Part of being a great officer is being a great supervisor. It is tough as officers because immediately after commissioning you could be supervising one or 100 Airmen. It is a position we can be thrown into often without the experience or tools to be successful. The enlisted corps learns to follow and spends years maturing and developing as supervisors and leaders. When they reach the supervision ranks of SrA/SSgt they are further equipped with some of the best leadership training there is in (IMO) Airman Leadership School (ALS).
I will likely do many posts on my experiences and contrasts between enlisted vs. officer leadership, but I had a troop ask me about studying for E-5 and felt a need to organize my thoughts. The purpose of this post is to briefly explain many of the tools available to Airmen as they prepare for their promotion test. Familiarization with these tools will help you become an officer which the younger Airmen seek for advice vs. an officer who the younger Airmen thinks is out of touch.
Enlisted Promotion Overview
Enlisted promotions are based on a Weighted Airmen Promotion System (WAPS). Airmen earn points in different ways each year (see below). In order to promote, the total points earned must be above the cutoff established by AFPC yearly, and different for every career field.
- SKT (max 100 points) - Written test specific to AFSC (career field). Usually 100 questions.
- PFE (max 100 points) - Written test on general Air Force knowledge (from AF Handbook 1). Usually 100 questions.
- Time in Service (TIS) points (max 26 points) - This is rumored to go away.
- Time in Grade (TIG) points (max 40 points) - This is also rumored to go away.
- Decorations (max 25 points) - Points for certain medals. E.g., Air Force Achievement medal is worth 1 point, Medal of Honor is worth 15 points.
- Enlisted Promotion Report (EPR) points (max 250 points) - Points based on the Airman's previous EPRs; Promote Now (PN), Must Promote (MP), and Promote (P) all earn the Airman different points.
Reference: AFI 36-2502 12 DECEMBER 2014, Incorporating Change 1, 27 AUGUST 2015, Enlisted Airmen Promotion/Demotion Programs.
Enlisted Promotions References Requirements Catalog (EPRRC) (Formerly WAPS Catalog
The EPRRC or WAPS catalog as I still call it is the overall document which outlines what exactly each rank is tested on. For example, if you are an E-3 preparing for the E-5 test, you could reference the WAPS catalog to see what you would need to study for the "PFE" test (see above.) It not only tells you what documents to reference but identifies the correct version or non-testable sections. This is important because it is important to study the right information, and not study information which you won't be tested on.
The catalog also tells you what to study for the SKT test. This can be important because it states for example some AFSC's are only tested on a few chapters out of the CDC study material. Some career fields don't have CDC's so it may reference TOs or AFIs instead of the CDC's. The EPRRC literally tells Airmen what they are tested on.
The Airman Handbook (AFHANDBOOK1) (formerly Promotion Fitness Exam (PFE) or Professional Development Guide (PDG))
This great reference book for everyone in the Air Force, not just enlisted. It provides a general overview of Air Force history and almost every program in the Air Force to include promotions, IG, Air Force inspections, fitness, organization, disciplinary actions, etc. It covers pretty much everything you can think of which relates to the Air Force. The entire PFE test is generally taken from this document.
1. MKTS Survey - IMO, THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT STUDY TOOL AVAILABLE!
MKTS stands for Military Knowledge and Testing System. From what I have gathered over the years, every year a bunch of Chief Master Sergeants (E-9) take a survey about what they think prospective NCOs should know from AF Handbook 1. The survey is broken down by section in AF Handbook 1 and a code. The code states to what level they think prospective NCOs should know about a given section in the book. For example in the most recent survey the board of Chiefs think "Knowledge" of Section 1.13 Cuban Missile Crisis is "Extremely Important."
The reason this information is so valuable is because I have heard the actual promotion tests are based off of the very same survey results. This makes sense because it would be silly to make tests with no rhyme or reason, but instead focus it on what SNCOs think is most important.
When I tested for promotion I took this survey and highlighted all of the headings in my physical copy of my AF Handbook. If something was "Extremely Important" I would highlight both the Table of Contents and the actual heading in the book pink. As I progressed through my study routine I would focus on these areas first then move on to the "Very Important," "Important," and "General Knowledge" sections. It seemed to me that the areas targeted in the survey lined up perfectly for the promotion tests I took.
The complete survey results can be found in Attachment 2 of AF Handbook 1. Here is the first page so you know what it looks like. I recommend copy/pasting the entire table into an excel sheet so you can better manipulate the information.
2. PDG Gold by McMillian
McMillian provides many different commercial study guides available for purchase, and IMO it is totally worth it. There are summary books, Q&A books, and software and I have used them all but I strongly recommend the software. The software I used is called PDG Gold. McMillian created test questions from the entire AF Handbook 1 and allows you to test yourself by chapter or by the entire book. Each chapter has a test bank so you can target your study on knowing everything about Chapter 8 for example, then moving on. It also has games you can play both to study or to just take a break. I credit my earning SSgt, TSgt, and MSgt stripes to PDG Gold.
While I loved PDG Gold, I was slightly disappointed by the sister software by McMillian called Master Your CDC's. I found the tests to be very similar to the questions in the back of the CDC's so I thought it was a waste of money.
3. AF Handbook 1 Audio and App Download
Something else I found helpful while studying was the audio provided by the above site. I had a long commute so I would often listen to the audio mp3's while commuting to and from work. If you go to the site and select your grade under "Test to Grade," you can download whatever you want and add them to your phone or whatever else you use.
The site also provides study apps for different platforms such as iPad, Kindle, Sony Reader, Kobo, or Nook. These were not available when I studied for promotion but I am sure there are tons of people out there who find them extremely useful.
4. Freepdg.com Quizzes
A reader recommended freepdg.com as well. I have not used it but it looks like they have quizzes broken down by chapter.
My Personal Study Technique
As I said above, I made SSgt my first time, TSgt my third time and MSgt my first time. I made MSgt the first year the Air Force boarded MSgt's so I lucked out with a high board score. Here is what I personally did to study:
- PFE - Several months out I would begin outlining or targeting my study by using the MKTS survey results. I would highight the sections deemed "Extremely Important" and mark them in my paper PDG. I would then use my paper PDG to work my way through the tests in the PDG gold software. I memorized every question chapter by chapter, again working in MKTS priority. As I scored almost 100% on each chapter I would keep track in my paper PDG and repeat the process.
- PFE - If I ever came across a question I didn't fully understand I would look up the applicable section in my PDG and read the entire paragraph or section. Understanding the big picture helped tremendously.
- SKT - I didn't study the SKT as much as I studied the PDG, (65%/35%), but I did make an effort to do well on the tests. I would review my old CDC's from when I did my skill level upgrade because my books were still highlighted. I used the questions in the back as context then would read the sections I had completely forgotten about.
- After my actual test I would go straight to my car and write down every question I could remember from the test. As I recalled them I would then highlight the applicable question in my books so I could try to remember as many of them as possible. I did not share this information with anyone because THAT WOULD BE CONSIDERED TEST COMPROMISE, but I would reference the book year to year as I began studying again. It provided a lot of insight into what the MKTS board liked to focus on and how it played out year to year.
- http://www.wapscalc.com/ - This site helps you plan out how many points you will have going into the testing season and how many you are estimated to need on the PFE and SKT. I found it extremely valuable. As a supervisor it is a useful way to help an Airman calculate whether or not they are eligible to test for promotion.
- AFI 36-2502 - This AFI provides the AF guidance on enlisted promotion. It is the authoritative document on the entire WAPS program among other topics.