The result of the most recent examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) — in which around 10,000 candidates appeared and 200 passed — has elicited much commentary. Most of it, a lament on the falling standard of education, has been predictable. A different perspective is more intriguing: it lauds the examination for being meritocratic and so rigorous that it selects the very best for the civil service, which, it argues, is all to the good.
Does this claim hold water? I argue otherwise based on evidence, observation, and investigation. First, the evidence: if the claim is correct, the quality of the civil service should have been improving over time. Even insiders accept that is far from the case.
Second, the observation: as one involved with mentoring undergraduates, I have seen the most creative and perceptive students fail the test and the relatively mediocre succeed. This observation so intrigued me that over the past two years I have investigated the experience of students who appeared in the examination.
Here is an example to set one thinking: a student went into the CSS examination with a 94th percentile ranking in the SAT writing test, an A+ in a BA writing and communication course, an 85th percentile ranking in the GRE essay test, and a 100 percentile ranking in the TOEFL. In the CSS English essay he was awarded 12 marks out of 100 and failed. In contrast, a number of students who found writing a coherent paragraph difficult, cleared the essay.
Civil service exams are not testing for intelligence.
Something was clearly amiss and my investigations led to the following hypothesis: an examination can be strictly meritocratic and extremely rigorous and yet be entirely misleading at the same time.
To pass judgement on an examination one has to know what it is testing for. I can assert with some confidence that the CSS examination is not testing for intelligence or creativity or command over language. Rather, I sense it is testing for obedience to a metanarrative, loyalty to an officially sanctioned ideology, and the forswearing of all questioning of the status quo.
I found that a four-year undergraduate education, even from the best institutions in the country, is not enough to sit the CSS examination successfully. Close to another year of preparation in a coaching centre is needed where students are drilled in what is considered acceptable in answers to typical questions, what authorities are to be cited prominently or avoided at all costs, and even what part of the text is to be highlighted.
Then there are the questions themselves about which candidates are instructed not to express their own opinions. Rather, they are required to demonstrate knowledge of the acceptable answers and reproduce them without error in the required format. Many questions are formulated in ways that leave room for only one acceptable and safe answer.
Smart students entered the year of coaching aware of what it entailed but with the confidence that they could play along to pass the examination and then revert to what they really believed in. While some did survive, many emerged with their personalities altered. This was indoctrination at its most effective. I could not help thinking of the CSS academies as upscale equivalents of the much-criticised madressahs. All that might be separating the two would be the back-and-forth swaying.
To summarise: for some years now the examination is selecting those who will ‘do or die’ not those who would ‘reason why’ and I suspect this is being done consciously. I hope I am wrong but to prove that one would need to open up the system for review. I can offer the following suggestion. First, all those who passed the most recent written examination should be administered a standard international test, ideally at the GRE level since the applicants have completed their undergraduate education. Given that there are only 200 applicants this would be quite affordable and would provide an immediate assessment against a global benchmark of the ability of individuals being inducted into the civil service.
Second, the CSS examination papers and a random sample of answer books of successful candidates should be given to an international panel representing the selection boards of a number of countries, like the UK, France and Singapore, with highly regarded civil services. The panel would be charged with identifying weaknesses in the CSS selection system and with recommending appropriate changes.
The intellectual calibre of the civil service is a key attribute in its ability to implement the programmes on which the future of the country depends. It is dangerous to start off forcing applicants to dissemble to enter the service and necessary to ensure that their selection screens for the skills and talents need to be effective. A genuine commitment to civil service reform would be alert to these dangers.
The writer moderates The South Asian Idea Weblog.
Published in Dawn December 20th, 2016
One of the toughest tasks in CSS written part is to get through the Essay paper. CSS aspirants put around 60% of their efforts in preparing English Essay, and English Grammar & Composition papers. However, they account for only 17% of the overall weightage. Some clichés, false practices and our mindset make it a herculean task. Without delay, let us ponder on the issue and hope things will get easier after that.
It is commonly believed that if you pass the Essay paper, you will be a CSP. This extra conscious approach makes it harder to get through as English always has its “fear factor”.
Language barrier and ill practices
Feeling weak in English, we make relentless efforts to learn it. Here, I disapprove those tutors who take 3 months or so to teach how to write correct English. It means out of 240 days (8 months) to prepare for CSS written part, only 90 days (3 months) are reserved for preparing ‘Essay’, and ‘Composition’ papers with no surety to get through. Therefore, individual tuition should be discouraged in order to utilize energies evenly in right direction.
Misunderstanding the topic
Most candidates, in haste, often don’t comprehend the topic, hence, ultimately end up as a failure. Understanding topic is crucial to achieving success in Essay paper.
Essay is the first paper. It is also true that we always take time to kick off. By the time we start writing essay, it is almost 10:00am. So, do manage your time .
ROAD TO ESSAY WRITING
Sans practicing right things, you cannot ensure successful culmination. Follow the following path to get through:
- Stick to the basics; parts of speech, tenses, punctuation, sentence structure, vocabulary, paragraph writing, and all other basic components of English should be learnt. This can be done by reading a simple grammar book.
- There are few common rules of writing essay that should be learnt rigorously.
- Practicing short essays will give you command over essay writing and putting firm foundation for full length essay.
- Going through past papers, and by following current trends, shortlist some topics and collect relevant material. How much will be sufficient can be gauged by developing detailed outline of each topic.
Material can be gathered from two sources: One; books, magazines, newspapers, journals, etc. Two; from official documents like Quarterly reports of SBP, Economic Survey of Pakistan; reports of international agencies like WB, IMF, ADB, UN, USAID etc; treaties, agreements, etc. They are significant in order to strengthen your discourse skills.
- Practice essay after CSS pattern and get it evaluated. This should be done regularly especially in Dec and Jan. In this way, you will feel less pressure in actual examination.
TECHNIQUES FOR CSS ESSAY
1. Selection of Topic
This is crucial. Read question paper extensively. List the topics you can write on and brainstorm. Make rough outlines of those and then finalize one topic.
2. Uncommon Topics
There are some unusual topics in paper, which need advanced knowledge of a particular field or sometimes general understanding of many concepts. Let’s elaborate few topics from past papers to understand this:“Literature is the best criticism of life” (2010)
- What is Literature; definitions:
- Origin of Literature as a reflection of life:
- Development of Literature and shades of society in it:
- Excerpts from Medieval English poetry and Elizabethan drama to authenticate its relationship with life:
- Arabic literature; pre-Islamic & Islamic periods:
- Pakistan Movement and Urdu Literature:
- Literature and Pakistani Society:
- Global trends in modern literature & relevance to life:
- Critical Analysis:
“Beggars cannot be choosers” (2012)
2. Meaning and relevance of the Quote:
3. Economic dependency of Pakistan:
4. Economic aid and its impacts on Foreign Policy:
5. Can Pakistan achieve economic independence ever:
6. Relevance of the quote with Indo-Pak ties:
7. Suggestions to make Pakistan truly independent:
8. Conclusion:“Freedom of speech should have limitations” (2013)
2. Media in Pakistan; perfect match for the quote
3. Freedom of speech, if unbridled can be dangerous; elabo
rations and illustrations from Pakistan
4. Government policies and freedom of media in Pakistan
5. Challenges to freedom of speech in Pakistan
6. Ways and means to ensure freedom of speech with re
Outline is the skeleton of essay. It should be very comprehensive and elaborated.
A sample outline of topic “Failure of Governance in Pakistan”
2. Prerequisites of good governance:
2.1 Rule of law
2.3 Equal distribution of resources and opportuni
2.4 Service delivery
3. Evidences of failure of governance in Pakistan
3.1 Absence of rule of law
3.2 state organs and national institutions are con
tradicting and overriding each other
3.3 Rampant extremism, terrorism and security is
3.4 Insurmountable domestic and international
3.5 Nepotism, favoritism and corruption have be
come inherent features of institutions
3.6 Consistently deploring economic condition
and rising unemployment, poverty and
3.7 Rupturing social infrastructure, degrading
social institutions and widespread social
4. In-depth analysis on current state of governance:
5. Solutions to ensure good governance in Pakistan:
5.1 Strong and independent parliament
5.2 Rule of law and no institutional activism
5.3 Drastic measures to curb Terrorism
5.3 De-politicization of administration
5.4 Strict enforcement of Law and accountability
5.5 Ensuring service delivery through public private
Partnership, higher GDP allocations and by attracting
5.6 Building human resource and enhancing job base to
utilize human resource
5.7 Optimum utilization of indigenous resources to re
duce fiscal and trade deficits and economic uplift
5.8 Planned urbanization, controlled population growth
and infusing high moral
Write short sentences. Use simple vocabulary. Avoid informal writing and contractions.
Give statistics with reference. Quote properly. Analyze with reason.
General structure of introduction should be:
Topic Sentence (addressing the topic directly)
Supporting Sentences (6 – 8 sentences comprising explanations, examples, statistics, quotations etc., in support of topic sentence i.e. statement of essay)
Thesis Statement (gist of essay in 1 or 2 sentences)
A sample introduction for the same topic is as under:
Good governance in Pakistan has become an unrealized dream. (Topic Sentence)
History is evident of the fact that nations did not vanish due to poverty or hunger, but because of mal-administration and bad governance. Pakistan has been home to many serious troubles including terrorism, corruption, energy crisis, water crisis, rising poverty and uncontrolled urbanization. But if causes are traced there is only one answer and that is absence of good governance. If recent events are traced back, it will be unveiled that Pakistan must have not fallen prey to such serious problems had there been better governance system. But quite unfortunately, governance kept deteriorating and so did the system. There must be realization among the giants of administration and governance that why there is always need of judiciary to correct their ills? Why at the end of every disaster foreign aid becomes the sole resort? Why after every security failure foreign hand is blamed? The answer is same that when system of governance is absent; the vacuum is filled by those who have no role to play in it. (Supporting Sentences)
The following paragraphs should highlight main ingredients of good governance followed by the evidences on absence of good governance in Pakistan. Leading to the end. there will be analysis of current situation along with solutions to ensure good governance . (Thesis Statement)
Follow the sequence of the outline
Write paragraph for each major point in outline
Write relevant and practice to get perfection. More prepared you are, lesser are the chances of failure. Remember that aforementioned views and techniques are not absolute. Essay is all about presenting arguments in convincing way. But as CSS candidates have limited understanding of language, restricted time and different things to deal with, it is not advisable to experiment with language. Write less but write quality. Fluency, coherence, brevity and reason will make you win.
By: Sikander Zishan
The writer is a PAS officer from 37th CTP