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Preparing for your oral boards

Don’t wait to receive your written test score and begin studying for the oral examination

Previous articles provided a basic understanding of how the oral board works so that you can prepare a method to study for the examination. In most departments it takes from three to six weeks to correct the written examination and announce the results to candidates. Use the time between the written examination and the oral test to your advantage. Don’t wait to receive your written test score and begin studying for the oral examination. In order to succeed, start studying again the day after the written test and continue until the moment you walk into the room to take your oral exam.

To achieve high scores in any oral interview, you must have excellent verbal communication skills. Clear and effective communication (including body language) is the manner in which you transmit information about yourself to the panelists. Knowing is not enough in an oral exam. You must orally communicate what you know and explain how you will use that knowledge. The test questions are designed to place you in hypothetical situations in which you must make a decision to:

1. Take a particular course of action.
2. Direct a subordinate to accomplish a task (delegate, sergeants test and
3. Commit a group of people under your supervision to a plan of action in
order to accomplish a specific goal or a series of goals sergeants test
and above).
Since the exam responses are oral, you must be able to communicate to he panel members in a clear, concise, understandable manner. One reason that officers fail on oral examinations is their tendency to answer questions indicating what they would do at their current level, rather than at the level in which they are testing for. Questions relating to the following areas require responses at the supervisory and/or management level:

1. The difference between supervision, management, and leadership.
2. How you are going to “motivate” personnel under your command.
3. Workforce diversity issues, male and female police officers.
4. The various parts of the supervisory/management process, POSDCORB,
planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting, and
5. Theory X and Theory Y management styles.
6. Participative, democratic, situational, and free-rein management.
7. Span of control, delegation of authority, unity of command.
8. The communication process.
9. The delegation process.
10. Evaluating employees.
11. Responding to and handling emergency situations
12. Deadly force
13. Handling Pursuits of Vehicles

In addition to these broad based areas, you can expect specific questions on how you will handle the following:

• officers drinking on duty
• officers using narcotics or dangerous drugs
• employee theft
• protected classes
• excessive use of force
• whether the department should reflect the community it serves in terms of diversity
• vicarious liability, negligent retention, negligent training.

In studying for the oral examination, you must know the terms, concepts, and specific processes associated with both generic and procedural supervisory/management in your department. When studying for the written examination, you read the reference material several times, highlighted areas, wrote out the subject matter on legal pads and index cards, and committed the information to memory.

However, since the exam responses will be oral, to prepare effectively you must practice speaking these concepts and definitions out loud. Knowing all of the material is not enough; you must be able to communicate that knowledge in a clear, concise, and understandable manner to the panelists. If the information remains locked in your head and never comes out of your mouth, or does so haltingly, you’ve lost the opportunity to tell the board what you know. Use the following techniques to improve your verbal communication skills:

1. Review the major topic areas, management dimensions, concepts and
subjects you placed on your index cards for the written examination.

2. Put “Key Terms” on index to cards .

3. Begin creating your own oral board questions on a new set of index cards
and follow each with the correct response which you derive from your
resource material.

For instance, in making up your questions, you might develop one like this:

“What do you think are the most significant problems facing the police department today and what steps would you recommend to the Chief to solve them?”

Or, a question such as this one: “You are assigned as a Captain in charge of a section of a multi-agency task force to control a large demonstration. A 50 yard minimum distance from the speaker’s platform has been ordered. The demonstrators are now at 25 yards and closing. What would you do?”

The panel assumes you know the textbook definitions to these questions, but remember, the board isn’t judging you on technical job knowledge, but on such criteria as communication skills, attitude, judgment, and maturity. Use the questions to showcase the skills for which you are being tested. Yes, show the board that you know the book definitions and concepts involved, but also give specific explanations of how you would use leadership, motivational, interpersonal, supervisory and management skills to successfully handle the situation you’ve outlined for the board.


Pretend that you’re actually at the oral board, and use a tape recorder to practice answering the questions you develop. Play the tape back and put yourself in the position of a panelist judging your answer. Does the answer indicate knowledge and understanding beyond the basic question? Does it show your ability to apply supervisory/management theories and concepts? Are your thoughts well organized? How would you rate your communication skills? Do they flow easily, or are your main points disjointed and confused with uh’s and ah’s and gaps between ideas. Do you say, “you know” over and over again?

Create an oral board in your own home. Tape ten or fifteen of the questions you created. Space the questions with approximately five minutes of blank tape between them.

Get a table and place three chairs behind it. Put a pad and pencil in front of each chair. You now have created your own mock oral panel. Set a fourth chair in front of the table and put your tape recorder on the table in front of it. Practice entering the room and seating yourself in front of the panel. Turn on the tape recorder and begin your first question.

The first question in the oral board process is usually an icebreaker, designed to put the candidate at ease. It might be, “Before we begin the formal test process, please tell the board about yourself” or What have you done to prepare for the position of Police Sergeant in the city of —“ Answer the question exactly as you would at a real oral board. Continue through all of the questions and repeat this process until you get it perfect.

Another technique is to have you spouse, friend, or a family member ask you the questions so you can practice your responses. Rent a video camera to photograph your practice sessions so you can see yourself as others see you. Watch closely to see if you’re engaging in “image distortion”. Image distortion occurs when your words say one thing, but your posture, gestures, and voice inflections say something else. You create an image different from the one you think you are creating. When reviewing the video ask yourself the following questions.

1. What do I look like? Am I crossing my arms over my chest in a closed,
protective position?
2. What do I sound like?
3. Am I sitting properly? Am I fidgeting in my seat or the arms of the
Chair tightly?
4. Are my facial expressions and gestures appropriate for an oral test? Are
my gestures artificial?
5. Do I make eye contact with all three panel members when answering
the questions?

You may be surprised, after reviewing the video, to discover that you have more weak points than you realized. Seeing yourself as others see you and adjusting for weaknesses is a very positive practice tool. At first you may feel awkward answering questions at your mock oral board, but you’ll quickly see a vast improvement in your performance.

Questions Frequently Asked on Oral Boards

The questions asked on oral examinations for the positions of Police Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain or Assistant Chief vary across the country. The following questions represent broad subject areas and principles of policing which frequently appear on oral examinations, and you may have to adjust your answer to suit your organization’s circumstances. Each questions is asked three different ways to accustom you to the dealing with the basic principles present, even though the question may not be exactly
the same as you studied for.

1. As a Police Captain you will be responsible for a major bureau within the department consisting of hundreds of sworn and civilian personnel. What type of management and/or leadership style will you use to influence people within your command?

Another version

What management techniques do you feel work effectively to get the most out of people?


There are many different management and leadership styles. Which do you fee are the most effective in a semi-military profession such as policing.

Possible Response:

It’s been my experience that several factors contribute to successfully influencing people towards fulfilling organizational objectives. Primary among those is effective
communication to include ensuring employees have input into the decision making process. In order to create an environment in which effective communication takes place, people must believe that management takes their input seriously and will implementsuggestions which make sense. So, a degree to trust must be fought for and won on a daily basis.

In order to further establish upward and downward communication as a norm, I require people in supervisory and management positions to model proper behavior and take direct action to encourage open communication.This includes having frequent staff meetings with a representative from each rank present; a requirement that I and all command officers on my team provide roll call training at least once a month; continuous inspections of officers to insure job tasks are being properly performed; and rewarding those who contribute toward the teams norms.

My years of supervisory and management experience has led me to believe that situational leadership and participative management techniques work best in policing. Everyone brings different needs, wants, values, and perceptions into the workplace. The stresses involved in day-to-day policing are enormous and require special sensitivity to individual needs.

Fulfilling those needs, while at the same time influencing people towards organizational objectives, requiresdifferent approaches depending on the individual. Emergency situations require a more direct methodology, but I find participative management creates the type of environment
under which people work best. I’ve also found that if you explain to people what needs to be done and why, what level of performance you require, and who is going to do what and when, the vast majority of people will work hard to accomplish what needs to be done. This leaves a small amount of people who need further coaching and mentoring to guide them back on the right path.

Take a stab at writing out what your response to the above question would be if you were appearing before an oral panel toady. In my next article I will provide an ideal response and you can compare yours with it.

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