How to Improve Your Promotional Assessment Performance

June 12, 2018
Dr. Tomer Gotlib explains why you may be struggling on promotional assessments and how you can improve your performance.

While there are many skills and abilities required to perform effectively in supervisory positions, there are also many core reasons that candidates do not perform as well as they should in promotional assessments. Here we’ll address several of these reasons in order to help firefighters through their assessments.

Not prepared

One reason most candidates don’t perform well in promotional assessments is because they fail to prepare properly. Just like with any type of emergency incident, you need to train in order to be prepared. This begins with familiarizing yourself with the job requirements. If your department has a job description or a job analysis for the position, secure a copy and make sure you are familiar with it. This will provide you with the knowledge, skills and abilities required to effectively perform the job. Moreover, this is the blueprint for the performance dimensions that will be measured in the assessment (e.g., leadership skills, oral communication skills).

Many of you have heard the term “a validated test.” Without boring you with the psychology jargon, this basically means that the assessment is measuring skills and abilities that are important and required to perform the job effectively (based on the job analysis/description). For example, if the job description indicates that supervisory skills are important, you may want to familiarize yourself with coaching and mentoring subordinates or learn how to handle situations in which subordinates are not performing their job according to performance standards. Further, get together with some buddies and think of potential assessment scenarios that you can run through, just as you do when trying to improve your incident command skills with simulated fire scenarios.

Another way to prepare for a promotional assessment is to talk to your supervisors. Ask them about their experiences with the assessments, as well as the transition into their new position. Because they have already participated (and passed) the assessment, they can give you some useful advice for how to perform well. Ask your supervisors questions about their experiences and challenges on the job after they were promoted into the new position. Questions related to what they struggled with after being promoted can be helpful for understanding the job requirements and preparing you for the job, as well as the assessment. These are the same types of questions I ask subject-matter experts when I develop assessment exercises, because they highlight where people are making mistakes and what separates a candidate who can perform the job effectively on their first day in the new position from one who can’t. 


Yes, the assessment center is a nerve-racking experience. There is a lot at stake when trying to promote to a leadership-based position, but that doesn’t mean you have to be nervous. Why don’t you get nervous when running into a burning building or climbing up an aerial ladder? Because you’ve already done it hundreds of times! The point I’m trying to make is that through preparation and action, you will overcome your fear. Same goes with a promotional assessment. Yes, the assessors look scary with their white shirts, bugles and poker faces. But if you prepare, you’ll feel a lot less nervous, your brain will function better, and you’ll make better decisions. You may also try taking a few deep breaths. In many cases, you don’t have to respond to the question or exercise right away, so I advise you to collect your thoughts before doing so.

Nerves can impede your ability to understand instructions and interview questions, causing you to freeze up during. I’ve seen candidates perform poorly on exercises because they missed small pieces of information that were crucial to performing the exercise. I’ve also seen candidates provide responses to interview questions that they thought they heard, when the question was completely different than the one they heard. Make sure you understand the exercise instructions and listen to each interview question carefully. If something is unclear, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. 

Not thinking like a leader

According to many assessors I’ve spoken with, the most common reason why candidates performed below acceptable standards is because they were not thinking like a leader. When you’ve been in the firefighter position for a while, that’s all you know; that’s how you think. However, the company officer position is your first step into management, and you will be required to make decisions that are beneficial not only for you, but also for your company and entire department. As such, you need to start thinking like a company officer (or a chief officer, depending on the rank for which you’re testing). I’ve seen some candidates take this so seriously that they will have their coworkers refer to them as captain or chief in the weeks before an assessment. If you hear it, you will start believing it, and if you believe it, there’s a good chance your actions and decisions will be driven by it.

One way to think like a leader is to adopt “systems thinking.” In other words, you need to think about how your decisions will impact a multitude of individuals at all levels within your department and community. Starting at the lowest level and working to the highest, think about how your decisions will impact you and your company, your station, your department and ultimately your community/city. Remember, leadership is not about you; it’s about making an impact on others.

Another way to think like a leader is to familiarize yourself with your department and your community/city. Do you know the department’s mission statement? Do you know the chief’s vision? What are your department values? What are the major administrative decisions being considered at this point in time? Where is the department headed in the future? Additionally, familiarize yourself with your community/city (not just your response area). Do you know the general demographics of the people in the community/city you serve? Are you up-to-date on current events within your community/city? Are you familiar with high-risk occupancies and geographical areas within the community/city? This is crucial information that can be incorporated into almost any assessment exercise and knowing this will set you apart from candidates who don’t know this information.

Not acting like a leader

Not only do you have to think like a leader, but you have to act like one. You’ll be amazed at how many candidates I’ve heard respond to assessment exercises and interview questions saying things like “I may” or “I might” or “I think I would” or “I’d probably.” Assessors are looking for confidence and command presence. Nobody wants to be led by someone who is unsure of himself and not confident. When you step into an assessment or interview panel, you need to assume the role of the position to which you are applying. This means that you need to start acting like a leader. Be confident in your decisions. Stand up tall, display command presence, and show the assessor panel that you can effectively lead people.

Not communicating well

Effective communication skills are paramount in the fire service. Whether it’s coaching subordinates or communicating on the fireground, you have to be able to communicate effectively. Therefore, it follows that you will need to communicate effectively in an assessment (since you will be responding verbally to most of your assessment exercises and interview questions). Communicating effectively is a skill that comes with experience and practice. However, the better you are at communicating your thoughts, the more likely you are to score higher on your assessment.

A key point to remember is that it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. You need to be passionate about what you say and truly believe it. Assessors can pick up on non-verbal communication and emotions through your facial expressions and body language. Communicate your thoughts in a compelling and passionate way. Also, make eye contact with the assessor panel and use voice inflection to communicate important points. Don’t be monotone and put the assessor panel to asleep. You want to keep them engaged. Additionally, take some time to formulate your thoughts before communicating them. Often times, I see candidates just spit out whatever is on their minds without any logical order. If you take the time to think about your response, you can organize it in a meaningful way that will be received well by the assessor panel.

In sum

There are many resources available for assessment preparation in the fire service, including books, online resources and formal assessment preparation classes. My advice for future candidates is to use as many as these resources as possible and to give yourself plenty of time to prepare for a promotional assessment. Finally, don’t give up. If you don’t pass the first time, learn from your mistakes and keep preparing so that you’re better equipped to perform the next time you test.

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