Strategies to Make it Easy to Pass Your Ham License Exam Part 1

This looks - and is - overwhelmingly complicated.  But Ham radio doesn't need to be like this, it can be simple and straightforward for everyone.
This looks – and is – overwhelmingly complicated. But Ham radio doesn’t need to be like this, it can be simple and straightforward for everyone.

This is the first part of a two-part series on how to most readily pass your Ham licenses.  After reading this first part, please be sure to click on to the second part ‘Learning and Study Aids to Help You Pass Your Ham License Test‘.

If you get a Ham radio operator’s license, you will be able to legally use the widest range of radios and frequencies, and at much greater power levels than are permitted for unlicensed radio users.  You’ll be able to communicate more reliably in your immediate area (ie line-of-sight, stretching out a mile or more depending on topography and obstructions) as well as in a broader region (via relays) and also nationally and even internationally too.

If you limit yourself only to unlicensed FRS, GMRS, MURS and CB type radio services, you’ll be limiting your communication range, usually to something less than a mile, also depending on the topography and obstructions.

So, a Ham license is the way to go, and getting one is easier than you think.  We discuss the three different types of licenses on our page ‘Why You Should Get a Ham Radio Operator License‘, and no matter if you decide to settle for the entry-level ‘Technician’ class license or if you decide to pursue the ultimate ‘Extra’ class license, you will face common requirements and be tested in a similar format.

The strategies we offer, below, will apply equally to all three licenses.

No Morse Code

One of the big hang-ups many people used to have, was the need to learn Morse Code as part of the licensing/testing procedure.  This is no longer required, so if that was a concern and something holding you back, it is no longer a reason to not get a Ham license.

On the other hand, once you’ve got your three levels of Ham license, we’d suggest you consider voluntarily learning Morse code.  Believe it or not, there are still occasions when it can be useful, and it can also improve your Op-sec – while anyone can go out and buy a radio scanner and listen in on your voice transmissions, very few ‘bad guys’ will go to the lengths of learning Morse code and deciphering your Morse transmissions.

The Three Different Licenses

These days there are three main Ham licenses available – they are called the Technician, General and Extra licenses.  The General license gives you all the privileges of the Technician license plus adds more frequencies you can also use, and the Extra license gives you all the privileges of the General license plus adds still more frequencies, and also allows you to then get a ‘vanity’ Ham call sign (fewer characters and more choices than the auto-assigned ones you are given to start with).

To get a Technician license, you sit a single multi-choice exam where you are asked 35 multi choice questions, each with four answer choices.  You are required to get 26 questions correct to pass.

The 35 questions are semi-randomly drawn from a question pool of about 400 questions.

To get a General license, you first need to pass your Technician test, and then sit a second test, also comprising 35 multi-choice questions, each with four answer choices, and you again must get 26 correct.

The General question pool is slightly larger, and has different questions to the Technician pool – there are about 460 questions in the General pool.

To get an Extra license, you first need to have passed your Technician and General tests, and then sit a third test.  This time you have 50 multi-choice questions, still with four answer choices each, and you must get 37 correct to pass.

The Extra question pool is quite a lot larger, with about 700 questions in it, and these questions are generally different (but sometimes similar and of course directly related) to the questions in the other two question pools.

The question pools and the correct answers are widely distributed so you know in advance exactly what you need to study and what questions you might be asked.

It is possible to sit for one test, pass it, and then immediately sit for a second test in the same session.  Some people – this is rare but occasionally happens – sit for all three tests in a row (and pass all three, too).  Which leads to the first strategy.

Work Through All Three Tests Consecutively Without Stopping

We’re not saying you should try to do all three tests on the same day, indeed, unless you already know a lot about the subjects covered, we’d recommend you don’t try to do this.  It might give you some boasting rights to pass all three tests in one day, but it might also overwhelm you with the learning needed, and you will probably find it overall quicker as well as much easier to do the tests in easy ‘bite sized’ stages.

Although we don’t suggest doing all three tests on the same day, we are suggesting that you should steadily go through all three tests, perhaps one a month, because each test builds on knowledge you will have learned for the previous test.  It is better that you soon get a Technician license, then a month later the General, and another month later the Expert, than perhaps end up learning solidly for six months before sitting any tests at all.

One more thing about timing.  Keep at it, steadily.  If you wait too long between one test and the next, you’ll have to relearn much of what you knew after passing your previous test – it is much easier to simply keep moving forward while everything is fresh and still in your mind.

Test Structure Strategy Part 1

Each test is created by choosing, on a semi-random basis, a selection of questions from that test’s pool of questions.  The questions are grouped into a series of ten different subjects, ranging from the rules and regulations associated with operating a ham radio station to safety procedures, and of course including subjects such as antenna design, radio wave propagation, and electronic circuits.

Now, note the use of the term ‘semi-random’.  A certain number of questions are taken from each of these ten different subjects – for example, with the General test, five questions come from the Amateur Radio Principles group, but only two from the Electrical and RF Safety group.

So here’s the strategy.  If you find one subject easy and another difficult, maybe you don’t need to study the difficult subject at all.  Remember you only need 26 correct answers from 35 questions for the Technician and General tests, and 37 out of 50 for the Advanced test, so you can ‘sacrifice’ some parts of the knowledge you need entirely.

In other words, learn all the easy stuff first, and then only as much hard stuff as you need to be sure you can get up to the score you need to pass.

Test Structure Strategy Part 2

So you now know there are ten subjects that the test covers, and we’ve indicated that if there’s a subject you just can’t understand at all, maybe you can skip it entirely and still be able to pass the test due to the generous number of incorrect answers you are allowed.

The testing is actually even more structured that this.  Within each subject category there are a number of subsections.

So maybe you’ll find that one subsection is easy and another hard – rather than make a decision to study or abandon the entire subject, just pick and choose the subsections that you understand and make sure you are fully optimized on those questions.

Only when you have the easy stuff mastered do you need to return to the more difficult subsections.

Huge Issue :  Focus On the Questions Most Likely Asked

Now here’s a suggestion that can massively help you direct your studies most productively.

Each of the ten subjects has a number of subsections, as discussed in the preceding section.  As if by coincidence, the number of questions allocated to each subject is the same as the number of subsections in the subject, and so it is common for an exam to allocate one question to the material in each subsection.  Now for the interesting thing – some subsections only have half a dozen or so questions, while others have more than a dozen.

So, guess what.  If you study a subsection with half as many questions in it as another subsection, each of the questions and answers you are learning is twice as likely to be asked.

What is the point in struggling with a question that has perhaps only a 5% chance of being asked, when there is another question with a 10% chance of being asked that you could learn in the same amount of time?  Or, to phrase it a different way, which is easier for you – to learn a group of six question/answer sets, from which you expect one question to be asked in your exam, or to learn a group of 12 (or even 20) question/answer sets, from which also only one question will be asked.

So, when you’ve polished up on the easy subsections, your next strategy should be to concentrate on the harder subsections with the fewest number of questions in them.  This will give you the best results from the time you spend.

Intelligent Answer Guessing

The good news is that the questions are multi-choice and that each question has only four answers to choose from.  Furthermore, you don’t lose points by choosing wrong answers.  So, of course, answer all questions, even if it is only a WAG (wild assed guess).

Fortunately, you can sometimes improve your guess by eliminating one of more of the answers not so much based on what you know is right but rather based on what you know is wrong.  We’ll go through some examples here, and to prove our point, we’ll use the most difficult Extra exam questions rather than the simplest Technician exam questions.

For example, one question for the Extra exam asks

What types of amateur stations may automatically retransmit the radio signals of other amateur stations?

A.  Only beacon, repeater or space stations

B.  Only auxiliary, repeater, or space stations

C.  Only earth stations, repeater stations or model craft

D.  Only auxiliary, beacon or space stations

Now maybe you’ve no idea what the answer is, but perhaps you also know that a beacon does nothing other than simply broadcast a signal of some sort, maybe for radio direction finding, maybe to test propagation, or for some other purpose.  A beacon clearly does not retransmit signals from other stations.  So that would enable you to eliminate answers A and D, leaving only two to choose/guess from.

If you look at the two remaining choices, you might wonder about a model craft rebroadcasting signals, decide that was slightly strange, whereas the three choices in B include one that on the face of it looks obviously correct (repeater), and two that could be correct, and decide to choose answer B.

So, without knowing the answer, you’ve eliminated the probably-wrong answers to come to the probably right answer.  Well done – you’ve now mastered one of the Extra test questions.

Another example of intelligent answer guessing is when you might see a question that has two answers that are very similar to each other as well as two other quite different answers.  The chances are that the correct answer is one of the two very similar answers rather than one of the two very different answers (but note that there are sometimes exceptions to this!).  For example, here’s another Extra test question

What is the amateur satellite service?

A.  A radio navigation service using satellites for the purpose of self-training, intercommunication and technical studies carried out by amateurs

B.  A spacecraft launching service for amateur-built satellites

C.  A radio communications service using amateur radio stations on satellites

D.  A radio communications service using stations on Earth satellites for public service broadcast

You can see that answers C and D are sort of similar, whereas options A and B are quite different from each other (and from answers C & D too).  It seems common in such cases that the examiners have created two ridiculous answers to trick people who know nothing about the topic, and then two similar answers to see if people really know the answer or are slightly confused.

So if you didn’t know the answer for sure, we’d suggest guessing between answers C and D.  And if you had to carefully select either C or D, we’d point out that answer D talks about public service broadcast whereas answer C talks about amateur radio stations.  Which do you think more likely to be something to do with the amateur satellite service – amateur radio stations on satellites, or public service broadcasts.

Yes, option C is correct, and you’ve now answered two of the Extra exam questions purely by applying logic to the questions rather than based on specific knowledge of the subject.

Another example of intelligent answer guessing is if you can work out or guess an approximate answer and then choose the option closest to your guess.  For example, another of the Extra exam questions asks

What is the phase angle between the voltage across and the current through a series RLC circuit if XC is 100 ohms, R is 100 ohms, and XL is 75 ohms?

A.  14 degrees with the voltage lagging the current

B.  14 degrees with the voltage leading the current

C.  76 degrees with the voltage leading the current

D.  76 degrees with the voltage lagging the current

In this case, there are two parts to the answer – is the angle likely to be 14 degrees or 76 degrees, and will voltage lag or lead current?  You do need to know some of the theory to get this right, but you don’t need to know the exact formula.

Both parts are easy to guess with only a little theory.  The first part – the angle – if you see there is 100 ohms of resistance and a net of 25 ohms of reactance, then that implies the angle will be small rather than large (because most of the circuit is resistance).  So it would be a safe bet that the angle is more likely to be 14° which is relatively small, rather than 76° which is of course relatively large.

Now, will voltage lead or lag current?  You see that the capacitance is larger than the inductance, so the dominant effect will be caused by the capacitance.  Hopefully you know that with a capacitor, there is a rush of current into the capacitor, and the voltage builds up subsequently while the current flow slows down – in other words, voltage lags current.

If you know either of these two general principles, you can eliminate two of the four answers,  And if you know both principles, you can correctly guess answer A without needing to know the formula involved at all.

Sometimes you have no clue about a question, but you can tell that at least one of the answers is nonsense because of other things you do know.  For example :

Why is it advisable to use an RF attenuator on a receiver being used for direction finding?

A.  It prevents receiver overload which could make it difficult to determine peaks or nulls

B.  It reduces loss of received signals caused by antenna pattern nulls, thereby increasing sensitivity

C.  It compensates for the effects of an isotropic antenna, thereby improving directivity

D.  It narrows the bandwidth of the received signal to improve signal to noise ratio

Maybe you don’t know the answer, but there are some clues in the four choices as to which answers are wrong.  For example, look at answer B, which claims that an attenuator reduces loss.  If you have even the simplest understanding of an attenuator, you’ll know that although it does indeed reduce a thing, but that the reduction – in this case of signal – would thereby increase loss.  So answer B is out.

If you have studied antennas, you’ll know that an isotropic antenna is a theoretical concept that is impossible to exist or create in real life, so therefore, answer C which refers to the attenuator being used in conjunction with this non-existent device is also obviously wrong.

As for the other two, it seems intuitive that an attenuator might reduce overload, although maybe you’ve no idea whether that would help determine peaks and nulls or not – maybe you don’t even know what peaks and nulls are, but the part you do understand sounds reasonable.  The last option might be something that you simply don’t understand at all, and so in that case, when forced to choose between an answer that seems at least half right, and one which you don’t understand, why not choose the one which is at least half right.  After all, sometimes the reason that one of the other answers is not something you understand or recognize is because the fun-loving examiners created it as a credible sounding but utterly nonsense statement!

Oh yes – if you chose answer A, you’ve just got another of the Extra exam questions correct.  Congratulations!

As you study for your tests, you want to do three things each time you come across a question you can’t answer correctly.

First, of course, ideally you should study and learn the materials needed to understand the topic being questioned.  That’s also the most time consuming and difficult approach.

So, the second thing to do is to study the question and the four answer choices, and from the benefit of knowing the correct answer, see if you can analyze the question and answers so that even if you can’t clearly be sure of the right answer, you can perhaps become more certain that some of the four choices are obviously wrong.  Learning which answers are wrong (and why) is almost as helpful as learning which answer is right, and sometimes can be a quicker and easier strategy.

The third thing to do is to just use ‘brute force’ and rote learn the question and its answer.  To do this, try to see if there’s a clue or mnemonic you can create from the question to guide you to the appropriate answer.  I’ve used all sorts of mnemonic ‘tricks’ to remember answers to questions – and sometimes to group answers to a series of questions – for example, there were a series of questions about what happens with either a 1/4 or 1/8 wavelength antenna was either shorted or open at the end, and so I remembered ‘SHOL4’ – Short High, Open Low (impedance) for the 1/4 wavelength (and the opposites for the 1/8th wavelength).  That one mnemonic walked me through four different scenarios.

The Pointing iN Proudly mnemonic helps to remember the difference between the symbols for PNP and NPN transistors (the arrow points iN for a PNP device).  And so on for many of the other questions – sometimes it is just something like ‘only one of the four answers has an odd number, and that is the right answer’).

Two Practice Traps to Avoid

There are two things you have to be very careful to not do.

The first is don’t memorize answers on the basis of ‘the second answer is the correct answer to this question’.  It is very easy to do this, either consciously or unconsciously, because as you see the same question/answer repeatedly, you may build up an almost Pavlovian response of quickly zeroing in on the correct answer based on where it is rather than what it says.

I unconsciously did that myself for the first of the three tests, and then discovered to my horror, when sitting the test, that the order the answers were presented in had been shifted from the order they were shown in the practice tests I’d been doing.

Without realizing it, I’d been instinctively choosing things like ‘the second answer’ for some of the questions, and then I realized that the answers were jumbled up and I had to stop and rethink the answers more carefully.

Make sure the sample tests you are taking jumble up the order of the answers they present to you.  If they don’t, then try using several of the different online sample test services.

The second is a subtle derivation of the first trap.  We urge you to try sample tests in different formats.  It just seems that one becomes familiar and comfortable with test exams in one style of presentation, and so when confronted with a different layout and format, it seems unfamiliar and the questions/answers look ‘foreign’ and different and harder.

It seems that even if you are careful not to ‘learn’ answers by their position in the list of four choices, sometimes you key in on links between the question and the answer based perhaps on the way the question is written – your eye goes straight to something like ‘the third word on the second line’ and based on that, then knows the answer to choose.  So when that key word or phrase has shifted in location, you no longer have the key between the question and its correct answer.

Sample tests that randomly shift the answer order around never randomly shift the layout of the questions around, so this remains as a potential problem.

We strongly recommend you should use several of the different free services for taking sample tests, so that your knowledge becomes separate from the presentation of the test materials.  The format of the actual tests you’ll take will be different to any of the online tests (for one thing, it is printed out rather than on a screen) and so by getting experience with several different formats and presentations, you’ll take another format and presentation in your stride.

Read More in Part Two

This is the first part of a two-part series on how to most readily pass your Ham licenses.  After reading this first part, please be sure to click on to the second part ‘Learning and Study Aids to Help You Pass Your Ham License Test‘.

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