CSS Times: Please tell us about your-self your education and achievements?
Mohammad Murtaza: Being an only child, I had a lot of time as a kid which I spent daydreaming or reading.
Consequently, I knew a lot of general things on a range of topics. This has been a defining feature of my life and has helped me in whatever I’ve done: schooling at Aitchison, BS (Hons) at LUMS and now CSS.
(I’m also a trainer and public speaker and have worked extensively in the critical thinking education and local tourism through The History Project and my startup “Turr Lahore”.)
CSS Times: Why did you opt for ‘PAS’ and to which extent it is unique?
Mohammad Murtaza: To be honest, I would have been happy regardless of the service I got, because wherever you go at the end of the day it is your contribution and passion that makes the difference. The fact that I got PAS was lucky, but honestly, every service has its own advantages and unique traits.
The good thing about PAS is the variety of tasks that you are trained to do and the chance to work in the field as well as behind a desk.
CSS Times: What are the steps for preparation for competitive exams?
Mohammad Murtaza: I always advise my students to divide their preparation into four steps:
- Briskly covering the Syllabus
- Consolidating everything studied (through making notes, consulting multiple sources, etc.)
- Past-paper questions’ practice
- Revision (Between 1st January and Exams)
In the first step, get some very basic books and the syllabus and just quickly cover everything in the syllabus, even if you don’t entirely understand it all. This will help you see everything that has to be covered and make a realistic expectation of how much time you need. I usually recommend spending 7 days to cover a 100 mark subject. A good academy can really help you achieve this.
Once you’re done going over the entire syllabus you can start formalising notes, make one-pagers for every topic and seek help for topics that you don’t really understand. Group study at this stage is also a good idea. The goal is to consolidate your learning.
Going to a good academy helps you get a jump start. Make sure you have a good mentor who can guide you throughout the process.
CSS Times: What is the importance of an academy for the students appearing in CSS?
Mohammad Murtaza: Everyone can reach the finish line, whether they go to an academy or not. But going to an academy makes the process much easier. There’s a saying that ‘A smart person learns from his mistakes, but the smartest person learns from other people’s mistakes’. Many people don’t go to an academy and then have to reappear multiple times in the CSS exam to crack it. If you go to an academy, you can learn from the expertise they have gathered over all the years and you can benefit from the mistakes/learnings of other people. For people who want to ace the CSS in their first attempt, I strongly recommend an academy.
CSS Times: What is the method for CSS preparation regarding books, notes, etc?
Mohammad Murtaza: Books are now old-fashioned and not sufficient alone! Supplement your study with online resources; even a simple Google search can help you understand a topic much better than some traditional books. Notes should also be made in both soft copy and hard copy. I also recommend making diagrams, maps and flowcharts in your notes to help you memorise them better.
There are a large number of academies for the guidance of CSS students. Are they really helpful for them?
Ummm… that’s a tough question. I can’t comment on the academies where I have not studied, but I think wherever you go, you should always use your own common sense.
Some academies have standard notes that they share with all their students. As a result, these students don’t critically think themselves and just reproduce those notes in the exams. This leads to low marks as the examiner can tell that this person is just regurgitating what his academy taught him.
Whenever you go to an academy, make sure that they help you learn how to think and critically analyse, not just share notes and memories.
CSS Times: Did you join any academy for CSS preparation? What did you prefer between books and notes?
Mohammad Murtaza: I did join an academy for 6 months. The biggest advantage I got going to the academy was that I made a lot of friends who were as motivated as I am. We were able to channel our energies in the same direction and help each other reach the end goal. Consequently, today we are all CSPs and are going to be in the training together.
I think, between books and notes I have no preference. One needs to be pragmatic and see what is more helpful depending upon the subject, the topic and your style of studying.
CSS Times: Most candidates fail English Essay and Précis and Composition papers. What steps would you suggest to get through these?
Mohammad Murtaza: Firstly, work on your grammar, spellings and expression.
When you read something good, don’t just rush through your reading. Pause and reflect on the expressions that you are reading and try to replicate them in your writing.
Secondly, we sometimes write very good stuff that only makes sense to us! We think it is simply written but for a third person, it can be very hard to read. We should always keep the examiner in mind when writing for the CSS and make sure that what we write is easy to understand and written so clearly that the examiner doesn’t have to struggle to understand it.
CSS Times: Students feel confused while choosing optional subjects but it is the most vital step too. For fresh aspirants, suggest the best method to choose optional subjects?
Mohammad Murtaza: The confusion with optional subjects comes from two things: 1. Every optional subject has its advantages and disadvantages, which makes the choice very difficult, for example: IR is really short and easy but gives a low score, while Accounting is very long and technical but gives a really high score; 2. People try to predict the trend, even though it is impossible to say for sure which subject will get good marks and will subject will suffer or get hit.
My advice is to ignore the trend and set a three step criteria:
CSS Times: Do you have enough time to do justice with the subject? Is the syllabus so alien or lengthy that it will take time away from other subjects?
Mohammad Murtaza: Is the subject score-able? For example: mathematics allows you to score 100/100 but Literature and Philosophy can never get you very high marks. Try to take subjects that can score well.
Sometimes a subject will be good on one criteria and bad on another criteria. I recommend you balance them out: so one subject that is short, one subject that is scoring, one subject that you like, and so on.
Sometimes a subject is very scoring but in the succeeding years, that particular subject does not yield good scores. Comment.
This is true. It is a risk factor that we need to be aware of, but there is very little that we can do except pray.
Usually new subjects score high or subjects with a lot of candidates (like IR) score low. It is a personal decision if you want to take a subject which is risky. Risky subjects usually give either very good marks or very low scores. I prefer safe subjects that don’t get very high marks, but also don’t get very low marks.
CSS Times: Can cramming be helpful in passing the CSS exam?
Mohammad Murtaza: No. Cramming is not sustainable. If you have two or three subjects and a short syllabus, then you can cram. But here we have almost 11 subjects and a very vast syllabus. It is better to learn how to think and apply your knowledge, rather than rote learn or cram.
CSS Times: Sometimes extraordinary students cannot qualify CSS while an average student gets allocation. Comment?
Mohammad Murtaza: Luck plays a huge role, but it is also true that sometimes good students are not aware of the nitty-gritty of presentation. It is possible that you are very smart but are unable to convince the examiner because you write very long, complicated sentences.
Paper presentation, clarity and organisation of answer are as important as knowledge and understanding.
CSS Times: Any message you would like to convey
Mohammad Murtaza: The world is really big and has a lot to offer. The best minds don’t have to rely on something external to help them. Every single one of the readers of this interview are precious – they have an education and a lot of potential to innovate and do something amazing. If they are successful in CSS, that is very good. If they can’t make it in their first attempt, they can sit for the exam again, twice. But it’s all in the hands of Allah. Don’t take a lot of pressure because even if you don’t qualify, it is possible that Allah has another, better plan for you.
CSS Times: You are proud faculty of ICEP Network…your views about ICEP.
Mohammad Murtaza: Teaching at ICEP has been a wonderful experience: it has a good faculty, an amazing administration and great students who are passionate and eager to learn. ICEP is slowly emerging as a centre of CSS preparation in Pakistan and I hope that the new and competitive methods of teaching that ICEP is using allows it’s students to stand out and make a mark on the CSS exam and this country.