It’s Official! I’m Now a Ham! (Part VII)

It was September 2012 when I took the second ham radio text (General) and passed, missing only one question. With my General license, I gained access to High Frequency bands (which are the bands that enable you to communicate around the world).

And then most recently, I sat for my Extra exam (the third and top level), and passed, missing only four questions out of 50 (from a question pool of 738 questions).

Having now passed all three tests, I’d have to say that – in my opinion as a professional writer –  the questions on the “Extra” test are, by design, unnecessarily complicated, difficult and confusing.

Worst of all, the questions on these tests are relics from the 1950s.

Most of the horrifically technical information contained on the Extra test (such as the subtle differences between Zener, Varactor, Schottky and Tunnel diodes), is useful only to those people who may be interested in building their own radios. If you’re not planning on building a radio, this is information you’ll never want, need or use.

So why are the great majority of these questions so miserably difficult?

I’d really, really like to know.

The demographic of Ham Radio operators is overwhelmingly older men (age 60+). According to Wikipedia, “fewer than 15%” of Ham Radio operators are women. And I would love to know how many of those women have their Extra license?  Overall, a mere 17% of licensed hams have their Extra license. I’d expect that among women, that number is much, much lower.

I’m blessed with a good memory (which has been a huge help in my career as a Sears House hunter), and years ago, I took two years of Automotive Technology at a vocational school. This background, together with about 45 hours of devoted study, enabled me to pass today’s test.

But it wasn’t easy.

If Ham Radio is to survive the next few decades, it’s essential that it move out of the 1950s and into the 21st Century, and a big part of that is revamping the current testing program, and make it more apropos to our modern times. Perhaps the tests should focus on the real-world practical issues of safety, proper grounding techniques, antenna design and installation, etiquette and band plans.

After all, how many Americans would have cell phones if every user had to pass a test demonstrating competency in building their own phone from a Heath Kit?

Not too many.

To read Part One of this blog, click here.

Want to read the other blogs on ham radio? Part Two is here. Part Three is here. Click here for Parts Four, Five and Six.


My interest in Ham Radio was piqued after seeing "Testament" with Jane Alexander and William Devane. After a nuclear detonation in a nearby town, the hero of the story is Ham Radio operator Henry Abhart, who was single-handedly responsible for keeping the community in touch with the rest of the world.


ham ham ham

Teddy the Dog is very interested in ham.


ham ham ham

My "ham shack" is pretty well contained on this old oak table on my sunporch. In my experience with this Yaesu 450d HF radio, I've never needed to know anything about diodes, annodes, powdered iron toroids, modulators, oscillators, TTL integrated circuits, leading voltage, lagging voltage, reactance, resistance or resonance.


teddy milton

My buddy Milton has an older rig (mid-1980s) and this radio also does not require a comprehensive knowledge of diodes, annodes, powdered iron toroids, modulators, oscillators, TTL integrated circuits, leading voltage, lagging voltage, reactance, resistance or resonance.


Test questions

A typical question found on the Extra exam. I struggled to memorize the answers to the 738 questions on the Extra test. Answers such as this, where the four responses were so painfully close, were especially difficult for me. Answers such as this comprise a large portion of the test.


ham ham

The question (and the four potential answers) was particularly vexing. In the end, the way I remembered the right answer was simply, "There is no modulating in baseband."


ham ham

What is the practical application of this knowledge? I wish I knew. I really do.


In conclusion, I found this website to be the most useful in studying for this test.

The software pays attention to your strengths and weaknesses (as you answer the questions), and forces you to revisit the questions that you got wrong (again and again). It’s under $35 per test and worth every penny.

And perhaps one day, we can make it simpler for folks to participate in the many joys of Ham Radio by removing the barrier created by these difficult tests.

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  1. Jan

    Congratulations to you on passing this test!

    You are right in thinking that these questions need to be updated, but is there any chance of that happening short of you joining the testing board and rewriting the test?

    I am shocked to hear that so few women are radio operators.

  2. Dale Wolicki

    So now you’re a “Virginia Ham”?

  3. Sears Homes

    @Dale Wolicki
    Dale Wolicki, you are a STITCH!!!

    You’re right – I’m a Virginia Ham! 🙂

  4. Courtney Adams

    Congrats on becoming an extra! I too just passed my test 🙂 Glad we’re in good company.

  5. Jilly

    Totally agree about the extra test!

  6. Paul

    While you might think that knowing the theory behind how your radio works in unnecessary, it’s good to know.

    I don’t plan on building my own radios or equipment either- I’ve been a Tech for 23 years, and just passed my General last night. Looking forward to getting on the HF bands!

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