How to prepare and master police oral examinations when applying for a promotion

Study after study indicates that the ability to communicate, especially oral communication as opposed to written communication, is absolutely critical

All police departments in the United States use some type of oral examination as part of the process to test candidates seeking promotion to higher rank. Regardless of how high up one goes in a police organization, study after study indicates that the ability to communicate, especially oral communication as opposed to written communication, is absolutely critical.

Although many departments use assessment center testing, there is still some type of oral communication component, such as a leaderless discussion, employee conflict exam (supervisor/subordinate) or presentation to a panel, in which oral communication plays a critical part in a candidate’s final score. And oral communications is always one of the top-rated variables in every single job task analysis instruments I have ever used to determine the knowledge, skill, abilities, and personal traits requisite for promotion.

In many departments in which I’m hired to create and administer the promotional examination testing process, the labor/management contract specifically contains language requiring an oral examination as part of the testing process and the weight — the percentage — it must be counted towards a candidate’s final score. It’s not unusual for the oral part of the testing process to count up to fifty percent of a candidate’s final grade.

However it’s done, it’s a subjective process. With a written test, I can at least point to a specific page in one of the books on the reading list and point to a specific source to defend how I arrived at what the correct answer is.

Oral examinations are quite different. We sometimes invite three panelists from a town or city (other than the one candidates are police officers in) and who are at least one rank above that being tested for. Lieutenants test Sergeants; Captains test Lieutenants and so on. We go to great lengths to make certain none of the panel members know any of the candidates and even go so far as having the panel members sign an affidavit affirming that they do not personally know any candidates they will be rating. Candidates are often told to come in civilian attire and are provided a number rather than giving their name to the panelists.

I always have a training session with the panel members to be certain they understand that this is an oral examination and not the written exam given again verbally. I provide the questions — not the panel members — to be asked because I want to be certain the questions are situational in nature. For example, asking a candidate for Sergeant “What are the seven exceptions to the search warrant rule” is a poor question. Either the candidate has memorized a list or he/she has not. It would be better to ask, “You’re a police sergeant assigned to the patrol division. You hear over the radio that several of your officers have stopped a vehicle and are in the process of searching it. When you arrive on the scene you observe three people are in handcuffs and officers are searching the trunk of the vehicle. What actions, if any, would you take?”

It’s not whether candidates answer the question exactly right that we are grading for. The panel members should be grading for how well the candidate was able to communicate to the panel a proper supervisory course of action — critical and analytical thinking skills expressed orally — and what I call command presence under pressure. This is all background material so that readers will understand that regardless of what I do to have oral panel members all on the same page it’s remains a somewhat subjective grading process. It has been my experience that the first to seven minutes of an oral examination are critical to a candidate receiving a high score.

The first seven minutes
Assuming that you’ve done everything under your control — you’ve studied, practiced answering questions, groomed yourself properly and given critical attention to what you will wear to the oral exam — let’s look at what those preparatory things do to impact what may be the most important element in the equation: the first seven minutes.

Oral board members may be police officers, but they are still influenced by non-verbal communication. In fact, most studies indicate that non-verbal communication may comprise up to 80 percent or more of a person’s communicated messages. Body language and setting the tone for the interview is everything! Regardless of what I tell panel members, I believe that sevent to 10 points of a candidate’s final score are psychologically assigned to candidates by panel members before the candidate is asked the first question. Here are seven things to consider before you take your oral exam.

  1. How you walk into the room. As soon as the door to the room opens and you enter panel members begin grading. Does your physical appearance and the manner in which you are attired reflect well on yourself and the organization?
  2. Smile at the panel members. Everyone likes a happy person who smiles at them. There are probably about ten steps to the table where the oral board is standing to greet you. Walk with your shoulders back and try to exude some command presence, smiling as soon as you walk into the room.
  3. Never sit until the panel members tell you to do so. Almost always, a member of the oral panel will introduce all of the members of the board. I don’t care whether the three panel members are in civilian clothes or not, you need to render a hand salute to the panel to show respect for their rank and positions in their respective departments. Don’t stand there stiffly at attention and render a salute, do it with some style prior to reaching across the table and shaking hands with each panel member. You can salute while walking so do it.
  4. Address the panel members’ by their names. People like it when you remember their names, so do it (assuming you’ve been told the panel members names). “Good morning Lieutenant Smith” is always better than just “Good morning” If you are nervous and can’t remember each of their names you can never wrong with Sir or Madam.
  5. Put a small notebook and pen in the inside of your suit. When you sit down take it out and place it on the table in front of you. Even if there are pads and pencils on the table use the one you brought. You’re a cop, you came prepared.
  6. Be polite. Sit up straight in the chair, clasp your hand in front of you at the table, and wear your college ring if you have one.
  7. The first question is often an ice-breaker. “Tell us about yourself and why you should be promoted to police Sergeant?” You should have written this out and practiced a three- to five-minute responses a hundred times. Formal education, time on the job, department training and schools, assignments (especially patrol), awards and medals tactfully communicated, family background if appropriate, and what makes you different than the other candidates. If you live in the town or city it’s a big plus.

Everyone is going to says all of this. It’s the way you say it that counts. Speech patterns, facial expressions, use of the hands to make key points, making eye contact will all panel members and verbal expression of love of the job are whets important. What is lacking in most candidates opening remarks it why what they are telling the board has prepared them for the next level. You need to tie it all together. Why is having a bachelors or masters degree, having been a field training officer, having been sent to numerous department or state training programs and having been assigned to a variety of different positions in the department prepared you for promotion to the next level? What makes you special?

If you can pull all of this off with excellent verbal and non-verbal communication skills it will be difficult for other candidates to achieve a higher score than you on the oral portion of your promotional exam. All of the top candidates get the questions right — it’s how you answer them that counts.

Be safe out there.

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