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7 tips for acing promotion exams

Feb. 22, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
USS Ronald Reagan activity
A row of sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan participate in the E-6 advancement exam. An expert on taking exams says proper study techniques are the best way to attain good scores. (MCSA Benjamin C. Jernigan/Navy)
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The clock is ticking.

The spring 2014 advancement exams start in less than a month and for those hoping to earn a crow or put on your next petty officer chevron, it’s time to hit the books.

To help you boost your chances, Navy Times reached out to experts in and out of the Navy for pointers and advice you can use in the weeks ahead to prep for the thing that makes or breaks most sailors: the test.

“The easiest of all factors to increase the [final multiple score] is the exam score,” Fleet Master Chief (AW/SW) JoAnn Ortloff, one of the experts surveyed, tells sailors.

Ortloff is an advancement expert, who recently served as a key member of the panel reviewing improvements to the FMS formula for Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens. And she’s been helping sailors prepare for exams for years.

“I started briefing exam and study tips when I was a senior chief on the USS John C. Stennis 1998-2001 as the Training Department Leading Chief,” she told Navy Times in a Feb. 12 email. “I found that many of our sailors were not educated on how to study — that’s the first step, and so many were missing it.”

Ortloff, who’s now the top sailor at U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, said the key to success starts with doing the right prep.

“You have to know HOW to study before you can really start to study, otherwise it can be overwhelming and counterproductive because of time management woes and cramming,” she said.

Here are seven of her best tips to help you prepare for March:

Make a study plan

“Earlier in my career, studying for the exam was frustrating because I didn’t have a study routine so it seemed I was always rushing to cram for what I thought was going to be on the exam,” Ortloff said in her emailed reply to questions. “That was the hardest thing for me to nail down.”

Ortloff said the key is coming up with a study plan weeks, even months, ahead, with short sessions learning new material and reviewing old.

“Repetition in studying is key, which is why locking into a good study routine is critical early on — it not only helps you, but helps your family and friends support this time because they become a part of that routine,” she said. “Keep your routine going when you transfer — not all duty assignments will be the same, with the same physical environment, so a routine will be your foundation that can be adapted to any location or circumstance.”

Turn off the TV

Distractions are the enemy when it comes to studying. Eliminate them. The biggest culprits: TV, loud music, text messages, chores — and kids. Find a quiet place to study and set aside an hour or so to dive deep in to your bibliography.

Get rid of anything that might take your focus away from the task at hand, she said.

Study in bursts

The Navy offers a bibliography for every rating and paygrade for which it writes a test. Officials stress every question on every advancement exam was taken directly from a Navy reference — it may not be word for word — but the facts are all there.

Getting through your bibliography is essential to test prep, Ortloff said, adding that can take a long time.

“Over the last 15 years I’ve seen dozens of different versions, and they all have the same common theme: Have a routine, one you can use throughout your career,” she said. “You’ll use it for Navy exams, PQS study, warfare programs, college exams and other challenges out there.”

You need to plan weeks ahead on what topics to tackle first and study experts recommend you focus first on the topics you have the most trouble with, and spend only a few minutes brushing up on the more familiar topics afterward.

Experts recommend many short study sessions, no longer than an hour, rather than marathon study periods that go for hours. Cramming is also a bad idea.

“Waiting till the last days before an exam, or cramming, can be very stressful,” Ortloff said. “Walking into an exam can also be stressful — going in prepared can reduce that stress.”

You can download your bibliography from the Navy Advancement Center at

Break it down

Everything you need to study for the exam is listed in the bibliography — but how to tackle that list of references takes some focus.

Ortloff advises sitting down with a reference guide for your bibliography and locating subtopics, which are linked on NKO in the same location as the bibliography. Most sailors miss this, she said.

This subtopic pamphlet breaks down your study insights even further to the topics your questions will be about.

“Combining the two documents, you will have the instruction to refer to, the paragraphs in that instruction you need to study, and the topics you will be tested on,” she said. “Couldn’t be any simpler.”

Ortloff’s advice: “Some manuals are thicker than the phone book of a major city, so knowing how to read one can be an art. First, it’s important to read the table of contents to see how topics are broken up. Then, using your bibliography, go to the chapters that you are prompted to and then go to the topics outlined in your NKO subtopics. Once you’re done, review the table of contents again for any subjects that are related, and review as secondary reading.”

Ortloff also said reviewing your profile sheet is crucial. Look for the areas where you scored lowest, or just average, on previous tests and focus your energies there. “Do not neglect areas in which you know for a fact your knowledge is weak,” she cautioned.

Flashcards: Make 'em

Flashcards are one of the easiest ways to implant facts into your working memory and will help you recall any information you dig up and suspect may be on the test. Carry some around and review them when you have a few minutes. The process of quizzing yourself will help you enlarge your brain’s answer bank.

Ortloff warns sailors not to buy flashcards. The references change often and it’s tough to make sure the cards you buy are still accurate. Plus, the drill of writing down facts improves your chances of remembering them later. Some sailors keep small packs in their work center, their rack, at their apartment or in their backpack.

“Studying with flashcards can be just like your physical fitness routine: If you put flashcards in stacks of 25 by subject, do three reps of study per set, use three different stacks a day, three days a week,” Ortloff said. “When I was studying for the E-6 and E-7 exam, I had a bank of about 400 flashcards, and friends had just as many, so we often traded or quizzed each other.”

Study together

Study groups work, Ortloff said. Prepping with others helps you sharpen your answers and exposes you to other facts you hadn’t considered.

“The way I see it, group study has many benefits but two main ones stand out — first, when you teach something back, you learn it better because you have to research and know the subject, while also in the group dynamic, shipmates are challenging you with questions, many you may not have thought of, so you gain more knowledge.”

The test covers your in-rate knowledge and professional military knowledge.

“During PMK study, this is a great time to pull different rates together to study to get a greater input on the common subjects,” Ortloff advised, adding that the in-rate portions work better with sailors in the same rates — or taking the same tests.

Start with a review

Begin every study session with a review of what you covered last time to reinforce it, Ortloff said.

“Repetition is a very powerful tool because the more you review subjects, the more it becomes natural knowledge,” Ortloff said. “It also builds confidence when you start answering your questions correctly, faster, and encourages you to want to go on to the next areas where you need more study.”

Confidence is key, she added.

“I want to let every sailor know, you are NOT a bad test taker. You are tested everyday in life, and tested in the Navy,” she said. “The advancement exam is just another test — you got this.”■

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