Admittedly, this article is a little unexpected. I fully intended to sit down and write about terminal ballistics tonight, but it will have to wait. If you aren’t a subscriber, where I’ve been talking about my ham radio journey a bit, let me catch you up.

At the start of 2019, I outlined several of my goals for the year. Among them was passing the Technician and General license exams by April 1st. To be honest, passing the General was too aggressive for my available study time. Later in January, I explained why getting an amateur radio license is important.

Well, I took the Technician exam on March 9th, 2019 and passed it with a score of 100%. The FCC logged my call sign 48 hours later. So I’m officially a Ham.

amateur radio emblem

Sort of.

Having the license and actually being good at radio are two different things. In this post, I want to go over my study process and what worked for me. If you’re interested in getting a license for yourself, you might pick up a few tips.

Also, this isn’t one of those posts where I’m going to tell you how to prepare in two weeks or less to ace the test. I did this the old fashioned way with regular study sessions and practice.

A Bit of Background

I know, I always do the background thing. This isn’t like my typical article with a lot of historic buildup, though.

Here’s the thing, I’ve made a career out of training people in technical skills. Everyone absorbs information differently and at different rates. It would be wrong to tell you that what worked for me is definitely what you should be doing. That said, I’m sure there are at least a few takeaways you can get from this.

Firstly, I am a visual learner. I memorize things very quickly through repetitive reading, writing, and image associations. I also pay close attention to keywords and phrases. That’s neither here nor there as far as the test itself goes, but it relates to my study patterns.

At the end of January, I downloaded a free study guide designed to teach me everything I needed to know in order to pass the test. I looked at it for a good 45 minutes and then never opened it again. The information is great, but I thought there had to be a more direct route. And there is.

You see, the FCC exam question pool is available to the public. On the advice of a few other Hams out there, instead of trying to learn the material, I memorized the questions.

All 423 of them.

That’s not to say I could write the questions down for you verbatim. Rather, I memorized keywords in the questions and their associated answers.

Why Memorize Answers and Not Learn the Material?

This is a valid question. You might think that I shortchanged myself by focusing on memorizing answers rather than just learning how things work.

I thought the same thing when the old-timers told me to study the answers.

But by studying the correct answers, I still learned the regulations, terminology, wiring schematic images, and frequency bands expected of me. The old-timers correctly pointed out that most of the learning actually happens once you’re on the air and gaining practical experience with the radio.

The Tools to Ace the Test

My entire test preparation used only two tools, and one of them was unexpected.

I did all of my studying and test preparation through Hamstudy.org and their downloadable app. You can use the site for free, and it includes all of the practice tests, flash cards, and question pools. The app is only a few dollars and let me study on the go, during lunch breaks, or on downtime.

In all, their system is very well thought out. To help you study, the app cycles through questions and presents possible answers in random order. The randomization is important because it helps to memorize the answer and not its relative position. After you answer a question, successfully or unsuccessfully, it gives you the option to read an explanation.

I spent a 2-3 hours per week over six weeks cycling through questions, though I made the sessions a bit more intense near the actual exam date. about a week and a half out, I found some techniques that worked better for me than others. I’ll get there in a minute.

A Radio

The other tool I found extremely useful was an actual radio.

I didn’t have one when I started studying, so I was trying to learn a lot of concepts in the abstract. I could read and memorize the definition of continuous-tone coded squelch system (CTCSS), or frequency offsets for repeaters, but I didn’t understand them.

PRC-152 clone radio
My PRC-152 clone radio. Dual band, 10 watts.

When I actually received my radio, a PRC-152 knockoff, everything made a lot more sense. Since I actually had to program the radio to use frequency offsets and CTCSS, the whole thing got easier to take in.

The Technician Exam

The exam covers ten main subject areas:

  • T1: FCC Rules, Descriptions, and Definitions
  • T2: Operating Procedures
  • T3: Radio Wave Characteristics
  • T4: Amateur Radio Practices & Station Set-Up
  • T5: Electrical Principles
  • T6: Electrical Components
  • T7: Station Equipment
  • T8: Modulation Modes & Amateur Satellite Operation
  • T9: Antennas and Feed Lines
  • T10: Electrical Safety

Each of these topics includes sub-pools of questions. The exam itself is 35 questions, and you need to correctly answer 26 to pass.

Of note, and I mentioned this before, Morse Code is no longer part of the Ham radio license process. The FCC removed it as a condition of the license in 2007, though many Hams still practice it on their own.

Tips for Success

So now that I’ve relayed my learning style and tools for study, let’s get into what I think helped me succeed.

Sequence the Study Plan

When using the Hamstudy.org app in the “Study” mode, in contrast to “Cram” mode, it progressively works you through all of the topics. I feel like this took a while for the first pass through. By the time I reached T10, I had trouble recalling material from T1-T3.

My suggestion would be to go through the whole sequence once, then take a practice exam.

The app lets you pick a particular subject area to focus one at a time, and I found it to be a much more valuable method. It actually tracks the number of questions you’ve seen from a specific topic pool as well as your proficiency in that pool. By focusing on a single topic at a time, it increased the repetition of questions and ground it into my memory.

Don’t Study Tired

It’s a familiar feeling, isn’t it? Reading material over and over again, even when your brain is exhausted. In reality, this doesn’t help you. When your brain is tired, it simply can’t retain information as well.

You’re better off studying in bursts of 20-30 minutes a few times per day. Do this regularly, and your retention will be much better than trying to force it.

Of course, that also means…

Don’t Procrastinate

I’m a terrible procrastinator. But if writing this site has forced me to develop any good habits, it’s actively scheduling my time.

This whole process only works if you actually spread it out over several weeks. Set aside the time for yourself and actually do it. Cramming for something like this is significantly more difficult than budgeting your time.

Get Your FRN Number Ahead of Time

When you arrive for the test, the proctors will ask if you already have your FCC Registration Number (FRN). I had no idea what this was, so I had to go through the registration process before I took the test. If you aren’t aware, this is what the FCC uses to track you instead of your social security number.

You can register for a free FRN here: https://apps.fcc.gov/cores/userLogin.do

When you register, be aware that the address you use will be public record. If someone searches for your callsign, the FCC will show whatever address you used for your FRN. I was warned about this ahead of time and used a PO Box as my address.

Take the Test Twice

When I was in the nuclear operations business, we were held to very high testing standards. Passing was 90%, but everyone was expected to get 100% on each of the three monthly qualification tests.

One trick we employed to keep our scores high was to take the test twice. The first time you took it normally and wrote your answers down. After that, set your answer sheet aside and go through each question again. As you answer the question for the second time, compare it to your answer sheet and see if it’s the same.

Of course, this means you have to legitimately take the test twice and don’t just rush through the questions again. Reach each question, read each possible answer, then decide.

There is no rush. You don’t have a time limit here.

Good Luck!

I hope I’ve encouraged you enough to go for your radio license. It really isn’t all that hard. Just spend a bit of time scheduling your review sessions and working through it.

I’ll see you on the air!

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