The Central Superior Service (CSS) Exams are key competitive exams held annually by a federal level entity, the Federal Public Service Commission, to recruit civil servants for the post of grade 17 officers. The exams comprise of 10 subjects, with 5 compulsory subjects and 5 optional, worth an aggregate of 1200 marks. The eligibility criteria for the CSS exams is a Bachelor’s degree, with an age limit between 21 and 30 years, allowing a relaxation of 2 years under certain circum- stances.
Having interviewed several candidates who recently appeared for the CSS in 2021, we vicariously experienced this grueling process. The English precis and composi- tion paper, part of the compulsory subjects, was a unique case this year. The English exams are notorious for being exceptionally overwhelming, where the paper, being divided into 2 parts, English essay and English precis, accounts for a total of 200 marks. Candidates each year decry the preparation that these two papers are too demanding and are often subject to failure due to these very papers.
This year, the English precis and composition paper, specifically, was spotlighted for being one of the most difficult exams. This exam was featured on various media platforms. Part 1 of the precis and composition paper, which consists of 20 multiple-choice, vocabulary based questions, was especially targeted for being highly unreasonable. Individuals claiming that the news was nothing more than sensational- ism is far from the truth as some of the words from the MCQs portion were not even found on the Google search engine, as many Twitter users pointed out. To add to the senselessness, it seemed that most of the words in the MCQ questions were lifted from the thesaurus, being almost unintelligible. Many of our interviewees, being avid readers, claimed that their vivacity as readers did not help much in the case of this particular paper as most of these words were completely new to them, never having come across a single one in any book, novel or curriculum throughout their lives. The fact that these words were absolutely alien to the majority of the candi- dates represents a much deeper problem as it indicates the examiners’ myopic vision in crafting exams, especially exams as substantial in nature as the CSS exams. Ideally, competitive exams should be mindful of the general educational standards of the country, this is not to say that competitive exams in Pakistan should be lowered in criteria due to the sorry state of education throughout the country. However, the English exams, specifically, ought to be more realistic. One does not determine the cream of a crop based on an inapt examination that aims to ascertain a candidate’s competence on their ability to master a language that is unsatisfactorily taught, in the first place.
The general body of candidates that appear for the CSS exams are an amalgamation of the vast cultures that Pakistan encapsulates, speaking a variety of languages. However, the credibility of the candidates is discerned on the basis of a language that is foreign to an overwhelming majority, and is taught quite poorly in several educational institutions. The fact stands testament to the reality of Pakistani society, given the generally despicable state of the English-centered education offered by state institutions, as well. Consequently, candidates are left to fend for themselves where their performance in the English paper is concerned as their scholastic background has deprived them of their grasp on the language. An examination as inconceivably difficult as the recent English precis and composition paper is all but a fair attempt at selecting qualified candidates for the civil services, as it has essentially necessitated the rote-learning of words more than the candidates’ understanding.
The CSS exams are the foremost aspect of the bureaucracy in Pakistan, choosing generations of bureaucrats since Pakistan’s inception. To the dismay of the general public and the candidates, themselves, these exams are alarmingly outdated. Not much has changed regarding the syllabus and the pattern of the CSS exams since Bhutto’s civil-service reforms, and even those just altered the tenure of the civil servants and introduced the Common System. The CSS exams are in dire need of evolution, as they ought to measure a candidate’s comprehension and applicability rather than reward one’s ability to reproduce memorized content. The English exam, specifically, should be projected to discern the candidates’ aptitude with regard to the skillful use of the English language, and not the anachronistic requirements of mechanically studying the list of words that are only found in the dictionary.