Studying for Ham Radio Exams

By Dave AD7DB

Revised January 22, 2001

Technician: The New Entry Level

In years past, the Novice license was the entry point. But those days are gone and new hams will now start out with the Technician class license. This just requires a written test with no Morse Code test, and you're ready to get onto 50 MHz and up.

The next class to upgrade to is General. This requires another written test and a 5 word per minute Morse Code test. You gain access to parts of the HF bands from 160 through 10 meters.

Finally, beyond that is the Amateur Extra Class license. This involves a 50 question written exam, but no further code test. This will give you access to all parts of the HF bands. You will also be able to apply for certain vanity callsign groups that you can't have with the General or Technician license.

The other license classes you may hear about that still exist are Advanced (which was between General and Extra on the old system), and No-Code Technician (which is the same as Technician now). There was also the Technician-Plus (Tech Plus), and "Coded Tech" and other variants. This is confusing, because some of them had passed the General written test, or had become Technician before 1987, and/or had passed the morse code test. This means they might rightfully be allowed to use CW and voice modes on a few portions of the HF bands. You may still run across a Novice who never upgraded. They had some limited CW and voice privileges on certain HF and VHF bands. Those people who still have one of these licenses may keep them indefinitely if they keep renewing on time, unless they choose to upgrade. With few exceptions, anyone who had a Tech licence from before 1987 has probably already done a "paperwork upgrade" to General, since they had already qualified for it.

How I Did My Study for Technician/General

Back in 1986 when I upgraded from Novice to Technician, I used the Gordon West Radio School theory tapes (General Class written). I played them all the time, mostly while working on my computer at home. I'd just let old Gordon lecture on and on while I did other things. After a couple of months of soaking it in slowly, I began to play some of the tapes more than others because I knew I was weak in some areas and wanted to concentrate on those topics. I feel that the tapes were a big part of my success in upgrading. As I approached the time I was going to take my exam, I finally got hold of an ARRL study book and could finally see the diagrams that had been talked about on tape.

VE Test from Hell?

I hope nobody else has to ever go to a test session like this one!

When I actually arranged to take the Technician class exam in early 1986, I had a mixed experience. A local group giving VE tests (I won't say who they are) had advised to call ahead and reserve a spot. The exam was going to be on a Saturday. I called the phone number given, on the Tuesday night ahead. The guy who answered was really testy, claiming that "all you people wait till the last minute before calling!" I do not think I was calling anywhere close to the last minute, I don't think I did anything wrong, and still think his behavior was uncalled for. He told me, "Just show up at 8:30 am and we'll see if we can work you in."

So I was a walk-in for the exam when I showed up on Saturday morning. While waiting in the lobby, I started to get unnerved by some other guys still reciting questions and answers aloud out of their manuals. I'd been studying for a couple of months, and didn't appreciate those other guys doing that. All they were doing was confusing me and making me nervous. My viewpoint is that it's a little late to be cramming right before an exam like that.

The VEs eventually finished the pre-registered bunch and started processing the walk-ins, and finally got around to me. They had me show the necessary papers and provide two copies of each (which I had) and show my ID, etc. Then they gave me a bad time about the calculator I wanted to use. They said, "It looks too fancy. Maybe it's a programmable one, and those are not allowed." (It wasn't a programmable one though.) Fortunately I borrowed a different one from my brother, which was grudgingly acceptable to them. Just as a point, they were picking on me, yet the guy they let through ahead of me was carrying a notepad full of crib notes! I decided not to raise a stink about it; I figured they might kick me out of the exam room if I caused too much trouble. (I don't know if the other guy got away with his crib notes or not.)

They set us up at long tables to do our written exams. Meanwhile, in the other corner of the room, a bunch of people were taking their 13 WPM code test. Some had headsets, others just listened through the speakers they played the code over. That part went for several minutes, and when the code finally stopped, most all of them let out a big "Whew...." and then quietly went to work filling out their multiple-guess answer sheets. (I later heard complaints from most of those examinees, the code chirped and echoed and was not very clear at times, and it was an old and nearly worn-out cassette tape. If it was as bad as they said, then this VE group was out to make things as tough as possible for them.)

Back to my exam. One pleasant surprise (for a change) was that it seemed easy! They were only asking one or two questions about some topic, then they moved on to another one. This was far different from my study, where I'd tackled all of the dozen or more differently-phrased questions at once. (This was 1986, I didn't have the benefit of taking sample exams online to get a feeling for what I'd be getting during an actual exam.)

I finished in what seemed too fast a time, so I went back through and rechecked all my answers. Then I laid down my pencil and turned my papers over and looked at the examiners.

One noticed me and mouthed, "You finished?" I nodded. He waved me over. He had me give them my sheets and told me to return to my seat and wait quietly.

I did so. A few minutes later I looked over and the examiner was grinning and giving me a thumbs-up. I thought, "YES! I passed!"

I had to wait for most of the other people to finish, then I was let out of the exam room into the lobby. I told my brother that I'd passed. I also said, "I think I got them all, too. There was only one question I needed the calculator for."

After the exam was over, I asked the VE from the exam room (Mr. Thumbs-Up) what my score had been. He frowned and said, "We don't tell anyone who passes what their score was!" (Yet, they were telling scores to those who'd failed, I guess they're entitled to know.) It didn't matter. I'd passed the Tech exam on the first try. I still think I aced all the questions on it.

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Dave Bartholomew
Copyright © 1997-2001 David G. Bartholomew, AD7DB.
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