Civil Service Exam

Civil servants are employed by local, state, and federal governments. The Civil Service exam, based on the location of the position, may only be available either one or two times per year. The Civil Service Exam becomes a requirement when job applicants apply for specific government jobs within a government agency or department. Note, the modern version of the Civil Service test is only required for only certain government civil service positions; this is discussed further on in this article. 

The Civil Service exam is a platform on which job applicants can demonstrate the skills required to be eligible for the civil servant position. While this was not always the case in earlier versions, the modern version of the Civil Service Exam is based on the civil service job for which one applies. To optimize your performance on the civil service examination, test-takers must appropriately prepare for the exam.

This article provides a list of recommended tools, many of which are easily accessible and free to use. 

What is Civil Service?

From an overall perspective, the term civil service represents permanent, professional job responsibilities that are required to administer a government's policies and programs properly. An individual working in a civil service capacity is known as a civil servant. Civil service, in general, falls within the public administration jurisdiction. 

Civil service jobs are, categorically, defined as non-military and non-political.  As such, civil service does not include the judicial branches of the government, elected politicians, and the military. 

Given the many jobs required to manage the government (at any level) appropriately, the term civil service covers a large variety of roles and responsibilities.

A Brief History of the Civil Service Exam

The US civil service system began in 1871. This original civil service system was modified again in 1883 by The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.  A few years after the turn of the 20th century, about 66% of the federal workforce were selected based on a merit-based hiring system. With the enactment of the Hatch Act (1939), civil servants are prohibited from engaging in any political activities and events. 

Well into the middle to late 20th century, the civil service examination was considered –

  • A mandatory test for each individual applying for a civil service job or position
  • A universal test for all governmental job positions

Public skepticism began to rise, with regard to the universal civil service test. As a result, the Civil Service Reform Act (1978), enacted during Jimmy Carter’s administration, redefined the existing landscape of the civil service exam. The newly modified Civil Service department was split into the following divisions, with additional and numerous revisions to existing policies. 

  • The Office of Personnel Management 
  • The Merit Systems Protection Board

US OPM Seal

Additionally, at this time, the use and purpose of the civil service exam were modified to include the creation of specific civil service exams for specific civil service jobs. 

Upon the enactment of the late 20th century legislation, the US government discontinues using the time-worn version of the universal civil test. 

Civil service exams are now provided through the Office of Personnel Management's program, USA Hire. If you are asked to take the modern version of the civil service exam, be sure to follow these guides –

  • Confirm the exact civil service exam you need to take. 
  • Appropriately prepare for the civil service exam by allowing for sufficient study time, with help provided by the selection of the most valuable test preparation materials.  
  • Take advantage of the many practice tests online to hone your test-taking skills and test your knowledge against exam content. Practice tests help sharpen one’s test-taking abilities.

Remember, not every civil service job requires the job applicant to take the civil service exam. So, if you are required to take the civil service exam, double-check that you are taking the correct version of the civil service exam. 

 What is the Civil Service Exam?

The US version of the civil service system is rooted in 19th century America. The first civil service exam was developed in line with the merit-based system adopted by the Civil Service Commission. The Civil Service Commission (CSC) ultimately became a bureaucratic nightmare in need of the massive overhaul, which eventually resulted in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.

The civil service exam is an essential testing tool used by government agencies (at all governmental levels) for job applicants applying for those civil service jobs that still require applicants to take the exam. 

If you are applying for a civil service job that requires you to take the civil service exam, simply view it as one of the steps required within the government hiring process. The government hiring processes can differ considerably from those within the private sector, so it is a smart idea to understand the hiring process differences. This advice is most important to those job applicants who have yet to have an opportunity to apply for a government job. 

While each civil service test may differ (in accordance with the open civil service job), the objective of the civil service test is to act as a general screening test that evaluates if a test taker meets the government’s defined civil service minimum requirements. 

The civil service exam is designed to establish an applicant’s baseline knowledge and skill set for specific civil service jobs. It is a baseline exam that determines whether you are fit for further consideration in the civil service industry. The threshold for passing the Civil Service exam is about 70%, which in any academic community is considered average, at best.  

The reality is the civil service exam is just the first step in the hiring process. The final hiring decision is determined after the hiring division has reviewed your resume & references and conducted in-person interviews. 

In most typical circumstances, the first hurdle a civil service job applicant must clear is the civil service exam. This is true for the following civil service careers - 

  • An Air Traffic Control Agent
  • A Border Patrol Agent
  • A Police Officer
  • A Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Agent
  • An Agent with the Foreign Service
  • A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Agent
  • An IRS worker
  • A United States Postal Service Worker - (see our free Post Office Practice Exams)
  • A member of the Secret Service
  • A member of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
  • A US Customs Agent

What is on the Civil Service Exam

What is on the civil service exam depends on many factors, including:

  • Whether the job is a federal job or a state/municipal job
  • The type of position you are applying for
  • Whether the exam is competitive (i.e., test-takers compete with each other) or non-competitive

In general, most civil service exams will test you on a combination of the following topics:

Verbal Ability 

Virtually all civil service exams will include a verbal ability test. Evaluating your verbal ability will help determine how well you can perform job tasks such as: reading, proofreading, using instructional manuals, and writing letters and memos. The verbal ability test will cover the following topics:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Vocabulary and spelling
  • Writing and grammar

Mathematical Ability 

The mathematical ability test is only required for positions requiring some level of math aptitude. The mathematical ability test will cover the following topics:

  • Arithmetic
  • Ratios and proportions
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Reasoning problems
  • Interpreting/analyzing data, tables and graphs

Clerical Ability 

The clerical ability test will measure how fast and accurate you are performing different clerical tasks. The clerical ability test will assess how well you can perform some of the following tasks:

  • Filing
  • Typing
  • Name/Number Checking
  • Stenography
  • Coding

Other Topics

Some jobs may require you to take exams on topics such as:

  • Following directions, coding and memory
  • Decision-making
  • Reasoning

How to Pass the Civil Service Test

The civil service exam is simply designed to assess the test taker's current knowledge, aptitudes, and competencies. Many potential test-takers find themselves a bit anxious while preparing for the civil service exam before they even sit for the exam.

Most of this nervousness springs from –

  • A natural reaction to test-taking. This is extraordinarily common but can be overcome with proper study preparation.  
  • A test taker who does not understand the purpose of the test

The typical anxiety that surrounds the civil service exam is best managed by adequately preparing for the actual exam. Appropriately preparing for the civil service examination is a confidence-boosting exercise as well. Consider the following study guides if you are required to take the civil service exam -  

  • Begin by taking a civil service diagnostic exam to act as a baseline score to compare your future improvements. This baseline score is key to understanding just how much (and how fast) progress has been made through your study efforts. 
  • Create a reasonable study plan to follow. Remember, the civil service exam is not a licensing exam, so a few hours each day for the month preceding the test date should suffice. Design the study plan to work with (not in conflict) your personal body-clock and lifestyle choices. 

Civil Service Practice Tests

Select from one of the available study guides, practice tests, and sample questions available online and through preparation guides

The objective of the preparation is to learn – 

  • The format of the Civil Service Exam – i.e., the Civil Service Exam is a timed exam
  • The material that will be included on the test – i.e., time management, critical thinking and problem solving, among others
  • To follow a strategically sound study plan
  • Practice, and then practice some more

 It is noted that the Civil Service Commission (CSC) does NOT explicitly endorse any company or review website. Additionally, while the contents to these valuable study tools differ from the actual test questions on the Civil Service Exam, these study prep materials designed for civil service exam takers are incredibly insightful and helpful.  

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