How to Improve English for CSS & Other Competitive Examinations

How to Improve English for CSS & Other Competitive Examinations

Preparing for English papers – Essay and Précis & Composition – of CSS examination appears to be a gigantic task for most of the aspirants as we have, over the years, seen that only a few candidates get good marks in these two papers and a vast majority of even the top position-holders secure score between 40 and 50 marks. Examiners reports published by the Federal Public Service Commission also suggest that most aspirants’ level of knowledge in English language is poor. This means they seriously need to work on improving their grammar and vocabulary. In the following paragraphs, some useful suggestions are being presented so as to help the CSS aspirants.

Having a large stock of words makes you a better writer, helping you through the CSS examination and also giving you the edge if you choose another profession. Knowing and understanding a large number of words will make you better understand what you hear or read, and also convey what you know in a more effective manner. So, if your English is weak, you need to improve it and for that purpose, taking formal courses is probably the best option. But make sure these courses are of decent quality. However, if taking a course is not possible, here are some tips for self-learning.

Read Editorial Pages

Start reading the editorial pages of a good newspaper. Spend 30 to 45 minutes doing this each day. The more you read, the more words you will come across, both familiar and unfamiliar ones. Don’t ignore the unfamiliar ones and move on. Pause and read the sentence again. Make sure you understand every word (you may also keep a dictionary with you) and sentence you read. If this means being very slow in the beginning that is absolutely fine.

The more you read, the more words you will come across, but you will only learn new words when you make the effort to find their meaning and usage. Reading will also have the added benefit of being a source of information, knowledge and introduction to different styles of writing.

After you finish reading something, try to summarise the content in your own words, or make an attempt at clearly articulating what you think was the argument in the piece you read.

Develop the Habit of Listening

Start listening to conversations in the English language. Watching English movies is one way of doing this but for CSS aspirants it is better to regularly watch news channels that broadcast talk shows in English language. This will not only help you hone your skills in the usage of English language but will also be highly beneficial for papers like Current Affairs, International Relations, Political Science, International Law, and so on. But, again, this has to be done in a way where you understand every word and sentence that is uttered. You may also download such a programme in audio or video format so as to listen or watch it again and again unless you fully comprehend every bit of that.

Read More: English Essay for CSS

Speak English

As helpful as listening tasks may be, you also need to use English interactively and practice your own speaking skills. Start talking to your friends or fellow aspirants, discuss with them concepts and themes of the subject(s) you are studying. It will help you in making correct usage of the words and will also develop your level of comfort and confidence.

Another option is to talk to yourself in the mirror or record yourself. Listening to the sound of your own voice might be a little bit awkward at first, but you will be able to hear mistakes of which you weren’t previously aware.

You will make mistakes in the beginning but that’s how we learn! You just have to be comfortable with the idea of making mistakes. But make sure you learn from them.

Write, Write and Write

Start writing in English. Start with sentences and smaller pieces. And slowly move towards longer pieces.

When you read an article or watch a movie, summarise the main arguments in your own words. If you want to go beyond a summary and write on any topic that you have read about, make sure you spend a day or two thinking about what you have read before you write anything. In the beginning, it is extremely important. You need to internalise what various authors have said. This is done when you are reflecting on what you have read.

Spending time on thinking about a topic before you start writing has three benefits: a) it synthesises your reading and thinking, b) it facilitates the development of your arguments, and c) it ensures that your voice can emerge as a distinct one, separate from the authors that you might have read.

One cannot overemphasise the importance of developing this habit of thinking independently and as a distinct person. If your argument is just the argument that you read, it is not your argument. If your argument does not take into account what others have said on a topic, it is not well informed. So, read, understand and internalise what others say, but write or speak what you think. This is how your uniqueness will take shape.

Get Feedback

For all of this, mechanisms must be created with a view to getting feedback, especially from people who are better than you are in this area. This is crucial to ensuring progress. Just as poets get feedback from teachers on their poems, you need to get feedback on your reading and writing skills. It is sometimes hard to organise this. For those who cannot organise feedback, learning takes a bit longer; however, if feedback is possible, progress can be more rapid, organised and documented.


Developing reading, speaking, writing and thinking skills takes time and effort. But it can be achieved at any stage in your career. It is easier if it is done when a person is at a school-going age; it gets harder as we become more set in our ways of thinking. But the human brain is very capable of learning at any stage as long as one is willing to put in the effort. I earnestly hope that this write-up, not exhaustive by any stretch, provides a good starting point for people who want to learn about learning.

Major Mistakes Reported by CSS Examiners

1. Candidates lacked conceptual clarity, had shallow knowledge of subject, made grammatical mistakes, and choice of vocabulary was inappropriate.
2. They had poor knowledge of the basic English grammar, punctuation and sentence formation.
3. A significant majority did not have the command over syntax, phraseology or etymology of words.
4. Some basic mistakes related to capitalization, punctuations and spellings were observed.
5. Linguistically, candidates were not at ease in expressing themselves.
6. Majority of the candidates wrote isolated sentences rather than in cohesive paragraphs.
7. Most of the candidates lacked the practice and knowledge of how a comprehensive note is written and showed lack of cohesion, coherence and organizational skills.
8. Most of candidates lacked ability to present the relevant material, and did not know even the basics of essay writing, like paragraph and punctuation.
9. They have demonstrated glaring flaws both in comprehension and expression.
10. The overall standard of grammar produced by candidates is very poor.

A Golden Tip Learn Word Roots

To be better skilled at English, learn the roots of the words, and the origin or roots of words are often from another language, most likely Latin and Greek. Prefixes, suffixes and roots are a significant part of the English language and a great tool for learning new words. If you know that the prefix ‘mono’ is from the Greek word ‘mónos’, meaning ‘alone’, so every word that starts with ‘mono’ will indicate something that is one or single in quantity, i.e., monograph, monarchy, monk, monotheism, etc.

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