Is Getting an Extra Class License Really All That Extra?

On the HamRadioHelpGroup mailing list, there is a discussion on the relevance of some of the questions on the Extra Class license exam and how easy it is to pass the exam by memorizing the answers. Here is my response:

Whether or not you use what you learn while studying for the Extra Class license is immaterial. An Extra Class license holder is supposed to know about all aspects of amateur radio, and in some depth. That’s the whole idea of the Extra Class license.

Furthermore, you’ll be surprised when that knowledge comes in handy. I liken it to the courses I took in engineering school. As an electrical engineering student, I questioned the need to take thermodynamics and fluids courses. Well, that knowledge certainly came in handy when I became a project manager responsible for the design of an electronics control system. It helped me understand how airflow helped keep the electronics cool as well as the algorithms the controller used to control fluid flow in the field.

Something similar could be said about amateur radio. At this point, I have no desire to work satellites. That doesn’t mean that I won’t get interested in doing so at some point in the future. By having read a little bit about it to answer some questions on the Extra Class exam, I’m that much closer to actually doing it.

Finally, let me say a few words about passing the test by memorizing the answers. First of all, doing that is not all that easy for the Extra Class test. There are, after all, more than 500 questions in the question pool. And, to answer many of the questions correctly, you have to memorize the answer. There’s no way to learn the theory.

An example of this is question E2B21. The question is, “If 100 IRE units correspond to the most-white level in the NTSC standard video format, what is the level of the most-black signal?” The answer is 7.5 IRE units. To get that question right, you just have to memorize the answer.

Second, I don’t think many people can go through that memorization process without learning something. I have a friend who always claims that he passed the Extra test by memorizing all of the answers. He’s just playing dumb, though. He knows a lot more than he gives himself credit for, and I think that you’ll find the same thing is true for the clods who claim to have passed by simply memorizing the answers.

Third, even if someone could pass the test simply by memorizing the answers, they’re only cheating themselves. Why spend all that time and energy just memorizing the answers, when you can actually learn something? Especially when actually learning something will certainly prove useful in the future and make ham radio that much more fun?

Is the test material too easy? Perhaps. You have to remember, though, that this is just a hobby. We’re not talking about the installation and maintenance of systems with life-or-death consequences, such as air-traffic control systems or medical electronics.

If after thinking about all this you still think that the test is too easy, get on the committee that makes up the question pool. The question pool is drafted by a committee of Volunteer Examiners. They welcome your input.


  1. This is a really excellent explanation. And, as I have said before it’s also why a code test really should have been retained for the Extra. The goals of the ham exams (in my mind) are to make the applicant aware enough of procedures/dangers/regulations/modes/etc to provide an introduction to the hobby and to assist in avoiding foolish mistakes. Of course, this does not account for those who are foolish by nature…

  2. Your comment: “Third, even if someone could pass the test simply by memorizing the answers, they’re only cheating themselves.”

    This was proven here a while ago when I heard an Extra class lamenting on 2 meters that he had high SWR on 17 meters. He went on to say that he fixed it by switching out his Icom 718 with another rig. He said the 718 always had high SWR to which an Advanced class op agreed with him.

    So here you have at least one fella who passed the Extra who hasn’t got a clue about the theory in our hobby.

    Thanks, Dan!

    • Dan KB6NU says:

      Oh, brother. That made my day. :)

      You really should have jumped in there and explained that the rig is probably not what’s causing a high SWR reading.

  3. I sure don’t know how retaining the code test would have made any difference when it comes to theory and other things. The advanced class op mentioned above
    had a lot tougher test then what the Extras take now plus code. Didn’t seem to make much difference for him.

  4. Mike Zydiak W2MJZ says:

    Just in case there is anyone reading this series of comments who would like to seriously study for and pass their Extra Class, let me reference you back to a posting I made a while ago:

    Extra Class EasyPass: How Everybody Can Be an Extra

    While I was quite wordy, the system that I outlined, and the tools that I detailed, work quite well, and I have yet to find and easier technique to successfully pass the Extra.

    Mike Zydiak W2MJZ

  5. That’s a great story…but, there’s a lot that’s gone untold. If the op was using the internal SWR meter (does the IC-718 have one?), it’s quite possible that something was wrong with the radio (in the meter or otherwise). It’s not clear that the underlying physics were ever discussed, though.

    I agree that the Advanced written was harder than a 5 wpm code test plus today’s Extra. But, my statement about the code test was that the Extra class should be reserved for the well-rounded amateur. It had nothing to do with making test “tougher” and everything to do with understanding amateur operating practice, which is still heavily based on CW operation. Both technical and operating skills are important, although a multiple choice test on selected “technical” topics is much easier to administer uniformly than the Morse tests were.

    The tests are not a filter. They’re just to make applicants aware of the Service. There will always be outliers…

  6. Hi–

    I am an Extra Class license holder. I studied and learned much over several years.

    I began wth the Technician Lience, then after 2 years studied some more and earned the General Class. After another four years I studied, and earned the Extra.

    I am also an electrical engineer so I feel I have an advantage over many hams. But those who have made the effort to learn as opposed to memorize are valuable assets to our hobby. I have learned much from several of those people, especially operating techniques and Field Day preparation.

    It was a buddy with an Extra Class license who enticed me into amateur radio. He was an “elmer” in the true sense, helping me not only find the study materials, but also helping solve issues with my station when I first started. Now after these several years I am able to do similar things for others.

    But I think the “Extra” should be something a bit special. I think there should be a 5 year requirement as a General or Technical before taking the Extra exam. I think the Extra class holder should be an experienced ham. Most of us will never work moon bounce and not everyone will work the HF bands either. But the experience of a few years operating in our chosen areas would make a big difference. I believe it is through doing that one truely learns.

    Doyle, KG6YUN

  7. My experience in electronics and Ham Radio closely follows that of Doyle. I was lucky in that my dad was licensed as a Ham back in 1932. I learned a lot from my dad, such as courtesy on the air and making friendships that have lasted my entire adult years. Having a father as my private Elmer pushed me in the right direction to pursue degrees in electronics. Now I sure as heck wasn’t no rocket scientist in high school. It took me an extra year to finish up high school in the military, but it all turned out good. There is always that sense of accomplishment that comes along with earning that coveted ham license and the Extra Class was icing on the cake.

    I’ll not say I’m old, but I had to take every one of my tests from the infamous steely eyed FCC examiner. I took every one of my tests, amateur and commercial from the same FCC lady and I think to this day, she would intimidate the hell out of me.

    To get back on track, I do believe the FCC erred when it dropped the requirements for Morse code. It seems that whenever you talk to other hams they think telephone, cell phones, and the Internet will always be there. Disaster or not. If we ever have a real serious emergency, I fear we might not be prepared for it.

    I have always been impressed with the ARRL’s emergency net system and they have done miracles in the past. Maybe, I’m just too old and set in my ways, but it seems like amateur radio revolves more around the major radio manufactures than any other aspect. Everything costs a fortune and you can’t easily buy a single band multimode radio any longer. Just plunk down a couple of grand and presto, there you go, DC to light with full computer control. I think the Extra Class test was easier than programming my Yaesu FT-60. The 9,000 functions seem to get in get way of simplicity.

    Yep, the Extra Class license is really that extra.

  8. expiredticket says:

    Old as I may think I am, I’m that ‘young blood’ that hams need to keep the hobby alive. Passed my General w/5wpm code around 1998, operated for a bit, but ultimately moved on to other things. Haven’t touched a rig in 10 years, ticket recently fell from grace, and for whatever reason tonight decided to see how I’d do with an online extra exam.

    Scored around 60%. Couldn’t believe it – it was that easy for an extra?? I’m no EE so guessed on many of the questions requiring calculation. Maybe I got lucky? Regardless, saw some comments on here regarding CW requirements and felt the need to add my two cents.

    Before my General exam, I spent around a week constantly listening to CW tapes. Passed the exam with flying colors. Hey, neat, I knew Morse code. Didn’t have much of an interest in operating CW before the exam, but it was required, so I toughed it out and studied. In the end, I never had a single CW QSO. Again, no interest, I just jumped through that hoop for the General. Was primarily interested in operating SSB.
    Around two weeks after passing the exam, was bored one day and tuned over to the CW portion of 20 or 40m (can’t remember which) to see what was there. Hey, I passed the test, should be good to go, right?

    Couldn’t copy anything. Made out a callsign or two, but nothing beyond that. I was amazed that two weeks previous I copied the exam tape with ease and now couldn’t copy a thing. Were those stations sending above 5wpm? Can’t remember exactly, but most likely they were. Use it or lose it, as they say.

    Maybe I’m an odd case. Assuming I’m not, though…. Lots of hams seem to gripe about dropping CW requirements, letting the riffraff in, and the need for CW in emergency situations. It’s a more efficient mode, of course, and in a *real* serious emergency it would be helpful. That said, what was the point of me taking the CW exam? Not everyone who takes the exam will operate CW, and for those who don’t, they might promptly forget it as I did. If someone wants to use CW they’ll learn and become proficient regardless of the exam requirement. Hams who passed a CW exam seven years ago but haven’t touched it since might not be any better off than today’s no-code General with no experience at all.

    Don’t know why, but I think I might study a bit and take an exam. It’d be fun. Maybe even go for the Extra. Would I still do it if I had to repeat the CW learning and forgetting cycle again? Who knows. This time around, though, no plug-n-play for me, not even a kit. Think I’ll build a rig from scratch for PSK31 or other digital modes. More fun that way.

  9. David White says:

    There are some of us that have been around the block a day or two that are incapable of hearing morse code. Due to 26 years Air Force and wokrking around the jets and associated equipment I can not hear any high pitch tone and very few low pitch tones. TDD equipment is not available for rigs.

    I was able to get my gen license because I had a Novice before entering service (when I could hear) so the code is nice but there should not be required

  10. f_hampshire W8FH says:

    I was extremely proud that I had earned my Extra. I practiced until I could copy 25 WPM and the test was no big deal since I was getting my degree in engineering. Now, just walk into the bathroom and peel an Extra Class license off the roll – that’s about all it’s worth. Welfare Radio. Just like everything else in our society. “It’s not fair that you can do it but I can’t. Therefore, you must change the requirements.”

  11. bullmastif says:

    As a new ham with a tech license, I would like to comment. I am studying for the general license currently, and I find it difficult to really learn any type of concepts or theory. All the study materials are practice exams. The books, the online practice test etc, they are all questions and answers. It would make more sense to have actual text books with explanations, like any other field of science, rather than all practice test without concepts. So as a amateur, memorizing the questions seams like the only option when you don’t have anywhere that really teaches you the stuff.

    • Dan KB6NU says:

      I hear what you’re saying, but the intent of the study guides is not to teach you electronics—there are many, many books out there to help you do that. The ARRL, for example, sells a book Understanding Basic Electronics, and there is, of course, the venerable, ARRL Handbook. To really learn ham radio you need to do it, so my advice to you is to just get your license and then jump in with both feet.

  12. I totally agree with what I am reading here. My 8 year old step-daughter just passed her Extra Exam on 21-May-2011. It is not the fact that she passed a rather hard test, it is the drive behind her passing it. “I want to help my community, if something really bad happens”, Mikaila (KK4BFK) says with the passion of an adult ham radio operator. She was saying just the other day, “Daddy, everyone is making a big deal out of my passing the exams, and they are not that hard for me, I like the attention! Then she says “you know what though, I really hope nothing bad happens that we have to step up and provide communications, but I am glad I have my license, and now I have to really start sitting down and learning exactly how I will be able to help and when to do if I am told to run this or that radio, but at least I know I can help if I am needed and that feels better than passing the test. Yes, I agree it is all about the community and helping our friends and neighbors.

  13. Well, theres always going to be old people in every hobby who complain about various things. Im sure that when ICs came out they were all tube purists. Im sure that when they transmitted voices, the spark gap people were in a tizzy. There are a lot of older guys who think that you have to be an EE genius to be an extra, and thus romantisize the class into an elite club and thats fine.

    I know a guy who hates echolink because “it’s not radio” and yatta yatta and doesn’t own a home computer.

    I think the ARRL made the requirements such because, and I agree, that the classes are learners permits.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I got my tech ticket in April of 11. three weeks later I tested for General, now I have an extra class exam on the 16th. But the thing is that I don’t come from a technical background. I could barely turn a screwdriver, much less calculate discharge capacitance after a few time constants. And I’m primarily operating on two meters because I don’t yet have an HF rig. I couldn’t tell you a lot about band plans because I talk on about 3 repeaters total and thats only on a mobile station because I don’t have a 40 foot tower in my apartment.

    I was able to accomplish my ascendance due to the online test question banks and two dollar outdated license manuals. But I am exposed to things that I’ve never been exposed to before. Im young, I didn’t have to learn code, and my motivation is to work with the county.

    I think some of you are really missing the point. You guys are sitting around complaining that the knowledge base is getting watered down. What do you really expect from a country that has 3rd world math/science placement?

    Most of the guys that I know that are extras are over 40. Those guys have a vast degree of knowledge. But you know what? When I came up and said “I am looking for an elmer to help me learn how to solder” noone stepped up. A lot of people see a newbie like me and automatically assume we are appliance operators. If that’s the case why not embrace someone that is eager to learn and show them the things that they can really only understand through hands on experience instead of complaining that the young bucks don’t know anything.

    Part of the problem also (and I can understand as I’ve trained new employees on the job and it’s annoying), is that everyone acts like it is a chore to go out and help someone identify an antenna or help someone eliminate AC hum. Im sure some of the guys around here probably will think that I got where I am by memorizing answers and judge me for it, but you know what? Few of those seasoned amateurs participated in the last SET drill.

    But look, I don’t want this to seem like I’m bashing the old guys, but reading some of the above posts really made me want to respond. I think that the good thing is that License issuances are increasing, and young people are having to keep the hobby alive. I know that back in the day it was much harder, when there was no internet, it was very difficult to learn the theory, or locate books to teach the theory to pass the tests. Now there is internet, and kids can send voice, data, text, video over the internet and doing all that over the radio is way too expensive and redundant in the face of internet/cell phones. They can talk around the world (on their parent’s dime) on half a watt portable. I can see the advantages of making the license requirements easier.

    Don’t you really spend the rest of your lives learning how to drive AFTER your license is issued? That’s how I view the process and I think thats the ARRL’s take on it also.

    I will say that there is something to the complaints about the requirements here. I can see that. I know it looks akward for me to potentially get an Extra Class license and not really know anything about radio. I see both sides but I guess what I really want to say is that you guys should be glad that people still care about radio and just take the rest as-is. Lead by an example of Amateur Operator courtesy and friendliness
    If you really care about amateur radio then get out of your circle of radio friends and help someone you DON’T know learn how to be a professional amateur.


  14. As someone who will turn 43 this May and jut got my Tech license in November (and will take General in March), I’m another one if the n00bs some people talk about. I put off taking the exam 20 yrs ago because my brain refuses to learn code. When no-code tech came out I studied and then life took over. In the last month I’ve contributed code to an open source SDR app and I’m damn passionate about radio (have been an avid DXer forever). Say what u will about code, but I wouldn’t be a ham if it was still a requirement.
    Oh, and Eric (the previous poster) nailed it. Read his comment again. Then again. Then you’ll get it. I agree 100% and couldn’t have said it better.

  15. I agree with f_hampshire W8FH. I used to do ARRL qualifying runs up to 35 WPM and I received a certificate from the ARRL for each run I copied – not tape recorders or help-

    I also worked hard to study regulations and electrical theory. My General, Advanced and Extra Class licenses were EARNED by hard consistent studying, not by memorizing questions and answers.

    To Quote W8FH: Welfare Radio. Just like everything else in our society. “It’s not fair that you can do it but I can’t. Therefore, you must change the requirements.”

    I see that the value of what you do is proportional to the work and effort you expend to achieve it.

    As the licensing is now,

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