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Winning strategies for police promotional exams

One of the keys to winning that promotion is to prepare now for the test that hasn’t even been scheduled yet

Consider this hypothetical situation: In your line-up today you’re told that a promotional examination for the rank above yours is set on the calendar for several months from now. Depending on the size of your department and its turnover rate, it may be many years before another promotional examination is given again. There is a lot at stake: pay, prestige, time in rank for the next position, retirement income at a higher rate, and what-have-you. As you stand there, you contemplate making a run at that goal. Regardless of the type of examination process — whether it’s written, essay, oral, assessment center, or some combination of these — you know you would have to score extremely high to have a chance of being promoted.

Are you ready to make the commitment in time and effort necessary to come out number one? Are you willing to put everything else (family, friends, school, etc) aside and focus on nothing else but studying for several months? Have you discussed this with your significant other? Is he or she on board? Do you really want the job?

During the past several months I’ve tutored numerous law enforcement officers vying for ranks ranging from Sergeant to Chief of Police. I’m pretty careful who I agree to tutor and if they make it to me it means they are already good test takers and are looking for a competitive edge. So, if they’re all good test takers and possess superior oral communication skills why do they come to me? They come to sharpen the saw and to be psychologically motivated. When they arrive at my door, the questions above are the first things they hear.

Having heard them answer in the affirmative, we go to work, and here is some of what we work on.

Ins and Outs of Promotional Test Taking

Many officers make the mistake of waiting for an official announcement to be posted before they begin to study. Top candidates, on the other hand, are always studying for the next test and you can’t afford to wait if you want to be competitive. When the drums start pounding about a promotional exam it’s time to saddle up and commit your self for the long haul.

Find out who took the last promotional test and who came out in the top couple of spots. Ego being what it is they’ll usually be willing to answer any questions you have. Ask what type of test was given last time? Multiple choice, essay, true/false, oral examination? What was the major subject areas covered? What books were listed on the examination announcement? From which books were most the questions taken? Because promotional examinations are very expensive to create and administer and subject to litigation there is a propensity by test vendors to stick with what has worked in the past. It may not exactly be the same examination, but it is a good bet the same material will be re-worked into the examination you will be taking.

The source materials from which promotional examinations are derived are books on policing, department orders, rules and regulations, procedural manuals, Supreme and Federal court decisions, and state statutes. With the exception of forensics, technology, and community oriented policing philosophy, not much in police supervision and management has changed over the past ten years. We just use different words — a more modern approach — in the motivation, discipline, communication, leadership, and supervisory process. Get the books and the departments polices and procedures on the reading list as quickly as possible and begin the studying process. A head start in the studying process will pay you large dividends on test day.

How to Study

Studying is quite different than reading for pleasure. Studying is hard work because you’re trying to retain what you read for future use on a civil service test. Begin by arranging your books and study materials in a logical sequence grouped by subject matter. Place all your department orders, procedures, and rules and regulations by major topic area (in descending order of importance) into a three-ring notebook.

Take the book which has the most exam-related material and begin reading it. Read the text very slowly. Consciously make yourself pay strict attention to every word. Make a deliberate effort to note key words — Span of control, unity of command, progressive discipline — and spend time reflecting on what the author is trying to tell you. Don’t allow your mind to wander. It’s useless to move on to another topic before you thoroughly understand the one you just read. At the end of each paragraph, cover that text with an index card and ask yourself the following questions:

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

Use a highlighter and go through the text page by page, sentence by sentence, marking key phrases and sections. Look for important ideas and terms the author uses repeatedly. After you have completed this task, begin writing all of the areas that you’ve highlighted on separate index cards. Place a heading in bold letters on the top of each index card listing the topic areas such as Delegation, the Discipline Process, or Motivation of Police Personnel. If you use this system it will increase your retention rate on exam day.

Thoughts on a Recent Oral Board

I recently put together a panel to sit on an oral examination board for the position of police sergeant. All of the candidates were fine officers and did their best to answer the questions from the panel. However, as is usually the case, most candidates couldn’t demonstrate in their answers to the panelists that they were thinking at the sergeant — not the officer — level. Time and again candidates recommended referral of a subordinate to training or Employee Assistance counseling when the matter clearly called for negative discipline. When taking an examination for the next level, always remember to think what would be best for the city of town, the police organization, and then the employee. This weighing of these three variables in the candidates answer is what the panel is looking for.

On questions relative to responding to emergency situations where hostages are being held every candidate is able to talk about inner and outer perimeters, command posts, staging areas, calling for the emergency response team, and hostage negotiators. What’s lacking is a statement by the candidate that if the situation deteriorates and lives are at stake the candidate will develop a plan with the assets he/she has and enter the premises and settle the matter. Many departments don’t have their own emergency response teams and may have to wait for a neighboring town’s team to respond. We step in harms way. That is what we do. Tell the panel that as a last resort when lives are at stake you’re going in!


Hopefully, by the time that hypothetical becomes a reality, you will have already done some serious studying, will have thought about your answers for the oral board, and will be the most prepared in your PD to win the promotion.

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