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Probing the CSS examination

Published Apr 11, 2017 02:14am

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IT stands to reason that a poor selection test would be unable to identify the best candidates in any given applicant pool. Given the importance of the civil service, I reviewed recent CSS written examinations and discovered serious issues of intellectual ineptitude and quality control.

Questions from the 2015 and 2016 examination papers whose scans are posted on the official FPSC website were reviewed. Those mentioned below are faithfully reproduced without correcting for errors of spelling, capitalisation, punctuation or grammar which the alert reader would spot easily. Commentary is avoided for lack of space leaving the reader to identify problems which range from the amusing to the highly problematic. Some would merely confuse applicants while others might force them to dissemble or risk being failed.

Starting with the less serious, a question from the compulsory English Precis and Composition paper asks applicants to correct the following sentence: “We were staying at my sister’s cape’s code vacation home.” From the British History paper: ““Margarte Thatcher is judged to be best post war Prime Minister of England.” Discuss.” From the History of Pakistan and India paper: “Political Parties are responsible for the imposition of Marshal Laws in Pakistan. Comment.” From the economics paper: “Discuss the Rostow’s stage of growth with special reference to Pakistan.”

Two questions from the International Relations paper: “Critically discuss the fundamental factors of “Greece Economic Crisis” which need huge financial assistance from European Union and IMF as a debt relief to create “a breathing space” to stabilize economy and explain out-of-the-box solution for the crisis-ridden country.” And, “Critically discuss main political, socio-economic and strategic hurdles between “Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations” and how can both countries come out from the Cold War scenario?”


Some questions reveal a sloppiness that comes in the way of a proper understanding of the question.


Two questions from the Comparitive [sic] Studies of Major Religions paper: “What was the secret of success of Buddhism and its effects on the Hinduism? Discuss.” “Describe the effects of biography and teachings of great preacher of Hinduism “SHIRI RAM Chandar G” on the society?”

Two questions from the Sociology paper: “Youth is an asset of any nation but Pakistani youth is inclined towards youth bulge. What strategies being an expert suggests the state to put the youth on positive track? Give your suggestions in the light of sociological theories.” And, “Why social stratification is an inevitable for a society? Explain its determinants in the context of Pakistani society.”

Some questions are out of place. From the Anthro­pology paper: “What are the major Contemporary Social Problems of Pakistan?” Some lack meaningful details. From the English Literature paper: “After their gift exchange, are Della and Jim richer, poorer, or just about where they were at the beginning? Have they made a wise decision in sacrificing their most precious possessions?”

Some questions reveal a sloppiness that comes in the way of a proper understanding of the question. Consider this from the General Knowledge paper: “Jinnah in his Presidential Address to the annual session of All India Muslim League in March 1940 said, “The problem in India is not of an inter-communal character, but manifestly of an international one, and it must be treated as such.” Write note on the Two Nation Theory and the Lahore Resolution of March 1940 in the light of this statement.”

From the Governance and Public Policies paper: “Do you support the representation of public opinion information diffusion in the policy making process? Support your answer with valid justification in the context of policy advocacy.”

More problematic are questions that really allow only one answer to avoid putting a candidate’s chances at risk. Consider this from the General Knowledge paper: “Discuss the prospects and challenges to the construction of “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.” How will CPEC become a game changer for the region?”

From the Islamic History and Culture paper: ““Administration of Justice” has been the policy of Muslim Rulers throughout History. Explain.”

Other one-sided questions are ambiguous in addition. From the Islamiat paper: “Highlight the importance of Zakat and prove that economic stability of a society can be ensured through its effective implementation.”

Some questions combine many of these problems: From the Islamic History and Culture paper: “The Spanish Muslims established the foundations of Knowledge which become the mile stone of progress in Europe. Explain.” And, “Muslim culture in Pakistan is being dominated by European and Hindu Culture. Do you think we need Renaissance and Reformation? Explain.”

From the Political Science paper: “Discuss the features of Turkish model of democracy keeping the distinguished position of the armed forces in the Turkish politics.”

From the Public Administration paper: “It is easier to make a constitution than to run it. Discuss in the light of Politics Administration dichotomy.”

From the International Relations paper: “Discuss the “Moral Dimensions of Pakistan’s Nuclear Programme.” Explain its essential features and justify its offensive gesture which maintained the national and regional strategic balance.”

The following problems are quite obvious: The questions exhibit very poor command of the English language and manifest thinking in Urdu while transcribing in English. It is ironic that applicants are asked to write their answers in a language over which examiners have such poor control. There are factually incorrect, incomplete and misplaced questions. Most importantly, there are questions with only one safe answer and where matters of faith are asked to be scientifically proved.

It was Oscar Wilde who quipped that “In examinations the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer.” This kind of examination would surely rule out the wise in favour of the dull, the timid, and the clever — those who memorise appropriate answers, refrain from speaking their minds, and say what would curry favour. A selection mechanism cannot identify selectees wiser than the selectors. That might explain the dilemma of the civil service in which each cohort is weaker than the one it succeeds. The order is the reverse in societies moving forward.

And consider that this is the state of the premier examination in the country. What might be the fate of the testing of lesser mortals is best left unexplored.

The writer is a fellow at the Consortium for Development Policy Research.

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2017

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The writer has served as dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


Comments (52) Closed



Shakil Ahmed Apr 11, 2017 04:27am

No wonder, we can see the people getting through easily as compared to past!

Haider Rizvi Apr 11, 2017 05:57am

Wow. So all of the candidates who passed this examination are "dull, the timid, and the clever" and none of them were "wise" enough to fail. Quite an analysis, Sir.

Fazal Karim Apr 11, 2017 08:50am

It will be interesting to see answers to these questions.

Zak Apr 11, 2017 08:52am

The ones setting the exam, need to be sent to school again.

haseen Apr 11, 2017 09:41am

“In examinations the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer.”

Mujtaba Shahneel Apr 11, 2017 09:53am

This is an extremely important issue and with this kind of civil bureaucracy hiring structure we are going no where in the future. We have jack of all the trades running this country based on a colonial system in an age of specialization. Politicians and generals come and go - they just provide the vision while these guys are the one who really carry out state functions and it is clear to see why we are in a mess that we are in. It is about time we start changing the bureaucratic system altogether.

MUB Ali Apr 11, 2017 09:56am

Hats off to the Author.

Tariq Apr 11, 2017 10:15am

I recently went for a BPS-17 test administered by FPSC and after having a look at the MCQ based paper, I crossed my answer sheet and returned it back to the invigilator as the test was so poorly designed. I am already serving as BPS-17 officer and a graduate from one of the premium business schools of Pakistan. FPSC seriously need to understand the criteria/criterion validity of a test.

bkt Apr 11, 2017 10:18am

Well I teach Business Ethics at university and students want to be told the answers so they can answer them. Very few , if any bother to critically think about what has been asked and are annoyed when asked to do so. The poor quality of student does not want to make an effort, so maybe these one sided questions are the best they can do. What is needed perhaps from examiners is that several of them need to formulate the question, think about possible answers and the rationale for asking that question. But that is asking for a lot of work from a nation that is becoming too lazy. Both student and teacher must work much, much harder.

Tabi Apr 11, 2017 10:29am

Agreed.css 2017 essay paper was one of the glaring example of poor English abilities.

Imran Apr 11, 2017 10:57am

The questions clearly show that the papers are prepared by unqualified persons. There should be a panel of professors from renowned universities of Pakistan who should be entrusted with preparing these papers. The members should also be part of the interview panel for successful candidates.

Anonymous Apr 11, 2017 11:27am

I asked my family to follow my passion of journalism. But they always insisted me to do css first. After passing it they would suggest me to quit it. Unknown Pressure.

Shahid Apr 11, 2017 11:36am

As usual, the author's article highlight an important issue in Pakistan's context. And this has been going on for long. In 2008, i appeared in the CSS examinations, and encountered similar problems with the nature of questions. For example, in the European History paper, there was a question about Cuban revolution under Fidel Castro. Apparently the person who wrote this question didn't know that Cuba is not part of Europe. Anyway, as the writer pointed out, if this is the state of the superior service exam in the country, then what can we expect from the lesser one's?

ABL Apr 11, 2017 11:43am

Not surprised. I sit to interview candidates for my organisation for mid level manager positions. After interviews, I always get frustrated and depressed by talking to the human resource products that are available in the market for managers role. There are serious gaps.

Zafeer awarani Apr 11, 2017 12:07pm

Pseudo-Shakespeares are in search for a complete-Shakespeare..thank you sir for depicting their mistakes instead the ingenious candidates...

Secular Pathan Apr 11, 2017 12:08pm

Sir, thank you so much for writing this. I can safely assume that in the coming days, an article defending this examination and FPSC will be published. The standard argument will be that the education level has gone down and all the fault lies in the candidates. However, I will tell you that I got a 4.0 GPA from a world top 100 university, have a deep insight in current affairs and even left my job abroad to come back, prepare for a year and give the exam. I have felt a systematic targetting of Essay or Precis papers every alternate year. They targetted Essay in 2015 when I gave the exam when very few could pass, however, in the previous year, almost 50% passed Essay? Toppers fail subsequent attempts. Bright students, doctors, foreign graduates fail miserably while mediocre people with a typical narrative and lots of rote memorisation go through. Just look at the kind of induction nowadays. They seem to purposefully fail candidates, so that fewer people are interviewed.

imdadali Apr 11, 2017 12:21pm

CCS is theoretical exam comprising of book reading, it is not test of an intellectuality. public departments requires yes man who support its policies whether it is right or wrong and every time keep the selected person bow his head before senior despite of knowing his senior is not having bonafide intention. i appreciate the writer but nothing is new old decades system of colonial rule is continued in our country which is might is right. It is mentioned in the book of Qudratullah Shahab that after came into being pakistan and india about 1000 officers of imperial civil service returned to country birtish where govt excused to utilize their service by saying there is no room for them in here as their mind has been ruler and we have required servant who serve in the interest of public but in our country CSPs are working as ruler they have no interest in the public polices.

Tango Tango Apr 11, 2017 12:43pm

There is nothing superior in the so called Central Superior Service. It has become, at best, a mediocre service with no scope of individual excellence. In most of my conversations with persons from this cohort, I have found them to be shamefully misinformed, arrogant and with no desire towards learning. They seem to categorize individuals into superior and inferior categories. Whereby they tend to agree without question to the views of ones they think are superior, and hold complete disdain to the views of those they consider inferior. These are the type of people the rulers need for controlling the masses and looking out for their own interests, a legacy from the outdated colonial way of life where the locals were second class citizens and their countries were not supposed to develop. The examinations questions are as such completely appropriate in inducting such individuals.

M Apr 11, 2017 12:54pm

Glad to know somebody decided to examine the examiners instead of hailing the "poor educational standards of aspirants" excuse. No wonder FPSC is operating at a two percent pass rate for CSS exams since 2013

M Apr 11, 2017 12:55pm

@Shakil Ahmed people are not getting through easily since 2013. Kindly check the pass rates. Only 1-2 pc applicants are successful each year. Largely because capable candidates cannot surpass the madness of examiners

Tahir Mahmood Apr 11, 2017 01:05pm

Those who left with nothing to write, write on CSS. All questions are comprehensively balanced and ensure candidates approach.

Seemi Apr 11, 2017 02:08pm

I've been a part of these examinations! thankfully..

Sameer Apr 11, 2017 02:19pm

Thank God there are erudites taking notice. The paper seeks to keep you hostagr rather than speak your mind.

Secular Pathan Apr 11, 2017 02:51pm

I even reached an interview stage for a coveted BS17 post but the panel rejected me, maybe because I was well-educated and had an open mind and a degree from one of the world's best universities.

ASSAD Apr 11, 2017 03:07pm

Very true sir.

BAXAR Apr 11, 2017 03:37pm

@ABL "After interviews, I always get frustrated and depressed by talking to the human resource products that are available in the market for managers role." Maybe you did not look at the right place for the right candidates. If you "really" want some brain, you'll have to go in odd and dark places with a lantern, because this is where they are kept hidden. You'll anger a lot of people in the process.

BAXAR Apr 11, 2017 03:45pm

@bkt "The poor quality of student does not want to make an effort, so maybe these one sided questions are the best they can do." Since they pay a lot of money to be there, the effort should be the burden for those who are paid, not those who pay. Why would they pay exorbitant amounts, if they were able to understand the questions. Try with student who don't pay for education, you'll be surprised.

Amir Dewani-U.S.A. Apr 11, 2017 03:58pm

Though not angry, or indecent, to this scribe it sounds like Shakespeare speaking these words:- "I'll pour this pestilence into his ear"! You know why to quote this reference? The latest reports emanating from Pakistan i.e. 'the breaking-news' on TV screens yesterday, suggest that negotiations are going on to export a lot of 'donkeys' to China. If it is correct then why not to cleanse the slate? Asking the 'right question' is key to seeking the 'right answer'. About grammar: It is like a fast moving engine without brakes.Note: Light rays would not emanate from the incandescent light-globe, till the 'power' is connected to it.

BAXAR Apr 11, 2017 05:04pm

@Amir Dewani-U.S.A. "Asking the 'right question' is key to seeking the 'right answer'. " In order to get the answer you want to hear, the key is to ask the question they've prepared to answer.

Imran Apr 11, 2017 05:05pm

It's not the immediate result since the political partieS/ highly influence officers have influence on public service members and selected the dump people then once that crop come on highly positions then that happen. It's not the hidden truth that now a days people get papers and also the name of people who mark these papers and by any means get their candidate passed Sorry for the nation may be that's why I was abroad

Ahad Apr 11, 2017 05:34pm

@BAXAR If a candidate thinks within his or her own sphere then is that potential beuraucrat a self centered autocrat or a rational mediator?

Ahad Apr 11, 2017 05:39pm

To all of my fellow international graduates who are mislead by the CSS examination. A lot goes into public service in Pakistan than above average GPA.

BAXAR Apr 11, 2017 06:21pm

@Ahad "If a candidate thinks within his or her own sphere " What, for you, is thinking within one's own sphere? For me thinking is always from a distance. So the answer would: someone not thinking, capricious, so cannot be a candidate for anything (to be a candidate requires effort). Generally they find themselves somewhere by luck (chosen/placed by someone, puppet).

FrankensteIn Apr 11, 2017 06:30pm

If the exams and the successful candidates were really the bright lot then the our country would not have been in misery

Abrar Apr 11, 2017 06:35pm

The true barometer of the competence of our civil services is the quality of public service we have been witness to for so long. Has that ever been less pathetic??

BAXAR Apr 11, 2017 07:05pm

"A selection mechanism cannot identify selectees wiser than the selectors." In that case the wiser should not be a candidate. They may find a better place, maybe someday they are called to be the selectors, by someone who gained wisdom.

Secular Pathan Apr 11, 2017 07:08pm

Sir tell me one thing, how come people pass English Essay but fail English Precis/Composition? How come the very same people pass English Composition/Precis/Grammar and fail English Essay in another attempt? Aren't both English testing papers? How can someone write a passing Essay if their grammar is poor? How can an Engineer fail Everyday Science miserably?

Imran Ahmed Apr 11, 2017 07:21pm

Such an examination will be excellent at selecting conventional, narrow minded and bigoted candidates of low to mediocre intelligence - which is exactly what we have.

Rabia Apr 11, 2017 07:33pm

This kind of assessment is merely promoting "Jack of all but master of none". A person aspiring to peruse career corresponding with his specialized field of Studies should be judged merely on the basis of relevant academic and professional knowledge plus skills base rather then being forced to study literature, history or current affairs to win the race. U may judge abilities of an IT expert or a chartered Accountant in everyday sciences or Essay writing but what is the use of his efforts being put in specializing a particular field. if a person is to be selected for the post of "Assistant Director Accounts/Audit", he/she must be judged on the basis of expertise (Education plus Professional experience) in the relevant field only. we should promote specialization when it comes to CSS as well.

Abid Hafeez Apr 11, 2017 07:49pm

The government of our country is so nonserious about such an important issue, infact, they should also pass an examination equivalent to CSS exam, and only those candidates who succeed should hold office.

Maqsood Apr 11, 2017 08:35pm

With all due respect to the author, I don't see any problem with any of the questions that he listed. The purpose was not to solicit the opinion of the candidate/s but to test their critical thinking, analytical, and problem solving abilities. What would you like to ask if you are the author of the exam? By the way the word Comparative is misspelled in your essay.

Yaser Masood Apr 11, 2017 09:28pm

It was General Jamshed Gulzar Kiyani as chairman who introduced uncertainties in the exam. Since then CSS exam is often passed by those who are never serious candidates.

I can claim I know better this exam than anybody else.

There is much to talk about this exam and it's by design and by default flaws.

FPSC will be better served with hiring of foreign specially American specialist bodies to redesign the exam and specially introduce scaled scoring.

Candidates are not only competing against one another in inter year but they are also competing against those of previous years.

jong Apr 11, 2017 09:49pm

@Maqsood I thing you missed the point altogether.

Idrees Khawaja Apr 11, 2017 10:58pm

I believe those who design the paper also mark the answers. Imagine the quality of result!

Masood cHITRALI Apr 11, 2017 11:05pm

Agreed with the writer about many issues he has rightly discussed. Even from the interviews of the passed candidates (Published in magazines etc) , it becomes clear that while attending questions based on analysis and reasoning ,only the conventional, traditional and confined approach are awarded, and any attempt no matter how much rational and logical it might be , is censored and ultimately such candidates fail the exam.

Gaurav Apr 12, 2017 04:51am

No doubt this is the reason why Pakistan produces such low quality diplomats who are incompetent at international level.

Afzal Apr 12, 2017 08:00am

A wonderful food for thought by a patriotic author .we are living in modern era and dynamic needs of today are to be handled by specialized expertise how it possible a candidate who is educated by poor education system can sit down in an out dated designed examination and answer few funny questions and become an important officer to handle matters of public importance by all mean there should be specialised institutes to groom and train the talent from the scratch and produce professionals to handle modern era problems public issues

asma Apr 12, 2017 01:38pm

Brilliant analysis sir .This ime essay paper 2017 has dismantled everyone's hopes.The paper setter was not attentive and played with Css aspirants .SUch people must not given the responsiblity of setting a very crucila paper where everyone's hopes are concerned.After that bad experience ,a number of candidated,who were brilliant and hardworking,left the exam hall.

asma Apr 12, 2017 01:50pm

Capable candidates can not answer such type of questions

Shelly Shore Apr 12, 2017 06:56pm

What should I do to my career after reading this.Why am I part of Pakistan. I'm legit ashamed of even thinking to get into this exam.Playful selection CSS hun.

faria Apr 12, 2017 09:08pm

Asalam walikum . I agree from your opinion . you are saying our mouth words . Fabulous you are saying well done .

FJ Apr 13, 2017 03:45pm

Excellent article.