Last Updated on August 28, 2023
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How To Study For Ham Radio Test
Over the years I’ve helped tens of thousands of students get ham radio licenses and upgrades. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way.
Anyone can pass these exams, including the Extra exam, if they’re willing to invest the time and study smart.
- If you have a lousy memory, or even a learning disability, you can still pass. It’s just going to take more study time.
- If you’re lousy at math, you can still pass. There’s a widespread belief that the exams are heavily math-oriented. The reality is that, even on the Extra exam, less than 10% of the exam questions require calculations, while 74% is a passing score. Just learn the other stuff well, and you’ll do fine.
- Age is no excuse. I’ve had students from age 8 to 99 get their Extra tickets. The very young do better when an adult studies with them, and some of my older students need lots of repetition and more study time.
Did you realize that you’re already halfway there, even before you start studying? On this multiple-choice exam, you can expect to get 25% correct just by guessing, and you only need 75% to pass!
If you’re having trouble getting motivated to study:
- Pick an exam session within the next 2-4 weeks. Remember, it’s easier than you think, so schedule aggressively.
- Decide how much time you need to study every day. Figure a total of 10 hours for the Tech, 20 for the General, and 30 for the Extra. Reduce this number somewhat if you have a good memory and/or prior exposure to the materials. Increase it if your memory is poor, or if you will only be content with a perfect score. If you calculated that you will need less than one hour per day, round it up to one hour.
- Try to average at least that amount of time in Study mode per day. If you miss some days, make up the time. Use the “Study history” screen to track your time.
- The looming exam date will keep you motivated to not just to devote the hours, but to study efficiently.
Don’t spread your studies over a period of months (or even years), because you’ll waste too much time relearning things you have forgotten. Try to average at least one hour per day in Study mode. Treat the exams like removing a band-aid, and get them over with quickly.
There seems to be a minimum threshold, typically around 10-20 minutes of study per day (depending on your memory), at which the rate of forgetting things is equal to the rate of relearning things, and students stop making forward progress in the courses. An hour per day in Study mode keeps you well away from the “zero-progress” zone.
There’s no such thing as a study session that is “too long.” I’ve heard countless reports from students who put in heavy study sessions in the days leading up to their exam, then passed with flying colors. I’ve never heard anyone complain that they “overstudied” and then suffered from brain meltdown during the actual exam. Everyone worries about their brain turning to “mush,” but it never seems to happen.
Study sessions closest to the exam date are the most valuable. You’re going to forget things you learned weeks or months in advance, but you will remember a surprising amount of the material you see in the last couple of days. Unless you’re already above 90% in the course, you may want to increase the amount of study time during the last few days.
If you were studying for an arithmetic test, you probably wouldn’t read biographies of famous mathematicians. More likely, you’d study the material that’s actually going to be on your test. Unfortunately, the ham radio license manuals wander heavily off-topic, delving into many subjects not on the exam. By comparison, we try to teach everything you need to know to understand the questions and answers, but not to make you an electrical engineer.
If you have plenty of time and motivation, there’s no harm in studying all that other stuff. However, if your primary goal is the license or upgrade, your best bet is to focus on the materials actually on the exam. Later, you can research other ham radio topics, for which the ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications is a much better reference book than the license manuals. Very few hams ever touch the license manuals once they’ve completed the exams. If you want off-topic reading now, why not buy a book that’s going to be helpful for years to come?
Time spent reading books doesn’t count toward your exam study time!
Stay in Study mode (click the “Study” button), and resist the temptation to take practice exams. Study mode is your best friend — it has the informational texts and intelligent repetition that make our site the fastest and easiest way to pass your exam. At all stages of your learning experience, random practice exams are one of the least efficient ways to study, as they focus your study time at random. By contrast, our Study mode always has exactly one question which you most need to see at any given moment — one that is overdue for spaced repetition, an unseen question, a stale (least recently answered) question, or a weak question.
The only exception is for students who often fail exams due to anxiety attacks. For those rare few, we recommend studying to at least 95% in our course, and then alternating between taking practice exams to boost your confidence, and Study mode to optimize your exam performance. The best solution to anxiety attacks is to be so confident and well prepared that there’s simply no reason to be nervous.
There’s no need to take practice exams to check your exam readiness, as your score in our course is a good predictor of exam performance. Once you reach 85% in our course, you have a high probability of passing the actual exam. Once you reach 90%, passing is almost certain. Once you reach 95%, you have a good shot at a perfect score!
Time spent taking practice exams doesn’t count toward your exam study time!
If you have plenty of time to study and hope to get a perfect score on the exam, you should answer all the questions. Otherwise, make liberal use of the skip buttons. In particular, if it’s going to take you more than about 30 seconds to calculate an answer, skip it. The software will keep presenting these questions every 16 hours or so, but just keep skipping them.
Especially on the Extra exam, it’s way too easy to devote 25% of your study time to the math, which will be less than 10% of the questions on your exam. Your study time is more effectively invested elsewhere. So click Skip all calculations for now and focus on the easier questions!
If you don’t believe me, check out my analysis of How Much Math is on the Amateur Radio Exams?
You can enable and disable individual topics on the Choose topics screen, and thus limit a study session to one specific subject. In fact, some students strongly prefer this method.
I discourage this practice for two reasons. First, the question pools are not organized into a logical learning order. For example, in the Technician question pool, concepts like power and frequency are referenced in the first section (FCC Regulations), but they are defined in the fifth section (Electrical Principles). If you study the question pools in the question pool order, you will see many such terms referenced before they are defined. Our courseware has a built-in learning order, based on the idea that all terms should be defined before they are used. Leaving all the topics enabled allows our software to present the materials in that logical learning order.
Also, leaving all the topics enabled lets our intelligent repetition algorithm repeat questions when you need to see them. Our goal is to repeat questions just before you forget the answers. However, we can’t repeat them if you’ve disabled the topic. You therefore lose much of the power of our intelligent repetition.
Play with the Repetition delay factor on the My options screen. The default value of 1.0 is good for our typical student — a 60-year old man whose memory isn’t quite what it used to be.
A higher value gives less repetition, and thus moves you through the material faster. Here are some reasons you might want that:
- You should use a higher value if you have a good memory. Young people almost universally have excellent memories and are happier with values of 3.0 or more.
- You will want a higher value if you have a technical background or prior exposure to the exam materials.
- If you find yourself getting bored of the repetition, stop wasting time and crank it up!
A lower value means more repetition:
- If you’re feeling lost and overwhelmed with too much new material, you may need a lower value.
- If you’re getting lots of wrong answers, you need more repetition.
You can change this factor based on your mood. For example, if you’re feeling particularly awake in the morning, increase the repetition delay to get more new material. If you’re feeling too tired in the evening to tackle anything new, lower it to get more review.
If it looks like you’re going to run out of study time before you run out of study materials, gradually increase your repetition delay factor as your exam date approaches. One month before your exam date, you need lots of repetition to drill the information into your long-term memory. However, if by the morning of the exam you haven’t seen all of the materials, you should be spending all of your time on new materials with essentially no repetition. At that point you might need a repetition delay factor of 1000.0 or more.
The repetition delay factor puts the control into your hands, allowing you to make the most effective use of your study time.
If you’ve completely run out of time, your test is coming up in the next day or two, and you haven’t even seen all the materials, it’s time to pull out all the stops:
- Stay in Study mode. Do not take any practice exams.
- Enable all topics for the exam.
- Set your repetition delay factor to 100.0 or more.
- Skip questions that require calculations or give you particular trouble.
- Run through as many questions as possible. Answer fast. When you get one wrong, stop for a second and burn the correct answer into your memory. You’ll be surprised how many of these you remember during the actual exam.
- If you feel guilty about cramming, you always have the option of coming back later to brush up on the materials.
Don’t be afraid to take multiple exams in a single VE session. We’ve heard from hundreds of students who went “from zero to Extra”, and thousands who passed two levels, in a single exam session. (See Christina’s Story for inspiration!)
Some students fear that studying something new will somehow erase what they’ve already learned. However, these exams are so closely related that studying the next level reinforces, not erases, what you know. For example, when you learn about Yagi antennas in the General course, it reinforces everything you learned about dipole antennas in the Technician course. We’ve helped tens of thousands of people pass, and we’ve never once had a student fail a lower-level exam and blame it on the time spent studying for a later one. Not once!
In fact, taking multiple exams in one session can save you money. Most volunteer examiner groups charge around $15 per exam session, regardless of how many exams you take. If you’re planning to eventually take all three exams, you can save as much as $30 by passing all three exams in a single exam session.
If you’re planning to pass more than one exam in a single session, we recommend that you start by going through each course, one at a time, in order. For example, study through the Technician exam until you reach 85%, then turn it off and study through the General to 85%, then turn it off and study through the Extra to 85%. Be sure to save some time at the end, turn them all back on, and review all of the courses to make sure all the materials are fresh in your mind on exam day!
You ideally want to walk into your exam session with a slightly higher score on the Extra than the General, and slightly higher on the General than the Technician. For example, walking into the exam session with a 92% on the Extra, 90% on the General, and 88% on the Technician will give you an excellent chance of passing all three exams in one sitting. The Extra is by far the hardest to pass, so it’s the one you need to be best prepared for. In the days immediately prior to your exam, you should enable and disable the courses as necessary to try to achieve the desired score balance.
The whole world is waiting after you get your license. So “get ‘er done” and start having some fun!
Studying for the exams gives you a strong introduction to many aspects of this vast hobby. However, don’t fool yourself into thinking that memorizing every answer and getting a perfect score on every test will make you the world’s leading expert on ham radio. Passing the exams is more like graduating from High School. You will continue to learn for years to come, but it will be more self-directed. You’ll be focusing on the areas you are interested in.
Most of the tips in this article focus on getting the exams behind you so the real learning can begin. Make a commitment, pick a date, focus on the materials that are actually on the exam, use the software efficiently, and by all means take more than one exam in a single session. There’s no need to drag this out for months!
Let’s get you off the computer and on the air!
free ham radio study guide
- Must have a valid US Mailing Address
- Must have a valid Taxpayer Identification Number, such as a Social Security Number (SSN) or an FCC Registration Number
Step 1: Choose the Level of License
There are three classes of licenses that are offered by the FCC (The Federal Communications Commission, the branch of government that controls ham radio licenses). You have to pass a test for each level, and you have to start at Technician and advance upward.
Level 1: Technician LicenseAccess to VHF / UHF, great for starting with handheld radios.
Level 2: General LicenseOpen up access to many HF bands, which means nationwide and worldwide communication.
Level 3: Amateur Extra LicenseThe highest amateur class offered by the FCC.
If you’re new to ham radio, then you have to pass the Technician License first. You can take the General License test the same day without any extra fee, if you’re feeling confident. It really depends on how to plan to use amateur radio. To find out which level of license will best suit your needs, check out our post on the Technician License vs. the General License.
Step 2: Study For The Exam
Now that you have decided which license is best for you, you need to start preparing for the test.
The entry level Technician License Exam requires around 10 hours of study for most people. The Technician and General License exams each have 35 questions, and the Amateur Extra has 50. In order to pass the each test, you must get at least a 74%. For Technician and General, this means you must get 26 questions right out of the 35 questions. When it comes to ham radio, you could say that “C’s are for degrees” (see our detailed guide on how many questions are on the ham radio license exams).
As far as study materials, there are free options as well as more premium paid options. Considering that study materials will greatly enhance your experience and actually teach you a lot about ham radio, most people decide to invest at least a small amount into study materials. Overall, we estimate that the Technician License will cost you $50 when you take into account the cost of study materials and the cost of actually taking the exam (see license cost article for full breakdown). Let’s take a look at some of the study options to get ready for the exam.
Take An Online Class
It’s now possible to learn everything you need in an online class from your phone, tablet, or computer. You also get nice bonuses like videos and exams that track where you’re having trouble. Since access to our online class never expires, you can also go back and reference the material at any time. Not sure if an online class is right for you? Try a free lesson and see if you can pass the sample questions directly from the real FCC test.
Take a Free Lesson
Some people prefer having study materials they can put their hands on – and we don’t blame them! If you prefer a book, we converted all of the knowledge we’ve acquired from running an online course into the book, The Ham Radio Prep Technician Class License Manual available on Amazon. There are no shortage of different books with different learning styles. For example, the ARRL has manuals which are more dense and take longer to read, but many hams buy them to keep as a reference.
If you’re looking to study on your phone or tablet, a mobile app could be a great addition to your study materials. Ham Radio Prep offers a 100% FREE mobile app for both Android and iOS!
Step 3: Take Your Exam In-Person or Remote
The moment of truth arrives – you must now take the test by an FCC accredited Volunteer Examiner Coordinator (VEC). VECs are the only organizations legally allowed to conduct ham radio license exam sessions in the United States.
In-Person Exam Sessions
For most people, the easiest way to take the exam is with a friendly local ham radio club. Many local clubs are ARRL affiliated. You can search for an in-person exam with one the ARRL exam search page. It’s easiest to search this page using only your zip code. These exam sessions are run by friendly local ARRL affiliated clubs who want nothing more than to see you pass!
Remote/Online Exam Sessions
What if an in-person exam session just isn’t available? According to a recent notice by the FCC, it is now 100% possible to take the exam online, and there are several VECs that offer remote exams, such as the Anchorage Alaska Radio Club VEC and the Greater Los Angeles Amateur Radio Club (aka GLAARG). If you would like to take the test online, check out our page about ham radio online testing to see what are the best options and how to get registered.