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Roundtable: Mistakes to avoid during your police promotion oral interview

It is important to set yourself out from your peers as you succinctly articulate a response to each question

By Nancy Perry

Participating in a police promotion oral interview may be one of the most stressful experiences in a cop’s career. Without proper preparation, nerves can cause you to fall victim to some classic interview mistakes.

In this roundtable, we asked Police1 columnists and subject matter experts to list the biggest mistakes officers make in promotional interviews and strategies for avoiding such errors.

If you were recently promoted, what helped you have a winning interview? Email

Know when less is more

Over 32 years, I have been part of numerous promotional and hiring boards for hundreds of police applicants. The biggest mistake I’ve witnessed applicants make is spending too much time providing what could be considered as superfluous information. I think this happens innocently enough. As law enforcement professionals, our world is grounded in very specific details. We are accustomed to providing details in report writing, while testifying in court and while reporting critical information to our superiors. When it comes to professional interviews; however, we can be our own worst enemy.

Consider the human factor when thinking about your response to promotional questions. As a board member, my most important skillset is listening. Unfortunately, humans are often not good listeners. Much of this is grounded in simple biology. The average human speaks at a rate of 125 words per minute; however, we typically can understand someone speaking at a rate of 400 words per minute. Since we are using roughly 25% of our mental capacity, the remaining 75% of unused capacity allows our mind to wander. By our very nature, humans are typically poor listeners. Many studies note how we retain approximately 50% of what we hear after a 10-minute oral presentation. As time goes on, we retain even less, ultimately leaving us with about one-fourth of what we have heard.

Now, consider your response to interview questions. Do you provide too many details? Do you spend too much time talking about yourself? These are all factors for consideration as you prepare for the big day. Keep in mind that in most cases, the interview board knows your professional background and accomplishments based on information provided ahead of your interview. Hit the high points during your interview but leave out the unnecessary details. Keep the board engaged and be sure you hit the main points required for each question.

Board members are concentrating on your responses and confirming whether you provided key components required for each question. When you consider the fact that most questions are standardized, it is important to set yourself out from your peers as you succinctly articulate a response to each question. Just like preparing a resume, remember that during promotional interviews, less is often more.

Rex M. Scism, MS, is president and CEO of Midwest Police Consultants, LLC, and a content developer for Lexipol.

Do not practice in silence

When I am coaching a group for career development and promotional preparation, I have them write down, “I want to advance my rank.” I then have them write the same sentence down again, but this time with their other (weak) hand. The officers struggle through the second sentence to completion. I then collectively ask them three questions. First, how did it feel writing with your weak hand as opposed to your strong hand? The most common responses I get are, “Uncomfortable” or “Awkward.” I ask when you are taking your oral interview, do you want your predominant feeling to be uncomfortable or awkward and the answer is always “No!”

I ask them if writing the sentence the second time took longer or shorter. In all cases, the second time was substantially longer; up to 2-5 times longer. I ask do you want your interview responses to be on-topic, concise and to the point or ongoing, rambling and with no parameters. Their answer is always concise and to the point.

Lastly, I ask them, in terms of aesthetics, how the second sentence looks and everyone says horrible as if a third grader wrote it. Then I ask why they cannot write with their weak hand as well as they can with their strong hand and 100% say because they never write with that hand; they don’t practice.

If you want to know one of the biggest mistake promotional candidates make in their promotional interview preparation, it’s that candidates practice, but they practice WRONG! Most of us practice in silence. This is a recipe for average outcomes. In the oral interview you must answer questions out loud, so why do most of us practice internally? We fail to turn thought into talk because it is easier; more comfortable. We sound great in our heads and we don’t like the sound of our voices because we are often our own worst critics.

When you record a voice message greeting into your cell phone, do you save the first recorded attempt? Most must do it over and over again until they are satisfied and they only notice improvement after repeated attempts. It took practice to sound better, but no improvement would be achieved if the practice was in silence and internally carried out. If you want to gain a distinct competitive advantage in the oral interview, practice out loud when most others do not. Don’t answer questions for the first time in your actual oral interview, as this is tantamount to writing with your weak hand; it’s uncomfortable, it takes too long, and it doesn’t sound very good.

Conduct mock oral interviews, video and audio record yourself, give answers out loud during your commute to and from work, speak in front of a mirror, and in all cases practice out loud because that is what you must do in the actual oral interview. Don’t think about it.

Andy Borrello is a retired police captain, the author of the Police Promotion Super Course, and has coached and trained thousands of law enforcement professionals to develop their careers.

Admit to what you don’t know

Over the years, I have sat on and conducted hundreds of promotional boards. I have always tried to use the same structure when I conduct boards: I introduce the board members, explain how the board is going to be conducted and then open the floor up to the candidate to give a brief introduction for all of the board members. I create scenario-based questions that require a response that includes either a reference to a policy or a law. This is the time for the candidate to show their knowledge and critical-thinking skills as they are forced to process scenarios that are true to the position they are applying for. Here is also where it can take a turn for the worse.

As the candidate progresses with their scenario, board members have the opportunity to ask why they would take a certain action or request more details as to what law or policy is applicable. This is where I think the biggest mistakes happen. As a chief, I would much rather the candidate tell the members of the board they do not know when they do not know, versus attempting to quote policy or a law incorrectly or even worse make something up.

As board members, we already know the elements we are looking for in the candidate’s response, so when they deviate we generally allow them to continue until they reach a point where they eventually stop, or they go so far we have to stop them. Depending on how resolved the candidate is with their wrong answer generally shows that not only the candidate was unprepared, but also unwilling to acknowledge what they do not know.

My recommendation for all candidates is that if they do not know the answer, the law, or the policy to simply say they do not know, followed by how they would use their resources to find the answer. Even though the candidate did not know the answer at the time of the interview, it will at least show a level of honesty with the candidate and their willingness to learn for the future.

LJ Roscoe is chief of the Goose Creek Police Department in Goose Creek, South Carolina.

Ask for more information if you need it

In my experience as a rater and subject matter expert on several promotional tests, I have concluded that not answering is the biggest mistake candidates make.

That is not to say that “I don’t know” is the wrong answer; in some cases that may be acceptable rather than making up an unrealistic answer. But that must be tempered with: “I don’t feel I have enough information to make the correct decision at present. I would ask the following questions to make sure we don’t make the situation worse.” (For example: Are all suspects accounted for? Are victims safe/evacuated? Are there weapons involved?)

This shows that you have a problem-solving process and method and that not all situations have dichotomy answers. Raters are looking for critical thinkers.

If the question presented relates to a department training or information bulletin, make sure to mention it.

By talking through your thought process out loud, you may hit on the points the rater is looking for. That’s not to say it works for every question presented. It should be kept in reserve for those tricky scenarios.

James Dudley is a member of the criminal justice faculty at San Francisco State University and co-host of PoliceOne’s Policing Matters podcast.

Don’t let prior failures color your interview

The biggest mistake in a promotional interview is to expect that you will make it the first time out. Then after coming close the first time out some feel cheated and tell everyone that will listen how:

1. They were “screwed.”

2. The person who got the promotion not only didn’t earn it, but they did unimaginable things in the chief’s office to earn the promotion.

3. The whole process is corrupt.

4. You didn’t want a lobotomy anyway.

Then after they have maligned everyone but the janitor while wallowing in their disappointment they shift from being the dependable employee they were and transition to doing only the bare minimum.

When the promotion comes up again, they shift gears about two months out and try to become a viable candidate once again. However, when going into the next interview after their first promotional failure their answers seem contrived and insincere to those on the panel who have been paying attention to their behavior after their last disappointment. Commanders on the interview board will realize the promotional candidate’s actions have spoken much louder than words.

This is a mistake made and repeated far too often in departments all over the country.

My advice is, when you get passed over, congratulate the winner and get back to work. Your day will come.

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience.

Tell your story

The greatest enemy of promotion is idealism. Laying out your dreams and aspirations will have little influence if you haven’t already proven your capability in the position you currently serve. Vowing to bring innovation and fresh thinking to a position may be appropriate if you serve in an agency that highly values innovation (in actual practice, not by slogan) and challenging the status quo. Frankly, say what sells in an honest way that isn’t trite or patronizing. That’s not easy. Like a press conference or sales presentation, you should write down and memorize the points you want to make, then fit those comments into every answer and conversation that you can. Match the level of the interviewers’ mood. Too much seriousness or too much levity can create discomfort.

If you know your interviewers’ backgrounds, referencing your own experiences may help them identify with you. “My life on the farm taught me this. When I was in the Navy I learned this. As a struggling college student, I was able to achieve this.” Weaving your personal story can make an impression. I once had a young man lament to me that he had nothing to say if asked why he wanted to be a police officer. He had no relatives in law enforcement and, in fact, his parents were both addicts and in frequent conflict with the law. I said, “There’s your story!”

Too many interviewees think that they are the passive recipients of questions. In reality, you are there to tell your story.

Chief Joel Shults, Ed.D, who retired as a chief of police in Colorado

Top resources for promotion interview and testing success
Watch these on-demand webinars and check out these books to level up your interview skills and review board preparation

This article, originally published February 10, 2020, has been updated.