This coming Thursday, I’ve made an appointment to take at least one (if not two) amateur radio (ham) license exams. I’ve wanted to be a ham since I was a kid, but there was always a reason or excuse why I couldn’t do it. With Treanna looking forward to college and a career in astrophysics, I finally decided that this was the reason to go for it. I’d once heard from a physicist friend that having ham experience helped him quite a bit in his graduate years; the practical experience and theory in radio and electronics gave him a boost in being able to scrounge, cobble together, and maintain equipment for labs and research. I mentioned that to Treanna, and we agreed to study through our Technician licenses together!
After doing a little research, it looked like the most recommended study guide is the The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual (Third Edition), put out by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national association for ham radio in the United States. We picked up a couple of copies via Amazon and have been working our way through the chapters and exam questions. Previous editions of the book included a CD with software such as practice exams; however, the ARRL now offers a web-based practice exam site for all three current license levels: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra.
One note to those of my readers who have done certification exams (like Microsoft’s) but aren’t familiar with ham licenses. Every four years, a special committee in the amateur radio community comes up with a new pool of exam questions (each license is rotated in a different year) based on the syllabus, which looks a somewhat like the list of objectives for a Microsoft certification. There are ten overall sections and a number of sub-elements (usually around 3-4), with each sub-element having approximately 10-15 questions. These questions are multiple choice and make up the entire exam pool. The FCC publishes the entire exam pool for each level – so at any time, you will see exactly what questions you will face.Tests are administered by Volunteer Examiners (VEs) who are themselves hams with a higher license (or Advanced Extra if they’re administering the AE exam); they are affiliated with one of the many Volunteer Exam Coordinators (VECs) such as the ARRL. From end to end, the entire exam process is pretty much self-administered by hams!
For your test, your VE will pull one question from each sub-element, and that’s your test. For Technician and General, you get 35 sub-elements, so 35 questions. For Amateur Extra, you get 50 sub-elements and 50 questions. You have to score 70% or better to pass, and the tests are cumulative – you can’t earn a higher license without having passed both that test and any previous tests. You can do one level at a time and upgrade, or you can do them all at one sitting if you’re ambitious. It’s a very different and laid-back process. Sure, some people will just memorize the questions and answers and not read through the full study material – but the pressure to pass is, I have found, almost gone, so I’ve personally found it much more rewarding to actually study the material as I go.
Having made my way through the Technician guide and moved on to the General guide, I have to say I’m impressed. The ARRL guides are made with very extensive cross-references between questions and related material. The study chapters are laid out in a somewhat different order than the test elements, but they move in a very logical fashion. About the only complaint I have is that some re-organization of the ARRL web site has happened and it’s not as easy to find the supplemental materials as I had hoped. Luckily, there are some options:
- There are classes you can take – many ham clubs offer them, so you can usually find a local group. This is nice, because you also get to meet people who are members of the local clubs and can start making community connections. I haven’t done this yet, but it’s recommended.
- There are online classes. I opted not to do these because I am fairly good at self-study. I might use one of these for Amateur Extra, though.
- There are online supplements, usually in video format. I chose to use those from Extra-class ham Dave Casler (KE0OG), and have found them to be very useful. He doesn’t spend a lot of time covering ground the book covers, but usually manages to find a way to either highlight the important concepts or to fill in some of the gaps (such as what it looks and sounds like to use the various radio modes).
My plan at the moment, based on my projected study schedule, is to sit for both the Technician and General class exams. I’ll keep you all posted on the results. Once I pass and get my callsign, then I get to figure out which radios to get!