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Overview of The State of California Exam Process

The State of California, like other government jobs, uses a merit-based system for hiring. This means that applicants must begin the process of getting a job by proving they are among the most qualified candidates. Every applicant for a specific State of California classification takes the exact same exam. They answer the same questions, in the same format in the same setting. This ensures that the people who are the most qualified are the ones most likely to get the job.

Working in a hiring department for the State of California, one of the complaints we hear most often is, "Why is the State's hiring process so confusing?" It's a great question. There are thousands of open State jobs, but it can seem time-consuming and complicated to get hired. The part of the hiring process that seems to cause the most confusion and difficulty for jobseekers is often the exam portion. The California Job Blog is here to help with this article.

The State of California Exam Process

Exams with the State of California are how people become eligible for classifications. If you’ve never worked for the State before, you need to take an exam. An exam is how you get eligibility. It’s very common for public-service jobs to require an applicant to have civil service eligibility. It’s how public sector employers ensure the hiring process is merit-based. It helps ensure that the only consideration in an appointment is who is the most qualified.

Taking an Exam

The Examination Bulletin displays the salary range, minimum qualifications (MQs), and a job description. The description gives you a general idea of what people in that classification do. The Bulletin also tells you what kind of examination it is. Examinations can be in-person or online.

If it is an in-person, it could be either a written or oral exam. Either way, there will be information about how to schedule yourself. In-person exams require you to schedule yourself in advance. Space is limited and can fill up fast for popular exams. They can take place at designated testing centers, or at the department/agency you’re applying to.

The State is slowly converting exams into the type that can be completed online. Candidates will sometimes come across hybrid-type exams in which a file is downloaded and filled out but must be returned by mail. These are less common, but they are still utilized by some departments.

The bulletin may also give you information about how to prepare for the exam, including a link to the class specifications. Read the Classification Specifications carefully because this is the legal job description. It will provide an overview of the classification, typical tasks and the minimum qualifications. You must meet the Minimum Qualifications to take the exam.


Keep in mind that not every department in the State of California uses the same exams or the same classifications. Departments have the power to decide which classifications are the most appropriate for their individual departments, and the most effective ways to administer exams for those classifications.

Some classifications are used by every department in the state. Some of these include Staff Services Analyst, Office Technician and Staff Services Manager. If you take one of these exams, it is considered Statewide. That means taking the exam will give you eligibility in that classification in every department that has a vacant position.

Many classifications and their exams are specific to a single department or a group of departments. The exam bulletin will tell you where you'll have eligibility when you pass the exam for that classification.

Below is an exam bulletin for the Associate Governmental Program Analyst classification. You can see in the image below the exam is listed as STATE OF CALIFORNIA, indicating the exam will give candidates eligibility in any department, throughout the state.

Associate Governmental Program Analyst Exam Bulletin

Now, in the following image you seen an exam bulletin for the classification of Public Utilities Regulatory Analyst. Below the name of the classification, instead of STATE OF CALIFORNIA you see PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION. Therefore, you'd know that this exam will give you eligibility only for this specific department.

Public Utilities Regulatory Analyst Exam Bulletin

Becoming Reachable

All hiring in the State of California is merit-based, and the purpose of exams is to assess merit. Candidates are scored and ranked based on this assessment. All candidates that pass an exam are placed on an eligible list. However, in most cases, departments are limited to hiring candidates from the top 3 ranks of the list. This rule is integral to the merit system because it ensures that the people selected for positions are the most qualified.

Eligible lists for classifications are fluid and are constantly in-flux. A candidate with an exam score corresponding to the fourth rank isn't stuck there. Take, for example, an eligible list that has 5 candidates in the first rank. As these first-ranked candidates are hired, they are taken off the list, and when none remain, those in the second rank move up to the first rank. This continues down the list and ensures that the most qualified candidates are hired first.

It should be noted that a candidate's score on an exam doesn't change. If you score an 85% on an exam, your score will remain 85% for the duration of your eligibility. What can change over time is which rank your score corresponds to.

Being appointed to a position isn't the only way that a candidate can be cleared from an eligible list. If a department is looking to hire for a classification, they might send a contact letter to all the eligible candidates on the list. The contact letter is a type of recruitment letting the candidate know about a vacant position they are currently looking to fill. If the candidate that was sent the contact letter chooses not to apply for the position, hiring managers are able to move on to candidates lower down on the list.

A candidate's eligibility on a list also has an expiration date. Usually, it is one or two years. So, these 3 factors - candidates being hired, determined to be uninterested in a position or having their eligibility expire - determine where a specific candidate lies on a list at any given time. Candidates in lower ranks should still apply for positions they are interested in, because it's hard to know their exact position at a specific time.

For all exams there is a minimum score you must get to pass. Usually, it's about 70%. The exam bulletin should tell you the minimum score you need. If you don't pass, you do not have eligibility for that classification. You can re-take the exam, but there is a waiting period. Usually it's about 6 months, but for some classifications it can be as much as a year you have to wait until re-testing.

Exam Results

If you take an online exam, you'll get your results right away. If you take an in-person exam or a hard copy of a Training and Experience Evaluation, it could be up to a month before you get results. The tests must be graded, and the scores uploaded into the State's electronic exam system. They may or may not mail you exam results, but either way your score should be available for you to see in your CalCareers account.

For each exam, there are 2 dates to pay attention to. The first is the date your eligibility expires. After you've passed an exam you are considered eligible and placed on a list. However, this eligibility expires. Generally, this expiration occurs after 1 or 2 years. If you haven't gotten a job during your eligibility period, you'll have to take the exam again.

The second date to pay attention to is the date you're eligible to re-take the exam. If you don't pass an exam or get a low score, this re-test date will let you know when you'll be able to try again. These testing periods are determined by CalHR and are 6,9 or 12 months.

The time periods for active eligibility and retesting waiting periods are not related. In the Office Technician classification, for example, candidate have eligibility for 24 months after they pass the exam but can re-take it after 12 months. State employers should use whatever score is higher while your name is on the list.

Exceptions to the State of California Examination Process

Non-Testing Classifications

There are several classifications that don't require candidates to have eligibility. The State calls them Non-Testing Classifications, and jobseekers are free to apply for open positions.

A few examples of Non-Testing Classifications include:
  1. Maintenance and Service Occupational Trainee
  2. Student Assistant and Graduate Student Assistant
  3. Seasonal Clerk

Veterans' Preference

Another exception to the State's examination and hiring process in a system of Veterans' Preference. Through this system, qualified veterans can obtain first-rank eligibility for a classification automatically, regardless of their score. Veterans Preference doesn't apply to all State classifications, and candidates still need to achieve a passing score on the exam.

We have a much more detailed explanation of the State of California Veterans' Preference system interested candidates should explore.

Reinstatement Eligibility

Once an employee passes probation in a particular classification, they have a permanent right to reinstatement if they should leave. For example, an employee that worked as an Associate Governmental Program Analyst and passed the 6-month probationary period but then left state service would be eligible to return to the classification without having to re-take the exam.

Transfer Eligibility

Candidates currently working in a classification, whether they've passed probation or not, are eligible to transfer into a different position in the same classification without having to retake the exam. If, for instance, someone starts a job as an Office Technician but after 2 months sees an opening in the same classification that they'd prefer, they are eligible to apply. This is an example of a lateral transfer, and it doesn't require taking the exam again.

It is important to note that when transferring during a probationary period would require it to be reset. If a candidate is in a classification with a 6-month probationary period but laterally transfers after 5 months, they would have to begin a fresh probationary period with their new position.

Thanks for reading!

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