Once I earned my General license in January of 2021, I didn’t imagine I would ever go for an Extra license. I heard several people say that the Amateur Extra exam was significantly more difficult than the General exam. And as far as I could tell, the primary difference was just permission to transmit in a little more of each band. Why would I go through the pain of another exam just for that? Well, the answer quickly became clear! The first weekend I participated in an SSB contest I heard a TON of people making contacts down in those parts of the bands I wasn’t allowed to transmit in. My competitive nature got the better of me, and I determined that I was going to earn my Amateur Extra.
Getting in the Right Mindset
Being an instructional designer at heart (and by training), I’ve always been interested in the way the amateur radio exams are structured. There are several topics covered on each exam. For each topic on the exam, there is a “pool” of test items. For example, on the General exam topic 3.2 is Amateur Licensing Rules. There are 11 test questions about this topic. When you take the exam, one question on that topic is chosen at random for you to answer. And that’s how the entire exam is constructed – selecting one test item for you to answer on each topic. This led to insight number one about preparing for the exam. You don’t need to know the answers to all 700 questions in the Extra exam pool! You just need to know the answer to most of the questions for each topic. When you take the exam you may get a few questions chosen at random that you don’t know, but if you know the correct answers to most of the questions for each topic, you’re going to pass the exam.
Searching around the web, I found several sites with study hacks for the exam like “Hacking” the General and Extra exams (from N7SMI) These gave me several additional insights into the exam. For example, despite the seemingly large number of topics on the exam that are math-related, it’s possible to pass the exam without getting any of the math-related questions correct. So don’t let the math scare you off.
The HamStudy.org App
Because I found amateur radio during the pandemic (when in-person testing wasn’t happening), I had taken both my Technician and General exams online via HamStudy.org. They have an absolutely terrific iPhone / Android study app as well ($3.99) that I had used to study for the previous exams. It’s great to study with their app and then take the exam online, because the look and feel of the tool you use to study is exactly the same as the look and feel of the one you use to take the exam. This helps you stay calm during testing since things feel familiar.
The HamStudy.org app includes all the questions in the question bank (about 700 for the Amateur Extra exam) along with their correct answers and crowdsourced explanations for each and every question. These explanations are frequently both fun and clever, and several include their own memory hacks for remembering the correct answer to the question. Although I purchased The ARRL Extra Class License Manual 12th Edition (Spiral Bound), I found that I didn’t actually use it that much to prepare for the exam because the explanations of each question in the HamStudy.org app are so useful.
Then I started studying in the app, scrolling through question after question. I started in the Read Questions mode, which just shows you the questions with the correct answer highlighted:
At this point, whatever you do, don’t read the incorrect answers! Your goal here is to associate the correct answer with the question. Just read the question, read the correct answer, and then scroll on to the next question. Tackle one Section at a time.
Use Effective Study Strategies
As soon as you’re starting to feel like you’ve got the answers learned, switch to Quiz Mode. Then you can take little quizzes to practice remembering the correct answers for the questions. You want to spend most of your study time in Quiz Mode. When you’re doing the quizzes, you’re engaging in what’s called retrieval practice. (My PhD is in education, and believe me – this is the way you want to spend your study time.) The idea behind retrieval practice is that rather than studying for the exam by reading and trying to get information into your head, you’re going to spend your study time by practicing pulling the information out of your head. After all, on the exam you’re going to need to be able to remember the correct answers, so you should spend your study time practicing remembering them. Think about it this way: if you want to be good at playing the piano, you need to play the piano – a lot! Likewise, if you want to answer the questions correctly on the Extra exam, you need to practice answering the questions – a lot!
Quiz Mode keeps track of how well you’re doing on each question in each section, and in each section overall. Once you’ve mastered most of the questions in a section, leave it for a day and work on other sections. Then come back and practice that section you had mastered again to keep it fresh. This leverages another powerful learning approach called spaced practice.
As I worked in Quiz Mode and started seeing the incorrect answers (or “distractors” as we call them in education), I noticed that sometimes there’s an incorrect answer that looks really similar to the correct answer. In those cases I would try to create a little mnemonic to help me remember which of the two similar answers was the right one. I actually did this for all the math questions. I didn’t do any calculations when I actually took the exam – I answered all the questions from memory. But I also didn’t stress about being able to answer every single question correctly. I knew I needed to know most of the questions for each topic, since that meant the odds were that the randomly chosen question for each topic would be one I knew. When there was a question here or there that I just couldn’t seem to remember, I called it good and moved on.
Put in the Time
We took a family vacation in July, which got me away from work and allowed me to spend 90 minutes or so each day for a solid week drilling questions in Quiz Mode. When we returned I started taking the Practice Exam in the app (which randomly chooses one question from each topic, exactly like the actual exam will do). I passed the Practice Exam the first time I took it. I signed up to take the actual exam three days later, and passed the Practice Exam four more times during those three days while also continuing to work in Quiz Mode.
All three times I’ve signed up to take an exam online through HamStudy.org (Technician, General, and Amateur Extra), I’ve shown up in the Zoom a few minutes early and then had to wait a significant amount of time before I was actually able to take the test (at least 30 minutes each time). Rather than sitting around being nervous about the exam I was about to take, I used the time to drill even more in Quiz Mode! I used Quiz Mode while I waited rather than taking a Practice Exam because Quiz Mode shows you the correct answer to each question immediately after you answer it. This was super effective at helping me keep correct answers fresh in my mind.
As you can see from the screenshot at the top, this approach not only helped me pass the Amateur Extra exam – it got me a perfect score. I hope you find these strategies helpful, too.
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