Map Reading for Police Officer Exam Study Guide

Updated on Jul 5, 2011

Map reading is a learned skill. It is related to math in that it often involves understanding directions and being able to calculate distance and time. If you have ever been lost, you know that it can be frustrating and at times even frightening. For a police officer, the ability to know where you are, gauge direction and distance, and figure out how to get from one place to another can mean the difference between the saving the life of a caller, a colleague, or even, under extreme conditions, yourself.

Depending on the size and type of the jurisdiction of your department, finding your way around can be fairly easy once you understand the town's grid pattern and become familiar with its outlying areas. But in some instances, particularly if you work in a special jurisdiction agency, you may travel through numerous towns and villages or may be expected to patrol areas that are often unmarked and that do not adhere to a logical grid pattern. You will be expected to copy down the address given to you by the dispatcher, locate it quickly on you map, and proceed to the call for assistance. Once you get there, you may require assistance from others; this means you must also be able to describe your location sufficiently for backup officers, supervisors, fire, or emergency medical personnel to also respond to the scene.

Like so many other skills, map reading involves practice. While some individuals may have better innate senses of direction than others, practice is the only way to become good at map reading. Map questions test whether you have the ability to follow spatial and directional information and also to convey it to others. Is it possible to study for map questions? Yes, it is. The easiest way to study is to read maps. Just like you can improve your vocabulary and English usage by reading more you can improve your map reading skills by studying maps. Most maps use a commonly-established set of symbols; learn what they are and train yourself to look for them as soon as you open a map. Also look immediately for the directional information (north, south, east, or west) to help you orient yourself.

The maps on police exams are often in a simple grid pattern. The north-south-east-west directions will be clearly marked and there will be a key explaining any symbols that are not self-explanatory. There will be instructions on which questions should be answered based on each map; there will usually be more than one question per map. If your jurisdiction includes map questions on its exam, there is very likely to be more than one set of these questions.

As with all questions, you must read the map questions carefully. Before answering any of the map questions, be sure you are looking at the correct map for the series of questions you will be answering. Then begin by studying the map carefully, looking for the directional arrows and any large, obvious locations. Do not be concerned about moving the map around during the test. If you feel you can get a better sense of the map's directional qualities by holding it up or turning it around, do so. Since your answer sheet will be separate from the question book, the proctor of the exam should not prevent you from doing this. If you are concerned, raise your hand and ask the proctor whether this is permissible.

The directional arrows will help you prepare yourself for questions that may be based solely on directions or getting from one point on the map to another. But there are other features that will help you. If a hospital is prominently displayed on the map, there is likely to be at least one question asking you how you would arrive there or proceed from there to someplace else. The same is true if a library, police station, or cemetery is a prominent feature of the map. The buildings or locations that are prominently featured also act as landmarks, just as they do when you actually are on the road. How many times have you instructed someone coming to your home to turn left at the municipal hospital, or right at the fire station? It is likely your test questions will be similar.

Try to understand immediately what the map depicts; a map may be of highways, city streets and avenues, or bus routes or railroad tracks. Unless you are taking the test for a handful of very large municipal agencies, it is likely that your test will be used by more than one police department. This means that the maps may not be specific to the agency you are testing for. If you are taking the exam for a municipal police department, you may be startled to find that the map may be based on highways and rural routes rather than city streets. If you are taking the test for a transportation agency or parks and recreation department, you may not see a single map that depicts the jurisdiction you will actually police.

The key to success on answering the map questions is to take your time and to study the map carefully before turning to the questions. If you jump directly to the questions and then try to look at the map only to find the answer to the specific question, you may miss important information. In your haste to see only what you think the question pertains to, you may also misread the question and the answer choices. Consider that the test developer, while not specifically trying to trick you, may have written answer choices that provide similar names of streets, avenues, or other key map features.

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