Police Psychology: How to Pass Your Pre-Employment Psych Screening

Posted: October 13, 2017 in Tests
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How to Pass Your Pre-Employment Psych Screening

(without driving yourself nuts)

Laurence Miller, PhD

 Many prospective LEOs ask me if there’s any special “advice” I can offer about how to pass their agency’s pre-employment psychological evaluation.  So I’m going to offer some straightforward recommendations for giving the most positive and accurate representation of your abilities and personality during the exam.  And I’m not going to teach you any sneaky tricks or violate any trade secrets to do it. 

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 won’t create a liability for the department.   

What are you guys looking for?

The purpose of most pre-employment psych evals is not to certify you as a paragon of mental health – otherwise there wouldn’t be very many working police officers (or psychologists, for that matter).  Rather, the psych screening is designed to rule-out significant mental health disturbances, personality disorders, or dysfunctional behavioral traits that would be incompatible with the role of a police officer. This point is important because, as I’ll emphasize below, the most common mistake police applicants make is trying to be too perfect and thereby leading the evaluator to suspect you’re not being truthful.  So remember, we just want to know you’re basically normal, not perfect.  

 What does the exam consist of?

The exact content and procedures of pre-employment screenings may 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 adversarial interrogation, and the aim is not to trick or trap you.  Correspondingly, the less defensive and more honest you are, the more favorable impression you’ll make.   

The number of psychological tests employed may range from few to many, 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 (increasingly, this is done by computer).  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 overall psychological fitness for the job.

How should I act at the interview?  How should I answer the examiner’s questions?

First, don’t assume the worst.  The psychologist is not your enemy.  For that matter, he or she is not your friend, either.  This professional’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.  

Second, 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 breakfast or lunch prior to a morning or 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.

Third, don’t be afraid to ask questions.  If something is unclear about what 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 supposed to be transmitted directly to the hiring agency.  If the examiner can’t answer a particular question, they’ll tell you so, but there should be no harm in asking.

Fourth, 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 my 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.  This goes for both the interview and the written tests.

Finally, expect to be treated courteously, and behave accordingly.  Even though the examiner may have to ask you some personal or pointed questions, you should never be made to feel unnecessarily demeaned or treated like a criminal suspect.  Likewise, you’ll be expected to behave with reasonable respect and decorum.  Both examiner and examinee should keep in mind that they are both professionals who are here to do a job.

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 as a police officer for this agency.  The report is then sent to the agency hiring committee for them to consider all of your other application materials (background check, medical exam, etc.), and at some point, they will let you know the good or bad news.

What if I think my results are invalid?

Policies vary from agency to agency.  Some departments, usually larger ones with many applicants, give you little recourse if your application is rejected, for psychological reasons or otherwise.  Other departments, usually smaller ones with a more sparse applicant pool, may allow you to reapply after a certain time period or, more rarely, may allow you to seek your own “second opinion” from an outside psychologist.  As a general rule, when you apply for any job, LEO-related or otherwise, you should always inquire ahead of time about that organization’s hiring policies.

So while there are no guarantees in life, for your law enforcement pre-employment psych eval, present yourself positively, truthfully, and nondefensively, act with courtesy and dignity, answer oral and written questions honestly to the best of your ability, and give the examiner a taste of the professionalism you plan to bring to your law enforcement career. 


Site Administrator:  Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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