How to Prepare Yourself for a Job in Law Enforcement

Recruits from the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy participate in physical training
State of Indians/ILEA

You might be ready and willing to work in law enforcement, but you must also be able. This means having a clean background, being physically fit, and undertaking some schooling and training.

Law enforcement agencies across the country are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and keep good officers, but there are still plenty of people out there who see the benefits of becoming a police officer. Unfortunately, not all of them are in a position to be hired—yet.

Take Care of the Little Things First

Make sure you meet the most basic, minimal requirements before you roll up your shirtsleeves to apply. Law enforcement agencies will not accept candidates who are not U.S. citizens. You'll need a driver's license in good standing as well.

Some departments will accept applicants as young as 18, while others require that they've reached their 21st birthday.

Be Ready to Pass a Law Enforcement Background Check

Evaluate your past behaviors and associations before you even consider applying for a job as a police officer. Make sure there aren't any skeletons in your closet that could prevent you from being hired.

Background checks for police officers are thorough and grueling. They'll look at your past work history, any past detected or undetected criminal history, psychological evaluations, and even a polygraph exam.

Needless to say, you'll need a pretty clean background if you want any hope of being hired, even if you meet the other minimum requirements. Some departments will overlook very small misdemeanor blemishes such as speeding tickets, particularly if they happened some considerable time ago, but incidents of domestic abuse or drug-related charges will typically prevent you from being hired.

You Must Be Physically Able

We've all seen pictures of overweight police officers, but even if a police department doesn't enforce fitness standards after you get hired, you can bet it will have weight and fitness standards in place for the hiring process.

Police departments typically use one of two types of tests: a physical abilities test or a physical fitness assessment. The best way to prepare for both is to do exercises that build up both your physical strength and your cardiovascular abilities.

Consult with your doctor before you begin any fitness regimen, and start working toward getting in shape well before you apply for the job.

Avoid Mistakes in Your Application

Far too many people never make it past the first application when they go for law enforcement careers because they leave too many omissions in their applications or they make too many simple mistakes. Read and fill out your application thoroughly to make sure you don't end up in the "do not hire" pile before you even have a chance to show what you can offer.

Educational Hurdles

Most law enforcement departments across the U.S. will accept applicants with high school diplomas or GEDs. Few require a college degree—either an associate, bachelor's or master's—although some may look more favorably upon candidates who do have some post-secondary education.

Specialized training at a police academy is almost universally required as well, and entry to an academy typically requires passing an entrance exam. Most departments administer one of three exams: Asset, Compass, or the Law Enforcement Examination (LEE). It's often a good idea to find out in advance which you'll be taking so you can prepare for that particular test, but they all test for mathematics, grammar, and reading comprehension.

Nothing about the police academy is easy. From your first day at the academy to the last day of the field officer training program, you'll be studying your textbooks and reading up on laws and policies. The department wants to make sure that you know everything you possibly can know about the job. Academy training includes both classroom instruction and physical and strength training.

Why Bother?

Careers in law enforcement tend to offer good pay and potential for advancement. The median pay for police officers and detectives was $62,960 in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics—half of all those employed in these positions earn more and half earn less.

Salaries can vary depending on your number of years with the department, as well as where you work. Large cities and metropolises pay more. Benefits are typically superior to those associated with private sector jobs as well.