Last weekend, I accomplished something I’d wanted to do since I was a teenager: earn my amateur radio license. I not only passed the Technician Class exam, but the General Class exam as well, to my surprise.

I was ready for the Technician Class exam a full week before my exam date, and you can take as many exams as you like in one session, so I went for the gusto and surprised myself, scoring 33/35 on both exams, in what the volunteer examiners from GLAARG said was record time. How did I do it?

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of ham study guides: those that hone in on memorizing the answers (which are public record) and ones (such as the AARL study guides) that are more broadly informative about amateur radio but are also full of fluff.

While I’m all for actually learning about radio, the thing about government tests is that you’re better off learning the test than the material. Most hams agree with that, since you can only learn so much about ham radio without actually practicing it.

To prepare for the Technician exam, I studied with Buck K4IA’s book. It’s a nice mix of theory while staying focused on the test itself. However, when I checked out his book on the General Class exam I soon found myself overwhelmed.

What got me ready for the General in a matter of days was the highly regarded HamTestOnline. You know the site is legit because the design hasn’t been updated since the late ’90s. The General Class course cost $29.95 for a six-month subscription and it was worth every penny. Don’t fret about the limited-time access since you won’t need it that long and you likely won’t care about the materials after you’ve passed your test. The site’s proprietor recommends some actually useful reference guides to buy after you’re licensed.

HamTestOnline force feeds you theory and then drills you on the exam questions. It keeps track of what you struggle with and then keeps showing you those questions, repeating the material as needed. Despite the ancient web layout, it works fine on mobile, even if I did occasionally tap the wrong answer.

Another useful resource is the Ham Study app. I drilled questions with that and took practice exams. The drills are more useful, but practice tests are good to reduce your test anxiety. I’m glad I did those, because when I requested the General Class exam, the coordinator demanded that I show proof that I could pass the exam. My string of passing practice exams sufficed.

It’s never been easier to get licensed. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, online exams are now a common thing, and Ham Study lists sessions you can sign up for. You take the exam in a web browser while being watched through Zoom. I tested in my bathroom because they insisted on an area clean of any potential cheat materials.

I’m not sure how much use I’ll get from my license. My BaoFeng radio can only hit repeaters if I climb a hill, so I’ll have to invest in an HF rig and/or a big antenna to do much. But it is another notch in my belt, and a potentially useful communication method in an emergency.