Ham Radio Exam Study Tips
(how to “study smart”)
by John Cunningham, W1AI
Over the years I've helped thousands of students get ham radio licenses and upgrades. Here are some things I've learned along the way.
Tip #1: It's easier than you think
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!
Tip #2: Challenge yourself
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.
- Try to average at least that amount of study time every day. If you miss some days, make up the time.
- The looming exam date will keep you motivated to not just to devote the hours, but to study efficiently.
Tip #3: Don't dabble
Don't spread your studies over a period of many months (or even years), because you'll waste too much time relearning things you forget. Try to average at least one hour per day. Treat it like removing a band-aid, and get it over with quickly.
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.
Tip #4: Focus on the exam
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 lengthy, off-topic articles in the ham radio license manuals doesn't count towards your exam study time.
Tip #5: Stay in study mode
Stay in Study mode, and resist the temptation to take lots of practice exams. Practice exams are not a good way to learn. Study mode has the informational texts and intelligent repetition that make our site effective.
After you've pretty much mastered the materials, there's no harm taking a few practice exams to boost your confidence for the actual exam, but those don't count towards study time.
Tip #6: Skip math questions
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 8 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?
Tip #7: Leave all the topics enabled
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 (Radio and Electronic Fundamentals). If you study the question pools in their original 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.
Tip #8: Adjust repetition delay
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 5.0 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 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.
Tip #9: Last-minute cramming
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.
Tip #10: Take multiple exams in one session
Don't be afraid to take multiple exams in a single VE session. We've had at least one hundred students go “from zero to Extra” in a single day.
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 dipole antennas in the General course, it reinforces everything you learned about vertical antennas in the Technician course. I've helped thousands of people pass, and I'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!
I recommend that the more precocious students start their studies with all the topics for all the courses enabled simultaneously, allowing the system to follow its logical learning order across the entire question set. That's the most efficient way to study your way from zero to Extra. As the exam date nears, you can assess your readiness on a per-exam basis and narrow your study to those exams that need the most work.
The more cautious students will probably prefer to study one course at a time. However, even for this crowd, I do recommend some overlap. When your score gets up around 75% on one course, leave those course topics enabled, and also enable the topics for the next course. That will let the system start introducing materials from the next level as it finishes and solidifies your learning of the earlier course. It's a more efficient way to study.
Tip #11: Don't lose sight of your objective
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!
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Frequently asked questions (FAQ)