When Is the Best Time To Take the Test?

Variable test center availability makes it more challenging.

When you take your knowledge exam, you should know how to use a mechanical E6-B because some testing centers will not allow an electronic one. [Credit: Shutterstock]

Did you take a written test or knowledge exam for your private pilot certification? What is the difference, you ask? 

The written test was completed using a pencil on a paper exam form. You wrote in or circled the correct answer on the answer sheet. By the early 1990s, you were using a number 2 pencil to fill in bubbles on an answer sheet. By the late 1990s, the only writing you did when you reported for the test was signing in and out of the testing center—everything else was done on the computer—yet pilots still persist in calling it the 'written test'.

Modern Challenges

In the early 2000s, it was fairly easy to find a testing center, as you had a choice of companies offering the exams including Lasergrade and Certified Activity Tracking Service (CATS). These days, the knowledge tests are supplied by one company: PSI Service Inc. A few years ago, PSI, a worldwide company, acquired the other test providers, creating a monopoly.

Before 2022, many FBOs and flight schools offered knowledge tests as a convenience to their clients. This took some effort and resources on the part of the businesses. There needed to be a room and computers used exclusively for testing and the business needed to have employees trained to administer (proctor) the tests. These employees had to be over the age of 21.

The test costs the applicant $175. The FBOs and schools, as third-party vendors, received $65 of that. As of January 1, PSI changed the vendor compensation rate, reducing it to $22 per test. FLYING has heard from several third-party providers who decided to stop offering the service because the compensation from PSI did not cover the cost of providing the tests.

To Find a Testing Center

Finding a testing center involves going on to the PSI website and searching for the nearest testing center—and nearest is a relative term. In some cases, the nearest testing center is several hours away by car. 

It can be challenging to juggle work and family commitments to take the time to get to and from the testing center, be it by car or air—and for the latter it might also involve the cost of renting an airplane and paying an instructor to fly with you if you are pre-solo. There is the added cost of fuel and perhaps even a hotel room on top of the $175 for the test fee.

Plan for the Exam

Please don't just show up at the testing center without an appointment, because the exam must be downloaded from PSI, and sometimes this can take a few days to set up. You may have to work around the testing site schedule—for example, they may only offer tests on Saturdays.

You will need to bring a government-issued photo identification, such as your driver's license, along with proof you are ready for the test. This can take the form of a certificate of graduation from a pilot training course conducted by an FAA-approved pilot school, ground study course, or an agency such as a high school, college, adult education program, the Civil Air Patrol, or an ROTC Flight Training Program. Alternatively, a certificate of graduation from a home-study course developed by the aeronautical enterprise providing the study material will work, such as Gold Seal, King Schools, or Sporty's.

You can also present an endorsement from an FAA-certificated ground or flight instructor, certifying that you have satisfactorily completed the required ground instruction. The verbiage for the endorsement is found in Advisory Circular 61-65: Aeronautical Knowledge Test: FAR 61.35(a)(1), 61.103(d), and 61.105.

Remember both the graduation certificate and the endorsement are good for 60 days—pro tip: as soon as you get the endorsement/graduation certificate, make an appointment with the testing center. Those 60 days can run out mighty quickly.

If it is an option, you might want to go into the test armed with both the graduation/completion certificate and an endorsement from your CFI. I say this because I have heard stories from CFIs in the field whose learners were (incorrectly) denied the opportunity to take the test because the testing center proctor wouldn't accept a graduation or completion certificate from the ground school. Sadly, this isn't the only issue you can encounter at third-party test centers.

You may have heard stories about people who arrived at the testing center only to learn that they could not take the test that day because of a power outage, the person who proctors the test not being there, a mix-up in the applicant's test date (which means the test was not downloaded), and so on. It pays to call a day in advance and double-check that your test will be waiting for you. Make sure to get the name of the person you are speaking with at the test center just in case things go sideways. You may find that the person you spoke with was just there to answer phones and had no knowledge of the actual test procedures.

Mistakes can happen face-to-face too. I've heard from instructors who claim their applicants were not permitted to use their electronic E6-B flight computer during the test, and they were handed a mechanical one that belonged to the test center. This isn't supposed to happen. 

Electronic E6-Bs are permitted for use. The learners have to turn them on, then turn them off to demonstrate they have not preloaded the answers. Please note you will not be allowed to use an E6-B app on your smartphone, so don't even go there. Phones must be left at the front counter or in your car. (By the way, if you have to use a mechanical E6-B, don't panic. The instructions for use of the device to solve calculations are printed on the device.)

When Should You Take the Test?

In Part 141 aviation programs, it is not uncommon for learners to take the test at the conclusion of ground school although their check ride is weeks or months away. If flight training and ground classes are completed concurrently, the learners are usually well-established in their flight training when they finish private pilot ground school.

If the learner has not begun their flight training when they take the exam, it starts the clock. The test results are good for 24 calendar months. That may seem like plenty of time until you run into issues with weather or aircraft, instructor and designated pilot examiner availability. It's frustrating (and expensive) to have to retake the exam.

There are many CFIs who advocate that the learner not take the knowledge exam until just before the check ride so the knowledge is fresh in their minds. Others insist the learner pass the knowledge test before they are permitted to embark on solo cross-country flights. The reason? Airspace recognition and entry requirements, aircraft performance, airport procedures, weight and balance, and knowledge of weather are all covered on the knowledge test. 

When your CFI signs you off for a solo cross-country, they are certifying that to the best of their knowledge, you have the aptitude and skill to perform the flight. Having passed the knowledge test can also give the learner confidence as they know more about the aviation environment and what is expected of them procedurally.

Tips for Taking the Test

1. Before you drop the cash for the official test, take practice exams on the computer until the day of the exam. Note 'soft spots'. These are the questions and topics that you have trouble with. Discuss them with your instructor.

2. At the testing center, you should be given a copy of the FAA Knowledge Testing Supplement. You can download it off the FAA website—look for FAA-CT-8080-2H. Use it for practice, but you won't be allowed to use it in the testing center. Note that the distance scales on the sectional excerpts in the supplement do not match the scales on your mechanical E6-B or plastic plotter, which is confusing as you are asked to bring the latter with you as well. Make a scale using the piece of scratch paper the test proctor supplies you with.

3. Taking a 60-question exam in one sitting can feel like a daunting task. Most practice test providers (for example: Sporty's) allow you to customize practice tests, for example, 10 questions per session for starters. You can organize the tests by topic, for example, take a test that is all air space or systems questions if those are your weak areas. Take advantage of this.

4. Do not take the exam until you score 90 and above three times in a row on 60-question practice tests the week of the real exam. It is true that the minimum passing score is 70, but I will say, based on 21-plus years experience as a ground instructor, I have noticed that most people lose 10 points when they walk in the door of the test center—ergo, go in over-prepared. Also, your check ride will be predicated in part by the soft spots indicated by the questions you got wrong on the knowledge exam. The better the test score, the better your check ride experience is likely to be.

5. During the exam, read the questions silently to yourself twice, moving your lips. I know this seems contrary to the way most of us were taught to read. However, it makes your brain slow down, which gives you a better chance of understanding the question.

6. If you have to guess an answer, remember that first guesses are often the correct ones.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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