Smash Your 14 ATPL Exams: How to stay motivated

ATPL exams were genuinely the hardest I have ever worked. At times it felt like they would never end! Check out my best selling Pilot Training Guide on Amazon for the best advice on how to pass your ATPL exams.

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I saw the question of “How to stay motivated during ATPL exams?” on the  Facebook ATPL Theory Students page. Not that long ago, I remember opening my first delivery consignment of module 1 distance learning books from CATS Aviation one sunny August afternoon.

Looking back, I had a sense of joy and excitement to be starting on this journey – finally.

Fast forward eight months later, I had managed to complete all 14 ATPL subjects with first time passes in all subjects around what was a challenging and busy full-time engineering job in 8months via distance learning. I was a changed man by the end of my EASA ATPL exams!

In this blog post, I’ll share what I learnt and some of the problems I had to overcome to allow you to have a smoother ride in achieving your goal.

Going back to my experience, the first hurdle wether you are distance learning or full time is you will need to organise your study and part of that is also relearning how to study if you have been out of education for some time. 

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 on Skillshare – Skillshare is running an offer at the moment for 2 weeks FREE.

In the class, I share my study techniques of how I completed my ATPL exams in just 8 months whilst juggling a full-time engineering job (and hour building at the weekends)!

How to study effectively
How to study effectively

See the class here

14 ATPL Theory Exams

Before I share some of the steps that helped me during the EASA 14 ATPL theoretical exams, part of the trick in successful ATPL exams lies in selecting the right course to suit your specific set of circumstances.

Distance learning may be a struggle if you are not disciplined and full-time course may be restrictive for those trying to balance ATPLs around full-time work. Think carefully about which course you choose.

Prerequisites for your ATPL theory course

I did my EASA ATPL Exams with CATS aviation and the prerequisite was that you had to hold an ICAO PPL licence. Check with your specific course provider to see what the prerequisites are.

Although not always mentioned, make sure your maths and physics are at GCSE level as being weak in this area will cause you difficulty when attacking your 14 ATPL theoretical exams. This will affect your motivation.

14 ATPL Exams subjects and individual ATPL exam difficulty:

A lot of your success or failure of the EASA 14 ATPL exams will hinge on balancing the workload and sequence with which you do the exams. Your school will have recommended modules and will group certain subjects.

See what works best for you. I tended to stick closely with my schools EASA 14 ATPL exam sequence and module arrangement. Some people chopped and changed, but I would have struggled.

Air Law

Duration: 1hour

Number of Questions: 44

Relative Difficulty: Medium

Operation Procedures

Duration: 1 hour 45 mins

Number of Questions: 45

Relative difficulty: Medium

Human Performance and Limitations

Duration: 1 hour

Number of Questions: 48

Relative Difficulty: Medium


Duration: 2 hours

Number of Questions: 84

Relative Difficulty: Medium – Hard

VFR Communications

Duration: 30mins

Number of Questions: 24

Relative Difficulty: Easy

IFR Communications

Duration: 30mins

Number of Questions: 24

Relative Difficulty: Easy

Principles of Flight

Duration: 1 hour

Number of Questions: 44

Relative Difficulty: Medium – Hard

General Navigation

Duration: 2 hours

Number of Questions: 60

Relative Difficulty: Medium – Hard

Mass and Balance

Duration: 1 hour

Number of Questions: 25

Relative Difficulty: Easy – Medium


Duration: 1 hour

Number of Questions: 35

Relative Difficulty: Medium – Hard

Flight Planning and Monitoring

Duration: 2 hours

Number of Questions: 43

Relative Difficulty: Hard

Radio Navigation

Duration: 1 hour 30mins

Number of Questions: 66

Relative Difficulty: Easy – Medium

Aircraft General Knowledge – Airframes/ Systems/ Power Plant/ Electrics

Duration: 2 hours

Number of Questions: 80

Relative Difficulty: Easy – Medium

Aircraft General Knowledge – Instrumentation

Duration: 1 hour 30 mins

Number of Questions: 60

Relative Difficulty: Medium

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Step 1: Set time aside for ATPL exam study

For me, having to study around my job, my study routine was an evolving process. I started by studying in the evening as I was sat in front of the television for a few hours each night. That seemed the logical thing to do with the wordy subjects (MET, OPS etc.).

That is the beauty of ATPL online theory – or so I thought! I was kidding myself that I would be able to spend time with my partner and study in the evenings. This was ok-ish, but to be honest, it was inefficient, and id often find myself going over the same sentence over and over again.

It took a few weeks to realise, but the first big eureka moment for me was the realisation that if you are going to study, then, unfortunately, you have to hunker down and find a good study location away from distractions.

Step 2: Get rid of distractions

ATPLs are a painful process, and I found it made a huge difference to set aside a dedicated period and smash through with minimal distractions – phones off, no interruptions etc.

It is much better to do a quality 1 or 2 hours solid compared to loosing have a day studying but not really studying and generally procrastinating.

Once you have a good workspace and are in the groove, you will fell like you are making progress through the material, and that again with increase and reinforce your motivation to keep going.

Step 3: Plan your study around your day

In my case, I had a full-time job, so one of the things I realised early on was that I was much more effective in the morning than I was in the evenings. To get through, I would set my alarm initially for 5 am each weekday and study a few hours before work.

You will need to figure out what works best for you. That gave 2 benefits – I got the study ‘out of the way early’ and very few people are up a 4-5 am to cause a distraction! With CATS aviation, I was on an ATPL online course for the second module (rather than buying the books), so I would take my iPad into work and during my lunch break I would do some study.

To manage your time, try and find gaps during your day that would otherwise be wasted as 10mins here, 20mins there doing ATPL questions soon adds up and can make all the difference.

Step 4: Plan your rest and breaks- You will get tired and fed up, and it is perfectly ok to feel like that

Getting adequate breaks and rest day-to-day is super important so that you do not burn out. Short term what worked for me was I’d do 40minute bursts of study and then pause to make a cup of tea or empty the dishwasher or anything else you can think of for a brief break!

ATPLs are a slog, and it is so important to get enough sleep so again, try and plan your days accordingly. For me, I just accepted that I could not have any late nights, go out at the weekends etc, so by 8:30 pm most nights I would be in bed ready to go again the following day. 

Longer-term, week to week, month to month, you need to make sure you have a chance to pause and reset. What worked well for me during my Modular ATPL program was I would study ATPL during the week, and then at the weekends I would do NO STUDY and spend my time hour building. (In case you missed it, check out my structured hour building web app/ checklist).


The pause from studying and hour building added some context to (let’s be honest) some of the dry ATPL material (I was ready to give up on life after the fourth time going through the ATPL question bank!) and also gave me something to look forward to each week.

Come Monday morning; I was refreshed and ready to hit the books again.


The flying also pushed me along as I knew that I needed to get the ATPLs done to be able to start CPL/ MIER too. I appreciate you may not be able to go flying every weekend.

Still, if the forecast looked rubbish as is sometimes the case – I never let those weekend days go to waste, and I’d use those stormy weekend to catch up on a fair few missed drinks with friends (and party) as I was generally not able to. Occasional as it was, being able to let off some steam from time to time made a massive difference for me. 

Step 5: Get a community going

Doing my ATPLs distance learning, it felt quite lonely and isolating at times. It was good to have the brush-up classes to help meet others who were going through the same struggles. If you are on a full-time course, that is less of an issue, but in any case, camaraderie is a good thing!

Step 6: Use all the resources

The exams are evolving, as is the syllabus. Use all the available resources to you e.g. ATPL GS, ATPL study guides, forums with your ground school provider, social media etc. to connect and get the latest information.

A friend of mine saved me by showing me the most recent feedback from other students who had recently sat airlaw. Without that feedback, I would have 100% failed the exam, so make use of feedback, but also share what info that you come across. 

Step 7: make sure you celebrate and pause

This is key for when things go well and also when they do not. Be sure to take some time out when you can.

Step 8: You will have ups and downs, and that is fine

I had days when the study was easy, and I’d smash through 3 hours each day consistently no probs. I had other days where it was a grind, and I had no interest and wanted to give up.

Find something close to you that you can draw on – I used to listen to Eric Thomas (Motivational speaker) on YouTube.

That helped. I used to follow certain people on Instagram who were pilots, and that would allow me to dig deep and remind myself ATPL exams are just a means to an end. Family is also a massive help – use all the resources available to you.

General thoughts on ATPL Exams & study materials

Check out my ATPL study guide for specific exam technique but for now, as you plan your ATPL exams one of the tips I would advise is to set gates for when you plan to sit your ATPL exams. One of my ‘gates’ was that 6 weeks prior to my exam sitting, all the material had to be complete and covered cleaning the way for me to hit the question banks.

1 week before the exam, I would want to have completed the question bank a few time and be scoring 90-95% consistently during ATPL question practice. If I was not at this stage, I would delay the exam. If I was ahead I would bring the exam forward.

For ATPL study material, I used the CATS Aviation EASA 14 ATPL exam course material and their question bank. I also augmented my study with the Bristol Ground School question bank. The last seen questions were also a huge focus of mine as I got closer to the exam.

There are excellent question banks like atplGS which are great for remaining up to speed with the top 200 questions.

For those interested in learning more about the pilot training journey after the 14 ATPL exams, checkout my Pilot Training Guide on Amazon.

Listen to the Pilot Training Guide FREE with Audible here

See it on Amazon

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the ATPL Theory exams validity?

Source: EASA Annex 1 – Part FCL

(1) The successful completion of the theoretical knowledge examinations will be valid:

(i) for the issue of a light aircraft pilot licence, a private pilot licence, a sailplane pilot licence or a balloon pilot licence, for a period of 24 months;

(ii) for the issue of a commercial pilot licence, instrument rating (IR) or en route instrument rating (EIR), for a period of 36 months;

(iii) the periods in (i) and (ii) shall be counted from the day when the pilot successfully completes the theoretical knowledge examination, in accordance with (b)(2).

(2) The completion of the airline transport pilot licence (ATPL) theoretical knowledge examinations will remain valid for the issue of an ATPL for a period of 7 years from the last validity date of:

(i) an IR entered in the licence; or
(ii) in the case of helicopters, a helicopter’s type rating entered in that licence.

I would love to hear your thoughts on how you found your ATPL exams & ATPL Theory. Please leave a comment in the section below!

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