I used HamTestOnline.com to study for and pass all three tests offered for the three level of FCC amateur radio license. It was fast, efficient, and cost effective. Pity I can’t recommend it.
The gold standard tool for studying for the amateur radio license exam is a set of guides written by Gordon West (“Gordo”) and sold by radio dealers. You can see the full list of his materials on his W5YI website. Ham radio enthusiasts love to use their call signs, by the way. We may need to change the name of Longleaf Breeze to AK4IF Farm.
Those who shop for Gordo’s materials find a bristling array of books, CDs, and computer software. I haven’t seen or used any of them, but I can only assume from the online feedback about them that they’re comprehensive, authoritative, and thorough. Hams have been using them to study for the license exam for years, and they’ve survived the test of time. I can’t say this from personal experience, but my guess is that those who use study materials like Gordo’s are knowledgeable about ham radio by the time they finish and ready to enjoy their new hobby. They’ve probably also spent hundreds of hours plowing through all those materials, listening to all those CDs, and completing all those workbooks.
I hoped for something faster, and I found it. HamTestOnline also comes with a formidable array of positive feedback from happy test-takers. The price seemed reasonable – about $75 if you sign up in advance to use its web site to prepare for all three tests. I took advantage of the free trial long enough to decide that it was the right approach for me, and when HamTestOnline asked me to pay for it with my credit card I said yes.
HamTestOnline delivers what it promises. Thanks to its methodical record-keeping, I can tell you that I studied for 34 hours and 30 minutes to pass all three license exams. I took the technician and general class tests on Saturday, May 7 and the extra class test last night, May 9. I can’t tell you my scores, but I know I must have done well, because the tests seemed easy, covering material on which I had been drilled completely. I can’t see any way I could have finished this so quickly without HamTestOnline.
Just the Questions. HamTestOnline dispenses with any pretense of teaching you about amateur radio. It’s all about learning the answers to the 1200 +/- questions that make up the question pools: 350 or so for the technician, 350 or so for the general, and 500 or so for the extra. And learn them I did. It’s striking how many little tricks I was able to pack into my short-term memory to help me associate the correct answer with each of those questions. The beauty of HamTestOnline is that it notes the questions that give you trouble and asks them to you later (how much later is adjustable by the user). So all I needed to do to study was to go to the web site, log in, and start answering questions. HamTestOnline took care of keeping up with everything else. It even told me when the answer I needed to give was the wrong one because that’s the answer the exam graders would be using.
Constant Encouragement. HamTestOnline is well designed from a pedagogical perspective. It rewarded my study periodically by telling me the progress I was making. “Congratulations! You’ve now completed 26% of the technician class study” or words to that affect. It even told me when I was far enough along to schedule my exam.
Thematic Organization. Because I knew at the outset that I wanted to prepare for all three exams, I asked HamTestOnline to begin asking me questions from all three question pools immediately. The overwhelming majority of the early questions were from the technician class question pool, but I know there were some from the extra pool, because I remember knowing I had mastered 2% of the extra class questions at one point while I was preparing for the technician and the general. And the site was not just jumping around randomly. It presented the questions grouped by themes, asking several questions at once about FCC rules, and then several about the fundamentals of radio, etc.
Grammar, Spelling, etc. I have become annoyed in reading technical material at the grammar and spelling errors that seem to be ubiquitous in them. That wasn’t a problem with HamTestOnline. I didn’t notice while I was using it, but now that I look back on it, I remember no misspelled words and no awkward phrasing. The site was a joy to use.
So What’s Bad?
What’s bad is how little I know about ham radio after having taken and passed the tests for all three levels of amateur radio license. Now that I have my extra ticket, I’ll still need help from knowledgeable friends (thanks in advance, Tom) to set up my little ham shack and begin operating.
Just the Questions. That exclusive focus on the questions from the question pools means that there’s only the scimpiest of textual material offered on HamTestOnline. There are links to external sites where you can go to learn more about a topic, but because they’re external they don’t use the same terminology, are not always on point, and are not organized in the same way. I found myself making little use of the external links. And too often, HamTestOnline asked me questions with no textual help at all, forcing me to come up with little tricks to answer the questions correctly rather than learning comprehensively the material the question was addressing. Rather than learning “what devices are commonly used in VHF and UHF parasitic suppressors at the input and output terminals of transistorized HF amplifiers,” I simply learned to say “ferrite beads.” To this day, I have no earthly notion what a ferrite bead is or what a parasitic suppressor is or should do, but I know the answer to that question and 1199 others like it.
I frankly would have liked to learn more of the concepts. If HamTestOnline had offered to share with me knowledge about them, I would have studied it gratefully. But it’s not available. It’s as if the authors are saying, “don’t bother learning about ham radio. Just learn to say “ferrite beads.”
And What’s Ugly?
What’s ugly is how utterly logical it is that HamTestOnline has developed this approach. We who are studying for the amateur radio license (with rare exception) don’t really want to plow through all that technical mumbo-jumbo. We love having a fast, simple way to learn the answers to the questions so we don’t have to delve into the theory and learn what a verner diode actually does.
So the ugly part is not anything HamTestOnline is doing; it is that it’s simply a logical response to the environment of amateur radio license testing. The ugly part is the use of fixed question pools.
In the not-too-distant past, you couldn’t do it the way I did. Candidates for a license exam knew what concepts would be on the test, may even have known that there was bound to be a question about ferrite beads. But they had no way of knowing how the question would be phrased, so they needed to know what I don’t: what ferrite beads are, when their use can be helpful, and on what components they should be attached. I don’t know why we changed the system to the fixed question pool; I can only assume there were complaints (some perhaps well-founded) that this ad hoc approach to testing was unfair or even inaccurate. But I bet those who passed it knew a lot more about ham radio than I do.
In our world where ham radio is part of our plan for resilience, knowing how to do it right may be a matter of life or death, not simply a hobby or a way to win a contest. So now that I’ve passed those tests I must go back and learn those concepts, at least as they relate to the VHF world where I plan to do most of my ham radio work.
If you want a fast, relatively cheap way to pass the ham radio license exams HamTestOnline can help you get it done. Just know that when you finish you will still need to put in many hours of study time if you actually want to understand the subject.