The Written Exam

After your application has been filed and accepted, the next step in the selection process is usually a written exam.

The written exam often consists of 100-150 multiple choice questions. The exam is usually divided into several categories.

Some common categories include; Reading Comprehension, Math, Mechanical Aptitude, Verbal Comprehension/Memorization, Spatial Relations, Map Reading, Logic/Problem Solving and Human Relations.

If the department is requiring an EMT or Firefighter certificate the test may also include questions on basic Firefighting principles such as fire behavior & Emergency Medical questions as well.

The following is a brief explanation of what you can expect from some of the more common exam categories.

Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension questions follow a written passage on a particular topic. Questions are asked about the passage and will almost always be found directly in the passage. If you take enough time to double check your answers you can usually verify if they are correct by finding the answer in the text given.

A technique found useful by many test takers is to read the questions before reading the passage. This will help you to identify and focus on the information necessary to answer the questions.


The math questions are usually very basic. Questions on fractions and decimals are common, as are word problems. If you haven't done fractions, decimals or word problems in a while it is a good idea to brush up on the fundamentals. Geometry questions asking to find the square footage or volume of an object may also be on the exam.

Math problems can usually be worked backwards or in some other way to verify your answer. Try to check your work before moving on to the next question. Books on business/basic math and elementary geometry are helpful to refresh your memory or learn some basic math concepts.

Mechanical Aptitude

Mechanical aptitude questions can come in many forms. Some common types of questions may include directional and mechanical advantage pulley or gear configurations, leverage devices, basic hydraulics, and hand tools.

Mechanical aptitude questions can come in many forms and for this reason are the most difficult to prepare for. It is a good idea to refer to test preparation guides for help in this area.

Verbal Comprehension

Tests that include a verbal comprehension portion will sometimes start the test with a speaker or video. You will be asked to listen closely to a passage. After the passage is read or video is played, you will then begin the exam.

The first 10 to 25 questions will be based on what you heard or saw. Sometimes you will be allowed to take notes during the reading, but taking notes is often not permitted. You will have only your memory to rely on to answer these questions. This kind of examination is difficult to prepare for because it requires a verbal passage.

One way to prepare for this type of test is to have someone formulate questions from a passage and read the passage to you. What some people find useful and easy is to have someone read a reading comprehension passage from a test preparation book. Since the questions are already formulated it requires less participation by another party.

Practice staying focused and take mental notes. Try to create mental pictures of what is being recited to help your recall memory. Do not try to predict what you will be asked. This will distract you and cause you too lose focus on the passage. If note taking is allowed you should take detailed short hand notes.

Spatial Relations

Spatial relation questions require that you can manipulate objects in your mind.

An example of a spatial relation question might show an object such as a pyramid and show four flat, two-dimensional pieces of paper showing fold marks. You will need to know which of the pieces when folded would create the pyramid shape shown.

There is usually a way to check your work. Perhaps you can tear and fold your scratch paper to verify the answer. Be creative and try to find a way to check your work.

Map Reading/Orientation

Map reading questions are straightforward. They require that you can find your way around a map. It may be a map of a city, neighborhood or building.

Be sure to read the questions carefully and take a close look at the map. These questions will often have tricks such as one way streets or detours, which can be easily overlooked by the hurried test taker. Again, take your time and review your answers carefully.

Logic/Problem solving

These questions can come in many forms. Basically they are measuring quantitative reasoning. You may be asked to complete a sequence of some sort, such as 2, 6, 8, 12, 14 __. Answer 18.

Another type of question may be worded as such. Jim, John, Susan and Henry all work for the same company. John earns more than Susan, Susan earns less than Henry, Susan earns more than Jim. John earns less than Henry. Who earns the most? Answer: Henry. These types of questions are less common, but may be encountered on an entrance exam.

Human Relations

Human relation questions are usually trying to measure people skills and how well one gets along with others. If you do encounter such questions always try to ask yourself what they are trying to find out about you by asking such a question. For example, if you were asked the question: A co-worker seems depressed and not him/herself. It would be best to:

A) Leave him/her alone, they probably need some time to themselves.

B) Ask him/her if everything is all right and if there is anything you could do.

C) Suggest to your supervisor that he/she use some sick time and go home to work out his/her problems.

D) Tell them what a good worker he/she is to boost his/her spirits.

The correct answer is B. If this is not obvious consider what the other options might suggest about the person.

General Test Tips

Make the most of your time. If you are too worried about the time limit you may end up rushing through the test, making simple errors, which can be the difference between pass and fail. Don't rush! However, if you are too time complacent you may run out of time and force yourself to guess in order to complete the test. Calculate your time accordingly and check your watch every once in a while—always wear a watch.

Remember there is no penalty for guessing. A blank answer is always wrong. If you guess you may guess right, if not, you are no worse off than having left it blank.

If you are a slow test taker and have trouble in a particular area such as math it may be a good idea to do that section last. Since the tests are timed it is best to answer the questions you know first and spend time on the more difficult ones at the end. That way if time is running short and you're forced to guess on any questions you'll be guessing on the ones you weren't sure of. If you decide to skip a section be sure that you mark your answer sheet in correct correspondence with the question that you skip to, meaning if you decide to skip to question #25. Be sure that you fill in question #25. Moving around the test in such a manner can throw off your answer sheet and present big problems.

Always review your entire test if time permits. Go back to trouble questions and rethink them. Scan all questions for oversights or tricks.

Take notes on difficult questions on scratch paper and take them home with you. You may encounter that same question or one very similar to it on your next exam. If you are not permitted to leave with such notes, take mental notes and immediately write them down as soon as you get out of the test.

Often departments will provide candidates with a study guide. If a study guide is provided study it thoroughly. A portion of the exam will have questions taken directly from the study guide material.

After taking a few tests you'll learn your strengths and weaknesses. Improve your weak areas by visiting your local library. Most people don't realize that many public libraries have a large selection of test preparation books and materials specifically for Fire Service examinations. Before purchasing any test preparation books I recommend checking your local public libraries first.

Take as many tests as possible. Don't wait for the ideal department to test before applying. The best way to improve your score and feel comfortable with these exams is by taking them. Travel as far as feasible to take any test, even if you don't want the job. Each test will better prepare you for the next one.

Our site provides some sample written test questions. See the article titled "Sample Test Questions.” I also offer my assistance to answer any questions I can about specific questions or types of questions you have encountered. I'll do my best to help out in any way I can. If I don't have the answer I'll try to find out who does. Feel free to e-mail your questions to

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