In Conversation with Muhammad Abrahim Shah (PAS) 3rd in Pakistan, CSS 2018-19
Catch line: I visited JWT for their test sessions and mock exams, which I found very helpful in identifying my weaknesses.
Muhammad Abrahim Shah (MAS): I did my A and O levels from Aitchison College, Lahore. I then went on a merit scholarship to pursue my bachelor’s at Cornell University, USA. I spent my third year of undergraduate studies at Oxford University, also on a full scholarship. I pursued two degrees at Oxford and Cornell — economics and history. I was also admitted to two different MPhil programmes at Oxford this year but gave them up to join Civil Service of Pakistan.
JWT: As you have been allocated to Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS), what was the feature of this service that attracted you most?
MAS: I was personally attracted by the exposure and learning PAS offers. You are exposed to day-to-day administrative problems in Pakistan. And as person who had interned in policymaking both here in Pakistan and in the United States, this was the perfect avenue where I could pursue my interests.
JWT: How was your experience at the World Times Institute (WTI)?
MAS: I joined World Times Institute for test sessions and mock exams, which I found very helpful in identifying my weaknesses. I joined WTI for mock interview as well.
JWT: What, in your opinion, is the key to making a difference in written part of CSS exam?
MAS: CSS requires much focused study, and the right technique is crucial in this prestigious competitive exam. For this, I would suggest using good sources such as books by qualified authors, and practicing your answers a lot. At the same time, you must have a detailed study plan to help you complete your preparation well ahead of the actual exam. This will give you adequate time to revise. Revision and practice are the key, as is making proper, to the point notes.
JWT: Generally, compulsory subjects are considered low-scoring, what was your strategy to get through these very papers?
MAS: I relied on presenting sound analyses and giving relevant, to-the-point information. The key is to differentiate your answers by giving good headings, strong analyses and information most candidates might not present. You can acquire this information by using good sources.
JWT: What was the key to your phenomenal success?
MAS: I would say that following factors played a key role in my success in CSS.
- a) Good guidance
- b) A very clear, detailed study plan.
- c) None of this would have been possible without the support and prayers of my parents, sister and wife. I owe this to them.
JWT: How answers should be written to get maximum marks?
MAS: Your answers should be well structured and coherent. Every answer should flow very well and must contain a good analysis. I put a lot of emphasis on headings and I believe this helped me. I would use several headings in my answers and the headings I provided were worded well. Not verbose, just well-written to make my answers stand out.
JWT: Should there be some word limit kept in mind while writing answers?
MAS: I aimed for 6-7 pages per answer. This works well, in my opinion.
JWT: How did you structure your Essay and what was your strategy for Précis and Composition Paper?
MAS: Structure and coherence are key to success in the essay paper. I avoided verbosity and instead ensured I had understood the idea well. I also placed a lot of emphasis on the overall structure of the essay, making sure my paragraphs were coherent, sentences were well structured and the overall flow of the ideas was good.
For the Précis paper, I would recommend practicing as many précis as you can, and also putting a lot of emphasis on the objective portion. This is one element many candidates usually ignore.
JWT: How did you handle de-motivations, you faced?
MAS: I believe having a clear schedule helps avoiding de-motivation. I was also under pressure of having given up an excellent fellowship in the United States, which only further motivated me to do well. Overall, I am glad that I made this decision.
JWT: How a new aspirant should start his preparations?
MAS: Acquaint yourself with the syllabus and with the demands of the exam. Start reading newspapers so as to hone your analytical skills and develop an interest for current affairs. Then, go for good quality sources and create a schedule.
JWT: What areas should the new aspirants focus?
MAS: Reading newspapers, getting used to making a schedule and working on English.
My tips on:
Selection of optional subjects
Play to your strengths. Choose subjects you are comfortable with and it is better if you have a background in. Focus more on strengths and area of interest than arbitrary elements such as scoring trend.
Your notes should be well organised. Keep them short as well; 1-2 pages per topic.
I would revise previous topic before starting a new one. You should also aim to revise from November onwards. This includes going over the syllabus again, practicing answers and giving mock exams.
My Advice for fresh aspirants
CSS requires focused and targeted study. Do not fall for the trap of using multiple sources. Instead, select one or two good sources for each subject and use them to develop your knowledge. Focus more on your test-taking skills, time management, English writing and analytical skills.
My Interview Experience
It was a wonderful experience. Mr Chairman started by commenting on my background – I was, to quote him, ‘very well educated and all-rounded’. The questions, in turn, focused on my areas of strength and the articles I had written for national dailies. We discussed neoliberalism, capitalism and democracy, the environmental movement and its link to the LGBTQ movement, etc. I was initially nervous which perhaps impacted my final assessment, but overall I managed to do well. The environment was comfortable. The panel actually makes sure that candidates are relaxed and the questions are mostly from one’s area of strength.