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What to expect from your ATPL theory exams?
ATPLGS are guests on the blog this week and have kindly put together this article. Make sure you subscribe to their question bank/ ATPLGS App, which arguably is one of the best ATPL question banks around.
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If you are starting your ATPL theory examinations and not sure what to expect, then keep reading.
This guide has been written to cover even the most basic questions I keep seeing.
If you are reading this, then you probably want to know the best methods to study your ATPL exams. Take it from experience; they are nothing you have ever experienced before! If you are married or have a relationship, I would recommend you speak to your partners and show them this document (And I am not joking either, set your expectations to your partner, so they don’t feel unwanted)
One of the gaps I found during my ATPL exams was that nobody actually teaches you HOW to study – and I struggled initially as I had been out of education for a while. Check out my How To Study Effectively class – Skillshare is running an offer at the moment for 2 weeks FREE. I share what I learnt completing my ATPL exams in 8months whilst juggling a full-time job!
But let’s get to business..
Are the exams hard?
Of course, they are, you are going to be in charge of an airliner one day and responsible for passengers lives. They don’t hand these exams to just anyone. But can they be passed.. absolutely, I have seen some of the least academic people get through ATPL exams, but there is a massive amount of dedication required.
The material may put you off: you may have received your pack of books and are already regretting this decision. Although there is a lot of material to get through, it can be done.
Your social life will take a hit undoubtedly, and we have all experienced it. I would even feel guilty going to do a Tesco shop as its 1 hour I could have spent reading the books. Expect a year of it too. It is important that once you start, you don’t have too many events that may hinder your study progress.
If you have any holidays, try to plan them, so they take place after your ATPL exams for one of the modules. Taking a 2 week holiday halfway through a module will set you back another 4 weeks easily as you would have to read through everything again.
How long should I study per exam?
For someone who is completing their ATPL exams distance learning part-time, I would recommend a course of around 3-4 months per module assuming you can get through 2-3 hours a night of studying. This is a reasonable pace. Don’t rush, but don’t take too long with your ATPL exams either (I will come on to why next).
A good idea is to book the exams maybe 2-3 months into your module for 4-6 weeks later. You can always cancel/move your exams for free with 7 days notice. Don’t forget you also have to contend with the problem of getting exam slots, so get the slot booked in advance and at least you know the exam is there for you if you want.
Why should I not take too long?
So here is the deal with ATPL theory exams. They are very much a memory game. Once you have read through all the books, the next mission is to keep it in your memory. This is why it is not a great idea to take time off when you are studying once you have started.
You will be amazed by how much having a week off from reading the books affects your revision.
For this reason, (I say show this to your partner!) even having a day off can have an impact on your ATPL exam study. We do all need a break from time to time but don’t take long extended breaks of more than a few days. It will cost you a week to catch up.
Instead, once you have completed a module, take a week, a month, as long as you need before settling back into another pack of books! (But don’t forget you have an 18-month timer ticking after that 1st exam is complete to finish the lot).
Am I ready for my exam?
Use the question banks to test your knowledge. Some students learn from practising ATPL questions. Some learn from reading and making notes etc. Everyone is different so find the method that works best for you.
Don’t rely on one source for your learning material. Buy a few books on eBay from different centres. Whilst the Bristol Ground School, CATS & Oxford manuals are no doubt amazing; you may find a few other areas are explained in other books, and it can really help to have some additional sources to look at. Practice questions from different sources too, e.g. Aviation Exam, ATPL Questions etc.
This book is a great resource. It doesn’t break things down as granular as other books, but it’s a great revision tool. All the ATPL subjects are covered in one BIG book.
YouTube also has stacks of videos too. Whilst these videos are monotone at times, they are overall a brilliant resource non the less.
Sittings – how many exams should I take at a time?
So you get 6 sittings to take 14 ATPL exams in – do not take 2-3 exams per sitting. If you get to sitting 6 and fail an exam, you are stuck. You have no sittings to take any more exams! The general split is 3-5 exams per sitting, and having them completed in 3-4 sittings.
This leaves you a nice buffer to resit any failed exams should you need it. It is entirely your call but spanning it out across all 6 sittings is a terrible idea, even 5 is a push! I have seen students fail a 5th sitting exam, with one shot left, and I dread to think the pressure they are under of having one chance to pass an exam or everything they have done is to be repeated all over again.
When booking the ATPL exams, try and spread them out over the week. 1-2 exams a day, (1 a day ideally, to be explained why at the end this) will help. I appreciate there are accommodation costs and time off work etc, but the cost of avoiding resitting an exam in time and effort will outweigh this.
For exams like VFR & IFR Comms, Mass & balance etc, you could comfortably put these on the same day. Although VFR & IFR Comms are supposedly easier, you can still fail them so don’t get too comfortable and treat each exam with respect!
There are many groups out there to help you, but please – if someone has posted a feedback document don’t message asking if the exam was hard – it is annoying! I would post a feedback document to find my inbox with 20 people asking me questions about the exam that I have just posted about!
How should you use the question banks?
However you wish! Some students spend a full month just blasting out questions, some do not use them much, do what works for you but 100% use them at least once to test your knowledge.
This is my strategy, everyone has their own method, do what works best for you.
Weeks 1-7 : Based on 3 hours studying a night
So you have subjects,A,B,C,D : read through A fully, B fully, etc etc, and make notes – lots of them, but be sensible. I have seen the most ridiculous extended notes where the user has gone as close to rewriting the whole book. If this is what works for you, then it is your call.
Maybe watch the YouTube videos mentioned earlier too. They can range from 5-20 hours per subject. They are something you can watch one day in bed at least. Each subject will have a different length of time required to get through.
AGK is huge, for example. VFR is the size of a takeaway menu. Some maybe take 1 week, some take 4 weeks. At this point, though take your time as there is no massive rush to absorb everything (that comes later).
Spend some time on the question banks. You will probably get upset because you are getting 50-60% in the various ATPL questions apps. Don’t panic. This is common at this stage of the game.
Read through books A,B,C,D again at a faster pace
Make notes again. A much more condensed version… Maybe at this point, begin to aim to write a 10-12 page revision notebook per subject on the areas you are struggling with most. This will form a convenient summary of what to read the day before the exam.
This is the point where you are now in a race with your own brain to maintain everything in its memory. You are likely to be more susceptible to forgetting things if have a break for a few days at this stage.
Question banks/ ATPL questions app again, hopefully, scores are increasing now.
Keep reading your notes and skimming the books. It is important to keep things in memory.
At this point, I would then start to read through A, B, C, D again but not spending more than 2-3 days per subject. at this point, you are probably also starting to realise how fast you are forgetting stuff you only learnt.
More ATPL question banks and revision – sit on the question bank. If you can’t answer a question, find the answer in the books.
2 weeks before the exams
Read and skim through your notes and books.. Hopefully, your exams are now approaching. Start to aim to spend 1 day per book, reading revisions notes, and using the question banks. You are wanting to try to get into the habit of reading the summary books you created as close to each other as possible, and question banking. Find your missing gaps! Hopefully, you are scoring 80% by now and we are fine-tuning the gaps.
1 week to the exam – are you ready? Consider cancelling if not.
Days before the exam: you are probably panicking now! At this point, I would aim to spend the majority of my time on the question banks and reading through the condensed note pack you made the day before the exam. Focus solely on the subject you have tomorrow. Stay the night before in local accommodation. Get there early in the day to give you a full day of study. Use the question bank, and revision notes.
Now, if you have booked 1 exam a day, this gives you a nice gap between each exam to revise.
Once the exams are all finished, relax.. and wait for those results on Friday! Nothing will make your heart sink more than when you get the email “exam results updated“.
Once you have finished your first exam sitting, you are officially an experienced ATPL theory student. Just the wait for those exam results to come in! At this point you are more aware of the commitment and amount of work needed, so you can go into MOD2 knowing more about the pattern that works for you.
Do you have any ATPL study tips or experiences you would like to share? Please leave a comment in the section below and I will reply as soon as possible!
Kudzi Chikohora is a B737 captain with over 3,000 hours of flying in Europe. He holds a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, is a chartered engineer, and is a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Kudzi completed his pilot training via the self-funded modular pilot training route and created kcthepilot.com to share pilot training and aviation content.