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I'm considering getting a U.S. amateur radio operator license.

If you want to study to pass a license test, there are many resources to learn the answers to the entirety of the question pool: online practice exams and study aids, “ham cram” courses, etc. I came across one document (not quickly finding the link again) which basically takes the entire question pool and rephrases each question into a paragraph which briefly describes the broader topic and gives the question and answer as an example of that topic.

But I've looked through the question pool, and it seems obvious to me that the questions are not comprehensive; just like any test one might find in school, they are intended to sample your grasp of a larger body of knowledge. So, where's a copy of the syllabus for “U.S. Amateur Radio 101”?

What topics should the holder of a Technician, General, or Extra license have knowledge of? What would be the content of the question pool if test-takers had infinite patience, and could be tested on every fact rather than a sampling?

Or, addressing my actual plans: what topics should I ensure are contained in my study materials, given that

  • I remember best when I have theory rather than only disconnected facts,
  • and I've looked at what the question pool is testing and it seems worthwhile to me to also know the material that obviously could be in the pool, but happens not to be,
  • but I also fully expect to learn just-in-time as I start projects, so material which is neither on the test nor “you need to know not to do this” is a lower priority.

If I just wanted to pass the test, then judging by some online practice tests, I could get all the way to Extra on my electrical knowledge, common sense, and a bit of luck, but that's not what I want to do!

(I could ask “What book/resource is appropriate for this learning style?” but that would be shopping. If you have such a suggestion, you could turn that into a description of what it covers and how that is relevant.)

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If I just wanted to pass the test, then judging by some online practice tests, I could get all the way to Extra on my electrical knowledge, common sense, and a bit of luck, but that's not what I want to do!

I think that they body of knowledge they are testing may once have been fairly focused, but it has become a bit muddled by attempts to include new technologies without completely losing touch with the roots of the hobby. At least that is my perspective as someone who took the Tech exam, then the General 4 weeks later and the Extra 4 weeks after that.

A simple summary is this:

  • The rules (FCC Part 97)
  • Operating practices, including customs not required by FCC rules
  • Amateur radio "technology": operating modes, types of antennas, etc.
  • Enough physics to understand propagation and basic electronics
  • Basic electronics sufficient to understand, build and maintain basic radio equipment
  • Safety practices (physical, electical and RF)

For someone who's technically oriented, the new material is really just the first 3 items. Like you I wanted to be sure I understood the material so I could fully participate. As you have already guessed, it's completely impractical to comprehensively test anyone. Again, as a new ham myself, some glaring omissions in the testing is actual operating practices: how to get onto a repeater and what the protocol is for participating, similar for HF nets, contest rules and practices, what the heck are all these knobs for on this radio?

I think in other countries they include a practical portion on the test and these things have to be known in advance. I didn't have an Elmer (teacher/mentor), I just got the books and did the tests and didn't get a radio until I was a General, so all this had to be learned on the fly and took a while. If you have access to a live ham, this part will go a lot more smoothly for you. I am still learning what some of these knobs do 6 months later...

As @Phil Frost related, it's pretty easy to just pass the test if that's your goal. The US tests are 4 distractor multiple choice tests with 74% for mastery. So you need only 28 out of 35 for the Technician and General tests and 37 out of 50 on the Extra class test. The tests are constructed such that each section of the material is represented by at least one question.

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  • $\begingroup$ The tech and general exams have 35 questions each, not 50. $\endgroup$ – Andrew N5ITM Feb 19 '14 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, I fat fingered that. I have now fixed the answer. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – WPrecht Feb 19 '14 at 15:41
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If I just wanted to pass the test, then judging by some online practice tests, I could get all the way to Extra on my electrical knowledge, common sense, and a bit of luck, but that's not what I want to do!

That's how I did it. Many of the questions are about electrical engineering, having to do with antennas, feedlines, Ohm's and Joule's laws, Smith charts, and so on. The higher-class tests have more of this. If you are well-versed in RF engineering, can do basic arithmetic, and read a polar graph, you are set in this department.

There are also questions about regulations. If you really want to study the body of knowledge itself and not the question pool, then go read the FCC's part 97. But really, most of this falls under common sense (don't declare an emergency because you can't find your keys) and the rest is rote memorization (the 20 meter band starts at 14 MHz). Reading the rules directly is dry, painful reading, and it all boils down to "operate within the allocated frequencies, and don't be a jerk" anyway.

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