Sunday, December 03, 2017

Hints and Tips For Passing the Amateur Extra 'Ham' Exam

Having just passed the Extra Class exam I have some tips for anyone out there who is thinking about upgrading their license or in the process of studying or getting ready to sit for the test.

One thing you should know is that this is not an easy exam. I have it on good authority that the current question-pool put into service in July 2016 is far more difficult than the previous one.

I'm told that there was a lot of push-back from 'old-guard' hams (especially the guys still upset over the elimination of CW!) who claimed that too many people were passing the exam... that it was too easy. When the new question-pool was created there was a concerted effort to make the exam more difficult, at least that is what I hear.

Thus, you are going to study the answers to a lot of questions that have only marginal (and sometimes zero) congruence to running a radio station. Your only option is to plan a lot of extra time to prepare for the exam as well as taking it. As I said, it is not easy.

I do not believe it is possible to cram for this exam unless you have advanced degrees in both quantum mechanics and astrophysics! While you can memorize some questions and answers, by and large you will have to 'know' most the material, or at least have the cognitive ability to 'figure it out' while taking the test.

There are some "tried and true" ways to make the process a bit easier and help insure success on the exam. I present the ones that worked for me (in no particular order.)

- The ARRL Extra manual is not a great exam study guide. I bought it and found it to be a college-level textbook on radio theory, semiconductor physics, and endless explanations for the many arcane FCC rules. I don't suggest buying it until after you pass and want to know in more detail advanced radio theory, etc.

- I'm told the Gorden West "Extra" book is good but I bought it for the General and was not impressed with it and so I didn't get it this time.

- I found that the 100 page "No-Nonsense! Extra Class License Study Guide" by Dan Romanchik KB6NU ( to be well worth the $10 PDF cost. Spend a few days with this after you have put in a lot of time with the online sites answering questions. I read it a few days before I took the exam and found it to be a good review as it answers all 700+ questions.

- I used, and found a good protocol to follow is to spend several weeks reading the entire 700+ question-pool, followed by another several weeks doing the flash cards. Finally take at least 50+ practice exams to where you consistently get 80% or better. (Make sure you are using the current question-pool: 2016-2020. Some sites have previous exams still online.)

- When starting out, tell whatever program you use to eliminate the "distractor" (i.e. the wrong) answers.

- The analysis that I did (subject to an unknown margin of error) is that 75% of the time the longest answer was the correct answer. So if you have to guess, choose the longest answer.

- Many times a keyword (like 'network' or 'phase') that is in the question also shows up in only one answer... and that is the correct one.

- Some non-common words only show up ONCE in the entire question/answer pool... like "astable" which is the right answer to the one question it is in:

Which of the following is a circuit that continuously alternates between two states without an external clock? 

A. Monostable multivibrator
B. J-K flip-flop
C. T flip-flop
D. Astable multivibrator

- When taking the exam at the VE session do as many of the 50 questions as you can and skip over the ones you are not totally sure about. Then go back and do them. Often the answer to them can be found in other questions toward the end.

- Give yourself plenty of time to study for the exam, but be consistent. Find 60 minutes or so a day to read text or flash cards or do exams. The week before the exam, allocate two hours every night to take practice exams.

- Try to schedule the exam for an afternoon or evening VE session. Spend several hours before the exam reading flash cards, preferably right up until they pass out the exam books. That way your brain is 'tuned' to "resonate."

- I passed the first time but I've been told by many VEs that if you fail by a couple of questions you should go ahead and pay another $15 and take it again as you may get a sub-set of the question-pool where you know more of the answers.

- For some questions you can create easy-to-remember mnemonics to give you a hint of the answer. For example there is a question as to whether a T-net is high pass or low pass. The answer is high-pass and you can remember that T stands for Touchdown in football and often is the result of a HIGH PASS from the QB. Another answer about meteor showers is Sporadic-E. "E" rhymes with "meteor."

- Another technique I employed was to make a list "word associations" that I simply memorized. A list of ones that worked for me are at the end of this missive. Memorize as many of these as you can and you stand a good chance at passing. (But you still need to do the studying!)

At the risk of being too repetitious, for most of you (us) this will be the hardest exam you have ever taken in your post-college/graduate school life. You can't 'guess' your way though this one.

====== EDITORIAL =========

The following is my opinion. Your opinion may be different and I'm OK with that:

Some people say that this version of the exam was designed to insure that Extra class operators would be the "best of the best."

I disagree.

At least half the exam consists of questions that have zero relation to running a radio station. They are overly technical, contain math that most of us have long forgotten, and encompass theory more congruent with academic pursuits than practical application.

It was designed to be hard.

It was designed so that you will fail, at least the first time... expecially if you didn't PUT IN the time.

Many say, and I believe it to be true, that it was designed so that the Extra class would continue to be an 'old-boy' club. If true, they did a really good job of it! If you want to gain access to this club, you will indeed pay your dues by losing a lot of sleep and perhaps some hair as well!

The lyrics Ringo Star once wrote are true:

"Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues
And you know it don't come easy"

One thing that I'm certain of (since I asked many many operators) is that hams who got their Extra 15+ years ago could not pass the exam today.

For those who are considering taking the Extra exam, I hope I've helped a little bit.

Alan Canton
Fair Oaks, CA



(Try to associate the word to the left of the dash with what comes after. Some will make no sense until after you have studied the questions.)

elliptical - notch
transequatorial - 5000
polar - positive angle - PoPA
33,50,10 - 7.12 MHz
undesirable - undesired
drop-out - min input to output
phase shift - least
BiCMOS - bipolar
RF vector - short, open, 50
Automatic - automatic
polyethylene - route 66
load coil - has a cap and reacts
NTSC - 30 rock
factor of 3/4 - interpolate the fac-a-tor
FET - left arrow simple
E9-1 - 14 or 9+1+4 = 14
hopping - rapidly
6dB - 2.15 - 3.85
Spread spec - room 222
multi-conductor - is common
aurora - code
boost - pre-emphasis
noise blank - wide spec
fraction of a wavelength - delta
multiple digital - logical
crystal oscillators - NPO
multiple turn loop - increase or
E74 - 38
forward gain - 21 Skeedoo
meteor - rhymes with E
1/4 shorten - high
Q RLC - resistance divided
JT65 - a minute (65 seconds!)
E7-3 - linear
E7-3 - current-handling
antenna gain - reference antenna
Direct FSK - VFO
APRS - gets the ax
L & S band - look for 3s
anti-aliasing - hi then low
multiplexing - base (ball)
vestigial - I "AM" a vestigial
class D - low passing grade
Normalization - impedance
Symbol rate - rate
blocking - 1 db around the block
liberation - flutter flutter
noise blanker - emission
long path - 20 miles home
bridge circuit - null, null, null
Semiconductor diode - heavy metal
total resistance - ohmic
electric motor - brute force
NEC - Electromagnetic
Toroidal - confine
two states - astable
flare - twice an ass
diodes - detector
pin - RF switch
phase lock loop - synthesis
Optical shaft - wheel
JT - and the monotones!
Sporadic - summer
beam width - beam 3 up, Scotty
emitter amplifier - half way to Saturn
taps - algor
baseband - components
SSB - see you at the QUAD
phase lock loop - FM
block FM by another - Capture the FM flag
Q 3.7 - 31.4
220 microfrad - 220 seconds
digital time division multiplexing - is discrete
idle PSK car - 30 miles an hour
opto-isolater - LED the parade
Pi - can be varied... like slices of appple pie
linear volt reg - 'shunt' up Reggie
50-J25 - it resists with a cap