You have done it all; read the required readings, memorised the facts and dates, perfected your essay writing, and practiced the past papers. A year’s worth of CSS preparation is about to culminate with the taking of the exam.
You feel confident, nervous, hopeful, excited, and anxious, all at the same time. You think you are ready for everything, and need only the ink to flow freely from your pen on exam day. However, the CSS Exam is not only about the pen and the paper.
Its a unique life experience in which one navigates through unexplored territory and an assortment of awkward situations.
For those CSS aspirants on their first attempt, this article describes the experience of the exam in terms of the practicalities; travelling, the centers, the invigilators, and your emotions and energy. You may have prepared for the written component of the exam in the comfort of your home or academy, but are you ready for the settings and moments that unintentionally manage to disorient you?
If you have however already taken the exam, this article may invoke feelings of nostalgia (or PTSD, depending on how it went).
The Exam Schedule
After buying new pens, pencils, rulers, and other stationary items, you download and print your Admission Certificate for the Central Superior Services Exam along with your exam schedule.
12 Exams to write in 7 days. Each one 3 hours long, and located at different venues or centres. More like different neighbourhoods!
On most days, you have two papers with a 2-hour break in between. On other days, just the one. If you’re lucky, there might be a day-off in your timetable. Spoiler Alert: You will need it!
You calculate the travel time from your home to each centre and devise a fool proof plan to reach well in time. Finding parking for your car is also a task to consider.
Depending on where you live and your conveyance situation, it may not be feasible to come home during that 2-hour break between exams. You will need to eat lunch too.
The night before the first exam
Whether or not you are studying that day, you want to sleep early for a full night’s rest as you will be waking up early; Very early. You select your clothes, set your alarms, reconfirm your travel arrangements, and leave your entrance certificate and stationary in a place you can’t overlook. The last thing you want is to be awake due to an active mind.
You arrive at the center stated on your schedule. Its a school building, but no ones around. You double check the map and schedule to see if you have come to the right place. Perhaps you are early.
Eventually you find the correct gate of the school, where a dispersed crowd of CSS aspirants like yourself awaits entry. Some stand alone and silent, holding their document pouches while checking the time. Some groups discuss the upcoming paper. Others find a place to sit and flip through their notes for some last minute cramming.
The competitive spirit of the crowd is undeniable. Stone cold faces of tall guys foretell their career in the Pakistan Police Services. The shorter men and women could be Pakistan Administrative Services material. Some seem like obvious failures. A sense of insecurity momentarily creeps in.
An un-uniformed security guard walks out the gate to make an announcement:
“Apne mobile phone band kar ke jama karao!”
He collects everyones cellphones in a bag in exchange for a token number. The fee for this collection service is 50 Rupees. You can trust him.
Everyone lines up at the entrance with their admission certificate and original CNIC card ready for inspection. One by one, they are granted entry to the exam hall.
Given its a school building, one expects to be writing the exam in a well lit auditorium with neatly organised rows of chairs and tables. However, the number of exam takers sometimes exceeds the seating capacity of the auditorium. Depending on your roll number, you may be assigned to a dingy classroom.
The classroom of a public school serves as a reminder for why you applied for the CSS. The chairs are damaged. The tables are wobbly. Ceiling fans blackened with dust dangle from their wiring. The lights are off due to power outage. The room is crammed with furniture.
You identify the table with your roll number chalked onto it and take your seat. An invigilator distributes an answer booklet to each desk almost 10 minutes before start time. Having nothing better to do, everyone begins to fill out the cover with their details and draw margins on each page of their surprisingly high quality booklets.
Writing the Exam
At 9 am sharp, the invigilator instructs everyone to begin. The classroom (or exam hall) is suddenly consumed by an intense silence, occasionally broken by the sound of a turning page or falling stationary item.
Your focus is broken by the crashing sound of someone’s table collapsing. The moment passes, and you go back to writing.
Throughout the 3-hour session, you are reminded of being inside a functional school going about its routine. A choir of kids singing “Pak sar zameen shaad baad!!” can be heard from the morning assembly. The irregular chatter and giggling of kids in the hallways becomes background noise. The kids too wonder why these adults are sitting in their elementary section’s classrooms.
Around half-time, an invigilator breaks your flow to inspect your ID Card, answer booklet, and question paper. They take your signature and thumb impression on an attendance sheet and provide a tissue to dry your inked thumb.
Can you cheat in the CSS Exam?
Yes you absolutely can cheat in the CSS exam! Just ask to go to the washroom and the staff will guide you to it. In there, you have total privacy. You can review notes (if you have them stashed in your pocket or socks), use your secret phone, or take out any reference material you are carrying. No one is going to come check on you. No one is going to escort you to and from the bathroom like they did in school. Is it really cheating when this is the amount of trust the FPSC is putting in you? Maybe they want you to cheat!
After 3 hours of nonstop writing, the invigilator yells “stop!” Your hand is tired, as is your neck and back due to that awkward posture you have kept on that child sized chair. Everyone’s booklets are collected before they are permitted to go outside. If you used more than one booklet, you are given a small piece of string to tie the booklets together. You get to keep to question sheet.
Several exam takers engage in post-paper debates. Its up to you to partake in these futile conversations. After reclaiming your phone from the trusty security guard, you need to find a way to spend your two hour long break. The nearest market where you can find some lunch could be a decent walk away if you dont have a car.
You must be drained, hungry, and brain-fried. After all, you did wake up extra early today. Where would you nap, even if you could?
The second-half paper
After the break, you go through the same process all over again. Deposit your phone, find your seat, and write the exam which starts at 2 pm.
No surprises this time. The only battle to fight now alongside the test is the growing physical and mental fatigue from the last six hours. This is what makes the afternoon paper harder than the morning paper.
By the time you reach home, you are exhausted, covered in dust, and hungry. No one said it was going to be easy. It was never supposed to be easy.
You have only a few hours to wash up, have dinner and relax before going to bed. You should have no problem falling asleep this time.
The rest of the exams
The story repeats itself at new venues with different furniture and crowds. As papers for different optional subjects may occur simultaneously at the same center, you could end up discussing the wrong exam with someone.
After sustaining two or three days of this rather extreme routine, your mind and body begin to protest. Dehydration comes first. Then the soreness in your back and neck from those long hours hunched over a desk. Even though you should only be thinking about the next paper, you’re still stressing over your errors from the previous one. And then theres sleep deprivation. Managing these physicalities and emotions is also part of getting through the CSS exam. Since its not going to get any easier, you have no choice but to fight through it.
The last paper
You’re finally here, at yet another venue, in an unfamiliar room. The first paper now feels like a distant memory, though it was hardly a week ago. By this time, you’re probably functioning on adrenaline. All you can think about is the number of hours left before you reach home and get some rest.
The invigilator lays that familiar high quality answer booklet before you for the last time, and instructs you to begin. You take a deep breath, stretch your fingers, and start drawing margins.
The relief you feel walking out of the center is quite real. Even more evident is a feeling of conquest, as if you are retuning from a long war. There is also a sense of optimism, with which you fool yourself into thinking you will pass every paper you wrote just because you went through what you went through. You have every right to feel this way. Congratulations on completing the CSS Exam.
Its impressive how this monumental event is flawlessly orchestrated at the national level every year. Each time, the examination staff is friendly, accommodating, and professionally manages the movement of candidates and papers. Consequently, Tens of Thousands of Central Superior Services applicants like yourself are given equal opportunity to partake in this competition thanks to the efforts of Pakistan’s Federal Public Service Commission. Regardless of the outcome, one can call the CSS Exam an experience of a lifetime. Some determined crazies even go on to make their second and third attempts in order to secure fancier positions or even pass. Their efforts, too, are commendable.
CSS Exam Results
Sometime after 6 to 8 months, your CSS exam results become available. Click here to see mine.
Explore more articles from the Things about Pakistan section.