The Civil Services Examination is one of most arduous competitive examinations in the country. Nearly five-six lakh students vie for only 700-900 vacancies in an evaluation process comprising three stages and stretching almost over a year.
The preliminary examination, the first of the three, is akin to a gateway which halts the onward march of a majority of the aspirants. The remaining 12,000-15,000 candidates left in the fray battle it out in the next two stages, the main examination and the personality test.
The preliminary examination of 2011 was a watershed in this process of selection, as it introduced the aptitude test. General Studies Paper I continues with almost the same syllabus albeit with the nature of questions becoming more application-oriented. However, General Studies Paper II, which has the aptitude test, has brought about the real change.
Popularly known as CSAT, or civil services aptitude test, this paper now aims to evaluate the aptitude of candidates by means of objective-type multiple-choice questions. Unlike the old scheme, in which a candidate could opt for any of the optional subjects from a variety of permissible academic subjects for Paper II, the aptitude test paper is now common and compulsory for all candidates. This provides a uniform platform for evaluation and a level playing field for all aspirants.
But is this the only reason for bringing about this radical change? The CSAT was the culmination of recommendations made by several experts and specialist committees endeavouring to make the process of selection a more contemporary and meaningful one. The objective was to bring about a change in the qualities to be evaluated: from information that can be acquired by rote to knowledge application and abilities reflective of a person’s aptitude. Going by the paper of 2011, these objectives have largely been met.
What are the areas from which the aptitude is to be evaluated? In 2011, nearly 50 per cent of the questions figured from two broad areas: comprehension passages and data interpretation. The topics of basic numeracy, logical reasoning and analytical ability, general mental ability, decision-making, and English language comprehension skills, each contributed nearly eight-10 per cent of questions. There were overall 80 questions of 2.5 marks each with one-third negative marks for each wrong answer.
A unique area of evaluation, perhaps not figuring in other aptitude tests, is the section on decision-making. Each of the eight questions in this section presents a different situational problem and the candidate has to take the best possible decision within the constraints and ethico-legal-administrative dilemmas. The apparent objective is to evaluate if a candidate identifies and believes in the values and principles embedded in the matrix of the situation. And if he does believe, then to what extent.
What does it take to be successful in this test? Hard work always pays and so it will in this examination also. Sharpening comprehension and communication skills is likely to be doubly beneficial as two different sets of questions test these skills. For preparation of areas such as basic numeracy and data interpretation, a scoring area, revisiting what was learnt in school and solving a variety of questions is a must.
Considering the diverse topics assessed in this test, a strategic planning is essential to identify the areas of one’s strength and to work upon on one’s weaknesses. Such planning is equally important during the examination. There, one has to identify and solve quickly those questions which one is deft at and confident of.
At the same time, it is important to avoid or to keep for the last the questions which are time sapping or difficult to comprehend. Considering the common refrain of most candidates, who complained of two hours being too short a time for attempting the 80 questions, speed, accuracy, and time management will be of essence. These, of course, are to be achieved by honing the ability to concentrate and practising relentlessly. Last, but not the least, the nature of the questions is such that not merely the knowledge of a topic but its application is actually tested. Knowledge is truly power. But knowing its application is a far greater power, as far as CSAT is concerned.
In an examination where only top two-three per cent qualify for the next stage, what counts is one’s self-belief. After all what is aptitude? Perhaps a set of inborn abilities. But should it be construed to be only those set of abilities which remain petrified in our personality and which we are saddled with for the rest of our lives? Aptitude is dynamic and evolving.
What really matters is our approach and attitude. As rightly articulated by Zig Ziglar, an author and motivational speaker, “Your attitude not your aptitude will determine your altitude.”