“Experience is a brutal teacher, but you learn fast.” – William Nicholson.

Police Promotion ‘Fairness’ is Entirely Subjective…

Due to the volume of candidates aiming to progress their career through police promotion, a ‘paper sift’ or application of some sort is used by many police forces to whittle down the numbers. A common sense approach, yet individuals have argued (successfully in some forces) that promotion applications are not a fair gateway for promotion selection processes. The argument sounds something like: “Those who are good at applications tend to get through, it’s not fair!”. It seems like a good argument, until you realise that the same argument is put forward whatever promotion processes are in place!

  • Those who are good at assessment tests tend to get through, it’s not fair!
  • Those who are good at promotion interviews tend to get through, it’s not fair!
  • Those who are good at presentations tend to get through, it’s not fair!

In a classic case of ‘be careful what you wish for’, some forces listened to feedback and replaced traditional promotion application booklets with a variety of different selection methods. Different forces now have different promotion selection processes in place at different times for different ranks.

The initial gateway to promotion might now involve a meeting with your supervisor. If that goes well, you’ll be ‘written up’ with 500 words to justify you going forward to the next stage. From there, it might be one or more psychometric tests, a role-play exercise, and/or a presentation followed by a board.

These are Testing Times…

“Tests ain’t fair. Those that study have an unfair advantage. It’s always been that way.”  – Allen Dare Pearce

You may not believe this, but people don’t like the new police promotion assessment tests either! Some genuinely question the relevance of such tests to policing and promoting officers. If you are aiming to prevail in a selection process however, it’s probably better to consider Einstein’s advice:

“You have to learn the rules of the game. And then, you have to play better than anyone else”.

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Using ‘gateway’ tests, like a situational judgment test (SJT), can be more practical for forces. Such tests can be conducted online and can be less resource intensive than a paper sift process. Used as a pass or fail, an SJT is effective as a sift, but can be quite frustrating if you don’t understand what is being tested or haven’t practiced or familiarised yourself with such assessment tests beforehand. That’s easy to do now in advance, but harder if you are reacting to a tight deadline as a result of a force process suddenly opening up.

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Meanwhile, promotion applications in one form or another are still a part of promotion selection processes across forces. They may be in the form of traditional application forms where you align evidence to competence-based questions. Alternatively you may be asked to write a letter to your Chief Constable about ‘Why you should be promoted’. Another version is a values based personal statement e.g. “Why Me, Why Now?”. It is no less of a challenge to write a high scoring personal statement than a traditional competency based application. They all require you to demonstrate your communication skills in writing against stated criteria. This is a skill that can be developed!

Overcoming Personal ‘Limitations’…

“Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they’re yours” – Richard Bach

No one walks around in a state of readiness for a promotion selection process. Preparing effectively is about transforming yourself through some hard, smart and focused work.
Promotions are often ‘won’ long before an interview, through becoming a better promotion candidate. This takes time, one unfortunately brutal lesson learned every year across forces by otherwise great cops who don’t allow themselves sufficient time for such transformation prior to a process. How much time is required? The answer is it depends.

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People learn at different rates, some can put in more time than others, but I would say three months ahead of a selection process allows a good run up. The caveat of course is that candidates often won’t get three months notice. So making a personal commitment now to get ahead of the curve by preparing in advance can be a critical decision and often proves to be so. This applies especially if you have passed the exam and are coasting along awaiting a process. You are potentially losing valuable momentum.
Of course, any process to select leaders, managers and supervisors in the police service is not designed to be easy. It’s a hard challenge, but doable.

Testing, Testing: 1, 2, 3…

“I took a test on the internet. It said ‘describe yourself in one word’. I wrote ‘not good at following instructions’.”  Unknown

So let’s take a quick look at one common mistake made with promotion applications and the brutal potential consequences that may result.

No matter what tests you face in a promotion process, it is always important to follow basic instructions. Those having applications as part of their force promotion selection process may never know the reason they did not progress beyond the paper sift stage.

Brutal? That’s one way to describe it.

“I wanna tell you a story”  – Max Bygraves

What follows are a couple of true stories I hope you can learn from. These are real examples of police force’s promotion application processes in recent years…

Lesson 1 –  Following Basic Instructions

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Once upon a time… a Chief Constable took an interest in a promotion selection process and asked to see all completed promotion evidence.

Application included one page requiring individuals to summarise activity in relation to their Continuous Professional Development (CPD). It was a requirement, but would not count to the overall score of the booklet.

Most candidates followed the instructions provided. Some described how they remained up to date by subscribing to policing forums, shared what they were reading and how that influenced or challenged their thinking. Others alluded to their academic studies towards professional qualifications and how this is was helping them to develop as a leader, manager or supervisor. Another described challenges they had taken on to develop in readiness for promotion opportunities. You get the idea!


However, a handful of applicants had left the CPD page in the application form completely blank. One had marked it as ‘not applicable’. The Chief Constable placed all the forms with the development page left blank to one side. A decision had beenmade: These booklets would go no further in the process. There was no need to even read any of their hard-worked evidence. Candidates were then informed that they did not progress beyond the paper sift, with a simple statement:

“This candidate is not currently engaged in driving their own CPD as per force values and leadership expectations. No evidence provided”.

Translation? “This individual can’t follow basic instructions”.

The end.

Story 2 – Learning to Love Word Limits

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“People hate to and will not follow instructions.” Nolan Bushnell

Once upon a time, a promotion selection process was announced. All the candidates that year were excellent officers who had worked hard toward this opportunity. Instructions were provided in writing. The guidance explained very clearly that evidence provided and submitted in writing against relevant competencies should not exceed 250 words.

  • 89 candidates complied with the instruction.
  • 13 applicants exceeded the word limit.

The decision maker for the process wondered what should be done concerning individual applicants who had exceeded the word limits: Did they simply not read the guidance? Were they perhaps so busy with their day job and then rushed the form? Had they been caught out by the tight submission timescales?

She wondered whether her sense of fairness might allow her some flexibility.

What would you give in this situation: Would one word over the limit be ok? 5? 20? 10%+ 3??

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The guidance however was clear and a decision was reached. No application forms where the permitted word limit had been exceeded would be put through, even if by one word. A strong rationale was applied: It would be unfair to those who had adhered to the rules, because extra words used could create an unfair advantage.

Application booklets were placed to one side and the individual officers were informed with those dreaded words:

“Thank you for your interest in applying, however your application on this occasion has not progressed beyond the paper sift”.

The end.

You’re Joking Right?


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It’s a simple but brutal reality many officers fall foul of. You may never know why your bid for promotion was rejected; only that you didn’t get through this stage. Your evidence may have been perfect. Potentially even top scores!

Does this happen? Absolutely, and I witness it regularly first-hand! Officers often send me applications for review when they have been unable to obtain meaningful feedback. They want to know for what it’s worth, why I believe their application failed. Some are angry while others are confused or bewildered. Some had shown their application to line managers or a senior officer and had been assured that it was “on the money” or assured them “I’d be surprised if that doesn’t get you through to interview”.

Clearly, there may be a variety of reasons why an application might have failed, but I’ll always check word limits first! When I do, it’s not uncommon to see additional words beyond the permitted limit for evidence in each section.

Is this simple oversight? No time to check? Or is it the case that they didn’t take the opportunity that a promotion application offers seriously enough?

From dozens of conversations I’ve had with cops aspiring to convert leadership aspiration into promotion success, I believe the reality is that they underestimate the task at hand. The job is busier than ever, someone ‘suddenly’ fires the starter gun for a promotion process and there is a two week deadline.

You might wonder if tight timescales are designed to catch out the unprepared or perhaps the uncommitted.

Remember, you are helping the organisation to make a risk decision: to promote you instead of other, equally qualified, candidates. Deliberately or unwittingly removing yourself from a promotion selection process because you exceeded the word limit is something you will definitely want to avoid. Exceeding the word limit does happen…

Just don’t let it be you, or you might just scream in frustration having read this…

Set Yourself Apart

“Everything of value must be earned.”

So take is as a given, your local force’s promotion process may consist of different elements, derived from the national police promotions framework. Many forces are still using competency applications as an initial sifting process.

Some officers take rejection personally when it comes to selection processes for police promotion. Many give up. Others use the same experience as a valuable learning opportunity applying a growth mindset. In this sense, completely avoidable mistakes are made every year. The most determined and motivated officers have already built a draft application formbefore the force has announced a process, knowing it usually happens every year.

It’s a brutal process, set in a landscape of busier-than-ever policing. So I encourage every police promotion candidate to use the opportunity of an impending promotion application to prepare ahead and set themselves apart from the competition.

If you’d like support along the way to compile your promotion evidence effectively, Rank Success is here to help with downloadable guides and application booklet proofreading to avoid such common mistakes discussed in this article.


Kind Regards, Steve

Wherever you are on your promotion journey www.ranksuccess.co.uk  can help with guidance and support.