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How to ace your structured interview

Raters are looking for you to connect the dots between your current and past assignments to the next promotional role so you stand out from crowd


One sentence, or even one word, may make the difference between being number one on the list or number twelve.

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One of the most common prompts in an oral board for both police and corrections officers is, “Tell us about yourself,” or, “Tell us why you think you would be a good candidate.”

What the board is trying to assess is your readiness level to perform the essential functions of the job necessary to be successful on day one. In other words, what have you done (lately) that demonstrates your capabilities for the job? The skills they’re looking for relate to performing administrative, tactical, operational, personnel and supervisory functions, rather than just the variety of positions you have in the department. Raters are looking for you to connect the dots between your current and past assignments to the next promotional role.

You can provide them with reassuring examples (success stories) that “demonstrate” your knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) and readiness as a supervisor to add value in achieving their goals and objectives. Remember, it’s not about your goals – it’s about theirs, which is to select those who are most prepared to perform at that level.

Don’t bury your experience

Many candidates simply give a chronology of their prior assignments and unfortunately bury the lead at the end of that chronology, where the most relevant experience is often found. Candidates essentially interview for the wrong job – the one they’re currently in – and neglect to speak to real supervision and management KSAs. These include supervising, managing, leading, organizing, evaluating, staffing, training, allocating, reporting, planning, staffing, scheduling, directing, delegating, coordinating, reporting and budgeting. Unless you can show how your experience demonstrates these skills, you may not attain the points needed to advance to the next level. Don’t let anyone kid you…this is all about the POINTS!

You want to try to get as many points as you can on your rating sheet, and the best way to do that is to “prove” you have those skills that they are looking for. The truth is that one sentence, or even one word, may make the difference between being number one on the list or number twelve. Promotions are often separated by 1/100ths of a percentage point!

When you walk out of the interview and realize you forgot to add that you just finished your degree in public administration, graduating summa cum laude (graduating with academic distinction), or that you graduated from the state or local supervision course, received a commendation for developing, planning and managing a successful crime reduction plan involving community members, or designed a cell extraction tactic that was adopted by the state corrections authority, you will wish you could run back in and say, “Oh, wait! I forgot to tell you the best part!”

You have more control over your interview than you realize – it’s all in your preparation where you practice focusing on transferable skills related to the KSAs. During the oral interview, it’s up to you to highlight and prioritize the points that demonstrate your “proven” ability to step into the role.

Compare the candidate who merely talks about what they “would do” on the job, and those who actually demonstrate what they “have already done” that meet similar criteria for the job. If you can weave “success stories” into your response, you will be a stronger candidate. Success stories are brief snapshots featuring key skills that were demonstrated.

Promotional interview preparation tip

Consider using the acronym CARS:

  • What was the challenge you faced?
  • What was the action you took?
  • What was the result of your action?
  • How was that a success?

Describing your skills to an oral board can be intimidating. In fact, public speaking is the number one fear for many people. Look for opportunities to practice your public speaking skills doing presentations such as Toastmasters or community groups where you provide an introduction of your background and experience. Just remember the keys to prepare and deliver effective speeches require you to ask yourself:

  • Who is your audience? Raters who are most likely two ranks above your current rank.
  • What’s in it for them? Their motivation for listening is to select candidates who have demonstrated their readiness level to step into the new job.

Opening statement preparation tip

Start backward! While some will just look for “tips and tricks” to get ready for a promotional process, those who can successfully demonstrate their leadership skills are more likely to do better in their interview.

Candidates often start with when they joined the department, the number of years on the department, and listing various assignments they have had, such as patrol, traffic, investigation, SWAT, K-9, detectives. For example, we often hear statements such as, “I joined the police department in (date), and after the police academy, I worked in patrol for six years. I then was a K-9 handler for three years, and then joined SWAT for two years. I then worked in detectives, first in burglary for two years and then have worked in robbery for the past three years. (Dates are just examples.) Now, I have decided it was time for me to make sergeant.”

[RELATED: How to develop a winning opening statement]

Correctional officers may include: “I’ve been working as a correctional officer for the past six years, with two years on the Detention Special Response Teams (S.R.T.), or Corrections Emergency Response Teams (C.E.R.T.). I am a certified defensive tactics instructor and non-lethal force instructor and teach in the corrections academy. I have also been on the cell extraction team and am certified in high-risk inmate movement and transport. I am also trained in inmate suicide prevention and received two commendations for helping talk two inmates out of suicide attempts.”

Nothing that was said in either opening statement would have demonstrated your readiness for the job of a first-line supervisor (or other supervisory/management positions). While there is nothing “wrong” with this, consider the time frame for your interview. You have a very short time to “sell” yourself as the most “qualified” for the position. But you really have “sold” us on the great job you are doing in patrol, SWAT, traffic, or investigations, NOT what makes you more qualified for the job you are applying for.

Imagine going through your “bio” and are just about to get to the part where you have started to take some supervisory or leadership courses, finished your college degree and received a commendation for managing a large-scale incident command situation, and the proctor says, “Sorry, your time is up…!”

Most interviews will also have scenario questions for you to answer. A more effective use of your time may be to insert your current experiences that are more relevant to the job of a sergeant, or whatever rank or position you are going for.

However, and this is only an option you may find works for you, start backward!

Start from the job you have now and work backward, where you have had the opportunity to practice the actual or related KSAs of the job you are applying for. Talking about positions you have had that are unrelated to the new job may be interesting but may not help you prove your “readiness” level to the raters.

In other words, if you are in a position where you can supervise, direct, lead, manage, train, delegate, plan, organize and schedule, then you already are demonstrating your “readiness” level to step into that new role.

If you’ve been in a specialized assignment for an extended period that hasn’t allowed you to demonstrate supervisory skills, you may have to rely on other transferable skills from prior military, private sector jobs, community/volunteer assignments, or parenting to reassure the panel you can hit the ground running.

For example: “While I’ve been on X years, and had a variety of experiences, I’ve been able to utilize many of the same skills of a sergeant (or another rank) such as being a SWAT/CERT/SRT team leader, training officer (training officers for recruits or probationary officers have many of the same KSAs as a first-line supervisor), watch commander, incident commander, managed investigative caseloads, coordinated with multiple agencies on projects or tactical operations. The experience in these positions allowed me to demonstrate similar skills as a sergeant. As a result, I believe I’m prepared to step into the role of a supervisor.”

Remember that every day is free practice to create your own CARS stories and improve others’ perception of your supervisory and management skills.

And…don’t apply for the job you already have!

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Rick Michelson’s 30 years of experience in law enforcement started with the San Diego Police Department where he served as a patrol, SWAT and FTO sergeant. He also served as interim chief, lieutenant and sergeant with two university and college police departments. He has taught at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

As director of KSA Ltd., (Knowledge, Skills & Abilities), he provides leadership development training workshops, using assessment centers methods, for officers who are preparing for supervisory and management positions. He is also the author of “Assessment Centers for Public Safety.” He has a bachelor’s degree from Chapman University and a master’s degree in public administration from National University. He was also a Ph.D. candidate for the Union Institute and University.