Do you know the meaning of the words ‘deracinated’, ‘bericloge’ and ‘hegiographic’? Probably not. I don’t either. And it doesn’t matter. (One of them perhaps is not even a word.)

But it does matter to Federal Public Service Commission, as evident from a recently leaked question on social media, taken from the CSS 2021 English paper.

CSS is the sought-after competitive exam, a gateway to the central superior services of Pakistan. A good result can potentially land you into a socially lucrative civil service job, while a bad result can waste years of hard work.


Thousands appear for the exam every year and about 300 lucky individuals get through and get allocated across twelve service groups. These thousands of candidates often spend years preparing for the exam. While it is understandable that an exam of this level should be difficult, it doesn’t necessarily have to be unreasonable.

I also appeared for CSS about 22 years ago and landed amongst top ten positions. Yet I’m not embarrassed to admit that had I been given this question, I would have failed. Probably many deserving candidates did this year.

And for what? The answer to this question is by no means a measure to assess someone’s competence. But one unreasonable question can play havoc with years of hard work and it probably did.

Why FPSC would do that is best known to them but one can speculate that it’s either the result of poor-quality control or manifestation of a decades-old mindset. The latter seems more plausible as indicated by many other leaked papers and questions.

After seeing these baffling questions, I picked up the phone and called a retired federal secretary. I asked him about his own experience when he appeared for the competitive exam 53 years ago. What he told me was not very different from what I had experienced in my own exam. And when I looked at more recent CSS question papers, it dawned on me that they have hardly evolved.

But these unreasonable question papers are only one of the things wrong with how CSS exams are conducted. There are many others.

Firstly, they are inefficient. About 18,000 candidates appear for a total of 12 papers, out of which only 300-400 clear this written exam.

Secondly, besides the outdated and complex structure, the pattern of exams is such that candidates can often game the system or get an undue advantage based on disparity in how different subjects are scored.

Thirdly, these exams, even including a psychological test, do not sufficiently reveal the personalities of these candidates.

With all the developments in technology and recruitment practices, why has the government failed to reform the CSS exams? And more importantly, how should these be reformed?

Let’s first look across the border at Indian civil service, which like Pakistani civil service, was inherited from a British system. About 1.1 million candidates apply for superior services in India. They take about 500,000 to an initial screening test called ‘prelims’. Most of the candidates are left behind at this stage and approximately 1 out of every 50 candidates taking prelims is taken to the full-scale competitive exam called ‘mains’ comprising nine papers. The last stage is the interview, after which about 750 candidates are selected for various services.

Although Indian system is better than us, since they have a much more efficient screening system, it is also not ideal. But for starters, it does indicate that Pakistan should also embrace screening to save costs and make the whole process much more efficient. Similar to a standardized test like SAT or GMAT, the results can remain valid for three to five years.

But let’s also look for a better system. UK perhaps is a good example to see, since we have essentially inherited this system from them. But they did not remain frozen in the 1940’s and have moved on.

The UK civil service follows a four-stage recruitment process. The first stage is the ‘application sift’ to screen the applicants. UK civil service requires writing a personal statement, a standard practice for international undergraduate and graduate admissions, unlike the CSS application that is limited to biographical and academic information.

The second stage consists of standardized tests taken to narrow down the applicants’ pool to about 20 per cent of the candidates, through a simple, efficient, automated and low-cost process. The test includes questions on functional knowledge of contemporary issues or on standard IQ.

The third and the most critical stage in the UK civil service recruitment is a two-day assessment center. The assessment center method has gained immense popularity in recent years and has been widely adopted by public and private sectors. The method includes a standardized evaluation of behavior based on simulations, interviews, group activities, etc. to help in revealing various aspects of a candidate’s personality. Since this is a resource-intensive method, very few candidates are taken to this stage.

Pakistan’s CSS recruitment excludes this most important stage altogether and instead relies on a primitive psychological evaluation that leads to suitability restrictions on a handful of candidates.

The fourth stage is the panel interview, which is very similar to the final CSS interview, but by then it can hardly compensate for the critical weaknesses in the first three stages of the CSS exam.

Why are we living in the past? Why are we making it difficult for people to qualify for the competitive exams? And why are we employing arbitrary measures to narrow down the pool? It’s time to answer these questions and change the way CSS exams are conducted.

Note: A shorter and partially different version of this article originally appeared in Express Tribune on 23rd February, 2021.