The Civil Service exams are tough, but there's little snobbery about Whitehall today, says Nick Jackson

In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism; in the West, some add, capitalism triumphed over democracy. If you are more interested in democracy than capital, and don't want to spend the rest of your life as a salesman, there are few better places to start than the corridors of power.

While politicians squabble, it is the civil servants working in central government who often navigate the course of the ship of state. So it's no surprise that the Civil Service Fast Stream - the elite central government graduate training scheme - was voted students' top choice for working in the public sector at the Target National Graduate Awards.

Few careers can match the sheer range and promise of Fast Stream, but many graduates are put off by the fearsome reputation of the Civil Service exams. The assessment process is rigorous, but it is also more open than many private-sector schemes. Fast Stream has a 2:2 minimum requirement and no Ucas point requirement. It is also less susceptible to the snobbery that some City of London HR departments show towards newer universities.

"It's a very diverse group," says Claire Davis, a Fast Stream assessor at the Cabinet Office. "We're looking for breadth of experience and background; absolutely anything, really. One of the things we pride ourselves on is that there isn't a typical Fast Stream candidate or clone."

The idea of the Civil Service clone will be familiar to anyone who grew up with Yes, Minister. But, as central government has been rationalised and re-rationalised over the past two decades, civil servants have had to become as interested in delivery as policy.

"What we're looking for is delivery," Davis says. This can be anything from organising a bop or running a society to setting up an IT firm. "We're not looking for perfection, but whether people can learn from their experience and adapt."

But if your CV is looking a little thin, the advantage of Fast Stream is that it does not just assess your achievements but also your potential, through a series of tests. These begin in September with an online test of verbal reasoning and mental arithmetic as part of the application, and continue with tests organised at regional centres that examine your ability to prioritise tasks, argue a case, deal with people and implement projects.

What applicants will not need is any special knowledge of public policy. Joanna Piper had no idea that she would end up working in government when she graduated with a 2:1 in Italian from Birmingham three years ago. Put off NGO work by the amount of voluntary experience required, Piper, 26, then spent two years temping. She only considered Fast Stream when she stumbled across it in her university careers office.

Last autumn, she started work at the Department for Constitutional Affairs in corporate services, helping to manage the IT department. "When I was first given my role in IT, I wondered if they'd only seen the first two letters of my degree," she says. "But it's been brilliant. I couldn't have enjoyed it more. It's great to get my brain working again."

Piper got as much test practice as she could online, but she thinks the most important preparation for the assessments is done in bed. "The best thing you can do before doing the assessments is to get a good night's sleep," she says. "They're testing your ability to look at information, analyse and debate it - not really something you can revise for."

Most Fast Streamers follow Piper's generalist route, being groomed to take on any area of government. But more specialist routes into government are available, with specialist exams topping up the assessment. Economists and statisticians are in demand in the Civil Service for more technical jobs and to drive policy in departments such as the Treasury.

Dharminder Chattha, 26, has worked as a Treasury economist for four years. He sat the exams while doing his economics MSc at Warwick. "I wanted to work in an environment where I could have an impact, rather than making rich people richer," he says.

After a couple of years doing economic forecasting, Chattha is now in the rather more racy business of outwitting money launderers and blocking terrorist financing. He says his current job is more creative than his earlier work, but even that had its perks: "You see where your work is making an impact. You can point to something in the real world and say, 'I helped to do that.' And going to Number 11 is quite nice."

For information on the Civil Service Fast Stream, visit the website at