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A Guide for the Air Force Officer and DoD Civilian

Enlisted Promotion Guide

Source: The Enlisted Professional Development Committee 21st Space Wing

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Table of Contents

Writing Effective EPRs and Awards

Performance FeedbacksEnlisted TrainingUnprofessional Relationships & Fraternization Enlisted Professional Military Education  (PME)

Enlisted Promotion Guide


Junior Enlisted PromotionsSenior NCO PromotionsEnlisted Promotions Q&A

Enlisted Promotion Factors 

SSgt - MSgt

Enlisted Promotion Factors 

SMSgt - CMSgt

Why are some people promoted to each grade the first time eligible and others face promotion pass over year after year? An obvious answer might be that some people are naturally sharper than others. True, personal motivation and ability plays a critical part in the Air Force enlisted promotion process, but there is more to the story. "Fast burners" have usually had a mentor or supervisor to help them learn how the promotion system works and to map out a strategy for achieving the next promotion and further advancement beyond that. They have also shown motivation and determination and been willing to invest the time and effort to do what is necessary to make them competitive for promotion in addition to maintaining a high level of performance on the job.

This guide is intended for two audiences. First, the information contained in this guide should help each enlisted member enhance his/her own chances for promotion by providing a thorough understanding of the promotion system. Just as important, this guide supports supervisors (civilian, enlisted and officer) who must know how to help their top performers compete successfully for promotion. A successful career is usually a team effort involving personal commitment and outside support. High promotion rates are the sign of a healthy organization and reflect an effective team effort.

"It was neither preaching nor praying that made a better man of me, but one or two people who believed in me better than / deserved, and / hated to disappoint them.” -- Owen Wister

There are few surprises in our enlisted promotion system. Timelines are known years in advance and promotion testing months are the same from year to year. While some people think certain aspects of the promotion program are unfair, an understanding of the program and comparison with promotion processes of other military services and civilian industry show that we have a visible, equitable system. As you read through this guide, hopefully these facts will become clear.

Junior Enlisted Promotions

Airmen are generally promoted through the grade of senior airman by meeting minimum time in grade (TIG) and time in service (TIS) requirements, and...with the commander's recommendation. Promotions are never automatic. In each case, the commander reviews the individual's record of performance to determine that the promotion is warranted.

Timelines for airman promotions are outlined below.

Promotion to Airman (Amn)
Airmen Basic (AB) are eligible for promotion to Amn at 6 months' TIG and recommendation of immediate commander.
Promotion to Airman First Class (A1C)
Amn are eligible for promotion to A1C with 10 months' TIG and recommendation of immediate commander.
NOTE: Some individuals are promoted to A1C directly out of basic training if they have college credit or participated in junior ROTC. The recruiter, prior to entry on active duty, makes this determination.
Promotion to Senior Airman (SrA)
Promotion to SrA occurs at 36 months' TIS and 20 months' TIG, or 28 months' TIG, whichever occurs first. Member must also meet skill level requirements and be recommended by immediate supervisor and commander
Below the Zone (BTZ) Promotion to SrA
A recommendation for promotion to SrA BTZ is one of the best things you can do to take care of your “best and brightest.” Eligibility occurs 6 months earlier than the fully qualified point. Airmen must meet skill level requirements and be recommended by their immediate supervisor and commander. Boards are held four times per year (December, March, June, and September) to consider eligibles. Up to 15% of those eligible may be promoted each cycle. In order to be competitive for BTZ promotion to SrA, individuals must have distinguished themselves from their peers. This will usually be evident through rapid completion of upgrade training, attaining distinguished or honor graduate status at technical training, participating in unit, base, and community activities, completing off-duty education, and, most importantly, performing at a level that far exceeds standards as evidenced by an effective, enthusiastic Enlisted Performance Report. Supervisors should mentor their deserving junior airmen to ensure they will be competitive when they are within their BTZ "window."

Contact your local MPF, Promotions Section, for more specific eligibility criteria and timelines for SrA fully qualified and SrA BTZ promotion.

Enlisted Promotions - SSgt through MSgt
With the exception of STEP (Stripes for Exceptional Performers), promotion to the grades of staff through master sergeant is based strictly on weighted, objective factors under the Weighted Airman Promotion System (WAPS).  (See Enlisted Promotion Factors at the end of this section for the formula used to compute these factors.)
Promotion factors fall into three areas: knowledge (Specialty Knowledge Test (SKT) and Promotion Fitness Examination (PFE)), performance (enlisted performance reports and decorations), and longevity (time in service/grade).

Although supervisors and commanders play a large role in performance report ratings and decoration submissions, individuals earn high ratings and decorations through their performance. Since test preparation is strictly an individual responsibility, 78% of the total points available under WAPS (knowledge and performance) are in the hands of the person competing for promotion. Criticisms of WAPS often reflect the perspective of those affected.

Individuals with little time in service and time in grade may perceive that the points awarded for time in service/grade give more senior people an advantage. Senior personnel often comment that the high percentage of the total points awarded for test scores gives an advantage to junior personnel who test well but who may not be "seasoned" enough for the next rank. The fact is that experience and maturity are indicators of potential and should not be removed from the promotion formula. At the same time, there are those who have the dedication and desire to advance rapidly and are willing to put forth the effort and study time necessary to score well on their tests. WAPS accommodates both.

While each promotion point is important, adding a decoration or the normal points acquired for time in grade/service will generally not be enough to ensure promotion. The key to rapid promotion lies in effectively preparing for promotion testing. The idea that someone doesn't test well usually means they don't know how to prepare or do not have the commitment to devote the time necessary to ensure a solid test score. Some individuals are so junior in grade that they require maximum scores on each test to be promoted, but this is rarely the case.

Some people find certain study methods more effective than others.  Remember that group study and sharing of promotion test information is not authorized, but a supervisor or peer can instruct you on study methods.  Seek out someone who seems to be on the fast track for promotions and ask how they prepare. A common answer will probably be that they start preparing months in advance of their test date and devote several hours each night to study. Other methods that have also worked are recording the entire Career Development Course or PFE manual on audiotape for playback during commutes to and from work or while deployed or typing CDCs or PFE manuals. Find out what works for you. The bottom line...if you are not averaging 75% on your SKT and PFE, your current method of study is not working.

Supervisors and commanders have the responsibility to write strong performance reports and decorations to reward deserving individuals. By setting and enforcing high standards, and then reserving top performance reports and decorations for only those who have earned them, the supervisory chain helps ensure the right people get promoted. Therefore, supervisors and commanders must learn how to prepare effective performance reports. The EPR word picture is important for promotion to all grades. Additionally, it’s especially important to build a record that shows depth and breadth of experience when the individual competes for senior grades. Remember, although EPRs for only the last 5 years are used to compute the weighted EPR score, promotion boards review EPRs for the past 10 years. It is possible for someone to compete for SMSgt with an EPR she received as a SSgt in their promotion folder.

Senior NCO Promotions

Promotion to senior and chief master sergeant is based upon a two-tiered process. The weighted factors of time in grade and service, decorations, and EPRs are counted. Instead of an SKT and PFE, those competing for the senior grades take only a single test, the USAF Supervisory Examination (USAFSE).

The greatest distinction between junior and senior NCO promotions is the promotion board score. A maximum board score of 450 points can account for over 56% of the total points available. Therefore, even if an individual is very competitive in all weighted factors, they must also receive a high board score in order to be selected for SMSgt or CMSgt. Many senior NCOs do not fully understand the board process and, consequently, do not know what they can do to ensure a top board score. We'll attempt to explain the board process and provide a table, which helps illustrate what constitutes a weak, average, and superior record.

A senior NCO promotion board is comprised of separate panels, which review all records within a given Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC). Each panel is made up of two CMSgts and one colonel. The charts on the following page illustrate the scoring scale and process. The panel members must consider the factors of performance, professional competence, leadership, job responsibility, breadth of experience, specific achievements, and education, then score each record between 6 - 10 points. The panel members’ scores are then added together and multiplied by 15. If the record indicates recent significant disciplinary action, a weak performance history, or other major disqualifiers, the panel may declare the individual "Not Fully Qualified," (NFQ) and not score the record. In "NFQ" cases, the individual's commander is notified of the panel's decision and the individual does not receive a promotion scorecard.

The table at the end of this section illustrates the general differences between strong and weak records. This table can also be used to help perform an assessment of a record (or build a stronger record). Keep in mind that some panels may use the full scoring scale and award someone a board score of 450. Other panels may score differently and only award a high score of 405. Since the same panel scores all records within a specific AFSC, this difference in scoring does not create inequities.

While our table gives some pretty clear examples, most records are strong in some areas and weaker in others. For example, a college degree or winning an award at a resident PME course are generally positive factors, but they won't offset markdowns on an EPR or other negative factors. The key in preparing for senior NCO promotion boards is to identify both strong and weak areas and then work to strengthen the weak points. Remember this, if completing a CCAF degree or a strongly written top EPR persuades each board member to increase their assessment of a record by only one point, this results in 45 additional board points!

Before starting a records assessment, consider the following. The "average" senior NCO has a history of good performance reports (usually all "5s" and "9s", no markdowns, with senior-rater endorsements), at least an associate's degree, and is probably close to maximum points for decorations.

Therefore, don't assume that these factors alone will place your record in the "outstanding" range. These factors form the baseline for promotion board scores (averaging a board score range of 337.5 to 360). Well written EPRs which show specific mission impact, enthusiasm, and scope of accomplishment, combined recognition received, PME completed, etc., form the basis for above average scores.

To begin the records assessment, your SNCOs need to ask your orderly room or military personnel flight for a records review print out. They need to validate that data on this printout is accurate--is information on duty title/duty history correct, are decorations, PME and education level accurate? If they find inaccurate information, they should contact the appropriate office of primary responsibility to have it corrected. Ensure they follow-up and ask for another RIP in a week or so to make sure their record is updated with the corrected information.

In addition, they can review copies of the EPRs in their base-level personnel record, or they may request a copy of the contents of their promotion folder from the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) by writing to:

550 C Street West Suite 5
Randolph AFB TX 78150-4707

When your SNCOs receive this copy of their record, have them closely review each EPR for administrative accuracy. Is the correct box "x'd" showing the proper endorsement level? Next, review the job descriptions starting with the top EPR. Do the responsibilities listed show career growth, describe the number of people supervised, dollar value of equipment used, impact on mission? If the same duty title and job description have been used for several years in a row, it could indicate stagnation--often perceived as a negative by board members. The best advice is to update the job description from year to year. List only significant additional duties such as, Unit Resource Advisor, Safety NCO, etc.

In evaluating the reverse of EPRs, have them look for specific achievements and enthusiasm. A board member may spend only 2-5 minutes evaluating a record! Significant achievements jump out at board members and are not hidden behind superfluous and extraneous praise. The most effective EPRs show what they did, how they did it, and what the result was.

Enlisted Promotions

Questions and Answers

Question: Do I have a better chance of getting promoted through the regular process or through a supplemental promotion board?

Answer. Your best opportunity for being promoted is through the regular board process. The January 1996 Supplemental Promotion Board considered 204 individuals for promotion and promoted 8 (3.9% rate). This rate is substantially lower than the promotion selection rate during the normal selection process. Therefore, it is very important to closely examine your promotion Data Verification RIP (DVR) to ensure errors are not discovered after the promotion board meets. Also review all enlisted performance reports to ensure the right boxes are “x'd” (senior rater vs deputy, etc.).

Finally, follow-up aggressively on any pending decorations since a decoration, which is approved after promotion selections are announced, may not be counted for that promotion cycle.

Question: What is the significance of the promotion eligibility cutoff date (PECD)? Do documents such as EPRs or decorations need to be finalized and in my record by the PECD in order to count for promotion?

Answer: The PECD provides time to allow AFPC to screen promotion selection folders for senior NCO boards to ensure all required documents are on file. The PECD also allows a standard date to be used for calculating EPR, decoration and other weighted promotion factors. Additionally, individuals compete for promotion in the Air Force Specialty that they held on the PECD, not an AFSC into which they may be retraining in to. While an EPR does not have to be filed in the personnel record by the PECD, the closeout date of the EPR has to be prior to the PECD. In the case of decorations, the close-out date has to be prior to the PECD, and the decoration has to be approved by the final approval authority prior to the date promotion selectees are determined. This is necessary to prevent decorations from being submitted after the fact in order to game the promotion system.

Question: Does the senior NCO promotion board get to review USAF Supervisory Examination scores or other weighted factors?

Answer. No. The promotion panel views the promotion selection folder only and does not have access to the USAFSE score; however, the board is provided a personnel data RIP that shows Total Active Military Service Date, decorations, and other personnel data.

Question: Since I test several months before the promotion release date, why can't I find out immediately how well I scored on the tests?

Answer. The Air Force Personnel Center provided the following clarification: "Questions are challenged all through the promotion cycle and must be reviewed. The Air Force Occupational Management Squadron reviews each question that is challenged on Promotion Fitness Examinations or Specialty Knowledge Tests. Just before the selection phase of the promotion cycle, a final score key with all deleted questions is made and all tests are scored. Therefore, someone's score could be a "75" on the PFE in January and drop to a "70" in June when the promotions are released."

Question: Where do enlisted promotion quotas come from?

Answer: The number of enlisted members that can be promoted for each grade every cycle is based on the total projected vacancies with allowances for those people who get promoted but are lost through normal attrition.  Air Staff announces the number of people that can be selected (promotion quota) a few days before selections are made. The Air Force Personnel Center enters the quota into a computer where the Weighted Airman Promotion System scores are stored. A computer program then distributes the quota equally based upon the promotion eligible population within each Air Force Specialty Code. The computer can select more than the target number if there are ties in cutoff scores. Once the selection phase is completed and an actual number of “selectees" are identified, the promotion selection rate is announced.

Enlisted Promotion Factors

SSgt - MSgt

Factor Maximum Formula
100Specialty Knowledge Test 100 Percentage correct on 100 question, career field specific test
100Promotion Fitness Examination 100 Percentage correct on 100 question, general military knowledge examination
40Time in Service 2 points for each year of total active military service up to 20 years (1/6 of a point per month)
60Time in Grade point for each month in grade up to 10 years
25Decorations AF Cross (11), Silver Star (9), Amn’s Medal, Bronze Star, MSM, Purple Heart (5), Air Medal, Aerial Achievement Medal, AFCM (3), AFAM (1)
135Enlisted Performance Reports Time weighted formula (See AFI 36-2502, Table 2-2, Rule 6)


Enlisted Promotion Factors

SMSgt - CMSgt
Factor Maximum Formula
100USAF Supervisory Examination 100 Percentage correct on 100 question, general military knowledge examination
25Time in Service 1 point for each year of total active military service up to 25 years (1/12 of a point per month)
60Time in Grade point for each month in grade up to 10 years
25Decorations AF Cross (11), Silver Star (9), Amn’s Medal, Bronze Star, MSM, Purple Heart (5), Air Medal, Aerial Achievement Medal, AFCM (3), AFAM (1)
135Enlisted Performance Reports Time weighted formula (See AFI 36-2502, Table 2-2, Rule 6)
450 Board Score Based on subjective evaluation of promotion folder
Combined Total

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Page Added on: 09 September 2004