China is unrecognisable from the days when emperors ruled the country, but little has changed for those who want to enter the mainland's labyrinthine bureaucracy. Passing the annual test for the civil service remains as formidably difficult as it was when it was known as the Imperial Examination. In ancient times, candidates might have been confined in a cubicle for up to 72 hours while being assessed on their knowledge of the Confucian classics. These days the civil service exam lasts for a morning and the questions are more likely to be on how to protect the environment and pressing social problems. But the sheer number of people taking it means the pass rate is even lower than in imperial times. Almost one million sat the exam last November in 44 cities across the mainland, according to Xinhua. They were vying for just 15,000 positions in the civil service, meaning they had a one in 67 chance of passing. With those fearsome odds, would-be government workers are turning to specialist schools to improve their chances. In recent years, the number of institutions on the mainland offering coaching for the civil service exam has increased dramatically. There are now about 20 in Beijing alone, charging fees of up to 3,000 yuan (HK$3,407) for a course of prepping. 'More and more schools are opening because of the popularity of the civil service with students,' says Liu Jingshan, founder of the Beijing Jingshan Civil Worker Test Training Centre. A former professor of Chinese philosophy at Heilongjiang University and a one-time instructor at the Central Party School in Harbin, Liu opened his training centre in 2005. Operating out of an office block in Haidian district, where many of Beijing's universities are located, he has seen a sharp rise in the number of people applying to take his courses. 'We had more students this year than ever before. The main reason is that there are so many graduates now and not enough jobs for them,' says Liu. The huge number of new graduates, more than six million last year, is sending many scurrying for the safety of the civil service. 'There are 175 graduate students in my department and 162 of us took the exam [last] year,' says Yu Tao, 27, a master's graduate from Beijing's China University of Political Science and Law. 'Since the financial crisis, the job situation is really unstable and salaries are getting lower and lower. Actually, it's almost as hard to find a good job as it is to pass the civil service exam,' says Wang Xinyang, who graduated with a degree in horticulture from Shanghai Normal University last summer. She sat the exam in November, along with half of her classmates. 'My parents were very keen for me to take the exam, because they think it's much better to have a stable and decent job than to be working in a company for a higher salary without any security.' In an effort to improve her chances, Wang enrolled at Golden Education, a school affiliated with the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. It offers intensive courses of up to 20 hours and long-term tuition that can last 300 hours. Between 3,000 and 4,000 students attend the school every year and 90 per cent of those who take the longer course pass the exam, claims its director, Li Changjiang. Li says successful candidates have to demonstrate analytical skills and the ability to solve practical problems, as well as a wide knowledge of the challenges facing mainland society. 'The exam is in two sections. The first part is a test of the students' administrative skills, the second part involves them writing an essay that tests their ability to analyse a social problem and offer a solution for it,' says Li. It is the essay that most students struggle with. 'The topics have become much more subjective in the last few years,' says Liu. 'The key thing is the students have to say what they think of issues. That's difficult for a lot of them. Most Chinese students don't think that deeply about social issues, so they can't provide in-depth solutions or arguments. The other problem is that most of them have very little life experience, which means they don't know much about society.' Professor Mao Shoulong, who used to be on the panel setting subjects for the civil service exam, concurs. 'There's no formula for these kinds of questions. It's entirely about the student's subjective views. In China, the education system doesn't ask students to do that very often, so very few candidates can come up with original arguments,' says Mao, dean of the public administration school at Renmin University. Schools try to compensate for that by giving their students a basic template for writing the essay, as well as doing their best to forecast what the essay topic will be. 'Because I taught at the Central Party School in Harbin, I know how government institutions operate. I can predict some of the questions. This year, I predicted there would be a focus on the environment and the use of natural resources,' says Liu. He was right. This year's essay topic was on how to protect the oceans and make the best use of them as a resource. At Golden Education, Li also claims a high success rate in being able to predict the essay questions. Unsurprisingly, both insist that without their coaching it is nearly impossible to pass the exam. 'I think it's very hard without some specialist training like ours,' says Liu. Their claims are backed up by former students. 'Last year, I took the exam without attending a school and I failed. I didn't realise that I had to write the essay in a specific style,' says Yu. 'I learned a lot from attending Professor Liu's classes, especially on how to structure the essay and the sort of official language I should use.' Wang Xinyang didn't even contemplate taking the exam without attending a course. 'I wouldn't have been confident enough because it is such a new field for me,' he says. 'I needed help and encouragement to prepare.' Candidates can take the exam up to three times, and many do. Even in an age when there are myriad employment options, a government position retains the same allure it had back in imperial times. 'It's a very respectable job. Working for the central government, or even for the Beijing municipal government, is a big honour. I think I'll get a lot of respect from the general public,' says Wang Na, a classmate of Yu's at the China University of Law and Politics. Just as in imperial times, passing the civil service exam enables talented people from poor families to move up the social scale. 'It's an open test for any qualified candidate and it enables young people from humble backgrounds to work for the government,' says Mao. Civil service jobs also come with enticing benefits. 'I can get a Beijing hukou [residence permit], as well as medical insurance and an allowance to buy an apartment,' says Yu, who is from Shaanxi province. In a week, the latest crop of candidates will find out if they passed the exam. Those who do will still have to get through a rigorous interview process that weeds out yet more candidates. But if they pass that, then they can look forward to what is perhaps currently the most sought-after career on the mainland. 'You have a good income, wonderful social status and you don't have to worry about losing your job,' says Li. 'It couldn't be more attractive right now.'