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Answers to the 3 most common questions about promotional exams

Here's what you need to know

Thanks to my column on PoliceOne I often receive emails from law enforcement officers across the fruited plain. Many of those cops ask questions about how to score high on police promotional examinations. Although I do respond to each request for my opinion, I thought it might be beneficial to readers to compile in a single article the answers to the top three questions I receive.

Question #1: “How should I prepare for my upcoming Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, (or above) written examination?”
The answer to this question is complicated because of the differences in promotional processes across the country. However, the vast majority of departments still use a multiple choice test created from a published reading list as the first hurdle in the promotion process. Typically it’s a 100-question, multiple-choice test, although there may be an essay component. Depending on contractual language, past practice, city or town personnel rules, and so on, there is a minimum passing score which must be achieved for candidates to proceed to the oral examination. Parts and weights are assigned meaning the written test might count for 60 percent of a candidate’s total score and the oral exam 40 percent of a candidate’s final score.

So, purchase the books and if departmental rules and regulations or policies and procedures are included make copies of the important ones depending on the rank you are testing for.

Study. If there is one single thing that separates those who get promoted from those who don’t, it’s the amount of time spent studying the material on the reading list. If the test is two months from now, you need to study three of four hours every day! The majority of people think studying is merely reading the material, using a highlighter, or perhaps placing key ideas onto index cards. That’s not enough if you want to come out number one. Either you’re totally committed to being promoted or you’re no — there is no in between. It’s a very competitive testing process often with only tenths of a point separating candidates. There are no second chances and it may be years before another promotional exam is given. Visit your local bookstore or go online and purchase a book on “How to Study.” Take vacation time, check yourself into a motel, and study

Practice taking tests. Reading comprehension and test taking skills are vital components of acing the written part of the promotional examination. It’s time to sharpen the saw. Obtain some police test taking guides which have practice tests and take as many tests as you can. Circle key words in the question and answer selections — eliminate those answers which you know are incorrect — never change an answer once you have selected it on the bubble sheet — and take all of the test time allowed.

You have to be totally committed to spending the time necessary to studying and practicing taking tests. If not, someone else will be promoted. Use whatever works for you to motivate yourself to take a couple of months out of your life to pursue one single goal. It has been my experience that it is more difficult achieving the upper ranks. Your competitors have demonstrated in past exams that they are all good test takers. You need to position yourself in the written examination to beat them on the oral test.

Question #2: “I received a high score on my written examination and now have to take an oral test. Is there anything I can do to prepare for this part of the testing process?”
Go to PoliceOne and review my previous articles on how to excel on oral examinations. Hire a coach and practice! Contact a retired police officer who has excelled in oral tests and hire him or her to coach you. If the test is done correctly this is a test of your verbal and non-verbal communication skills. There is not substitute for having someone ask you the typical questions, answering them, and then receiving feedback on how well you did or didn’t do. Video tape your responses. See yourself as others see you!

Answer the question at the level of the rank you’re testing for. Many candidates in the oral examination process leave valuable points on the table because they don’t answer the question fully. For example, in responding to a question about an officer who has clearly and deliberately violated the departments polices most candidates speak about retraining, closely monitoring, or EAP, but never mention the progressive discipline process. Please tell the board that you’re going to recommend negative discipline and why! You’re testing for a supervisory or management position. There must be something a brother or sister officer would do that would result in your recommend the person be negatively disciplined!

Question #3: “My department is going to use an assessment center to test candidates for promotion. Part of the test is an in-basket. What is an “in-basket” and how do I score high on it?”
An assessment center is a testing process in which candidates participate in a series of systematic, job related, real life situations while being observed and evaluated by experts in policing, supervision, and management. It’s the attempt to simulate actual working conditions that separates assessment center testing from the academics of written exams and subjectivity of oral testing. An in-basket is one of the components of an assessment center often replacing a traditional written exam.

A police supervisor, manager, or administrator often must deal with memorandums, written and oral complaints, investigative and other type of reports, internal documents and telephone calls in day-to-day work. Depending on the number of candidates (group testing is often done at the same time) the test monitor places a large manila envelope in front of each candidate’ containing the “in-basket” — day-to-day paperwork — of a typical position for which candidates are being tested. The directions for completing the exam are in writing and including a time frame in which the in-basket must be completed.

Here is an example of the written instructions to candidates for an in-basket test I recently administered:

“Each of your responses should be written directly on the piece of correspondence you’re addressing or, if you require more space, on a separate piece of paper clearly identifying the material or correspondence you’re responding to (for example, ‘Memo from Assistant Deputy Chief Lewis regarding Wilson complaint’). The action you take on all incoming telephone calls must also be written on a separate sheet of paper. Write the number of the phone call you’re dealing with (if one is given) or clearly identify the subject of the phone call (for example, ‘Call from Lieutenant Smith regarding a two alarm fire’) before each written response.”

The written directions explain the role you are to assume-for example, patrol lieutenant or patrol commander. The objective is to have you handle the in-basket items as would in real life. The time limit to take the test is short because the test is designed to put you under pressure to complete all of the tasks contained in the in-basket. The in-basket test is a pressure packed, mentally fatiguing, problem-solving dilemma. Included in an in-basket may be:

• Filler material consisting of a description of the town or city including type of government structure, population, racial and income level of residents.
• The organizational and reporting structure of the department
• Crime statistics
• Memorandums from the Chief to be read at roll call
• Telephone messages or e-mails to you from your direct report, city politicians, and subordinates containing a variety of problems requiring your immediate attention.
• Citizen complaints ranging from minor to serious issues
• Memorandums and other forms of communication from the Chief, Assistant Chief, Deputy Chief, requiring you to investigate or take some type of action and to reply in writing by a specified due date
• Union issues
• Incoming telephone calls
• An emergency situation

In every in-basket test there is an emergency situation requiring you to respond to the scene. Examples are an officer involved shooting, hostage situation, shooting at an area high school, etc. This is the primary focus of the in-basket. How do you get the paperwork done while responding to a life threatening situation requiring you to be on scene? The correct answer is you won’t, but you will have prioritized the contents of the in-basket from highest to lowest importance. Each of the individual items in the in-basket has a point value. The more critical proper completion of the item is the higher it is valued towards a candidate final score.

Obviously, any “critical incident” has a higher value than responding to an e-mail relative to a parking ticket. Here is what you will be tested for:

• Decision Making
• Planning and Organizing
• Delegation
• Written communication skills
• Judgment
• Organizational integrity
• Problem analysis
• Leadership
• Ability to Prioritize

Other components on an assessment center may be a leaderless discussion, media exercise, employee conflict test with a role player, supervisor/subordinate test, situational oral exam, or a traditional oral board. Future articles will cover these components at length.

Be safe out there!
Larry the Jet

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