Oral examinations: 7 tips for the first 7 minutes
You’ve studied, practiced answering questions, groomed yourself properly, and given critical attention to what you will wear to the oral exam — now what?
All police departments across 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 (50 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 say, “There it is! On page 63, word for word, the answer is C and you put B. It may have been a poorly worded, confusing question, but at least I have a specific source to defend how I arrived at what the correct answer is.
Oral examinations are quite different. We 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” 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
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 7-10 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:
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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