The Written (Knowledge) Test
Passing the written (aka knowledge) test is a requirement before you are qualified to take your checkride. It’s also one of the last things that many pilots do prior to their checkride (though I prefer it not be). The test for private pilot airplane consists of 60 multiple choice questions; you must correctly answer 70% (42) of the questions within the allotted 2.5 hours. I suggest that a score above 85% is a more desirable target. Doing that requires some preparation.
I also suggest that pilots read the Appendices in the Airmen Certification Standards related to Knowledge Test. These describe the requirements to take the test, the areas and numbers of questions, and overall gives the FAA’s hints for taking the test.
The first step in preparation for the written test is learning the basic material. The best place to start is reading the majority (there are sections on jets or helicopters that can be skipped) of whatever book you chose (usually the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge); I recommend you start reading as you start your flight training and commit to reading a chapter or section every week. Once you’ve read the book, it’s time to start test preparation. I suggest a goal of being ready to take your written test at least a month before your checkride. For most student pilots, that means starting serious test prep soon after your first solo flight.
Preparing for the FAA written test is similar to preparing for any standardized test, like the SAT or GMAT. You want to
- Become familiar with the types of questions you’ll encounter
- Find your areas of weakness and work on them
- Ensure that you are as ready as possible when you take the test
In preparation for the test, you have a number of options (and may choose to employ one or all of them):
- Test prep books from Gleim, ASA and others
- Test prep software or apps from Gleim, ASA, Sporty’s and others
- Online practice tests – I suggest Sporty’s free test prep site
Taking the test
As of 2015, there are two different national vendors for the FAA written tests:
- CATS (Computer Assisted Testing Service) ($150 – offer a $10 AOPA discount)
- PSI/Lasergrade ($165 – offer a $10 discount to AOPA and EAA members)
Which vendor you choose will generally be driven by costs and convenience/location.
As of the writing, the only testing site at El Monte, is Universal Air Academy; they’re a testing site for Lasergrade. I’ve found their schedule availability to be random, so call to inquire (and be skeptical of assurances that you can just come in whenever you like). I’ve most recently taken written tests at Vista Aviation at Whiteman Airport, which is a CATS test center and seems to be easier to schedule, but a bit of a drive.
The cost for taking the written test is now $140-165, so you see you want to make sure you pass. In order to take the test, you will also need to present photo ID (foreign students need their passport AND other ID) and an endorsement from your instructor indicating that you are ready for the test (or completion certificate from a ground school or other specific study course).
When you show up to take your test, realize that you may not take in anything but your E-6B, plotter, and pencils. Leave your cell phone in your car or at home, otherwise you will need to leave it with the test proctor. Expect to take half an hour in paperwork and organization before you’ll actually be ready to take your test. While you may be able to take a break during the test, I suggest planning food/drink/bathroom so that you don’t need a break.
Once you have completed the test, the test proctor will print out your test certificate, showing your score, a test id, and special codes indicating the areas of questions you missed. You’ll also be shown what questions you missed, but will not be allowed to write notes down (try to remember and write it down soon thereafter). Don’t lose the test certificate – it can be difficult to replace; your instructor will need a copy of test certificate in order to prepare your application for your checkride. I ask that my students scan the certificate to a pdf and email it to me.