Five Tactics for Civil Service Exams
Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), MPA
You can increase your
score on almost any multiple choice civil service exam or test by employing five simple "tactics for
test taking." In fact, it is likely that you could increase your final score by
between five and ten percentage points by using these test taking tactics! That
means if you studied enough to score eighty, these tactics can get you a score
of eighty-five or ninety.
These tactics aren't about
studying (a subject of later articles), they are about actually taking a test.
You wouldn't approach a robbery-in-progress, burglary or traffic stop without a
plan. The same is true for civil service examinations. Like any other tactical
problem, the more you know about the problem, the more planning you can do. The
first task is to understand a little more about the nature of the problem
civil service exams or multiple choice tests.
How Multiple Choice Exams are
tests are not designed to find the most qualified person. Generally, the
purpose of a multiple choice test in the civil service exam arena is to narrow the
candidate pool. It is like a big funnel. Anyone can walk in the front door or
the wide part of the funnel. The test narrows the passage way, only the people
who score high spill out the other end. I suppose that the remainder swirl in
the vortex of what might have been.
written civil service exams have the purpose of establishing minimum qualifications to
proceed to the next phase, generally an interview. This can mean two things.
First, the exam means that you must score at least a minimum passing grade on
the test in order to move forward and the your score on the exam does not figure
into your final score (your position on the promotional list). Or, a second
configuration is more common - not only do you need the minimum to proceed, but
your score on the multiple choice exam is a percentage of your final grade. The
percentage varies from agency to agency, and exam to exam within agencies. The
bottom line is if your score on the multiple choice exam is a percentage of
your overall grade, you can improve you position on the list by doing well on
choice questions consist of the question and four potential answers. Having
participated in the writing of two detective exams for a major metropolitan
police agency, I know how exam writers get and design the exam questions. A
good exam writer takes the questions directly from the source material. In
other words, if your Department has a manual, the questions (including the exact
wording, come from your manual). This is done to limit protests. If the exact
wording of a question (and ultimately the most correct answer) comes from a
written source that was made available to you before the exam, your chances of
successfully challenging the question and answer is fairly slim. Moreover,
scenario based questions, particularly legal questions, are taken from published
sources such as the California Peace Officers Legal Source book. Generally,
your organization will publish a exam bibliography. This bibliography is the
source of the questions
The Secrets of the Exam Writer
The civil service
starts with the question and the correct answer, then comes up with an
alternative answer that is clearly not the correct answer. The civil
service exam writer next
comes up with three alternatives that are designed to distract you from the
correct answer. The reason they design civil service exam in this manner has to do with
establishing the validity of the test (something we really don't need to
explore). We do need to look a little further at how incorrect answers are
of wrong answer (lets say answer A) is written by the civil service exam writer to look correct, but it is
incomplete or contains an important detail that is incorrect. The second wrong
answer (say B) is often written to look a lot like answer A. In other words, it
is a similar answer, but contains other incorrect or incomplete information.
The third type of wrong answer (say C) is clearly different from A or B. In
other words, it stands out from A and B because it is so different. The correct
answer, in this scenario D, probably looks similar to A and B. Confused? That
is the point. The choices are designed to confuse the exam taker. This leads
to the first tactic.
civil service exams would be easier if you could bring the source material with you. It would
be very cool (but not too efficient for your police department) to look up the answers when you come across
certain questions. However, when you approach that robbery-in-progress, do you
refer to the tactics manual? No, because you have the information in your
head. It is the same with exams. If you have studied, you have the information
in your head. Part of the problem is that when you are under pressure to answer
specific question, your mind vapor locks, the questions confuse you (as they
are intended to do) or you simply forget. So, the first thing you are going to
do when the civil service exam starts is a data dump.
is simply emptying your head of key information you memorized while studying.
Most of the time, you are provided with a scratch sheets of paper. If you are
not, you need to ask if you can write on the civil service exam booklet (not the answer
sheet!). If the civil service exam proctor has given you scratch paper, or you can write on
the book, you can write anything you want. In future newsletters, when we look
at what and how to study we will identify key tactics and areas to study. For
now, lets presume you have studied.
us, you probably invented or were told cute acronyms to help you recall
information. For instance, in California, the Standard Emergency Management
System/Incident Command Post system has five basic management functions. They
are Command, Operations, Planning, Logistics and Administration (COPLA). Pretty
easy to remember unless you are under the pressure of a civil service exam and the four
Operations, Communications, Planning, Logistics and
Operations, Communications, Planning, Logistics and
Operations, Command, Planning, Logistics and
Operations, Command, Personnel, Liaison and Analysis.
How many of you looked
back at the acronym? This question could easily confuse you unless you had
completed the data dump and written out your acronym. You can bring the
information in your head into the civil service exam! If allowed (and most do), write out
your top 20 civil service exam helpers (a tactic we will look at in the next newsletter) and
design your crib sheet before you start!
Avoiding Easy Mistakes
The second tactic
has to do with how you read the civil service exam question. Read each question four times before
you look at the answers. The first time silently mouth each word and point to
the word on the civil service exam with your finger. This will help you not miss important
words or details. The second time you read the question slowly read it, word
for word, mouthing each word. The third time you read the question underline
important features. Every sentence must have a noun. Where is the noun?
Finding the noun will help you understand the subject of the question.
Underline the noun! Find modifiers words like never, not and only. Underline
those words. On your fourth read of the question read it to comprehend. What
is the civil service exam writer asking you? Remember, in any tactical situation time,
distance and information are your allies. Take your time and gather all of the
information from the question. You wouldn't go to a robbery-in-progress call
without listening to all the information from dispatch don't make the tactical
mistake of rushing into the question or failing to gather all information.
have read the question so that you understand it, we can begin to employ our
third tactic and actually answer the question. The potential answers are
designed to distract you and confuse you. How many times have you looked at the
answers and only been more uncertain? Before you read the question, cover the
answers with your hand or a sheet of paper. When you are reading the question
do not, under any circumstances, look at the answers. Once you have read and
understood the question answer it in your own mind. What is the answer that
you would have written? After you have formulated your answer, uncover the
civil service exam
writer's answers and look for the one that agrees with you! This tactic changes
the nature of the civil service exam. It minimizes the probability that the
civil service exam writer will
distract you from the correct answer. If you studied, you will know the answer!
Our fourth tactic
is very simple and straightforward. Be careful! You know that in the street,
it is the basic stuff that keeps cops alive. You don't park in front of the
radio call, you don't stand in front of doors, and you keep you gun leg back
when interviewing suspects. If you violate a simple rule in the street, you
could get hurt. Most of the time, if you were to stand in front of a door,
nothing would happen. It is that one time you make a simple mistake that could
cost you. It is the same with the civil service exam.
the questions circle the correct answer on the civil service exam booklet. Then, as you mark
the answer sheet, darken in the bubble and look at what you have circled. Say
to yourself, for instance, 1A and as you darken in the bubble, repeat 1A. Then,
as you progress, 2C 2C, 3A 3A and so on. The point is to make sure you
don't mark the wrong line or wrong bubble. You can loose a point or the whole
civil service exam, by being on the wrong line or marking the wrong bubble. Be careful, take
your time. Remember, time is your tactical friend. While your time is limited,
this tactic takes a second or two.
The Wild Ass Guess
Our fifth and last
tactic has to do with gambling. There are going to be some questions where you
do not know the answer! Despite your data dump, careful reading and covering
the answers you just don't know. You are going to have to employ WAG or Wild
Ass Guess. This tactic presumes that your civil service exam is score based upon the total
correct answers and that you are not given a penalty for wrong answers. You
must research what type of civil service exam you are taking. For instance, some
civil service exam give
you three points for a right answer and take one point from your total if you
answer incorrectly. civil service exam writers use this to prevent you from employing WAG.
If your civil service exam penalizes you for a wrong answer Don't WAG! However, most civil
service exams do not penalize you for an incorrect answer. But, before you WAG
lets see if we can improve your odds.
on a hundred-question test you have correctly answered 90 questions. You have
ten that you do not know the correct answer. When I come across a question that
I do not know, I circle the entire question in the booklet and then mark any
number on the answer sheet. The questions I have circled in the booklet are the
ones I am going to come back to when I have finished the entire civil service
Nearly everyone has heard
the urban myth that says when you don't know the correct answer, choose C.
Well, if you employ some statistical research (I will not bore you with central
tendency, probability theories and distribution), you will find out that C is
just as likely as A, B or D. But, if you have ten questions left and each
question has four possible combinations there are 1,045, 576 potential
solutions. With over a million possible solutions to the ten questions, you are
really gambling. And, even though the central tendency of potential correct
answers means you should have a one in four chance of guessing right, the
central tendency also means there is a distribution or people who will guess
no right answers and people who will guess all right answers. Again, that is
back over those ten questions and eliminate one answer from each. Find one that
is clearly wrong the number of potential combinations drops from 1,048,576 to
59,049. In other words, if you can eliminate at least one wrong answer, your
WAG improves significantly. And, if you can eliminate two wrong answers, the
potential combinations drop to 1,024. Now, you are gambling on the houses
money! And, your WAG has a 50/50 chance.
to eliminate incorrect answers and improve your WAG, re-read the question
slowly and see if you missed something. Next, ask yourself with each potential
answer - "What would be the practical outcome of the answer?" In other words, if
you did it in the street or station like the answer suggests what would
happen? Can you spot negative outcomes? Often, you can find at least one that
is clearly wrong. Even finding one, improves your WAG and probably your overall
score. For instance
Constitutional Amendment is the foundation for an officers use of deadly force?
This was an actual
question. After thinking it through, I eliminated the
because it was not one of the original ten.
The Fourteen Amendment is
Post-Civil War and I figured that cops were using deadly force long before the
end of the civil war. Looking at the Second Amendment, it is the right to
bear arms. But, as I recall, nothing in the Amendment says you can
actually use them. I figured that was the civil service exam writers red
herring. By crossing those two out, we are left with two choices.
The Fifth Amendment is about self-incrimination and trials while the Fourth
Amendment is the foundation for search and seizure. Ah, it dawned on me -
the governments ability to search and seize would be moot without the ability to
enforce compliance, hence the use of deadly force. The correct answer.
The point is that
you may be able to cipher out the correct answer. At the very least, you can
discard incorrect answers by concentrating on the consequences of the questions
and ultimately improve your WAG. Those are the five basic tactics (there is
some advanced stuff but that's for later). Of course, nothing replaces
applying yourself and studying.
About the Author:
Raymond E. Foster was a sworn
member of the Los Angeles Police Department for 24 years. He retired in 2003 at
the rank of Lieutenant. He holds a bachelors from the Union Institute and
University in Criminal Justice Management and a Masters Degree in Public
Financial Management from California State University, Fullerton. He is near the
end of his doctoral studies in business research. Raymond is a graduate of the
West Point Leadership program and has attended law enforcement, technology and
leadership programs such as the National Institute for Justice, Technology
Institute, Washington, DC.
Raymond is currently a part-time lecturer at California State University,
Fullerton and the Union Institute and University. He has experience teaching
upper division courses in law enforcement, public policy, technology and
leadership. Raymond is an experienced author who has published numerous articles
in a wide range of venues including magazines such as Government Technology,
Mobile Government, Airborne Law Enforcement Magazine, and Police One. He has
appeared on the History Channel and radio programs in the United States and
Europe as subject matter expert in technological applications in law
enforcement. For instance, he was recently interviewed by the London Independent
on the use of cellular telephone technology in explosive devices.
His first book, Police Technology (Prentice Hall, July 2004) is used in over
40 colleges and universities nationwide. Raymond has two additional contracts
with Prentice Hall to publish works on global terrorism and an introduction to
policing. As an outgrowth of his writing, Raymond maintains two websites and
acts as the editor of a monthly newsletter with a growing subscriber base.
Raymond can be reached by email at