Promotional Test Preparation

An Opportunity for Mentorship

By Douglas Newman 
A man is depicted taking an exam, wondering if the answer he chose was the correct one.


Police departments differ on how they select officers for promotions. Some appoint their candidates, while others have civil service, human resource, or union contract requirements to fulfill. Perhaps one agency bases its choices on a written exam or uses an assessment center. Another department might rely on a professional testing company to administer legally defensible assessments. Maybe there is an oral board or an interview with the chief or sheriff. An in-basket exercise or incident-command role-play scenario also may be employed.

No single way to promote exists, but one element proves universal. Regardless of the route to advancement, preparation proves vitally important. With a broad topic, like police supervision, this task can become difficult. Aspiring officers often find studying for both the technical and managerial aspects of law enforcement daunting. And, police leaders may experience challenges in identifying mentoring methods for officers or first-line supervisors seeking promotional test guidance.


Leaders should encourage all eligible personnel to test for promotion. Of course, not everyone fits a leadership position. Some officers and first-line supervisors are happy and productive in their current position and do not think advancement suits their lifestyle. Others have the ambition, but lack the experience, temperament, or attitude for increased authority. However, this does not mean that they should not experience the testing process. 

Studying for promotional tests aids in strengthening fundamental skills, developing an understanding of the issues facing the department, and renewing perishable and ever-changing knowledge. It only makes employees better, and—in a sense—serves as free training. Because of this, test preparation is a great learning tool.


Another benefit results from encouraging everyone eligible to test. Often, an ideal candidate gets surpassed by a competitor who performed better only during the day of the assessment. Every process has shortcomings, and someone always ends up unhappy when the results and rankings are published. Encouraging all qualified personnel to participate aids in breaking a perception that agencies “give” away promotions and that testing processes are easy or set up to favor one candidate over another.

Leaders’ success should be measured by that of those around them; they hold the responsibility of propelling a worthy officer’s career as much as possible. Managers may encounter a time—if not already—when they must coordinate a testing process. When officers seek help, it may be too late to mentor them due to a conflict of interest. Test preparation—for both the candidate and the leader—should entail a year-round effort and not begin upon announcement of the assessment.



Commander Newman serves with the Port of Seattle, Washington, Police Department.
Commander Newman serves with the Port of Seattle, Washington, Police Department.


Some agencies have study guides or reading lists, but if all candidates memorize that material, how can anyone stand out? Some for-profit companies dedicate themselves to preparing hopeful police leaders for promotion. However, aspiring corporals, sergeants, or lieutenants can spend a small fortune purchasing study guides that may not apply to their respective testing processes.

Effective agency leaders recognize their responsibility to develop the officers in their charge. However, they may receive the necessary training after attaining a leadership position, rather than beforehand to prepare them for future challenges. Managers receive instruction on budgetary issues, tactical deployment, incident command, leadership, crime scene management, and many other areas. With all of their education, how many leaders ever truly receive specific guidance on how to prepare those around them for promotion?

When studying for promotional exams, officers often feel as if they are approaching the unknown. Information on test preparation within many agencies can resemble “tribal knowledge.” Candidates obtain guidance from past experiences and folklore personnel have informally passed down through the organization after each announcement of an impending promotional assessment. Officers may find it difficult to acquire legitimate resources pertaining to subject areas, such as policy, law, and issues impacting the department.

Another area of preparation may be an afterthought to candidates. However, it could make a crucial difference in the final outcome and can be more difficult to prepare for than traditional areas of study. Social flexibility refers to the ability to adapt to different social situations.1 Officers with this important attribute have many valuable qualities—such as succinct presentation delivery, professional demeanor, approachability, confidence without cockiness, emotional intelligence, and proper body language—unaddressed by formal, customary test preparation. Successful leaders can effectively communicate and operate in a variety of interpersonal situations, from angry citizen complaints to grieving officers, on a moment’s notice.


The author offers 10 suggestions for police leaders to share with promotional candidates preparing for a test. Although not all encompassing, these may offer a starting point and hopefully will provide valuable new perspectives.

1) Seek promotion for the right reasons.

Individuals have various motivations for testing: higher status, more lucrative pay, greater influence, or change of work pace. However, officers should reconsider the decision if these represent their primary reasons.

The best leadership candidates still believe in their oath and the honor of law enforcement. They primarily want to be promoted because they possess the ethics for leadership and the desire to care for other officers. In conjunction, they also have the commitment to accomplish their department’s mission and truly serve the public.

Assessors and evaluators can sense ulterior motives. Officers’ impure intentions generally will show under the stress of testing, although some can fake it. However, most law enforcement testing assessors are experienced officers who have spent a career identifying human behavior. Insincerity proves hard to hide. It can—and should—weed out undesirable candidates during the promotional process.

Officers should approach test preparation as they do all activities—from the standpoint of ethics and service. During testing, candidates should tie every answer and response to their department’s core values, mission, and vision. Many officers forget this, but it should form the fundamental basis of any promotional process. Further, police leaders need to use the agency’s core values as a guide when constructing test assessments.

2) Think and act as if you already have obtained your desired rank.

Leading up to promotional tests, candidates often make the error of thinking and acting like their current rank, rather than their desired level. The assessment will come more naturally if officers already have a leader’s point of view. As one author and lecturer said, “Start with the end in mind. If you want to be a millionaire, talk like one, act like one, work like one.”2 This also proves applicable in police leadership.

When officers seek guidance on how to get promoted, they should listen to every call for service, watch each roll call, and observe all interactions between supervisors and employees. They should ask themselves, How would I handle this? Candidates also can attend staff meetings or stand in as necessary for the lieutenant, captain, or commander. Additionally, they should participate in tabletop exercises, serve in the command post during incident-command situations, and take advantage of any other such opportunities.

In theory all competitors know how to be police officers. However, they need to understand the strategic view of the organization and think at a higher level while combining the common sense and experience of effective law enforcement personnel. Individuals will find achieving this delicate balance fundamental to success.

Officers must realize that strategic has become an all-encompassing police management term for organizational future forecasting. When adapting to strategic thinking, they need a wide-ranging view. Candidates should focus beyond obvious police supervision topics, such as tactical responses, operational requirements, and investigative methods. They ought to give equal consideration to strategic subjects, which may include community concerns and their impact on the department, budgetary matters, social issues for the agency to adapt to, recruitment and retention, diversity (gender and race) hiring, employee wellness and resilience, training and development of personnel, and equipment needs.

3) Focus on communication.

Arguably the most important quality of a successful candidate is clear, convincing communication. This holds true for any fruitful leader, so the correlation with this skill makes sense regarding a promotional assessment. Effectiveness with all types of communication—spoken, written, and nonverbal—remains imperative for testing.

Candidates should hone and rehearse their presentation skills. Most officers find public speaking classes painful, but they can use them to improve both their verbal and nonverbal communications. Posture, grammar, eye contact, voice cadence, and inflection all hold importance.

When officers rehearse, they should not seek scripted answers, but practice how they will respond to certain topics. They can start by preparing an overview of their background. Having a quick, succinct framework ready, candidates will find that describing their professional activities can aid in all areas of an interview, even if they do not need to provide an oral resume. Further, many assessment sections have time limits. Practicing and refining vocal patterns can help officers cut out time-wasting and unprofessional speech (e.g., “um” and “yeah”) from conversations. They will need an honest and supportive, but critical coach to rehearse with who will assist in identifying areas for improvement.

“Regardless of the route to advancement, preparation proves vitally important.”

Individuals may have to conduct an “in-basket” exercise, portfolio project, or staff study or submit a memorandum on a personnel issue or operations plan as part of the testing process. Administrators grade documents for content, organization, and writing proficiency.

Officers’ education levels have evolved along with the policing profession. Those struggling with professional writing must prepare well in advance of the testing process. For candidates who lack higher education, a community college writing class can boost confidence and ability.

Some agencies, cities, or counties have a trained public information officer. Such individuals can share their experience (e.g., writing press releases and giving media statements) with candidates to help them improve their verbal, nonverbal, and written communication skills.

4) Become a student of the assessment center and testing process.

Candidates should know that free, easy-to-access resources exist that can give them an advantage by helping them understand the process and what assessors may look for. Surprisingly, YouTube serves as a beneficial—and perhaps overlooked—tool for preparation. It features excellent educational videos that cover assessment centers, promotional tests, and interviews, to include explanations of their origins and purposes. Further, YouTube provides both superior and inferior examples of employee coaching techniques, disciplinary counseling scenarios, and Employee Assistance Program (EAP) practices—all common exercises in many promotional assessments.

Officers can absorb this information in a few minutes. Younger candidates or those with a particular learning style may find such Internet-based resources more engaging than other developmental tools. Quickly thinking of how to handle an issue, such as a problem employee or an angry citizen, during the testing process could present a pitfall for individuals who have not already thought it through. To this end, seeing different scenarios in video vignettes as they prepare may help. It is quick, easy, and free. Also, it offers an ideal opportunity for officers to sit down with a mentor, watch a video, and discuss the scenario and how to handle the particular situation.

5) Use a notebook.

Serious contenders will find a notebook valuable. They ought to carry one with them wherever they go. Officers should place themselves in the role of test author and think of every question that could arise during the testing process.

When these come to mind, candidates should write each one at the top of a fresh page. While studying, individuals can revisit each question, research the answer, and jot down what they consider the best response. During coaching sessions, officers can review their notes with a mentor to receive guidance and dissect the best ways to answer each inquiry.

Notebook questions should range as widely as possible and include potential written and oral test inquiries. Beginning categories may include tactics, oral resume highlights, leadership strengths and areas for improvement, social issues currently impacting law enforcement, and the future of the agency.

  • How have you prepared for this position?
  • What major obstacles face your department?
  • When and how have you faced an ethical dilemma?
  • How does the current perception of social justice impact your agency’s strategic plan?
  • In what stressful situations have you displayed leadership?
  • What challenges accompany an increase of more restrictive search and seizure procedures?
  • How would you implement a problem-oriented policing philosophy with your deputies?
  • Which steps will your officers take to reduce fatal collisions?
  • How will you increase minority hiring within your department?

Often, candidates do not know how to organize and prioritize study material for test preparation. A notebook provides direction outside of structured reading lists, policies, procedures, and statutes and helps incorporate the reading materials and policies into answers applicable to real issues. It assists officers with increasing their professional knowledge and reinforces study organization and presentation skills needed for the actual test.

6) Pay attention to detail.

Whether employed by a large metropolitan police force, rural sheriff’s office, or state agency, candidates face highly competitive promotional processes. They must focus on their intangible qualities and pay attention to small details—these can make a difference and, if ignored, negatively impact a final score.

Recently, a midsized police department held a commander’s assessment. A reputable private testing company administered the exam. The evaluators consisted of command-level officers from other law enforcement agencies throughout the state. All of the candidates were impressive, each possessing a wide range of experience and education. The assessment center employed a multidimensional, 2-day process.

During the oral interview, an evaluator said of one officer, “He didn’t spit shine the back of his uniform boots…only the front.” This comment may have appeared odd considering this was a command-level assessment. However, the evaluator explained that his critical observation was the only flaw he could find in the individual’s performance. This example demonstrates that even at the command level, people notice the details.

As a reflex law enforcement officers evaluate people immediately upon encountering them. Most police test assessors are at the command level and have the same reaction. Ideal posture, professional speech, direct eye contact, professional attire or uniform, proper hygiene, appropriate use of humor and timing—any such factor—may not make a sizeable difference on an overall score. But, then again, serious candidates must assume that everyone they compete against has prepared just as diligently as they have.

If final scores are close, an element, such as overall uniform appearance, could constitute the necessary one-tenth of a percentage point to propel a candidate to the top of the list. Attention to detail is important and not stressed enough in test preparation.

“Leaders’ success should be measured by that of those around them….”

7) All preparation provides benefits.

Traditional study materials and seminars may neglect or gloss over some thought-provoking test preparation strategies; however, they still contain beneficial information. Additionally, newer ideas and resources exist.

Online companies offer multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank general police supervisor tests for a fee. Officers can take an exam, submit it online, and receive graded results with explanations of the answers. While perhaps not applicable for all jurisdictions, these exams help reinforce fundamentals of police science and supervision that may diminish over time.

Mock in-basket and project-proposal exercises prove among the most helpful online testing vehicles. Some of the same companies that offer traditional online written tests also offer this training. Candidates will find the graded explanations of correct answers valuable.

Both types of exercises stress important issues and essential resources. The project-proposal segments emphasize how to solve important problems, along with how to obtain and deploy resources. Each iteration should have a section on measuring and reporting status and success.

Often, these exercises become part of a larger, multilayered testing process. Candidates may identify the most important problem from a list of several issues (in basket), develop a program to address the challenge (project proposal), and then present their plan in person to a panel of evaluators through an oral presentation, written exercise, or both. Many test processes only incorporate certain portions or combinations of these components.

Prioritization, time management, communication, delegation, personnel management, stakeholder service, succession preparation, strategic planning, and leadership actions form key components in these types of exercises. Officers must remember that what online test authors consider important in an in basket, how they feel a crime reduction program should be funded and executed, or what expectations they think a supervisor should have for a problem employee may not apply to their respective jurisdictions. However, understanding the philosophy behind these types of exercises is invaluable. Further, because they could cross over into many different areas of the testing process, studying one of these exercises can help hone a candidate’s skill in another.

8) Employ “all-hazards” problem solving.

Over the last several decades—with demands becoming more broad and challenging—the military has employed combined forces and joint warfare doctrines more frequently. Task forces that bring together different services and military communities now are common. This approach helps address challenges in an asymmetrical, ever changing, multidimensional battle space. With personnel and budgetary restraints, combined with specific subject-matter expertise needed for certain missions, the “we can do it all” approach has given way to team sharing and collective problem solving.

Candidates should apply the same thinking to law enforcement. With emerging challenges—active shooters, terrorism, school security, drone regulation, cyber security, and social distrust of officers—today’s police leaders must prepare their agencies to face problems unforeseen 20 years ago. These issues become compounded by the demand of fiscal efficiency as police agencies need to do more with less.

Complex incidents may require an initial police response, but candidates who approach problem solving with an all-hazards approach are better prepared for any scenario they may encounter, whether tactical, policy related, political, social, budgetary, or some combination. Evaluators will see such officers as having the ability to think and plan at the next level.

Police officers should become fully aware of all resources inside their respective agencies, as well as outside. The seemingly endless choices are limited only by an individual’s imagination and the mentor’s experience. Examples include other law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, fire departments, youth programs, faith-based groups, school administrators, homeowners’ associations, community watch organizations, business owners, elected officials, and homeless advocates. Once officers recognize the tools available, their choices for solutions become much wider in scope. All-hazards preparation aids in eliminating one-dimensional thinking and encourages “big picture” strategic problem solving.

This multileveled approach applies to myriad issues, including community crime problems. Candidates should become familiar with CompStat (computer statistics or comparative statistics); SARA (scanning, analysis, response, and assessment); intelligence-led, data-driven, and evidence-based policing; and other methods of community- and problem-oriented policing.3 Using an all-hazards strategy while incorporating established crime prevention philosophies can help officers address a variety of issues in a comprehensive, professional manner that competitors may overlook.

9) Control the question and “tell a story.”

Candidates frequently experience anxiety during testing. The feeling of being at the mercy of evaluators and lacking control of the process often leads to nervousness and poor performance. Changing this mind-set can boost their confidence. To this end, officers should recognize that once a question is asked—during an oral board, role-play scenario, or the written portion—they now have control.

All too often, individuals fall victim to the pressure of the moment. When challenged with a problem-based question, they focus solely on the information presented. However, responses that earn higher scores tend to offer several thoughtful solutions using all-hazards problem solving.

“Police officers should become fully aware of all resources inside their respective agencies, as well as outside.”

A broad question should not receive a narrowly focused answer. For example, in response to “As a patrol supervisor, how would you respond to an active shooter at an elementary school?” a candidate’s answer should center on the appropriate tactical response, personnel commitment, coordination with other agencies, medical resources, neutralization of the threat, and evacuation.

Further, officers who achieve a higher score are those who tell a story—beginning, middle, and end. They can begin by discussing preparation for a response, such as training a team or working with partners. When explaining their actions, individuals can offer other considerations, like how to address nonrelated high-priority calls for service while responding to the primary event. Candidates may end the story by quickly describing, for instance, postevent management; perimeter establishment; command notification; media issues; crime scene maintenance; and support for victims, witnesses, and first responders.

One assistant chief provided valuable advice to help individuals take control of a question. Sometimes, the best answer for any problem-based question in an assessment simply is, “It depends.”4 Regardless of the situation, a decision relies on the facts known at the time. Such a response serves three specific purposes: 1) candidates collect their thoughts while not stammering or wavering; 2) officers do not blurt out their first thought and then need to backtrack and explain the initial answer; and 3) test takers can explain several different ways to address a broad problem, thus, helping them control the response methodically.

10) Seek an edge outside of the agency.

Several police leadership requirements are universal, and many departments face the same challenges. However, agencies also possess other desired dimensions for future leaders. Officers cannot assume that they will find all necessary test preparation resources within their respective departments. They must understand the specific knowledge, skills, and abilities a particular agency looks for. By gaining this information, officers can gain an edge over their competitors.

Candidates should seek knowledge outside of their department. For instance, any prospective police leader must possess a strong functional understanding of the incident-command system. And, firefighters represent the only group that uses this approach more regularly than police officers. Local fire department leadership is an excellent resource for test preparation on the incident-command structure.

Motivated candidates also will make appointments to interview other police and sheriff’s departments’ commanders and chiefs to glean their knowledge and expectations. Additionally, officers should place human resources and police union or guild leaders at the top of their list for seeking input.

Additionally, individuals should connect with city managers, community leaders, stakeholders, prosecutors and public defenders, department heads in other areas of government, and elected officials. Outside resources often provide different perspectives on management issues that can prove helpful. This external interview test preparation can be invaluable for officers trying to understand both agreed-upon community priorities and conflicting interests between their agency and portions of the jurisdiction.

Aspiring leaders also can look into other agencies conducting assessments. Sometimes, candidates may fill in as role players and gain an insider’s look into another department’s promotional process. This can initiate an excellent mentorship dialogue about what positive and negative things the officer saw while participating in an outside agency’s practices. For leaders, serving as an evaluator or observer gives them valuable insight to bring back to their organization.


The promotional testing process primarily aims to select qualified people to fill positions of greater authority. But, it also can help make better law enforcement officers through career development and encourage leaders to become accountable as mentors. These by-products of the promotional process can make all police organizations stronger and their communities better. That summarizes the purpose of the law enforcement profession.

“Some agencies have study guides or reading lists, but if all candidates memorize that material, how can anyone stand out?”

Commander Newman can be reached at


1 Psychology Dictionary, s.v. “social flexibility,” accessed January 26, 2017,

2 “Bob Proctor,” AZ Quotes, accessed January 26, 2017,

3 Jon M. Shane, “Compstat Process,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 2004, accessed January 27, 2017,; Jon M. Shane, “Compstat Design,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 2004, accessed January 27, 2017,; Jon M. Shane, “Compstat Implementation,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June 2004, accessed January 27, 2017,; Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, The SARA Model, accessed January 27, 2017,; John B. Edwards, “Intelligence-Led Policing: Connecting Urban and Rural Operations,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June 2012, accessed March 6, 2017,; Heather Kerrigan, “Data-Driven Policing,” Governing the States and Localities, May 2011, accessed March 6, 2017,; and George Mason University, Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, Evidence-Based Policing, accessed March 6, 2017,

4 Assistant Chief Jason Berry of the Washington State Patrol, personal communication with author.