How to pass your pre-employment psych screening without going nuts
While it's unlikely you’re going to enjoy the exam, there are some things you can do to help it go as smoothly as possible
By Dr. Laurence Miller
Q: I’ve been a police officer at a small department for about five years and I recently applied to a larger agency that requires a pre-employment psych screening as part of their intake package. I’ve heard horror stories about perfectly normal guys and gals getting burned on these exams and denied employment or branded as psychos for no good reason. I’m not asking you to give away any professional secrets, but is there some advice you can give this poor, hardworking police applicant so I don’t feel like the mental deck is stacked against me from the get-go?
A: I’ve heard the horror stories, too, and it’s a damn shame because a pre-employment psych screening shouldn’t be more mysterious or intimidating than any other aspect of the application process. Hell, if it were me, I’d be more scared of the background check. So I’m going to offer some general recommendations for keeping your sanity while having your head examined and to help you give the most accurate representation of your abilities and personality during the exam. And I’m not going to teach you any dirty tricks or violate any trade secrets to do it.
Much of this information may seem familiar from my earlier columns on fitness-for-duty (FFD) evaluations because the principles of psychological interview and test-taking are similar in both types of exams, although the latter are usually ordered in response to a specific performance problem after the officer has already been employed for some time. I’ve organized this column along the lines of questions I’m frequently asked about pre-employment psych screenings.
Why do a psych screening?
Law enforcement is a high-stress, people-intensive profession. Before a department invests the time and resources in hiring, training, and fielding an officer, it wants to be reasonably sure that officer will be able to perform his or her job, will not pose a risk or danger to the public, and – often what drives the potentially contentious nature of the evaluation process – won’t create a liability for the department ("Police agency knew rogue cop was a mental case: Film at 11!"). Sometimes, however, over-zealousness can lead to unfortunate misinterpretations and misapplications of the exam results.
An added complication involves quality control of evaluators. Contracts are typically awarded to examining psychologists on a low-bid basis, so you have the pleasure of knowing that the evaluator who’s making a career-altering decision about your fate got his or her job, not because of any special credentials or qualifications, but because he or she was the cheapest deal on the block.
Having said that, I know a lot of very competent, very professional psychologists who do pre-employment screenings (and usually other types of police psychological work as well), who I would refer an officer to in a heartbeat. Sadly, however, I’ve come across too many "assessment mills" that make their margin on volume and for which the quality of the evaluation is often…well, let’s just say, not tops. But you have to deal with the examiner you’re dealt.
What are you guys looking for?
When you have your pre-employment physical, the company doc takes a brief medical history, does a basic physical exam, measures your blood pressure, grabs some blood and urine for basic lab work and possibly a drug test, pats you on the ass, and sends you on your way. This is a medical screening, designed to assess if you meet the minimal physical requirements for work as a police officer, not to evaluate you for every syndrome and diagnosis known to medical science or to certify you as a paragon of physical fitness.
In the same way, the psych screening is designed to rule-out significant mental disturbance or personality disorder that would be incompatible with the role of a police officer. The purpose is not to engage in an in-depth probe of the deepest reaches of your psyche to certify you as a paragon of mental health – otherwise there wouldn’t be very many working police officers (or psychologists, for that matter). This point is important because, as I’ll emphasize below, the most common mistake police applicants make that end up blowing their exams is trying to be too perfect and thereby straining credibility, leading the evaluator to suspect you’re lying. So remember, we just want to know you’re normal, not perfect.
What does the exam consist of?
The exact content and procedure of pre-employment screenings can vary widely from agency to agency, but typically consist of two main components: a clinical interview and one or more standardized (usually paper-and-pencil) psychological tests. During the interview, the psychologist will ask you a range of questions about your background, work history, current lifestyle, any symptoms or problems you may be experiencing, and what your expectations are about the job.
A properly conducted psychological interview should not feel like an al-Qaeda interrogation; in fact, it shouldn’t be any more of an adversarial process than any other kind of job interview. I want you to be straight with me, I want you help me find out as much about you as I need to know to professionally assess your fitness to do this job, but I’m not out to trick you, trap you, burn you, or screw you. What would be the point? The more prickly and defensive I make you feel, the less accurate will be the data I get from you.
The number of psychological tests employed may range from one to a dozen, but typically, between two and four well-standardized measures will be administered. In fact, you’ll probably spend most of your psych eval time hunched over a table with a number-2 pencil in your hand, blackening in little boxes and circles on multiple pages. Do your best on each test; this data is important. The evaluator will put the results of these tests together with his or her impressions from the clinical interview to determine your fitness for the job.
How should I act at the interview? How should I answer the examiner's questions?
Let's face it, there is one big difference between a regular job interview and a pre-employment psych screening: the latter asks a lot more personal questions which, for most people, is naturally uncomfortable. So, while it's unlikely you’re going to enjoy the exam, there are some things you can do to help it go as smoothly as possible and for the results to be an accurate a representation of your abilities.
Don’t assume the worst. The psychologist is not your enemy. For that matter, he or she is not your friend, either. This person's only job should to objectively evaluate your mental status and relate it to the specific referral requirements of your job description as a police officer.
Come prepared. Show up on time. Bring any records or other materials that were requested. Other commonsense recommendations include bringing reading glasses and having a good lunch prior to an early afternoon exam. Accordingly, the examiner should make sure that he or she is ready at the appointed time and is prepared to conduct the evaluation.
Don't be afraid to ask questions. If you have a question about something the examiner asks or a test that's being given, let them know. A reasonable examiner won’t object to reasonable questions. Bear in mind, however, that they may not be able to answer many of the questions – e.g. "What does that test result mean?" – at the time of the evaluation. That's because the answer would compromise the validity of the test or because the actual results of the exam are "owned" by the department doing the intake. If the examiner can’t answer a particular question, they'll tell you so, but there should be no harm in asking.
Be honest and do your best. The entire validity of the evaluation hinges on the accuracy of the information obtained. To put it plainly, if I think you’re trying to bullshit me, how do you think that’s going to look on the report? Remember the point I made earlier: Normal, healthy people can accept not being perfect, but if you unrealistically try to oversell yourself, it will probably backfire. Just tell it like it is.
Expect to be treated courteously and behave accordingly. As I mentioned above, even though the examiner may have to ask you some personal questions, you should never be made to feel gratuitously demeaned or humiliated or treated like a criminal suspect. Indeed, there is nothing to gain by making you squirm because the more comfortable and less defensive you feel during the examination, the more accurate will be the information you provide. Likewise, you're expected to behave with reasonable respect and decorum. Both examiner and subject should keep in mind that they are each professionals who are each here to do a job.
Is it true that there are lie detectors built in to some of these tests?
They're not "lie detectors" like some Hollywood polygraph buzzer that goes bzzzt when you give a dishonest response. What most applicants don’t realize is that the psychologist doesn’t individually go over the answer to each one of those gazillions of questions; rather the scoring process is designed to pick up aggregate trends and patterns that, in turn, translate into the validity and clinical scales.
So, what the lie scales really pull for are two things. The first is inconsistency: answering one question one way and then a very similar question the opposite way. If this presents a pattern, it may indicate either an inability to understand the test or an attempt to manipulate the answers. The second red flag is polishing, i.e. too good to be true. If you consistently endorse answers like, "I have never told a lie in my life," the test is going to flag this as suspicious.
Granted, most of the questions are more subtle than this, but the basic advice is always: be honest. In test protocols I’ve reviewed for legal cases, far more worthy police applicants have unintentionally smoked themselves because of attempted polishing than because of any grossly abnormal findings on the clinical scales: that is, if they'd only told the truth, they probably would have passed.
How are the results determined?
Usually, the examiner will weigh three things: the clinical interview impressions, the psychometric test results, and his or her review of the officer applicant’s past medical, employment, and other records. These factors are then placed into a rough sort of formula that yields one of several determinations, often expressed in terms of "risk" — that is, this applicant fits a low-risk, medium-risk, or high-risk officer candidate profile in terms of projected future performance for the department. Some basis for this conclusion is provided in the text and the report is shipped off to the department hiring committee for them to pour into the hopper with all their other application materials and let you know the good or bad news.
The reason this formula is a rough one is that, ideally, different components of the evaluation should get somewhat different weightings, depending on the nature of the applicant. For example, a borderline suspicious test finding in a 20-year-old, green recruit right out the Academy may be weighted more heavily than the same finding in a sergeant with 10 years of good (remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect) service under his or her belt who’s just looking to change departments. That’s because, all things being equal, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and 10 years of being a good cop should count for something against an iffy test score. On the other hand, virtually all I have to go on with the young kid is his test results and his smiling face, so I’m likely to weight the psychometrics and clinical interview more heavily.
This is all about professional judgment that all doctors, lawyers, psychologists, detectives, and other critical decision makers engage in as they put together their cases. Ironically, smaller departments may provide more leeway for individual discretion and judgment than larger ones which have to handle a high volume of recruit selection.
What if I think my results are invalid?
Having said all that, it’s still the case that, unlike an FFD which is more individualized and focused on a specific post-employment problem, the results of a pre-employment screening are typically more cut-and-dried; that is, you either make it or you don’t. However, don’t be afraid to enquire about any kind of review or appeals process, especially if you really feel your evaluation has been improperly carried out or the results misinterpreted. Although beyond the scope of this column, there are a myriad of reasons – technical, professional, economic, and political – why psych exams of many types can be misconducted, misinterpreted, or misused.
The bottom line is that, like anything in life, there are no guarantees. The reason there’s a selection process in the first place is that not everyone is the right match for law enforcement work, and then no amount of finessing is going to make you dance to the wrong music. In that case, find what you’re good at and have a productive and satisfying life. But if you really feel that being a cop is your skill and your passion and that you’ve been unfairly excluded by an invalidly conducted psych screening, find out your rights and fight for what you feel you’ve earned to right to do.
To learn more about this and other topics:
Miller, L. (2006). Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
[Learn more about this book at www.ccthomas.com].
Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.