Shanza Faiq, CSS 2018 Topper, Shares Her Journey And Tips On Acing Pakistan’s Toughest Exam!

Shanza Faiq is the name that made it to every news and publication’s headline as she aced and topped one of the toughest exams in 2018; the Central Superior Service Exam (CSS). She is a graduate of LUMS university and has achieved a lot at a young age. Furthermore, she was awarded the Prestigious Women of Pakistan Scholarship in Warwick. She is already employed and has extensive work experience as well.


Shanza also happens to be one of the two females that was selected to work for the Pakistan Youth Parliament from Islamabad. What has she not taken on? She is a successful writer as well with articles published on Dawn.

This was just a small introduction to her. If you wish to get to know Shanza more, then the article below is where you need to be.


What good is anyone’s knowledge if it cannot be passed on?

Shanza did just that by opening a poll on her Facebook asking to vote for which area should she touch on first and give insights as to how she managed to prepare for her CSS exam.

Her Two Options Were: 

1.My CSS journey/schedule 

2.Subject Selection Tips 

Trust us when we say that she left no information out and shared everything is extensive details. There are some great tips on how one can make their minds about which subjects to go for, along with her impressive journey on how she organized her routine and self for this task.


From Indecisiveness About Career Path To Considering Her Father’s Suggestion.

Shanza starts off saying, “Firstly, I returned from the UK towards the last week of September 2017, and spent most of October mulling between a career in law or the development sector. Towards mid-October, my father suggested I give the CSS as a career option, and pursue my other interests after the exam.

Hey guys, the polling is almost over and I think I have a fair idea of the direction in which you guys want me to go. Since ‘my CSS journey/schedule’ option has fared much better than the subject selection one, I shall expound upon how I went about tackling this seemingly gargantuan task.

She continued:

“From the get-go, I intuitively knew that I wanted to opt for subjects that would not be ones that everyone was taking and would build upon what I had already studied and had an interest in. The underlying rationale behind this was: 

A) If you opt for subjects that everyone is taking, such as IR or ILaw, it might be harder for you to score amazingly because the competition is tougher;
B) If you take subjects you have a background/interest in, you can cover the syllabus quickly and tackle ‘out of the box’ questions that are becoming increasingly common in the CSS exam.

One of the main reasons I was able to successfully tackle this exam in a 12-13 week time span was because:

A) I previously held world distinctions in Sociology and World Affairs in my A and O levels respectively, and had studied sociology courses at LUMS, hence did not need to spend too long studying either Sociology or Current Affairs subjects;

B) I took Political Science with Constitutional Law; the advantage being that Constitutional Law’s syllabus is exactly the same as Pol Sci Paper 2’s, hence I did not have to study separately for Constitutional Law;

C) I took gender which was an area I had a deep academic interest in, prior knowledge of and hence was able to cover it within 2-3 days;

D) Governance and Public Policy was also covered in 2-3 days because it is a largely common-sense based, general knowledge paper that can be tackled by someone who has been reading newspapers regularly. A lot of the theories in GPP were similar to the ones in sociology and political science, and overall I found the subject to not be based on rote-learning;

E) I did not study pre-partition topics for Pak Affairs given the recent CSS exam pattern, which is tilting towards post-partition, analytical questions. This saved me a lot of time from cramming and note-making;

F) I did not study separately for either Pakistan Affairs or Current Affairs; instead, I read Dawn daily (a habit I inculcated since I was a child), along with The Economist, Foreign Affairs, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, The Hindu, research articles published in journals (can be accessed through JSTOR or SSRN or a simple google search with the words ‘pdf’ written after your desired topic) etc. This was a daily routine and I would set aside 2-3 hours every single day for newspapers and magazines; this meant that my prep for both Pak Affairs and Current Affairs was taking place daily;

G) I did not study separately for either English Essay paper or the Precis paper; I enrolled myself in an academy to take English classes but left after a few classes when I realized I could tackle this on my own, building on my own knowledge and writing style, rather than following someone else’s pattern. Therefore, NO separate days were allocated for either of the English papers; 

H) The main subjects that took the bulk of my time were Political Science, Islamiyat, General Science (because this was a new area for me, as I do not have a science background as such);

I) I did not spend my prep time reading entire books on Pak/current affairs – I skimmed a plethora of books quickly only to jot down 4-5 important points from each and do not advocate spending entire months reading whole books on topics; you simply do not have enough time or space in the actual exam to regurgitate what you read in each book. Learn to study smart and pick up important points from an article or book that you are reading, and this is a habit that is developed over time;

J) I made and revised notes for subjects such as Islamiyat and Political Science by condensing them each time so that by the end, each topic was squeezed within one A4 sized paper. This helped me immensely in revising topics a day before each exam and helped me retain points a lot better too. Moreover, all my notes were handwritten and my ability to write fast and read fast, I believe, played a significant role in enabling me to cover a lot of topics in a short span of time;

K) I made a lot of maps and diagrams for topics, especially the constitutions in Political Science, on large chart papers which I then hung on the walls in my bedroom. Sometimes being able to visualize information helps in understanding and retaining it. I also wrote all the quotes and ayahs for Islamiyat on post-it notes which I stuck near my writing table’s wall in my room, which again helped in me being able to memorize them;

L) The three months I spent prepping for the CSS meant that I did nothing else; no tv shows, no social life, no job, no traveling – I knew that if I was going to do this, then I was going to give it my all;

M) I went to an academy for psychological prep for the CSS interview after I had cleared the written part of the exam (the psych prep is a whole different ballgame altogether and consists of different tasks that I believe one should go to an academy for, but only for a while). Moreover, I only gave one mock interview because I found them to be an utter waste of time;

N) The skeleton of my prep was based around CSS past papers and molding my notes around tackling repeated topics – which meant I skipped a lot of topics and often during each exam, I remember having to attempt one question solely on my own reasoning skills without being prepared beforehand for the topic;

O) I did not give any mock exams which I believe helped me save an immense amount of time

During my prep, I went all-in and spent about 15-16 hours every day studying with no distractions – this went to 20 hours sometimes towards the last days of the exam. I generally do not sleep more than 4-5 hours every night, hence sacrificing my sleep was not an issue for me. I did, however, utilize my time critically by spending each waking moment surrounded by my books or my notes – even my car journey to and from the library was spent studying. Moreover, I studied mainly in a library with about 9-10 other students also preparing for the CSS with me – this ensured that I remained driven and that I did not slack off or get lazy during my prep.

For me, it is quite amusing to see people doubt my CSS journey and to them, I can only say one thing – the CSS does not have to attempt according to a ‘set’ or standardized way; it is imperative to build upon one’s prior knowledge and academic background, and mold it to the exam’s pattern, rather than the other way round. It is also important to select subjects that overlap each other, in order to save prep time and to utilize time efficiently rather than wasting it.

Everyone’s CSS journey is, and should be, different; please stop blindly adhering to whatever is being indoctrinated to you in academies or by so-called CSS experts and gurus. If anything, I hope my example is a source of motivation for you all to know that you need to introspect and figure out what subjects work for you and what study style works for you. Moreover, everyone’s skills and innate qualities are different – I can write fast and thus was able to make notes quickly, I have been reading books since I was a child hence have the ability to scan documents for useful information quickly, I also have a memory that tilts towards being photographic, which helps me in remembering information during exams. Furthermore, I have always believed in giving my 100% to whatever I chose to do and have done my utmost to excel in every academic endeavor in my life and I feel the CSS was a tangible manifestation of all the knowledge and information I have inculcated over the years. Which is why it is imperative to develop a reading habit, and a habit to critically analyze and debate topics, from an early age. It is extremely difficult to ‘learn’ good English or critical reasoning skills or the ability to think on the spot and figure out how to analyze an issue from multiple angles when putting on the spot.

P.S A few others allocated with me this year have also cleared the exam in 2.5-3.5 months, hence again – it IS doable, but everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, their own abilities, academic backgrounds, prior knowledge, academic/professional experiences, etc. Someone with an engineering background with no knowledge of social sciences will, of course, take a longer time tackling sociology or gender or international relations. This should be basic common sense for all those wondering and postulating about my schedule; again, introspection and self-actualization is the key prior to delving within the realms of CSS!”

Wish you all the best of luck!

She explains how indecisive she was about taking the CSS exam and couldn’t make her mind up. However, she was quite certain about the subjects she would opt for. She says, “From the get-go, I intuitively knew that I wanted to opt for subjects that would not be ones that everyone was taking and would build upon what I had already studied and had an interest in.”

Shanza’s Words Of Wisdom.

“In the end, all I can say is – there is nothing that can stop you from achieving your goal if you put all your heart and soul into it and if it is written for you by Him; follow your gut instinct, build upon your innate strengthens, interests and prior academic knowledge, read newspapers and research articles religiously and make your own notes.”


Do you plan on taking the exam? Share your thoughts in the comment section below. 

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