. I have seen many simple questions being framed based upon the content given in this book. Even the seemingly obscure topics are given in this book.

Strategy 2 – This is a slightly difficult method. It rests on a practical fact. If you sincerely try to cover all the topics mentioned in the geography syllabus it would take you many years to do so. The time it takes to prepares a simple & single bullet point like “views on mountain-building” from Geomorphology is prohibitively costly. You simply would not be able to cover all topics at this rate. The strategy is to utilize notes from the market of professors who have put in their sweat in preparing topics. Pick up a few set of notes from the market of various professors and extract the understanding given in them. These notes are usually digested material of various books. They help you get an idea about most books without taking the trouble of going through them. I myself used this strategy.

Every professor notes has some obscure topics covered. This way, you would have a better idea of most of the syllabus topics. This strategy covers most questions to a huge extent.

Both strategy rests a bit on luck. That is true for any other strategy too. So keep up on prayers too irrespective of the strategy you choose. Beyond this you cannot do anything else.

On answers – P1 is completely different from P2 in terms of expectation of the examiner. The things that get appreciated by the geographer in P2 may not work in P1. The usual tendency is to answer questions like we answer in P2 which is to write answers in your own words. This is ineffective in scoring marks. P1 requires answers that reflect a purist approach. The language should be as close as possible to the textbook. That does not mean you memorize the standard textbooks. Only parts of the textbook need to be memorized.

Here are some common aspects that one should bear in mind while answering questions in P1. This is especially applicable in Human Geography.

  • The definitions have to be precise. Use “desi” definition only if you do not happen to know. While preparing make a list of topics and find out their definition. For example, Areal Differentiation could be defined in a wide variety of ways. But if we write the definition mentioned by its first proponent, Richard Hartshorne used in his book Nature of Geography published in 1939 the examiner would be bound to reward marks.
    (P.S I haven’t read this book. But my mere mention of the details and its definition fools you into thinking that I have read it)
  • The examples used in Human Geography should be what the geographers who conceptualized the theory used. Here are some examples
    • Possibilism – People can write a number of examples for this concept but sighting the actual example used by the first proponent of this theory would be appreciated by the evaluator. The example was of the cultivation pattern on the French Plateau on the German side and the French side. This was the subject of the PhD thesis of Vidal de Lablache.
    • Behaviouralism – similarly for this theory, sighting the example of Julian Wolpert’s 1964 paper on Swedish farmers while answering anything related to behaviouralism is more classy than creating a new example.
    • Stop-n-Go determinism – sighting the example used by the Griffith Taylor in his book to explain this theory would be better than sighting your own.

You can create your own examples easily. But this should be the last resort. It would be better to use the classic examples. The reason I say this is because, most geographical concepts have a historical context. This is better appreciated only in the classic examples.

  • If possible remember the exact names of the geographer. Not just the single name. Instead of Whittlesey mention Derwent Whittlesey.
  • Remember the books that these geographers wrote and explained the various concepts in. Example: I remember the book that was written by Weber to explain Theory of Industrial Location(Uber den Standort der Industrien)
  • If you happen to mention the name of the book mention the year in which the book was written. Preciseness in these aspects fool the examiner into thinking that you have a background in Geography.

These aspect work in Physical Geography too. For Section A of P1 I cannot suggest much apart from the above points. This section was my weakest link in the whole optional and I preferred attempting less questions from this section. Also if you observe the trend, this section has been the most hit in the dynamic pattern of UPSC. Questions have become more and more specific. I preferred attempting Human Geography more as it provided definitive syllabus that has less scope for surprise questions.


On Questions – this paper has continued to see the same pattern of questions as before. The questions are pretty general in nature for which reasonably good answers can be written without much efforts.

On Answers – the nature of questions in P2 gives ample scope for creativity. This needs to be utilized to the fullest to get more marks. The average score is on the higher side. The difference between the topper and average score is usually very less.

The following can be done to score more marks in P2:

  1. Building a book full of various diagrams that are topic specific. Draw dedicated diagrams for each bullet point. For example, draw good diagrams for industry chapter from section A. Take each industry and draw diagrams separately for each of them. Choose specific case studies and apply theories into them. Like, take any Steel Plant and try incorporating Weber’s location triangles into them.
  2. In answers, incorporation of theoretical concepts from P1 gives a sound backing to the answers. Use concepts from P1, especially Human Geography, into your answers.
  3. Practice writing answer frameworks to past year UPSC question papers. This will give practice that comes handy during the actual exam.

Pointers for both P1 and P2

Also there were questions from topics for which no one prepares anything concrete. There are many bullet points in the syllabus which people ignore thinking “everyone knows everything”. When UPSC generates a question on these topics people end up writing average answers that are created extempore. We tend to write whatever that comes to our mind in the examination hall. Such answers end up being unimpressive and result in average marks.

Here are some examples. These topics are taken from bullet points mentioned in the syllabus that is often ignored.


  • What is Geriatrics? What are the problems associated with Geriatric population?
  • “Urban Solid Waste Management poses the greatest challenge in Metropolitan planning.’ Elaborate.
  • Analyse the causes for changes in the pattern of world trade.


  • Give a critical account of reasons and consequences of marine pollution
  • Give an account of food security issues in developing countries.
  • Discuss environmental and economic problems associated with coal production.
  • “World is passing through a global resource dilemma.” Comment
  • “Food productivity with purity of the ecosystem is the need of the hour.” Elaborate.


  • Discuss the method of conserving biodiversity for sustainable development
  • Development planning has a component of environmental cost. Discuss.
  • Man-induced famines are becoming more common than nature-induced ones.” Comment.
  • Vital statistics are necessary ingredients for development planning Elaborate.

These questions can be attempted and hit for a six. This would be the difference between you and the average score. The strategy for this is pretty simple. Collect a list of all these bullet points and try thinking over them. Try to generate an organized thought on these topics. If possible collect data related to these bullet points. Some topics are inter-linked or overlapping. Develop a clarity of thought in these topics. The same will be reflected in the answers and make average general answers look geo-specific. The focus while preparing these topics should be that it should enable you to write a 20 marker answer which is the maximum. This translates into a requirement of content of 250-300 words. Enough to fill 3 sides of pages.

I will illustrate this strategy with a few examples:


Topic: Regional Planning

Bullet point:environmental issues in regional planning

Content I prepared:

  • Nature of problems: natural, man-made
  • Listing out of each problem that comes to my mind
  • Segregating them into natural and man-made
  • Listing out of solutions: broad and general solutions for each topic
  • Examples of contemporary times: Chandigarh
  • Extra stuff to embellish: UN Reports, Conventions(simply google UN report on environmental issues)


Topic: Physical Setting

Bullet point:Space relationship of India with neighboring countries

Content I prepared:

  • Listing out of various relations based on shared boundaries, resources, culture
  • Collecting country-specific data
  • Observing the map and doing all the above; else common-sense
  • Bullet points I prepared
    • Rivers;
    • Nature of boundary;
    • Language;
    • Political relation;
    • Tribes/People/Race;
    • Climate
    • Evolving relations – example bounday disputes, regime changes, trade etc


Topic: Settlements

Bullet point: Problems of urbanization and remedies

Content I prepared:

  • Define urbanization
  • Collect census data on the status of urbanization
  • Looked up UN summit on urbanization and found Habitat III summit. If you visit the official site you will find some nicely arranged data that emphasizes the importance of urbanization. I made a list of the data I could use
  • SDG Goals – looked up anything that could relate to urbanization. Goals 9, 10, 11 et al. Visit the official pages of these and you’ll find stuff that you can incorporate into answers.
  • In the above points there are solutions mentioned. You can look at official government programs for solutions(Smart City)

If you look at the three examples I have sighted above, you are armed with basic data, definition and current happenings to answer any question asked from these topics. This is all you can do. The exercise takes 30 minutes per heading at max. But bear in mind that it has huge benefit at a very low cost.

While preparing for such topics, bear in mind that the focus is to show some semblance of structure in answering. The preparation on these lines only helps making your answer look impressive with average points. No kind of research should be conducted. The expectation from such answers is very basic. So stick to the time limit of 30 minutes per bullet. I used to do this exercise whenever I got bored of studying optional or writing GS. As you continue on these lines, it would help you understand the strategy to prepare for similar bullet points in GS syllabus too.

These simple rules of paper-specific answer-writing and notes preparation helped me raise my marks to 290 in 2016 from 159 in 2015. If you follow them, I can guarantee you that you won’t land up with below-average scores in geography.

Book list for some topics:

The problem with geography in the past used to be that the books available were too limited. This was some 20 years ago. Today the problem is quite the opposite. The number of books is simply too many. I followed many sources for preparing the syllabus topics. I’ll list out the books I used for some of the difficult topics. You can choose them depending upon your comfort and access to them


  1. Physical Geography by Savinder Singh
  2. Geomorphology by Savinder Singh
  3. Introducing Physical Geogrpahy by Strahler & Strahler


Perspectives in Human Geography

  1. Evolution of Geographical Thought – Majid Husain
  2. Geographical Thought – RD Dikshit
  3. Himanshu Sharma’s Handwritten class notes
  4. Shabbir Sir’s test series class notes

Remaining Topics

  1. Himanshu Sharma’s Handwritten class notes
  2. Shabbir Sir’s test series class notes


  1. Khullar’s Geograhy of India
  2. Himanshu Sharma’s Handwritten class notes
  3. Majid Husain’s Geography of India
  4. Internet 

One of my favorite topic in geography happens to the most hated topic for any aspirant with geography optional. This topic is Perspectives in Human Geography. I benefited from my command over this topic. It has spillover effects on Paper-2 of geography. Due to command over this topic I could be rest assured that Section-B was never a problem for me in Paper-1. Over the course of my three attempts I have built a hand-written set of notes for many topics of this topic. I used to do it just for the sake of knowing the topic. For gaining knowledge about this topic, just for fun. I know, not many would have the inclination to take the trouble of doing the same. So I’m sharing my notes. There are also some topics from Paper 1 Section-A that I have shared. It is at the ending.

Here is the link: Click Here

I have tried to put everything that, I feel, should be taken care of apart from studying and understanding the subject. These guidelines can help you understand expectations from the examiners and probably score better in Mains.

A big thanks to ForumIAS for enabling a platform where you and I can share experiences.

Note: Read Prajit Nair’s Previous Post on GS Strategy Here


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