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How difficult are ATPL exams?
ATPL exams are hands down the hardest intensity of studying I have ever done in my life! In truth, the actual ATPL subject content is not that difficult in isolation.
What makes ATPL exams hard is the sheer volume of information that needs to be committed to memory. The best advice I can give is to get into a routine, stick to it, and be consistent.
How do I study for ATPL exams?
The key to ATPL exams 100% is to be consistent. Find a routine that works for you and stick to it. I did my ATPLs exams around my full-time engineering job in 8 months. I targeted 3 hours of study per day (Monday to Friday) and did hour building at the weekends to give me a break.
In terms of structuring my study, my technique was to go through the course material for each ATPL exam. Once I had completed the study, I would start working through the BGS question bank and CATS question bank. This is when the real learning would start! At first, it seems impossible to finish a given exam within the allotted time, but as you go back over your notes and cement topics, it gets easier.
When I got a question wrong in the question bank, I would go back over the ATPL exam course material to understand, and if that failed, I would save my question for my ATPL distance learning brush up classes.
How do I study for ATPL exams – time management?
I worked in 45minute bursts and took a 5 or 10-minute break. As I was juggling a full-time job, I set my alarm for 4:30 am, or 5 am each day and tried to get most of my study done before work. Try and maximise your time – I deleted my social media accounts during ATPL exams so I did not waste time.
How long are ATPL exams valid for?
- You have 18 months from when you take your first exam to complete all the ATPL exams within 6 sittings.
- Once you have completed your ATPL exams, you have 36 months to get your commercial pilot licence (CPL) or Instrument Rating (IR)
- If you already have an IR before completing your ATPL exams, then you have 7 years.
How to study for your EASA ATPL theory exams effectively?
I wasn’t actually planning on writing this blog post, but one of my amazing followers on YouTube did my Skillshare class on how to study effectively and when I asked for feedback, that actually sparked a lot of conversation. P.s check out my How To Study Effectively class if you have not already. Skillshare is running an offer at the moment for 2 weeks FREE.
One of the books that I read that absolutely blew my mind was unlimited memory, by Kevin Horsley! One of the big gaps I found during ATPL exams which I wish I knew beforehand was nobody actually teaches you how to study. And I think, to be effective, in your ATPL subjects, part of the game is to teach yourself how to study.
Now if you are like me and rely on the conventional way of reading something, write it down or repeat it 10000 times until it sticks, that is pretty inefficient. If you are bored of my how to study spiel feel free to move on to the next section (Picking the right school for your ATPL theory).
How to set up your study for ATPL Exam success?
There is no shortcut to ATPL exams anymore. Gone are the days when you can smash the ATPL question bank a few times and jump straight into the exam, have no understanding of the material and get a good result based on memorising the answers!
Check out the ATPL study guide writing by ATPLGS.COM if you have not already.
Figure out what they are and get them out of your system as excuses won’t help you get through your ATPLs.
What is your why?
ATPL exams are a massive grind. If you are on an integrated course, they will take around 6 months. If you are modular and working full time, you are looking at 8months +. You will need to find a reason to get up early to study repeatedly.
You will need to repeatedly find a reason to not go out on an evening with all your mates as you need to be of sound mind to hit the books in the morning. The process is even more intense if you try to juggle your ATPLs on a part-time basis with work. Find a reason to push through.
Distraction and maximising your study
You need to get rid of them. A good experiment to do if you feel like you hardly have any time in your day to study is to figure out how much time you spend on your phone on social media. You will find 1.5hrs there straight away.
Organising your study
A long-distance running athlete wouldn’t just randomly go for runs – have a plan of how you will attack the ATPL theory.
Positive feedback and motivation
Reward yourself for the little wins. 6, 9 or 12, or 18 months of ATPL theory is a LONG time, and the only way you will last is if you reward yourself. Part of this includes making sure you take regular breaks.
I did my ATPL Online course with a full-time job whilst hour building in 8 months. I studied Monday to Friday before and after work. At the weekend, my reward for the study was to hour build. Check out my structured hour building app if you have not already!
If I had not had the hour building (in my case breaks) there is no way I would have lasted and had the motivation to get up at 4:30 am each morning before work to study. Find your groove and do what you need to do.
Before trying to learn any subject, you need to understand it fully. It is much easier to commit to memory if you understand the material.
The Feynman technique is based on 1) digest a new concept 2) try and explain the information to someone with no knowledge of the subject. 3) see where your gaps are 4) Revisit the material. Repeat.
Trying to explain a complicated subject in a simple way to someone who has no connection with the material is a good test of your understanding and ability to simplify a subject.
Learning styles and memory techniques
Auditory, Visual (look at something then try and reproduce it without looking, flashcard etc.). Spaced practised is practising and re-doing what you learnt. My ATPL study was a combination of visual and spaced practice (ATPL questions).
These are fine, but you are using very little of your mental ability actually to commit stuff to memory and, in turn, not the most efficient.
Picking the right school for your ATPL theory
Many of the problems in ATPL theory originate from the course not being suitable to the persons’ situation or learning habits. For example, you have someone who struggles to stick to routine study trying to do their ATPL online course via distance learning.
It won’t work. Or you have someone that prefers to work on their own stuck in a classroom with 15-20 other students daydreaming most of the day. Figure out the type of course that works best for you and your circumstance.
I did my ATPL exams in the UK via distance learning with CATS aviation as I was constrained by needing to work a full-time job. Others may find a full-time course is more appropriate. There is no perfect ATPL theory school. Some schools have more intensive brush up classes.
So, if for example you are from a non-technical background and have been out of education for a while, you will probably need a more intensive teacher-led environment.
I had been working as a chartered engineer for around 10years before starting my ATPLs and on the back of an Aerospace university degree, so, I thought I could figure most things out myself. I still definitely needed the brush-up classes for the areas I was struggling (grid NAV!).
Again – do what works best for you.
In your budgeting, don’t forget to account for accommodation, exam fees and brush up classes. Add around £2k to the advertised price if these items are not already included.
ATPL Study material and being ready for exams
No school has the perfect material. There will always be gaps that have to be filled either through other sources or brush-ups. Some schools have better material than others. When picking a school, see what the advertised price includes.
With the competitive nature of ATPL theory classes, some schools like to advertise prices to catch your eye only for you to realise down the road that brush up classes are extra.
Do your research. Make use of the forums online for exam feedback. They are amazing and absolutely saved me for a couple of subjects – ATPL questions that come up that you would have no chance of answering unless you knew to study that specific subject which may be on the ‘edge’ of what is considered in the syllabus.
In line with your ATPL planning, set goals working backwards, for what you need to achieve each day, each week, each month. Also set gates that you need to achieve before sitting an exam. One of mine was 6 weeks before the exam, all the study material had to be covered and understood. I would then spend the final 6 weeks on question banking, getting my speed up and covering weak areas.
If I was ahead of my 6-week marker then I would pull the exam forward. If was behind, I would delay the exam. About a week before, my gate was for the ATPL question bank to have been repeated 2-3 times and scoring 90%+ consistently.
By the way, I found both ATPL GS and Bristol questions banks superb. If I was behind, I would delay the exam. There is no need to rush and sit exams before you are ready. Exams are expensive enough as they are, and all the added emotional stress of confidence issues that arise with a fail result. If you are not ready, delay the exam.
That said, I don’t think anyone ever goes into an exam feeling 100% confident. There is a difference though between that and going into an exam knowing you don’t understand the material and have not done enough work.
We are deep into the COVID 19 crisis, and although difficult to believe, cadet recruitment will restart – one day. Who knows when that will be? You can guarantee though that places will be extremely competitive. Try not to put yourself on the backfoot with multiple ATPL resits.
Getting the most from ATPL exams brush up classes
My ATPL theory brush up with CATS consisted of 4 days for each of the 3 modules. This was perfect for me, as I had to be efficient with my annual leave from work. I needed to save my holiday days for CPL, MEIR and MCC courses.
Whoever you choose for your ATPL and brush up classes, that time alone is nowhere near enough to cover all the material in full.
You have to go to the brush ups knowing where your weak areas are having already completed the study material and made a good amount of progress with the question banks. Approaching the brush up classes hoping to ‘learn’ is suicide. Irrespective of provider, there is simply not enough time, to teach you all the material from scratch. Brush ups are basically a problem-solving session.
With the intensity of ATPLs, it is essential to find activities that allow you to disconnect and have a proper break completely. Mine was at the weekend hour building, and that worked well. Find your own chill-out thing.
For motivation, I used to listen to Eric Thomas on YouTube. He is such an incredible motivational speaker; it is impossible not to get energised!
Are pilot exams hard?
If you work hard and put the effort in, then pilot exams are very manageable and can be passed comfortably. The flying school and Civil Aviation Authorities want you to pass the pilot exams – so it is up to you to put the hard work in!
ATPL theory/ ATPL exams and Brexit?
This is a tricky one in terms of which school to choose. Some schools have been awarded by EASA the possibility to deliver ATPL Theory to EASA syllabus remotely. Check with your prospective school on how that is going and how long the overlap will last during the transition period. Things are changing all the time.
If interested in learning more about how best to navigate the remaining stages of you your flight training journey, check out my Best Selling Pilot Training Guide on Amazon
Do you have any questions or thoughts on ATPL exams? I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment in the section below!
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.