What is the civil service exam, and how do you pass it? For many, the civil service exam is a necessary step in the pursuit of any number of civil service jobs. While it should be taken seriously, it’s nothing to fear. If you are preparing for the civil service exam, read on to gain some insight into how the test works and what you need to do to succeed.
If you have practical skills, believe you could help serve the public interest, and rank job security among your biggest priorities, you may be well suited to a civil service job. Civil service jobs cover many different fields and positions, and can offer solid pay and benefits, as well as long-term career stability. Getting a civil service job, however, isn’t quite as simple as applying for a job in the private sector. There are a number of hurdles to get over before you can work in the public sector. In most cases, the first hurdle is the civil service exam.
While the civil service exam can differ depending on your chosen career path, there are some fundamental aspects of the exam that hold true for everybody taking it. Below we discuss what the exam is, what it consists of, and how to make sure you’re prepared to ace it.
What is Civil Service?
Civil service is any job working for the government that is non–political and non–military. Whether an FBI agent or a postal worker, you’re a civil servant if your pay comes from the federal, state, or local government and you were neither elected to the position nor are a member of the military. This means a wide range of jobs, in completely different fields, fall under the umbrella of civil service jobs.
What is the Civil Service Exam?
The civil service exam is, as its name suggests, an exam that tests people applying for civil service jobs. While civil service exists in countries all over the world, and has for quite a while, the modern civil service system and civil service jobs in the U.S. can be traced to 1883, when the decidedly bureaucratic U.S. Civil Service Commission was created to oversee civil service positions. The commission aimed to standardize civil service, and, among other things, implemented a merit–based hiring system that required applicants to pass the civil service exam.
It used to be the case, even well into the late 20th century, that the civil service exam was required of all people applying for civil service jobs, and was a universal test, meaning it was the same for everyone. In 1978, in response to years of growing public skepticism over the operation of the U.S. government, the Carter administration oversaw passage of the Civil Service Reform Act, which brought change to the civil service landscape. It divided the Civil Service Commission into the Office of Personnel Management and the Merit Systems Protection Board, and implemented numerous policy changes. Though not mandated by the Civil Service Reform Act, one notable side effect (for our purposes) is that the civil service exam began to fall out of favor for many civil service jobs, and changes were made so that it is no longer a universal, blanket test.
Today, the civil service exam is not required of all civil service jobs, and the specific skills and knowledge for which the exam tests can vary from job to job. If you are applying for a civil service job, the chances are good that you will have to take a civil service test, but it is not guaranteed. To complicate matters, not only do the requirements vary by specific job fields, but they also vary between federal, state, and local governments. However, some areas of employment are designated as federal mandatory testing areas, so if you are considering civil service jobs in the following fields, you should expect to take a civil service exam:
- Air Traffic Control
- Border Patrol
- Foreign Service
- Postal Service
- Secret Service
- U.S. Customs
It's important to keep in mind that the civil service test, regardless of the specific civil service job being applied for, is a general test, a kind of screening, that is not necessarily intended to highlight the best and the brightest so much as it is trying to weed out people who are really not suited for civil service jobs. It is designed to make sure you have a pretty typical skillset and knowledge base, and that you can fit in and learn what you need to succeed at the job in question. It is a baseline exam that establishes that you are fit for further consideration. After all, passing scores tend to fall in the 70% range. This threshold is somewhat modest by design. What actually gets you the job comes later, through your resume, interviews, references, and more specific tests.
What are the Different Types of Civil Service Exams?
There are two types of civil service exams: competitive and non–competitive. Most will be competitive, which divide along the lines of exams open to the public, and “promotional” exams that are only open to those already working as civil servants. Regardless of where you fall in those categories, taking a competitive exam means your score places you on a ranked list against other applicants for the job in question, and will be taken into account by whoever is overseeing the hiring process. On the other hand, a non–competitive exam does not result in a ranking; your score makes you no more or less desirable than other candidates. It simply means you are eligible (assuming you pass) to be hired.
The civil service exams will usually be composed of several parts, including oral and written tests, as well as computer-administered multiple choice tests. Not all jobs will include the same exam components, so it is important that you find out what you are getting into well before the time comes to actually take the civil service exam. The worst thing you can do is be caught by surprise.
Depending on the job in question, some civil service exams might also include “job simulation” components. For clerical jobs, this might mean a typing proficiency test, but for jobs like firefighter or police officer, this might mean a physical test designed to see if you can handle the very real physical demands of the job.
Also note, not all civil service exams are connected to specific job openings. Some exams are offered as part of a continuous recruitment effort, meaning some state and local governments know they constantly need people for certain positions, even if there isn’t a current opening, and are looking for eligible applicants for when openings do occur. If you are taking a civil service exam offered on a continuous recruitment basis, keep in mind that there may not be a job currently open, but one will likely open up in the next few months. Passing this exam will place you in the pool for possible job candidates when such an opening does occur.
What does the Civil Service Exam Cover?
Civil service exams and their content will vary somewhat according to the job in question, with each exam emphasizing certain relevant skills over others. However, in general, civil service exams will cover basic skills that anyone working in the public sector should have. You will be tested on your reading and writing proficiency, ability to reason through problems and make decisions, clerical abilities (such as organizing and alphabetizing), following directions and memory, coding, and (what some applicants perhaps dread most) math. Proficiency with certain software, such as Microsoft Excel and Word, might be tested, if it is relevant to the job (such as a clerical position, for example).
Of course, unless you are applying to a math–heavy job (in which case we have to assume/hope you are already pretty well educated in the subject) the math should not be that difficult or advanced; no more than, say, the gen–ed algebra requirement every undergraduate completes in college. (Pro-tip: Remember your PEMDAS, that helpful acronym for the order of operations: parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction.)
On top of that, plenty of civil service jobs require applicants to hold specific degrees or certifications, and if you are looking at such a job but don’t have the degree you need, the sooner you earn that degree, the better. If applying to a traditional university program sounds overwhelming or impossible because of your current living or job situation, online college might be a good choice for you. There are plenty of high–quality online degrees in every field that provide flexible, affordable educational opportunities for busy adult students.
For example, if you’d like to become a police officer, start with our ranking of the Best Online Bachelor of Criminal Justice Degree Programs.
If you want to be an accountant for the IRS, try our ranking of the Best Online Bachelor’s in Accounting Degree Programs.
If you’re interested in working for the Department of Homeland Security, check out the Best Online Bachelor’s in Homeland Security Programs.
How to Prepare for the Civil Service Exam
If you want to pass the civil service exam, it pays to study up, especially if you are feeling a bit rusty in certain areas. Remember, though, that as with any test, it’s not just about knowing the content, but knowing how to take the test. Learn what sections will be included and how you will be tested, and make a study guide and a strategy to use as you prepare. To pass the civil service exam, you will need knowledge and experience in your chosen field, but also general knowledge and critical thinking skills, a game plan, and time management skills.
The exam will be timed, and you need to be able to get through the whole thing. It is better to answer all questions, and have a few iffy answers for some of them, than it is to fail to complete the exam. You don’t get points for what you don’t answer.
Practice is key to passing the civil service exam, and practice tests and in-depth guides can help a great deal. A few are:
To learn more and access the best test prep programs available, check out our Test Prep Source.
Beyond that, prepare for the civil service exam like you would any other exam. Favor steady preparation over cramming, get enough sleep the night before, avoid eating food that might upset your stomach, bring snacks and water, drink coffee if you need, keep a positive attitude and use personal affirmations to keep your confidence up. Also, feel free to practice whatever superstitious rituals you prefer (rub that worry stone to dust if you have to, but you will get through this).
Keep in mind, however, that not all civil service jobs are created equal, and while it is important to study up for the civil service exam, written and multiple–choice questions are not the only things standing between you and employment, and acing those parts of the process will not be enough to land you the job you are after. As mentioned above, some civil service jobs, such as police officer or firefighter, require applicants to demonstrate fitness benchmarks and pass grueling physical tests. So with that in mind, you might need to split your study time between the library and the gym. Find out what your exam requires and prepare accordingly.
Of course, the civil service exam is only one part of the process. You also need to have a solid resume, with relevant experience. If your resume could use some help, or if you don’t have one, check out our proven résumé tips. And because you’ll also have to nail the interview, check out our top-notch interview tips.
For more tips and insight on landing the job you want, visit our Career Counselor.