In Conversation with
Ali Haider (FSP)
42nd in Pakistan CSS 2019-20
Jahangir’s World Times (JWT): First of all, please tell us about your educational background?
Ali Haider (AH): I did my matriculation from a private school in Karachi. Then, I switched to the Cambridge system and appeared in the A- Level examinations in Economics, Business Studies and Mathematics. After that, I joined the BS Economics programme of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), and did my minor in Public Management there.
JWT: Since you have been allocated to Foreign Service of Pakistan (FSP), what was the feature of this service that attracted you most?
AH: The cosmos of diplomacy provides a holistic and stimulating perspective on how the world works and allows one to secure and promote national interests in the international arena. From a personal standpoint, I chose FSP because it provides the unique opportunity of international exposure to ideas, cultures and global diversity. It allows one to broaden the horizon of one’s mind and cultivate oneself.
JWT: What, in your opinion, is the key to making a difference in written part of CSS exam?
AH: CSS examination has to be taken up like a project. And the key objective must be to secure high marks in the written part. In order to do that, following things must be kept in mind:
1. Go for the optional subjects you have a background and interest in.
2. Avoid using substandard books or resources to prepare. The quality of your answers and your analysis matters a lot and is rewarded well. So, focus on making notes in an ‘organic’ and rigorous way.
3. If you are weak in English, read more and write more. The best way to build analysis is to pick an article from a quality magazine, and make the outline of that, to decipher the logical structure underneath.
4. Keep making notes, keep updating them and keep trimming them. In CSS examination, it’s the breadth of knowledge that matters much more than its depth. So, don’t waste time in getting meticulous about everything.
5. By October, your syllabus must be covered. You must revise and take mocks from October onwards. Revise at least twice — three revisions are ideal, though — and appear in as many mock exams as you can. On the exam day, it’s your writing practice and time-management that will help you excel.
JWT: Generally, compulsory subjects are considered low-scoring, what was your strategy to get through these very papers?
AH: Nobody can be an all-rounder when it comes to CSS. So, I identified my strengths early on, and started to work more on them. For example, I was good at Précis and I made sure that I cross 65 in that paper. However, I believe I could have done better in the GK papers, which are make-or-break in terms of score for the compulsory subjects.
JWT: How answers should be written to get maximum marks?
AH: Hitting the bull’s eye is vital for successfully responding to questions. Here are some steps that you can follow while answering questions:
1. Start with questions you are very good at.
2. Read questions patiently and mark key words, such as, ‘Discuss’, ‘Explain’, ‘Analyze’, ‘Comment’, ‘present situation’, ‘implications’, etc.
3. Make a quick outline of each answer on a rough page.
4. Do not focus too much on the background of an issue.
5. Write clear, innovative headings which keep your response on track. Each heading must directly address the question. Headings can also be interrogative to make them interesting.
6. Keep a journal for important facts and quotes with you throughout the preparation. By January, at least 50 key facts about important issues must be on your fingertips.
7. Make diagrams and add quotes, tables, facts and statistics, where required.
8. Length of your answers should be roughly uniform. I wrote 4-6 pages for an answer.
9. Be balanced and optimistic in your approach. Even if you criticize something, it should be constructive criticism; always try to give a solution or a positive outlook while doing that.
JWT: Should there be some word limit kept in mind while writing answers?
AH: I was not very particular about it. I just tried to write an answer spanning 4 to 6 pages. I am clear that the length must depend upon the scope of the question.
JWT: How did you structure your Essay and what was your strategy for Précis and Composition Paper?
AH: For Essay:
1. Outline, introduction, thesis statement and conclusion: These four form the most vital components of your essay. If you ace these, you are highly likely to pass!
2. Pick simple, write simple: Always choose a simple topic. Stick with the keywords in the given title, keep them in view and focus on your expression and content. Never get theoretical, superfluous, subjective and esoteric in your essay.
3. Jot down: Make an outline of your ideas, introduction, facts, thesis statement and conclusion on a rough page and then start!
4. Time-division (rough): 30 minutes for topic selection and outline; 30 minutes for writing introduction and thesis statement; 1 hour and 30 minutes for main body; 20 minutes for conclusion; and 10 minutes for revision and making correction(s).
For Précis and Composition:
This is one of the subjects for which you must start preparing very early on. I learned all the rules and techniques from a good book. You must also see all the past papers you can get for practice of idioms, comprehension, sentence correction, translation, synonyms, antonyms, etc. You will need to practice and memorize a lot in this exam. So, it’s better to start early on.
JWT: What areas should the new aspirants focus while preparing for the CSS exam?
AH: In the formative phase, it is very important to get familiar with what CSS is and what it demands. Then, you must analyze yourself and figure out your strengths and weaknesses. Thirdly, the choice of optional subjects matters a lot. Finally, it is extremely important that you do not reconsider your selection of optional subjects time and again. Once you lock them down, do not even discuss your selection with your fellow aspirants and friends.