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Succeeding on the written examination

These simple steps will do more to assure that you do well on your tests than any other study aid

How to Study

Our previous article was the first in a series on how to achieve a high score in the police promotional testing process. The central theme was that the more you know about how promotional examinations are created the better able you will be to develop a plan to study for the test. Since most agencies use some type of hurdle approach (scoring seventy percent on a written examination in order to move on to the next step in the process) my plan is to write the first several articles on this first step in the process.

This article discusses “how to study.” Why? Because it’s been my experience that most candidates for promotion have allowed their reading comprehension and studying skills to become rusty and think that making out a few index cards with key concepts written on them will do the trick. It will not! The process is highly competitive and it’s not unusual for the top five candidates to score within a few percentage points of each other.

To achieve your goal you need to study the books (Supervision of Police Personnel by Iannone, for example) and materials (your department’s policy and procedure manual) outlined on the test announcement by engaging in a highly disciplined study process. In other words, you must study for understanding, insight and retention, not just to obtain information. Here’s how to do it.

The Test Announcement

In every testing process there is some sort of official announcement that a promotional examination will take place on a future date (see Figure 1-1 below). In addition to describing the type of testing process (written examination followed by an oral examination and how much each will count towards a candidate’s final score, for example) the bottom portion of the announcement almost always has a suggested reading list. This lists the books and materials from which the test vendor will create the examination. You need to obtain these study materials as quickly as possible. In fact, if your organization’s rumor mill is pounding the drums that a Sergeant’s, Lieutenant’s, or Captain’s test is coming up, it’s probably true. Find out who gave the test the last time and which books were used. It’s a good bet the textbooks will be the same. The earlier you begin the studying process the more likely you are to achieve a high score.

Once you have gathered all of the study material, begin by reading one of the textbooks in its
entirety the same way you would read a novel for pleasure. Merely acquaint yourself with the
contents of the book to get an overview of what’s offered.

After reading the book through the first time, put it aside and gather the following items.

1. A dictionary. Not a little handheld copy, but a big, thick edition of
Webster’s finest.
2. A large notebook, the kind that divides into several sections.
3. Two or three highlighters and some thick rubber bands.
4. About three hundred 3 x 5 white index cards.

Now that you’ve gathered the things you’ll need, it’s time to read the book a second time, and this time it’s going to be harder work. Since reading comprehension is such a critical component in the types of tests you’ll be taking, let’s begin improving your ability in that area right now. Read the text very slowly, disciplining yourself to pay strict attention to every single word. While you’re reading, don’t allow your mind to wander. Your ability to understand what you read is an important skill in test taking.

Written communication consists of two types of words, ordinary words and important words. Tests are no different. The ordinary words are the prepositions, conjunctions, articles, adverbs, and most of the adjectives and verbs forming the skeleton on which the key concepts (the important words) hang. The very fact that you don’t immediately understand a word or a series of words in a sentence should alert you to the need for spending the time to look the word up in the dictionary and analyze its meaning.

Most of us have developed the bad habit of skipping over words we’re not familiar with, figuring we’ll understand what the writer means by continuing to read. This works rather well in reading newspapers, magazines, and fictional material, but it’s really only scanning, not reading for understanding. Instructional textbooks authors and test analysts write in a style that gives clues to what they think is important by using bold type, italics, quotation marks, underlining, and by discussing a term’s definition. Pay attention to periods, exclamation points, and commas as well.

So get out your dictionary, notebook, pencil or pen, and highlighter. As you’re slowly reading the material, sentence by sentence, develop the habit of highlighting key words and concepts. Every single time you come across a word in a sentence that you don’t immediately recognize, look it up in the dictionary, cross the word out, and write the definition above it or in the margin. Write the heading, “KEY WORDS AND CONCEPTS” in your notebook and list each of the words along with their meanings in that section. Return and read the sentence again with the definition of the important word (it’s important to you if you don’t understand its meaning) in mind.

Our understanding of words directly effect how we communicate with ourselves and others. Emphasis can change the meaning of a word or an entire sentence. For example,
here is essentially the same sentence with different emphasis on key words. Read the following out loud:

The Lieutenant asked the Sergeant if he saw Officer Jenkins fire at the suspect, and he replied,

“I didn’t see Officer Jenkins fire at the suspect.”

Pretty clear, right? What if I were to write it this way?

The Lieutenant asked the Sergeant if he saw Officer Jenkins fire at the suspect. The Sergeant looked surprised, pointed to himself, and shook his head saying, “I didn’t see Officer Jenkins fire at the suspect!”

Notice how a brief description of the sergeant’s body language adds to your understanding. The word “I” is underlined (suggesting emphasis) and there’s an exclamation point at the end. The inference is that the “Sergeant” didn’t see Officer Jenkins fire at the suspect, but someone else did see it. What if I were to write it this way?

“I didn’t see Officer Jenkins fire at the suspect!”

Because the word suspect has been emphasized in bold print and underlined, and is followed by an exclamation point, the meaning of the sentence is that Officer Jenkins fired his weapon, but it wasn’t necessarily at the suspect.

Although this may seem pretty basic, it’s not. Many police examinations at the supervisory and management level contain sections which require you to read a short essay and then answer four or five multiple-choice questions, or construct an essay citing your response to a hypothetical question. So I want you to sharpen your ability to read with understanding in order to avoid choosing the wrong answer simply because you didn’t grasp the subtle changes that little things like punctuation and key words can mean in the essay.

If you’re required to write a short essay as part of your examination, clear, concise answers are best. A typical essay question might be one like the following:

“Under what circumstances may a City of Anywhere police officer place a person under arrest without a warrant?”

In order to write an answer to this question that will receive a top score you must be familiar with basic concepts. Take out a pad of paper and try answering the question right now. After you’re finished, try reviewing the essay from the position of a test analyst grading your response. Your answer should have included an analysis of the 4th amendment; probable cause; the difference between custody and detainment; speedy information; crimes committed in an officer’s presence; the difference between a felony, misdemeanor and violation; and intent, jurisdiction, and authority.

So, the books listed on the test announcement as references contain the generic information from which your test will be constructed. As you’re studying make a deliberate effort to note key words and spend time reflecting on what it is that the author is trying to tell you. At the end of each paragraph, cover the text with an index card and mentally ask yourself the following questions:

1. What were the most important thoughts?
2. What is it that the author is trying to communicate to me?
3. Why is this section important? How does it relate to the other areas
covered in this section?
4. How would a test question about this area be worded?

Now, restructure the main ideas of the paragraph in your own words. As you’re reading, use the dictionary to look up each word you’re not positive you can define. Write the definition on a sheet of paper. You’ll better understand the ideas expressed if you compare them with your real-life police experiences. This procedure is called making a positive mental transfer. . Using this technique will improve both your reading comprehension and vocabulary. Use this method to read the book again!

1. Read slowly, sentence by sentence.
2. Read for meaning and understanding.
3. Highlight key material.
4. Copy the highlighted material onto index cards.

Remember, while you’re reading don’t allow your mind to wander. It’s useless to move on to another topic unless you thoroughly understand the one you’ve just read. Slower comprehension often happens with technical material such as the difference between “planning” and “controlling.” There’s a big difference between being able to repeat a definition and understanding what it means. Always state the concept in your own words.

By the end of this procedure you will have assembled an impressive stack of index cards divided into major topic areas and subdivided by specific classification. Time consuming? Yes. Boring, difficult, hard work? Yes. But it Works.

Now, after assembling all your index cards put a rubber band around each stack, dividing them by topic area. You’ll carry them with you from now until test day. Every single free minute (in the car, while walking around, at lunch) read the cards until you know the material cold. Do this pick-up studying in addition to your planned sessions. You must master the subject matter to the extent that you can read the top of an index card (“Span of Control” for example) and, without looking, repeat what you had previously written.

Continue doing this day in and day out, hour after hour. Return to your reference material often and reread constantly. Repetition improves memory. Understand key principles, know the theory behind topic areas, and study consistently. This is what it takes to come out number one. You only get one chance on a promotional test. After all, if it were easy, you wouldn’t need superior motivation in order to succeed.

1. Set clear goals. Identify your learning objectives by developing a
clear picture of what needs to happen and take responsibility for
achieving them. Develop a blueprint for success.
2. Establish an environment conducive to studying and learning.
3. Remember that sweat rules over inspiration. There is no
replacement for hard work, personal drive, and ambition.

These simple steps will do more to assure that you do well on your tests than any other study aid.

Remember this quote from Calvin Coolidge: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Be safe out there!

Career expert teaches how to prepare for and excel on police promotion examinations.