How to Pass the Civil Service Exam

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For many, the civil service exam is a necessary step in the pursuit of their dream civil service jobs. If you're preparing for the civil service exam, this page can help you gain insight into how the test works and how you can succeed.

What is the civil service exam, and how do you pass it?

If you want to work for the local, state, or federal government, you'll need to take a civil service exam before applying for specific jobs within an agency or department. There are a few civil service exams, each covering different fields, positions, roles, and responsibilities.

These jobs typically offer substantial pay, benefits, and long-term career stability, and the best candidates have practical skills and want to give back to their communities through government work.

Taking a civil service exam is often the first hurdle for landing a civil service job. While the focus of the exam varies by career path, there are some universal tips that can help you succeed.

Here, we discuss the civil service exam and how to make sure you're prepared to pass it.

What Is Civil Service?

Civil service includes a range of non-political and non-military jobs in government, such as social work, air traffic control, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Many civil service careers also fall under the umbrella of public administration, including administrative assistants, civil executives, and information technology specialists.

What Is the Civil Service Exam?

The civil service exam is an exam that tests people applying for specific civil service jobs. The point of the test is to prove applicants have the appropriate skills and are eligibile for a specific position.

The exam varies between different fields and levels of government. If you're wondering what jobs can you get with a civil service exam, here are just a few options.

  • Air traffic control
  • CIA
  • FBI
  • Firefighter
  • Foreign service
  • Government accountant
  • IRS
  • Postal service
  • Secret service
  • TSA
  • U.S. customs

Keep in mind that the exam is intended to weed out people who are not suited for civil service jobs. It's a baseline test that establishes whether or not you are fit for further consideration, so passing the test doesn't guarantee employment.

Passing scores tend to fall in the 70% range. To actually land the job, candidates must also provide resumes, interviews, and letters of reference, and may need to take more specialized tests.

Are There Different Types of Civil Service Exams?

There are three types of civil service exams: open competitive, continuous, and promotional.

An open competitive exam means your score places you on a ranked list against other applicants for a category of positions that are actively hiring. A continuous exam tests applicants for positions that are not currently open. Promotional exams are meant for current civil servants who want to advance their careers.

Civil service exams are usually composed of several parts, including oral and written sections, as well as computer-administered multiple-choice tests.

Some civil service exams might also include "job simulation" components. For example, this might mean a typing proficiency test for clerical positions, or a physical test for firefighters.

What Does the Civil Service Exam Cover?

Civil service exams vary somewhat according to specific jobs, with each exam emphasizing relevant skills. If you're wondering how long the civil service exam is, rest assured that they typically only last a few hours.

In general, civil service exam questions cover the necessary skills that anyone working in the public sector should have:

  • Reading and writing proficiency
  • Reasoning skills
  • Clerical abilities, such as organizing and alphabetizing
  • Coding
  • Mathematics

As a whole, the math section isn't any more difficult or advanced than college-level gen-ed algebra. Pro-tip: Remember your "PEMDAS" — the helpful acronym for the order of operations: parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction.

Proficiency in specific software, such as Microsoft Excel or Word, might be tested if it is relevant to the job.

It is also worth noting that many civil service jobs require applicants to hold specific degrees or certifications. If you don't have the required degree, the sooner you earn it, the better. Online degrees are often the most convenient and affordable option.

How to Prepare for the Civil Service Exam

If you want to pass the civil service exam, it pays to study up. You will need knowledge and experience in your chosen field, but also general knowledge, critical thinking skills, and time management skills.

The exam is timed, and you must complete the entire exam. It's better to answer all of the questions, even if you feel iffy about some of the answers, because civil service exams don't typically deduct points for wrong answers.

A few study guides are available for practice:

You should prepare for the exam like you would any other exam. Learn what sections will be included and how you will be tested. Then make a study guide to help you prepare.

Keep in mind that some civil service jobs, like firefighter, require applicants to demonstrate fitness benchmarks and pass physical tests, so you might need to break up study sessions with working out.

Of course, the civil service exam is only one part of the civic job application process. You also need a solid resume and strong interview skills. Check out our resume and interview tips.

For more tips and insights into landing the job you want, visit our Career Counselor.

Final Word

The civil service exam is typically the first step to becoming a civil servant, and it will vary depending on which career path you choose. In general, the exam will test your competency. Make sure to thoroughly research, study, and prepare beforehand, and you'll increase your chances of landing your dream job.