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In Conversation with Furqan Ashraf, 21st in Pakistan, CSS-2015

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Plan well, study smart, and take every exam like it is going to make all the difference

Jahangir’s World Times (JWT): First of all, please tell us about your educational background?

Furqan Ashraf (FA): I received my secondary education from Abbottabad Public School, and then attended Forman Christian College, Lahore for higher secondary studies. Then, I earned my undergraduate degree in Economics from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). After graduation, I worked for a year as a Research Associate and that was when I took the civil service exam. Soon after the exam, I was offered a scholarship at Rutgers University, USA where I am pursuing my Master’s degree in Public Policy (MPP). This October, I intend to start my training at the prestigious Civil Service Academy in Lahore.

JWT: As everyone starts dreaming of a future career in childhood, so what were your dreams? Did you always aspire to be a CSP officer?

FA: Though I had always held CSPs in high esteem, I never aspired to be one until very recently. I actually wanted to be a fighter pilot. Then, as luck would have it, I somehow ended up in LUMS where I studied Economics. Later, when I started researching on several social policy issues, I realized the role civil services can play in defining and sustaining the policy framework of any country. With each passing day, my belief in civil service became stronger and eventually I decided to go for CSS.

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JWT: How much helpful did you find Jahangir’s World Times (JWT) during your preparation? And, how was your experience at the world Times Institute?

FA: JWT has earned (rightfully so) a reputation for being a reliable resource hub for CSS aspirants. Specifically, the JWT magazine is an informative resource, providing an updated account of current affairs and thoughtful perspectives on those events. The series of books published by JWT is also of superior quality.

In addition, I attended WTI for mock interview sessions. I was really impressed with the quality of faculty at WTI. I really benefited from those mock sessions as they prepared me for the actual interview. WTI also provided me with plenty of reading material to assimilate as much information as I could for the interview.

JWT: What, in your opinion, is the key to making a difference in written part of CSS exam?

FA: I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that CSS is the most challenging exam in Pakistan, and the written part plays a decisive role in getting through it.

In order to perform well, first of all you should choose your subjects wisely. Your choice should be based on your academic background, your temperament, and the scoring trend. When I was choosing my optional subjects, everyone advised me against opting Economics. Since I had studied Economics for four years, I chose it with full confidence. And it ended very well for me.

Secondly, you should work on your writing skills. This goes for all the subjects. For that, you should practice writing as much as you can. Try to make notes; write as many essays as you can; practice précis writing. Remember, no amount of writing is ever enough.

Lastly, you should always rely on quality material. Choose reputed authors over substandard guides. Make good use of internet. Use reference books for your optional subjects. Read good journals and magazines. Quality of information makes all the difference in the written exam.

JWT: Compulsory subjects are generally considered low-scoring, what was your strategy to get through these?

FA: I think, not all compulsory subjects are low-scoring; generally, English papers are considered to be so and that is where most of the aspirants fail to hit the bar. I think the only way to score well in English papers is to practice as much as you can. Improve your writing expression, and learn how to formulate good arguments in your essay.

For rest of the compulsory subjects, do consult reliable sources of information and try to get different perspectives on a topic.  

JWT: What were the toughest and the easiest parts in the whole process of CSS exam?

FA: I think the uncertainty and the timeline of the CSS exam is very uncomforting. The whole process takes more than a year. Very few qualify the written part and even fewer get allocated. So, preparing for the written exam for six to eight months can be very tiring.

The easiest part in the whole process was the interview. You have a lot of time to prepare for the interview and you have a chance to express your opinions in front of interview panel.

furqan-ashraf-21st-in-pakistan-css-2015-1JWT: Anything important about your CSS journey you want to share with the aspirants?

FA: For me, the CSS journey has always been about difficult choices. First I had to quit my job to prepare for the exam. Later, when I passed the written part, I had to quit my job in the US and head back for the interview. And recently, I had to refuse a stable career with the state government in the US to pursue CSS. But I am confident that I made all the right choices.

JWT:  Who deserves the credit for your success?

FA: I believe that Allah Almighty has been very kind to me. He made me believe in myself and bestowed me with the perseverance without which this success wouldn’t have been possible. After that, the credit goes to my family, especially my mother, and my friends who believed in me and supported me all along.

My Interview Experience

It was a comprehensive interview with topics ranging from global financial crisis to the influence of Persian literary style in Urdu ghazal. Mr Chairman started off by asking me about my experiences in the US, especially those pertaining to social injustice, growing intolerance and the use of anti-Islam rhetoric in GOP debates. Then, he asked my opinion on a diverse set of topics including priorities of the current government, evidence-based policymaking, and the system of political patronage in Pakistan. Next panellist asked me to elaborate on what a federation is and how it has charted the course of Pakistani politics. He also asked me to shed some light on the role of regional politics in independence movement, East Pakistan debacle, Baloch grievances, and the politics of ethnicity in Karachi. Third panellist asked questions about budget cycle of Pakistan, SBP’s monetary policy, devaluation of dollar in international market, and on the possibility of another economic crisis similar to that of 2008. He also discussed major themes in Ghalib’s poetry and the linguistic tradition in Urdu poetry. Fourth panellist asked some questions on Islamic Studies and Pakistan Affairs. Last panellist asked me about separation of powers and how it is spelled in different constitutions around the world. We also had brief discussions on National Health Insurance Scheme, Trade Policy of Pakistan, domestic reforms of Obama administration, etc.

Overall, the interview panel was very engaging and I really enjoyed interacting with them.

Advice for Fresh Aspirants

First of all, learn to believe in yourself. Secondly, never ever lose hope. You never know what tomorrow may bring. And lastly, once you decide to take the ‘leap of faith’, put in all your effort. Plan well, study smart, and take every exam like it is going to make all the difference.

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