The Central Superior Services (CSS) examination continues to remain one of the most prestigious, and indeed, one of the most daunting examinations in Pakistan. In reality, however, despite the substantial reforms that took place in the exam’s syllabus in 2016, the exam’s curriculum still requires drastic change and reform.

This change is necessary both to pick the most competent candidates for Pakistan’s civil service, and for the mental well-being of candidates themselves. This is so because the CSS exam and its nearly endless syllabus drains aspirants and imposes significant mental strain on students. In any drive towards reforming the syllabus, therefore, it is crucial to analyse the impact any reform will have on students and on the recruitment process.

The most drastic and fundamental change must come in the structure of the exam itself. Instead of providing a plethora of optional subjects, the exam must have a single set of subjects which are compulsory for all students. This is essential to avoid the arbitrariness that exists in marking optional subjects, and the impact that has on a candidate’s final result.

One optional subject, for instance, might average a score in the forties for no apparent reason, while another may average around seventy or eighty, again for no apparent reason. This difference of thirty marks turns out to be very significant in the final rankings, and has no concrete basis other than the choice of subjects candidates opted for.

Instead of an extensive list of optional subjects – which includes as diverse a set of subjects as Zoology and British History – the CSS exam must have a core curriculum all students must attempt. This should include essential subjects such as a critical thinking test, English essay, Pakistan History, Islamiat or Comparative Study of Major Religions, Current Affairs, Economics, International Relations, Political Science, Public Administration, Constitutional or International Law, and Sociology. All of these subjects demand sound critical thinking skills and are essential precursors to the work civil servants undertake. These subjects will thus allow the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) to assess the analytical and writing skills of students, while candidates will pick up the knowledge and tools required to succeed in Pakistan’s bureaucracy.

One criticism that can be levelled against this approach is that it unnecessarily benefits students with a social science and humanities background, and eschews the awareness and exposure CSS brings for many candidates. A response to the first criticism is that the current model also forces students from science backgrounds to opt for social science subjects such as International Relations or Political Science, thus putting them at a disadvantage compared to people from these backgrounds. The proposed model will at least level the playing field by removing the imbalance that exists in ‘scoring trends’ between different optional subjects.

At the same time, the exposure the CSS exam brings comes at the expense of the mental health of students and at the expense of quality a shorter syllabus promotes. The vast and amorphous syllabus forces students to cram as much as knowledge as they can which takes a significant mental toll on them and does not add much to their overall critical thinking skills. A more streamlined and clearly delineated syllabus would therefore benefit candidates and examiners alike. Thus, the core curriculum must have a very clear syllabus with candidates having a good sense of what to expect in each subject.

Individual subjects require fundamental reform as well. To begin with, the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) must jettison the model of a three-hour, 2500 word essay. This format leads to a lot of rote learning and cramming, something which weakens the essence of the exam – which is to assess the writing skill of aspirants.

Instead, a model FPSC could follow is to have a two-hour exam which includes writing two 750-word essays – each in one hour. This will not only test the depth and diversity of candidates’ knowledge by asking them to write on two different topics, but will also push candidates to embrace brevity in place of the long-winded essays the current model promotes. Brevity and clear writing are essential skills for mastering the English language, and this exam format will allow candidates to hone this skill.

A critical thinking test can replace the Precis and Composition and General Science and Ability examinations, and will test candidates’ reading and understanding skills by having an English and Mathematics section. The English section will have comprehensions which test students’ reading and analytical abilities, while the Mathematics portion will require basic problem solving. Thus, such a critical thinking test could be shaped along the lines of the SAT or the GRE exams, albeit on a simpler level – and the FPSC can even use it as a pre-screening test.

The current Pakistan Affairs subject ought to be split along two lines, with one portion forming a new exam – Pakistan history and the other component being merged into the Current Affairs exam (something that already tacitly happens). The history exam should also have a condensed syllabus, ideally starting from the post-1857 era and should run till the modern era. This will once again avoid the pitfalls of the present extensive syllabus, which goes all the way back to the eighth century.

Contemporary elements of the Pakistan Affairs syllabus should be merged with Current Affairs, with this exam split into these two parts. Candidates should be required to attempt two questions from each part, with the syllabus focusing on issues such as Pakistan’s economy, foreign policy, domestic issues and major global events such as the US-Iran conflict.

Each exam must also remove the Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) part, since this section relies heavily on memorization and often asks extremely arbitrary questions such as ‘the landmark on the thousand rupee note’ and the ‘year when Coca Cola was founded’. Instead, candidates should have three hours to attempt four questions, each worth 25 marks. This will give students enough time to attempt each question and will thus enhance the quality of answers as well.

The CSS exam shapes the future of both Pakistan and of individual aspirants. It is thus essential that we recognize the shortcomings that exist in the exam, and take the bold measures required to bring about positive change. Brave decision-making is in fact the only way we can set Pakistan on the path towards prosperity.

The writer secured third position in the CSS exam in 2018. He holds a Bachelor’s degrees in Economics and History from Cornell University, and he also studied at the University of Oxford.