Strategies to Make it Easy to Pass Your Ham License Exam Part 2

Your Ham License study and exam is not like this - it is relaxed, informal, and relatively easy.
Your Ham License study and exam is not like this – it can be relaxed, informal, and relatively easy.

This is the second part of an article series full of tips and strategies for making it easier to pass your Ham License Exam.  If you directly arrived on this page, you might want to first read the first part ‘Ham Test Exam Passing Strategies‘ then read this part, which focuses on learning and study aids, second.

Learning and Study Aids

There are plenty of websites with lists of the questions and answers for the three tests, and sites which will create sample tests and score them for you, so you can see if you’re getting close to being able to pass the test or not in something similar to a real test.  These are useful but only part of the process.

And note, from the immediately preceding paragraph, that if you are running sample tests, it is really helpful to use either different sites on different occasions or a site that randomizes the order in which the answers are listed each time you do the test; otherwise you run the risk of remembering the answer position rather than answer context.

There are two excellent overall learning approaches to consider.

Highest Recommendation :  The ARRL Book/CD Study Guides

The best overall approach is to get the combination book and software for each of the three courses that is published by the ARRL (the main amateur radio organization in the US).  They offer sets for the Technician License, the General License, and of course, the third in the series, for the Extra License.

These are reasonably priced (the Amazon links above show pricing currently in the range of $21, $27 and $29) and each has a large (8.5″ x 11″) softcover manual plus a Windows CD with teaching and testing software on it.

The books range up to 460 pages in length and do double duty as ongoing reference manuals.  They are very sensibly laid out both to help you learn the tests and also to gain a broad knowledge in general.  The good news though is you don’t need to read and understand and memorize every page of every book.  You can simply zip straight to the section on any question or series of questions you need to brush up on, and even see in the text mentions of which parts of the text relate exactly to which questions.  So you have the choice of either building up your general radio knowledge, or of ‘rifle shot’ selectively learning only the key points needed for each exam.

The computer training and testing is also very good.  It can generate tests, the same as free sites, and will also allow you to selectively study parts or all of the questions for each level.  Best of all, it will give you not just the answers but also explanations of how and why the answer was obtained.

These three books and the associated software might be all you need, especially if you already have some general grounding in electrical and electronic theory.  We suggest you get them first, and then if you feel the need for extra support, move on to the next item.

Secondary Recommendation :  HamTestOnline

There’s also a good – but not perfect – web-based training/testing program calling itself HamTestOnline.  This is very nicely designed and set out, and uses very clever training routines to help you learn the material you need, repeating parts automatically until you show you’ve mastered it, and making the process about as painless as possible.

They sell a two-year access to their site for $25, $30 or $35 depending on which of the three classes you want to use.

We like it being web-based – it therefore works on all types of computers and tablets, and doesn’t clutter your computer up with more programs.

There is a generous amount available for free, so give it a free trial and if you like it, and particularly if you are finding it hard going with just the ARRL books recommended above, you might find it extra money well spent over and above the ARRL manual and CD.

Our quibble with this service, and the reason we’re not giving it a higher recommendation is that, while the testing process they take you through is excellent, many sections are light on actual teaching materials.  It is excellent at helping you to get the answers right, but not nearly so good at helping you learn the underlying information needed to understand the questions and answer choices.

For example, the section on Oscilloscopes comprised a quick outline and then a couple of links to take you to, eg, the Wikipedia article on oscilloscopes.  Then when they asked you the relevant questions on oscilloscopes, there was no supporting material actually as part of their service to teach you what you needed to know to get the right answers.

This is repeated in most other sections of their materials.  This service is primarily an intelligent augmented testing program rather than an actual learning program.

I’m not sure that it is entirely fair to take $25 or more from a person and then – in some but not all cases – simply send them off to read a generic article on Wikipedia!  I want to be told exactly the focused relevant information I need, and to have each question associated with on-topic explanations of why the correct answer is correct, and why the other three are wrong.

HamTestOnline doesn’t offer the focused directed learning, closely linked to the test questions.  On the other hand, the ARRL books do, but with much more simplistic exam preparation software.

For the easiest of the three tests – the Technician level test – I was able to prepare and pass the exam with little need for any study at all, primarily drawing on high school and college physics and related knowledge.  For the General test, I had to work hard through the ARRL materials, and while I started trying to prepare for the Extra test with only the ARRL materials, I found it tremendously easier to rely mainly on the HamTestOnline service to prepare for this exam, occasionally referring to the ARRL materials for explanations.

HamTestOnline offers a very good way of working through the test questions (in their ‘study’ section) as a positive and effective way of learning.  If you find the ARRL books and CD program isn’t a positive enough experience or isn’t bringing you up in speed to the point where you are consistently passing practice tests with a comfortable safety margin, you should definitely sign up for HamTestOnline too.

Attending Training Classes

Another option is to go along to a class or series of classes offered by a local Ham operators group.

If you really want to know and understand the subjects being taught and tested, there’s no better approach than this.  But if you just want to quickly pass the tests, this will be the least productive use of your time.

How Much Study Does it Take to Pass

HamTestOnline say that it typically takes ten hours of study to be able to pass the Technician test, another 20 for the General test, and a further 30 for the Extra test.

Looking at the statistics on their own site, it seems they are underestimating the time most people take.  On the other hand, it seems most people ‘over-study’ to the point where they get not just minimum passes but close to 100% passes.  (In my own case, and after having earlier spent time learning with the ARRL materials, it took me 11 hours of study on the HamTestOnline site to then pass the Extra exam with a score of 49/50.)

Of course it really depends on if you’re starting with zero knowledge of electrical and electronic principles or not, and also if you’re a fast learner or more average on the uptake (and you can even change a setting in their adaptive learning for how fast you are picking up the concepts compared to how much revising you need).

Even if you take twice as long as they say, twenty hours of study to get a Ham license isn’t a huge chunk out of your life, is it.  An hour a day for three weeks is all you need to set aside.  Who can’t manage that?

Where and How to Sit the Test

If you live in a medium or larger sized city, the chances are there are one or more than one organizations that have a regular schedule of conducting tests for your Ham licenses.  You can see a list of nearby test dates, times and locations here.

Most of the time, all you need to do is show up perhaps 15 – 30 minutes before the test is scheduled to start, pay perhaps a $15 or so fee, show ID to prove you are who you say you are, and you can then sit one, two, or all three tests in a row (the fee covers all the tests you might take that session).  There’s no time limit on the test, so you can carefully work your way through the questions without feeling any pressure or panic.

Some experts say you shouldn’t do desperate last-minute revision prior to taking any test, but in the case of these tests, I disagree.

I found it helpful to quickly brush up on some of the areas I was unfamiliar with prior to going in to take the test, and in all three tests, I found some of the questions in the test were questions I’d revised just an hour or less before, and that helped me more confidently choose the answers.

A Second Chance

Who doesn’t wish for a second chance in life!  Here’s a way you can get a second chance at passing your Ham License test.  If you narrowly fail when you go for your exam, (for example, if you get 24 or 25 out of 35 instead of the 26+ you need to pass) and if you’ve been scoring 26 or better in practice tests at home, why not ask permission to take the test a second time.

This is permissible under the ARRL/VEC testing rules.  You would have to pay a second testing fee, and would be given a different set of random questions, but if you feel your first test result was randomly less than you were capable of, with a large percentage of ‘hard’ questions, maybe simply immediately re-sitting the test might get you a better score and have you passing.


Anyone of average intelligence can readily master the limited amount of information needed to pass any of the three Ham license tests.  Heck, if I can do it, I’m sure you can, too!

The benefits from having done this can be potentially enormous after TEOTWAWKI.

Although the easiest way to pass the test is to selectively learn only the information needed to answer the 350 – 700 questions in each of the three question pools, you’ll get even more benefit by a broader understanding of how radios work and how to get best use from them.

More Information in Part 1

This is the second part of an article series full of tips and strategies for making it easier to pass your Ham License Exam.  If you haven’t already done so, you should also read the first part ‘Ham Test Exam Passing Strategies‘ for lots of tips and ‘tricks’ as to how to most positively pass your ham tests.

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