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About the Civil Service Exam

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The term “civil service” describes branches of public service that handle government administration. Jobs in any government organization -- whether it is federal, state or local -- are civil service jobs, with benefits and requirements that often differ from private-sector jobs. Employment in the civil service offers the opportunity to serve the public by providing essential services. Not every civil service job requires taking a civil service exam, however, and passing the exam doesn’t guarantee getting the job.

Why There Are Exams

Civil service exams are eligibility tests that job applicants for certain jobs must take -- and pass -- to gain employment in specific government agencies. The exams are a method of appointing government employees on the basis of a merit system supported by competitive examinations. Applicants taking the tests must demonstrate the skills that are necessary for the job, and the tests are generally minimal qualifications that help weed out unqualified applicants.

Jobs that Might Require the Exam

The federal government requires specialized civil service exams for certain entry-level positions, and for jobs with the postal service, foreign service, customs, air traffic control and law enforcement. However, the majority of government jobs don’t require a written civil service test. Instead, they are filled through competitive examinations of applicants’ backgrounds, experience and education. State and local civil service jobs and requirements vary. Jobs in state or local law enforcement, corrections departments, professional fire departments, emergency medical and dispatch, health and social work, public works and sanitation departments may require civil service exams. Certain accounting, engineering, clerical, and information technology jobs may also require applicants to take the exam.

Passing the Exam

The applicant must be prepared to answer test questions specific to the job. For example, questions for U.S. Postal Service jobs may test your ability to remember addresses and detect differences in addresses, such as 12711 Adams or 12771 Adams. For management jobs, the test may include questions about your experience in supervisory situations. Test study guides are available online and in many libraries and bookstores.

Exam Logistics

Federal civil service jobs are posted online, and applicants can apply, submit a resume and complete an occupational questionnaire on the websites of major government agencies. If the job requires a civil service exam, the applicant will be notified of the date and location of the test. For jobs at the state and local level, visit the appropriate website to look for listings of job openings. The sites may provide information on whether a civil service exam is required.


As a long-time newspaper reporter and staff writer, Kay Bosworth covered real estate development and business for publications in northern New Jersey. Her extensive career included serving as editor of a business education magazine for the McGraw-Hill Book Company. The Kentucky native earned a BA from Transylvania University in Lexington.

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