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The written test: Get a better score

Have these test-taking basics down pat to give yourself the best chance at a high score and a job offer


The written exam often consists of 100 to 150 multiple-choice questions.


This article, originally published in 2013, has been updated and now includes a firefighter test prep video below.

Keep in mind that the testing process varies from region to region and the following is generalized information on the written exam that applies to most departments throughout the United States, but not necessarily all.

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

[Complete the form on this page to download a checklist to help keep you on track as you prepare for your firefighter written test.]

The written exam often consists of 100 to 150 multiple-choice questions. The exam is usually divided into several categories and almost always has a time limit.

Categories may include reading comprehension, math, mechanical aptitude, verbal comprehension and memorization, spatial relations, map reading, logic and problem solving, and human relations.

Most exams are strictly made up of general-aptitude questions and contain no fire or EMS related portions. However, if the department is requiring an EMT or firefighter certificate, the test may also include questions on basic firefighting principles such as fire behavior and emergency medical questions.

These questions will usually be taken from a particular published resource and the name of that resource should be provided to candidates prior to the test. Asking fire and EMS questions is not a common practice, but may be the case with some exams.

Grading system

The written exam may be pass or fail, or it may be graded. If graded, your score may count towards a certain percentage of your overall placement on the eligibility list. Some departments will instead create a cut-off score.

This cut off score may be established prior to the exam, or it may be set after the exam based on a curve. In these cases, only those who score above that cut off move on to the next step in the selection process.

This is why it is important to master these exams and be able to score consistently in the upper percentile in order to get hired. Simply passing the test is usually not enough.

Often, departments will provide candidates with a study guide. If a study guide is provided, study it thoroughly. As much as 10 percent 25 percent of the exam may have questions taken directly from the study guide.

Before the exam it is important to get plenty of rest, eat a good breakfast and bring snacks and water. Also, always make sure you have your identification and any registration paperwork and wear a watch. You want to wear a watch because you may need to turn off your cell phone during the test and will want to be able to track the time during the exam.

Bring cash in case you need to pay for parking. In metropolitan areas written exams are usually done at large venues that accommodate hundreds of candidates and parking can be an issue. You will be expected to arrive early to register and you can expect to spend several hours at the test site so paying a parking meter is not a good option. Having cash to pay for long-term parking is always a good safeguard.

Know the rules

Prior to the test make, carefully read the instructions provided in the application packet or study guide. Each test is different. Most do not allow things such as calculators or scratch paper for notes during the oral passage, but I have seen cases where they do. Know what is allowed to maximize your advantages while working within the confines of the examination rules.

Prior to taking the test, they will often inform candidates of the rules and expectations during the exam as well as any disqualifiers. Pay close attention to the instructions given. For example, use of the bathroom may require raising permission from a proctor and an escort to make sure candidates are not mingling during the exam.

Before beginning the exam itself you will often need to fill in a form on your answer sheet. Make sure this form is filled out properly, (according to the instructions given) and completely. Not doing so may mean having your test rejected by the machine or person processing the exam.

Time management

Once the test is underway 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 a pass and fail.

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. This is why a watch is important. The venue may or may not have a clock available.

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. 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.

Overcome weakness

If you skip a question or section, be sure that you mark your answer sheet incorrect correspondence with the question that you skip to — if you skip to question 20, mark 20 and leave the ones you skipped unmarked.

Moving around the test in such a manner without paying close attention to the corresponding numbers can throw off your answer sheet and present big problems. It may sound like a silly mistake, but it happens frequently.

Make notes on scratch paper of any questions you either skipped or were unsure of. Always review your entire test if time permits. Go back and rethink trouble questions. Review questions for oversights or tricks and scan your answer sheet before handing it in to make sure you didn’t leave any blanks.

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.

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.

Get sharp

Other helpful resources may be basic math books to refresh some of the math questions that often found on these tests. These basic math concepts are commonly taught in elementary and middle school, but not used in everyday life and commonly forgotten. Before purchasing any test preparation books, check 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.

[Read next: Resources for firefighters who are studying for the written exam]

FirefighterNOW Test Prep Video Resources

Ready to get started? Download the following checklist to help keep yourself on track as you prepare for your written exam: