How to clear Competitive Exams in 3 months?


Sara Tassadaq |

On 28th June, 2018, the news started coming in that CSS 2017 final result would be announced today. But this ‘news’ had been coming in every day since about a month before. So initially, I disregarded it as the daily dose of the rumor mill. However, the noises got stronger and at 5 in the evening, I was looking at a long list of names, 310 to be exact, with wild eyes. I was too panicked to search for my name, my parents standing right there with hopeful, expectant eyes and asking, kya hua? Kya bana?. Thankfully, a friend texted to tell me that I had been allocated after all, in the C&T group. I went totally numb and couldn’t even recall what CTG is (CSS has 12 occupational groups that are arranged into a priority order by every applicant). I was so busy mentally jumping from the two extremes of nabbing the top group or not being allocated at all that I completely forgot about the middle situations. I had been praying for so long for this, not for myself but because it was my parents’ dream. I had prayed for whatever He deems best for me. I was convinced that I would accept the result wholeheartedly whatever it turns out to be. However, the ungratefulness hit me for just the very first second and I know I will always regret it. My parents were ecstatic! My father rarely shows emotion but his smile at that moment was really something. My mother began showering me with kisses. And when I looked at their radiant faces, I knew without a doubt what real happiness meant. It was their success, not mine. And I was so happy for them.

By the time the detailed marks were released, my mind had started working again and I could finally analyze my performance in CE-2017. I found out that I had done just okay in the written part. Although I do feel that both my English papers had gone much, much better than what I scored in them. Still, I consider it a feat as I had prepared for the exams right alongside my M. Phil. I used to go to the university regularly and could study just an hour or two in the evening, or more on the weekends. I spent two extra months in the lab just so that I could ask my supervisor for a two months leave right before the exams. The announcement of the result took so long that I had almost forgotten about it. I went back to the lab after the exams and just went on with my life.

Contrary to a common perception, CSS is not an exam, but a series of exams. It is like a long hurdle race; or a game of dodgeball, with one thing coming at you after another. The whole process takes about 2 years, excluding the time one takes for preparation. After you have cleared the written part, you have a medical exam, a psychological exam, and – the most dreadful part – an interview.

People, including me, get nightmares about the interview. And I even suffered from a case of PTSD after mine. I’m just kidding. No, I’m not. The fear surrounding it is because of what we have heard of it. Even before I had ever seriously thought about CSS, I had often heard about the difficulty level of the questions, of the stature of the panel, and about how hard it is to clear it. My experience was neither here nor there. I was the first person up that day. The panel consisted of five people, all very senior and learned. They threw at me a mixture of some substantial questions, and some unanswerable, non-questions. I answered the former kind quite sensibly, if I say so myself, and I right about flunked the non-questions section. There were a couple of instances where I completely blanked out about something though I knew I had studied it. At one point, as my blank out session was underway and I was trying and failing badly to come out of it, Ma’am Sethi actually had to ask whether I knew the answer or was I just making it all up?! The comments they gave me at the end sounded like the death knell for my dreams of being a civil servant. I came out of the room red in the face, convinced that this was the end; that they could never find me suitable for the job.

How to Prepare for CSS Examination in 3 Months
Change Your Perspective

CSS preparation is like making tea; the ingredients are more or less same but everyone goes about it differently. For me, I had to start from scratch because I wasn’t much acquainted with most of the subject matters. For the entirety of my life, I have been a science-girl. I’m not saying that I was completely ignorant of the other goings-on of the world, but I was just the kind of girl not much concerned with them. I didn’t know and neither was I interested in finding out why Brexit is significant, or how the president of USA is elected, which article of our constitution enshrines superiority of federal government, who was Thucydides, how the tax net can be widened, et cetera. I still don’t know that last one, but you get the point, don’t you?

The first thing I did and what anyone thinking of going for CSS needs to do is to change the perspective. In fact, ‘broaden’ would be a better word.

The thing that went for me, that helped me in clearing CSS is that I was always a good learner. I know which methods work for me and which don’t. I know that I can never be good at something that I don’t feel anything about. I have to have an interest; I have to be invested in it. Here, compartmentalization is the key. You start working on a new compartment of your mind; you unlearn and relearn from different perspectives. The best part is that all your existing knowledge and experiences count; it’s like Slumdog Millionaire. So you take your own tried and tested learning methods but you modify the sources. Start reading the daily paper. That’s what I did. And once you start, it actually gets really interesting; I almost got addicted. I used to read about 2-3 papers daily, national and international ones combined. You don’t actually have to read each and everything but my paranoid brain didn’t let me off the hook easily.

The time I took for actual, proper, sit-down-and-study preparation was 2-3 months, so you see, it’s quite possible. You might not come out a topper – like I didn’t – but you can fare respectably well.

The First month

Start reading. Read up all you can; books, articles; watch quality talk shows (Aljazeera is really good).

Select your optional subjects. This is the most important step. Study the list of subjects; choose from them the subjects that attract you, which you think you can do. Get the subjects’ syllabi from the FPSC website and give it a read. Know what you’re going up against. Then when you’ve done this, consult someone who keeps an eye on the scoring trends for these subjects, a teacher, another CSS aspirant, or someone who has already cleared the exam. Always keep the scoring ability of subjects in mind when you’re making a selection.

My optional subjects were: International Relations, US History, International Law, Gender Studies, and Sociology. I chose these because these were the only subjects I had any inkling of, as I had studied these as general courses during my Bachelors. I then consulted a few people and when they Okayed the list, I stuck with this selection. Subjects like International Relations or US History can also be of help at the interview stage.

Get Help. Hold out your hand and ask for help. Listen to others’ experiences. There are academies there that help you prepare for CSS. It’s not absolutely necessary to join for the whole session. I did, and so I can tell you that you can make it without it too. But, you can always visit a few times for subject selection or mock exams or even just for a pep-talk. There are also online communities that you can join.

Study the syllabi of your subjects and get the study material. Now here’s the thing: you might need two or three books for a subject and you might need none at all for another. It gets pretty subjective here. The commission provides you a list of recommended books for each subject. You can choose from that list one or two books. Check out the table of contents of the book and compare it with the list of topics in the provided syllabus. If it matches to a good extent, go for it. You’ll find other sources for the other topics. There is tons of material available online. I think I must have done more from online sources than from hardback books or notes.

Do smart, directed study. Be specific and directed in your approach; your preparation mustn’t be all over the place. And never panic; panic is to performance what elaichi is to biryani. Go topic by topic. Once you’re in it, you’ll realize that many things are interrelated and overlapping; use that advantage. Indulge in discussions with people who know more than you. In case you’re studying or working, it’s better to take leave for at least two months if you can.

The Second Month

Now you’re actually in it. At this point, you will have gained the basics, you won’t be having issues in understanding, you have everything you need, and you have gained the required ‘perspective’. This is the sit-down-and-study part. Just go according to the provided syllabus. Take your time. You’ll feel as if you cannot retain anything and you keep going back to revise, or you’re researching about a topic and you get sucked in by all the new information and you go deeper than you need to and this eats up all your time. Try not to do that, okay?

There are some general tips, useful in all the subjects, which you should internalize.

Firstly, English is a major portion of all the CSS exams. You really should work on your grammar and expression. You yourself are the best judge for where you stand at the moment and how much more you need to work on it. Good vocabulary and expression are your best friends.

By vocabulary, I certainly do not mean a pedantic, heavy-handed use of difficult, archaic words. You do want the examiner to understand what you’ve written after all. Make your answers attractive to him; don’t make him suffer from an inferiority complex. Plus, the thing about vocabulary is, that just learning words and their meanings is never enough. A teacher of mine used to say that when you learn a new word, you have to make it your own, and you cannot own it unless you have used it in the right manner, according to the rules that word has set for you. Keep your expression comprehensive, attractive, colorful (in a good way), understandable, and apt.

You should be good at the organization of ideas. You should know how a claim can be best supported, what kind of evidence you need for a claim, and where to find that evidence. For instance, for a discussion on environmental effects of fossil fuels, you should know the comparative percentages of carbon emissions from different types of fossil fuels; or if you’re discussing the European migration crisis, knowledge of some statistics of annual influx of refugees and the recent international events that sparked the latest flare-ups will do you good.

If you’re someone like me, you will have some difficulty with retaining numbers, dates, and statistics. The solution for that is not to overburden oneself. Focus on the most relevant information and which will be applicable to more than one topic. You’ll be reading a lot at this point, and not everything will be reliable or genuine. Train yourself in filtering out the right and relevant information. Go for the original, authentic sources. For instance, when you have to study the seerah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), it’s better if you go straight to the actual Seerat un Nabi by Shibli Nomani rather than reading someone else’s copy.

The Third Month

The third month of CSS preparation is actually just like the second month, but with a messier room, puffier eyes, and, hopefully, a more well-informed mind than before. However, you might not feel that way yourself. You will be brimming with new things that you would have learned and simultaneously feel that you know nothing about anything. Whenever you are a part of a discussion, people who know you’re preparing for CSS will make a point of turning to you and asking what you know about it since you know everything and you’ll just go blank. Stay away from such creatures and situations; trust yourself.

Now that you’re nearing the exams, you need to pay attention to some other things as well.

Take stock of your average writing speed. You must have an adequate writing speed already because this is obviously not the first written exam of your life. You have board exams, university exams, and whatnot behind you. Just make sure you will be able to convey what you know about a topic and what you want to say in the specified time. A good way of doing that is mock exams.

You need practice, especially for the essay and précis part. For the précis part, do the passages from past papers. For essays, it’s nearly impossible for you to practice writing essays of 3500 words each. So instead of that, practice by making outlines for several essay topics, and write one paragraph each for the introduction, supporting points, and a conclusion. The important part here is to identify all possible ramifications of any given topic that you can discuss and to organize them in a logical flow.

You now need to prepare yourself for the day of the exam. You won’t have much time between two consecutive exams to revise much. In my case, I made short notes – very short – of just the topics that I was most concerned about. These were just to have a look at during the two-hour break that you have between two exams on a day.

The Big Day

This is the eye of the storm. Be calm, be attentive, and be methodical. How you attempt an exam is equally important to how you have prepared for it. It’s very likely that what you see on that question paper before you differ significantly from your expectations. You’ll be given a limited choice as to which questions you want to attempt; use it wisely. It’s possible that there is no question at all that you know the complete answer to. In such a situation, improvise. Divide your time for all the questions. Don’t try to go overboard by writing sheets upon sheets for one question and leaving no time for subsequent ones. You should have an idea beforehand of how much you can write in how much time; a little experimentation is good, but don’t take too many liberties.

Done and Dusted

One thing that I was advised to do after the exams was to write down my experiences of each paper and keep the question papers for future. As the result for the written part is announced a good while later, one doesn’t exactly remember much about the papers. So if you have it written down, you’ll be better able to evaluate your performance, to analyze what worked for you and what didn’t. I didn’t get around to it because of sheer laziness, but it’s not a bad idea, in case you need to go for another attempt, or also for helping someone else.

The Interview

After you’ve cleared the written part, you’ll feel very accomplished for a few days, but that euphoria won’t last for long. That’s because you’ll have to pick up the paper and the books once again that you had so cheerfully tossed away after the exams. The roller-coaster gets really interesting and a bit rough here. You’ll be reading and reading all day long (for the interview), trying to shed weight (to pass that medical), filling forms upon forms (for the security clearance), and talking to yourself in the mirror (trust me – you need practice for the psychological), all at the same time.

The psychological exam spans over two days, and consists of a plethora of activities, individual and group based, written and oral. You have IQ tests, personality tests, group discussions, public speaking and so on. It’s actually very interesting; personally, it was my favorite part.

The medical exam involves a number of medical tests. It’s not something to be worried about, just that you will have to take a couple of days off work.

The interview is what you should be concerned about. You will be questioned by a panel of five. You can be asked about literally anything under the sun. The best you can do is to prepare very well and not leave any loose ends at your part; and have confidence. Prepare your optional subjects, your field of work and educational qualification, current happenings, chief international affairs, important national affairs and issues, and any such thing from your life or personality that you think can draw discussion to itself.

I know many people who want to try their luck and sit the CSS exams but they don’t, only because of a fear of failure. They have heard some things (from people who themselves know

very little about CSS) and now they’re just too scared to try it. But you have to think, what’s the worst that could happen? If you succeed, yay for you! If you don’t, you can try again; it’s not the end of the world. Plus there are a million other things you can do. It’s like Churchill said, ‘Success is not final; failure is not fatal’. Yes, it is hard, but more than that, it’s educational. CSS preparation is an extremely enlightening, interesting, and exhilarating journey. If nothing else, you’ll have learnt so many new things; you’ll even get to know yourself better. It’s a win-win both ways.

Sara Tassadaq is a probationary officer of the Commerce and Trade Group and part of the 46th Common of Civil Servants.


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