Police Psychological Exam and Polygraph Test

Other than the physical fitness exam, police applicants will have to take a psychological exam and a polygraph test.

The Psychological Exam

In general, people tend to get nervous at the mention of “psychological” anything, but there’s really no point in getting wound up about this portion of the application process. Actually, this might be one of the easiest parts of the whole process—you can’t study for this test and you can’t outguess it, so there is really nothing to do to prepare. Here is some information about what the psychological test entails.

The Written Test

Almost all departments give applicants a standardized multiple-choice test—either one they have designed themselves or one that is commonly used in psychological settings.
The most common test is the Minnesota Multiphasic Psychological Inventory (MMPI). Updated versions of the test include the MMPI-2 and the MMPI-2RF. These tests are comprised of over 500 true-false statements, which you read and respond to. Just to give you some idea of what it’s like, the statements range from things like “I prefer romance novels to mysteries,” to “My father is a good man,” to “I am an important person.” You mark your answers, depending on whether the statement never applies to you, sometimes applies to you, often applies to you, or always applies to you. And that’s it. Another commonly used self-reporting instrument is the California Psychological Inventory. This instrument is comprised of over 400 similar questions.
Other tests may ask you to complete sentences or to react to specific phrases, such as “When I’m at home” or “My mother’s favorite.” Don’t obsess over your answers. Answer honestly, but think about what you are writing. “My mother’s favorite color is purple” will probably send a better message than “My mother’s favorite was always my worthless brother.” However, do not waste a lot of time trying to come up with the “right” or the “best” answers. You are better off just answering honestly. The MMPI and all psychological tests are specifically designed to pick up inconsistencies that indicate someone is manipulating the answers. You don’t gain anything by being dishonest in your responses.

The Psychological Interview

In some departments, you will have an interview with a psychologist, usually sometime after you complete the written test. The psychologist will probably ask you some follow-up questions about the results of your written test, and he or she may also ask other questions to find out a little more about what kind of person you are.
Don’t worry too much about this. Anything you say is private, and you are not going to leave the testing room in a straitjacket. You may be asked questions no one’s ever asked you before—things like “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” or “Do you have a happy marriage?” Don’t say, “None of your business”—although that will probably be your first impulse.

The Polygraph Test

Many police departments require polygraphs. If you have never taken one before, the idea can be intimidating. You may be asking yourself the following: How does it work? What are they going to ask about? What if I’m nervous during the test?
The polygraph measures several involuntary physiological responses to stress—specifically, the stress involved in lying. When you are actually “hooked up,” you will be seated in a chair near the polygraph. Three sensors will be attached:

  1. Blood pressure cuff, to measure heart rate
  2. Convoluted rubber tubes, attached around the abdomen and chest, to measure respiratory activity
  3. Two small metal plates, attached to the fingers, to measure sweat gland activity

Before you are hooked up to the polygraph, the examiner will ask you several questions. There are the baseline questions—”Is your name Jane Doe? Were you born in Peoria, Illinois?” Then there are the real questions, such as “Have you ever manufactured, transported, or sold illegal drugs?” You are not going to lie about your name or where you were born; even if your heart is beating faster than it normally would because you are nervous, that elevated heart rate is going to register as the baseline for the test.
The pretest may ask you questions outside of the application, like “Did you ever steal candy when you were younger?” or “Did you lie as a child?” For the most part we have all done something like that. Remember: no one is perfect, and the examiner doesn’t expect anyone to be. But what the examiner will expect is honesty.
After you are hooked up to the polygraph, the examiner will go through the questions again. There will also be follow-up questions that aim to catch you off guard and elicit an immediate, uncontrollable response. For example, an examiner might ask, “Did you lie when you told me you haven’t manufactured, transported, or sold illegal drugs?” The examiner might also drill down on certain topics that seem to provoke an unusual physiological response.

Polygraph Tips

As you can see, taking a polygraph test can be nerve-wracking, and it will likely create some anxiety or stress. There are a few things you can do to eliminate some of the stress you may be feeling that day.
First, do not be late. Being late to any type of job interview can cause stress or anxiety. Because the polygraph is part of the hiring phase, being on time is also part of the process. Remember, the test measures stress and nervousness. Give yourself plenty of time to get there and keep yourself relaxed. Stay away from caffeine that day; drink water instead. Also try to relax your breathing.
Dress appropriately and professionally. This is no ordinary job interview. You need to act and dress professionally at all stages of the application process, including this one.
Finally, during the test, do not give evasive answers. Try to keep your answers to a simple “yes” or “no” if at all possible. Also make sure that any information you provide during the polygraph matches the information you provided elsewhere during your application.

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