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Improving your test-taking skills

Once you start thinking like a supervisor, you’ll start sounding like a top candidate

When administering police promotional examinations, I’m often surprised at how many people don’t understand that being an outstanding officer won’t necessarily prepare them to be a good supervisor or manager. Regardless of the rank you seek to achieve — or the structure of the test you take — the bottom line is that if you don’t answer questions like a Sergeant you’re not going to be considered Sergeant material. This concept is true for all desired positions.

For instance, test-takers will often ask me if they should answer questions “by the book” or “by the way it’s done on the street.” The answer, of course, is to follow the book: Follow it in correspondence with your department’s policies, procedure, rules, and regulations — just like any supervisor or manager would.

Once you start thinking like a supervisor, you’ll start sounding like a top candidate. This is the first critical step toward success. However, what separates top candidates is something much more specific: Test taking skills and reading comprehension. It is this that I want to focus on today.

Reading Comprehension
Almost all examinations for higher rank involve some sort of written test. In most cases, it is formatted as a multiple choice exam in which candidates have to achieve a minimum score of 70 percent before proceeding to an oral exam or assessment center.

It has been my experience that most all candidates who study hard pass the written examination. The problem is that passing isn’t usually good enough. You need to score ninety or above on the written test. This means that in a 100-question test you can’t afford to get more than 10 questions wrong.

In my experience, the top achievers always have strong reading comprehension skills. The fact that reading comprehension turns out to be the factor separating the best candidates may not be a fair thing, but it is a real thing, and we have to come to terms with it.

So what is reading comprehension?

Reading comprehension is the ability to read and understand material (test questions and answer selections), to distinguish central ideas from minor ideas (e.g. “searching without a warrant” from “the seven specific exceptions to the search warrant rule”), to reason through material to reach logical conclusions (e.g. the progressive discipline process), knowing how ideas relate to one another, (e.g. how discipline relates to the motivation process), and to find the likeness and difference between one or more things (“physical injury” as opposed to “serious physical injury” or “a dangerous instrument” as opposed to “a deadly weapon”).

Putting key information on index cards and highlighting material you believe will be on your promotional exam may work for the majority of test material, but you will probably still fall short of success if test question and answer selections require a high degree of reading comprehension ability.

Here is an example of a test question that involves reading comprehension ability:

Sergeant Johnson arrives at a scene where Officer Smith is detaining a person for investigation. Which of the following is least correct?

A. Even though probable cause is lacking, Officer Smith may use reasonable physical force to detain the person for investigation if Officer Smith has reasonable suspicion the person is wanted for a felony
B. If Officer Smith has reasonably concluded that a person may be engaging in unlawful activity he may detain the person even though Officer Smith lacks probable cause to believe the person has committed a crime
C. If Officer Smith has made a proper investigative detention of the person he can conduct an exploratory search of the person for weapons to protect the officer from harm
D. Officer Smith may approach and ask a person questions about the person’s identification without infringing on his fourth amendment rights

First, note what the question is asking: “Which of the following is least correct.” This means parts of the answer selection may contain true statements while other parts of the same answer selection may contain false statements.

Second, figure out what the key part of the sentence is. In this case it is deciding when the police can detain a person as opposed to arrest them.

Third, analyze the answer selections. Answers A and B are clearly correct statements and can be crossed out. That leaves a choice between answer C or D. Answer D is also a correct statement.

The answer is C.

What makes answer C incorrect? The key words in the answer selection are “general exploratory search”. A “general exploratory search is expressly prohibited under Terry v. Ohio (“The police officer cannot conduct an exploratory search for whatever evidence of criminal activity he may find”) and is the correct answer because it is the “least correct” statement among the answer selections offered.

Your ability to understand what you read is a critical skill in test taking and can often become stressed under the pressure of test day. Just remember, textbook and test questions contain two types of words, ordinary words and important words. The prepositions, conjunctions, articles and most of the adjectives and verbs are the skeleton on which the key concepts — the important words — hang. When studying, the very fact that a word or series of words is not ordinary should prompt you to look them up in the dictionary and reflect on their meaning.

Other Important Tips
1. Read. Technology has changed the way we gather information. However, if you want to improve your reading comprehension there is no substitute for consistent reading. What was the last book you read?
2. Crossword puzzles. Do crossword puzzles every day to improve your ability to form associations between words and short sentences.
3. Go to college. Isn’t it time to go back to school and get the degree you have been putting off? Not only is it good for any oral exam you will be taking, but it will force you to improve your study habits and test taking skills.

Be safe out there!
Larry the Jet

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