Is It Hard to Pass the Civil Service Exam? 

A Guide for Newbies 

You’ve made an honorable choice if you’ve decided to pursue a career in civil service. Jobs in the public sector consist of positions that support the way of life for all of society. You’ll be providing essential services for fellow humans on a day-to-day basis. But, the road to get there often starts with the civil service exam. It’s the test you have to pass to even be considered for some types of civil service careers. 

Is it hard to pass the civil service exam? Yes, it can be if you don’t know what to expect. No, if you’re prepared with what is in this guide. Here’s what you’ll find: 


  • All about the civil service exam 
  • How to get started 
  • What’s on the test 
  • Studying for your exam 
  • Test day expectations 
  • How many hours is the civil service exam 
  • What happens after your test 

All About the Civil Service Exam 

How Do They Grade the Civil Service Exam? 

You should start your preparations with a greater understanding of the civil service exam and its purpose. The exam isn’t meant to keep you from entering into the career path you want. It’s intended to help you highlight your knowledge base and show that you have the skill set needed to do the job you’re aiming for. 

Civil service has been in existence for quite some time. The civil service exam was created because the government wanted a way to make the jobs more standardized so they could put people in positions that were better suited for the type of work they’d be doing.  

In 1883, the federal government put together the U.S. Civil Service Commission to regulate all civil service jobs. This commission developed a system to help governing agencies in the public sector screen applicants so they could hire people based on merit. The system included implementing the civil service exam. 

In the beginning, all potential civil service candidates had to take a civil service exam. The exam was the same across the board. Whether you were applying to work for the federal government, the state government, or a local government, and regardless of what type of position you wanted, all applicants took a universal version of the test. 

As the decades went on, there was growing concern that the universal test didn’t really serve the purpose that was intended. Government offices were expanding and splitting off, and as a result, there were new jobs that were much more specialized calling for more tailored skill sets.  

The Civil Service Reform Act was passed in 1978. It did a lot to start changing the laws surrounding the civil service exam. Eventually, though it wasn’t directly included in the language of the reform act, its impact would be seen when the universal version of the test stopped being used, and some agencies stopped requiring a civil service exam to be passed at all. 

The civil service exam you have to pass today will depend on the career field you are aiming to get into, along with what level of government you will be working for. Some civil servants won’t have to pass a test at all, however, many still do.  

You can count on having to pass a civil service exam for many specific career fields. Below is a list of some of them: 

  • Federal Bureau of Investigations 
  • Police Officers 
  • Border Patrol 
  • Internal Revenue Service 
  • United States Customs 
  • Air Traffic Control 
  • Central Intelligence Agency 
  • Postal Service 
  • TSA 
  • Secret Service
  • Foreign Service 

This list is certainly not exhaustive. There are many more career fields that will require a version of the exam. These are just some of the popular fields where it is necessary for you to pass a written test. You’ll find that about 80% of civil service jobs have more than the exam requirement, though. There will also be assessments of your relevant work experience, educational achievements, and your background.  

You’ll be able to find out if there is a civil service exam requirement by reading the job announcement, in most cases. You can also go to the governing agency’s website to look up all of the necessary steps for employment. The sooner you look into this information, the better, because you’ll need to find out when the test windows are and give yourself enough time to prepare for the test. 

Agencies use the civil service exam as a filtering system. By screening applicants this way, they can choose to spend their time interviewing candidates that have already proven they have the skills and abilities needed to be successful in specific career fields. It saves the agencies time and money by allowing them to consider people who are well-suited for certain jobs.  

There are two types of tests. You will either be taking a competitive test or a non-competitive test. The grading for these is slightly different. If you’re taking a non-competitive test, then there will be a set score, usually somewhere in the 70% range, that you have to reach or surpass to be considered for employmentCompetitive tests require that you reach or exceed the average score in your testing group. You’ll be ranked by score and placed onto an eligible list which is then given to the appropriate hiring department. The higher you are ranked on the list, the earlier you will be considered for a position.  

Once you’ve chosen what career field you want to go into and you’ve determined there is a civil service exam requirement for it, it’s time to start planning and preparing to pass your test. 


How to Get Started 

How Do They Grade the Civil Service Exam? 

Depending on what job you’ve targeted, you may be able to register for an exam that isn’t for one specific position. You can take an Exam for Future Vacancies, in some cases. This means that you take the test for a specific career field or agency and then use your scores to apply for any open positions after that.  

There are also some agencies that hire on a continuous basis, so their exams are offered throughout the year on a periodic schedule.  

The Open Competitive positions are the ones where you’ll take an exam and hope to score higher than your competitors so your name is ranked higher on the eligible list. These exams will likely be offered at fewer times. 

You should be able to find the Notice of Examination, or NOE, somewhere on the agency’s website or within the job announcement you have reviewed. The NOE gives you more details about the exam and specific job information.  

Registering for a civil service exam will often require that you submit documentation and educational transcripts as part of the process. Be aware that there can be a lag time on transcript requests, so you’ll want to make sure you allow enough time for them to make it to the government agency. You’ll have to send copies of your license or other identification cards, as well as any necessary certifications they’ve requested. 

There is usually an application fee for you to pay. You can submit that online or send it through the mail. It will likely have to be paid at the time you are applying to take the exam, so be prepared to do that during your registration process.  

This whole process has to be completed by the specified filing date, so you need to keep that in mind. There are only so many spots available on test days and they often will fill up very fast. Make sure you get your application in early so you assure yourself a spot. Also, include all of the necessary documentation at the time you submit your application so there are no delays in your registration. 

It’s a good idea to print a copy of your application and keep it with all of the documentation you submitted for your records. It’s not likely there will be an issue with your application and processing, but it’s good to be prepared, just in case. 

You will be notified by the testing agency within 12-14 weeks, at the latest, of your confirmed test spot. Should you not hear anything, you should reach out to the appropriate agency to check on your application submission. 

 Thinking about a civil service career? Find out what certain jobs earn here:  

What’s On the Test? 

As there isn’t one universal test anymore, the content of them varies depending on what agency you’re testing for and what type of job you’ll be applying for. The exams are also different based on what level of government you’ll be working for, meaning federal, state, or local. 

There are some general abilities that most of the governing agencies will be looking for, however. You’ll need to show you have good verbal and written skills, mathematical abilities, and general clerical skills. There will be questions on all of the tests that cover your decision-making ability, logical reasoning skills, and how well you can follow directions, as well as recall information. Beyond the general subjects, many of the exams have job-related questions, too.  

Most civil service jobs will have instances where you’ll need to read and understand something or write notes, memos, presentations, or any number of other correspondence types. This is why the exams all include a verbal and written skills section. Questions in this section will test for grammar skills, spelling and vocabulary, how well you can write, and reading comprehension.  

You’re likely going to find some math questions on your test, but if the career field you’re going into doesn’t require much math use, this won’t be a very heavy section. Some civil service positions have a need for people with high levels of mathematical skills. The exams for those jobs will consist of more complex problems in subject areas, such as ratios, algebra, proportions, data interpretation, understanding graphs and tables, reasoning, and geometry. 

While you will find some questions on most of the exams regarding general knowledge of computers and typing, any kind of clerical position, administration job, or other office-based employment will have a clerical ability section. Questions for these types of tests will cover typing skills, filing, coding, stenography, and organizational ability.  

For anyone who is trying to get a job in foreign affairs, you can bet on there being many questions about the federal government, the history of the United States, and our country’s foreign policies.  

Law enforcement candidates will need to know something about the duties of police officers and others who uphold the laws of society. You’re not expected to know everything about the career field, of course, but you need a general understanding of what you’ll be doing on a daily basis 

As you can see, you’ll want to make sure you’re ready to answer some general education questions, as well as career specific onesYou will find that for some of the tests, certain agencies will require you to meet a minimum on specific sections. An example of this would be the civil service exam for clerical positions. You’ll need to make a minimum of 33 points on the verbal section and a minimum combined score of 80 for the verbal and clerical sections together. Ultimately, you still have to pass the test overall, as well.  


Studying for Your Exam 

How Do They Grade the Civil Service Exam? 

People often wonder if they should study for their civil service exams, at all. Our response to this is yes, you should. It’s not likely you’re going to know everything, but you can definitely put yourself in a better position for passing your test by putting in some study time.  

Study sessions will depend on the version of the exam you have to take. So your first step is to find out what’s on your specific test. From there, you can start looking at how to prepare for it.  

The number one reason why test-takers fail the civil service exam is time. People simply run out of time. The more prepared you are, though, the less likely it is that you’ll run out of time. When you know what’s coming, you don’t get hung up for longer than you should on questions and different sections of the test. The other thing you need to do is read any and all instructions thoroughly to make sure you know exactly what’s expected of you. 

The best way to prepare for your test is to spend time taking practice tests so you can get a good feel for what the questions will be like. If you familiarize yourself with practice questions, you won’t have to spend time during the test staring at the problem trying to figure out what it is they’re asking you. The practice questions allow you to do your figuring out prior to your actual test. 

You’ll also learn how to manage your time more efficiently through timed practice testsThe more times you take the practice tests, the less time it should take you to get through all of the questions. Cutting your time down as much as possible will help you to lessen your anxiety level on the day of the test. You’ll know you don’t have to worry about how long it’s going to take you because you spent time getting ready.  

If there’s a particular subject you struggle with, make sure to give extra attention to that area. Prioritize that subject and study it early. You may find that you need more time to grasp the topics associated with that subject. If you wait to study something you have a hard time with until just before your exam day, you could run out of time to learn what you need to. 

Find the right resources to help you with your learning. If you study simply by reading a book, but you find the information just isn’t sticking, then try a different method. Look for online lectures covering the same information so you can hear it, as well as see it. Make flashcards, use workbooks, and if you need extra help, ask someone to tutor you. 

Allow yourself the time to study. Your study sessions should be somewhat organized. You don’t need to layout an entire schedule, with times and dates and lengths, to follow right down to the minute. Just know that you’re going to allow for sessions each week and keep them to around two hours, three hours at a maximum. Waiting until right before your exam to try and cram in everything you need to know will only cause you more stress, and frankly, it just won’t work. You won’t be able to retain much information. The same is true of any study sessions that are too long. At a certain point, your brain won’t be able to process what you’re studying enough to remember it. Study smart, not hard.  


Test Day Expectations 

The testing site for your exam will depend on what test you’re taking. Regardless of where it is, you’ll need to be familiar with how to get there and how much time you’ll need to get there.  

If you’re late for your exam, you won’t be permitted to take it. Should you have to travel to take yours, it’s a good idea to be in town the day before the test. Allowing for that extra day will make it where you have ample time to deal with any weather delays or other unexpected obstacles that could come up.  

Once you arrive at the testing site, you’ll need to check in with a government-issued photo ID. In many cases, you’ll be asked to provide two forms of ID. If you’re unsure about the number of IDs you need, it’s best to bring two with you, just in case. You should also bring with you the confirmation page and a copy of your application that you printed at the time you registered for the test. 

Some facilities will allow you to bring your own No. 2 pencils and a basic calculator to use on the test. Check with your specific location, though, because there are some that do not allow anything in the room with you. In these cases, they will be provided for you upon arrival for your exam.  


How Many Hours Is the Civil Service Exam? 

Is It Hard to Pass the Civil Service Exam? 

Different versions of the exam have various numbers of questions, and thus take varying amounts of time to complete. The average number of questions is around 165 to 170, overall. You’ll usually be given somewhere between two and a half to three hours to complete the entire test.  

If you find you’re running out of time, you should go through the rest of the test and just fill something in. Unless you are told something different from your specific agency, there is no penalty for guessing. You stand a chance of getting some of them right by filling in something. If you leave questions blank, you simply get them wrong. 

What Happens After Your Test? 

For the most part, you will wait to get your results in the mail. The amount of time you’ll be waiting varies a lot between different agencies. In some cases, you might receive your results in a few weeks, while others will be waiting as long as a year.  

If your test was a competitive version, you’ll wait to find out where you are ranked on the eligible list that will be sent to the hiring department of the agency you want to work for. The higher your name is ranked on that list, the earlier you’ll get an invitation to interview, and the more likely it is that you’ll get the job you want.  

If you don’t pass the exam, that’s not the end for you if you don’t want it to be. You can take the test again. It will be important for you to check with your governing agency to find out how long you’ll have to wait to retake the civil service exam. There are huge differences in these policies between all the different governments. 

Passing your test does not guarantee you a job. For some positions, there are many other requirements to fulfill. You may have to take a physical fitness test. You often will have to have a background check. There are drug tests for a lot of these jobs, too. You may have to participate in group interviews and multiple individual interviews, as well.  

Your civil service exam is the beginning of the road moving toward a rewarding career. After you pass your test, you’ll have to continue on down that road.  


Is the Civil Service Exam Tough? 

Is It Hard to Pass the Civil Service Exam? 

Civil service exams are not designed to knock you out of the running for jobs. They are meant to filter out applicants who aren’t well-suited for specific positions. So, is the civil service exam tough? Sure it can be. But, no, not if you prepare for it.  

The best thing you can do for yourself is to find out what all is on your test version. Then, spend time studying for it. Take plenty of practice tests and work on getting your time under what the maximum time allowed is. 


Get plenty of sleep the night before your test. Eat a good breakfast. Show up early, after all of your preparations, and you’re sure to achieve the score you’re aiming for, if not better. 

Related Questions

How much does a civil service test cost? 

 The cost of the test can vary across different governments. You will have to pay a non-refundable application fee for most of them, though. Some are as low as $15. You’ll often find the fees for uniformed positions to be $25.  

Not all agencies require you to pay for a test, however. For instance, you can take the USPS test for free. You can usually find each agency’s individual information on their website or in the details of some job announcements.  


When can I take a civil service exam? 

You have to be at least 18 years old to sit for the civil service exam. You’ll also need to be a legal resident of a city or state where you’re applying. You should check with the city or state you’re wanting to test for because some of the governments will have requirements like having to be a resident for at least six months before you will be eligible for their civil service exam.  


Can you take a civil service test online? 

Your process will certainly start online, but the test itself will have to be taken at a testing facility. A lot has been done to ensure people don’t cheat on these exams. Tests taken online are much harder to monitor for any unfair practices.  

You will apply for the job of your choice online, as well as register to take the necessary civil service exam. You’ll also maintain a federal resume online and fill out any required job-specific questionnaires online.  

Once your application and registration are processed, you’ll be notified about when you can take your test and the physical location where it will be administered. Tests will be either computer-based or in paper and pencil format. 


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 Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.