The pathway to a Private Pilot certificate includes many training requirements, including ground school, in-airplane flight training, and a few FAA tests. While it’s the time in the air with your instructor that makes the experience magical, there will be an equal amount of time studying on the ground in preparation for each lesson and for the required tests.
The first test you will take is the FAA Knowledge Test, consisting of 65 multiple-choice questions completed on a computer at an official PSI testing center (five are considered validation questions so only 60 of the questions are scored).
This will test your understanding of the ground and flight topics covered during your home study and training at the airport. You must earn a minimum score of 70% to pass.
You can take this test at any point in your training but our general recommendation is to focus on the written test after your first solo flight and when you’re in the cross-country flying phase of your training. You must receive an endorsement to take the test which can come from a CFI or a home study system like Sporty’s Learn to Fly Course.
I’ve been preparing students for FAA knowledge tests for more than 20 years as a flight instructor and have seen many changes to the test as the FAA continuously updates the focus and content of its questions.
Much of this is for the better as the questions on the test today seem to cover more practical flying topics as opposed to those questions requiring rote memorization of less relevant training topics.
The challenge for students, however, is a lack of transparency from the FAA on what you will see on the test, creating a moving target scenario for the flight training industry.
The old way to study
When I learned to fly 25 years ago, the FAA published the complete set of all questions that appeared on the test, which led to an over-reliance on rote memorization. For example, you could memorize the correct numerical value of a takeoff distance question and answer it on the test without reading the question text.
By the late 2000s, the FAA stopped releasing all the questions to the public and started writing “parallel” questions. This eliminated the ability to memorize just the answers, but the test composition remained the same and the test was not an accurate indicator of real-world pilot knowledge.
In 2016, the FAA transitioned from the older Practical Test Standards (PTS) to the new Airman Certification Standards (ACS) to create a common standard for both the knowledge test and the practical test (checkride). To accompany this change, new questions were added and existing questions were aligned with the specific Elements listed with each Task in the ACS.
To help instructors and students keep up with changes to the test, the FAA regularly published a newsletter titled “What’s new and upcoming in airman testing,” which included specifics on new topics that were added to the test and old material they were retiring. This provided a good middle ground between the old days of publishing all the questions and pointing someone to the vastness of the ACS to help focus their study.
Unfortunately, for unknown reasons, the FAA discontinued this newsletter in December 2021 and now provides no meaningful guidance on question topics that are added or removed from the test.
The new way to study
Currently, the only updates we receive on new content added to the knowledge test come from student feedback. To be clear, we (Sporty’s) and the aviation industry are not looking for the FAA to publish the specific questions added throughout the year, but rather some general information on the topics of newly added questions (e.g., ADS-B, stabilized approaches, slow flight, etc.).
To make things more confusing, the FAA began publishing a document called “Airman Testing Community Advisory” with some general information on the status of airman testing and FAA handbook publication schedules, but the guidance has been vague regarding knowledge tests.
You will also find a 60-question Private Pilot sample test on the PSI testing website, but most of these questions haven’t changed for many years, with just a few new questions added, making this an ineffective resource.
If there’s a silver lining to the lack of transparency, the general feedback from students is that the new content is focused on practical flying topics like airport operations, flight maneuvers, and takeoffs and landings. I believe this is the right direction for the knowledge test and provides a more practical link between real-world flight training and what is being tested.
With all of this in mind, I’ve changed my advice to students on preparing for the test. Instead of focusing on the knowledge test as a standalone task, preparation should be incorporated into the student’s comprehensive training plan. Twenty years ago, I recommended students purchase a dedicated test prep book or software program, but today that does more of a disservice.
The best approach is to start with a comprehensive personal study system, focusing on ground school and flight training topics like Sporty’s Learn to Fly Course. The 15 hours of in-flight video lessons and interactive scenarios will help you understand the “why” of how things work in aviation and not just the “what.”
These personal study sessions, combined with the lessons at the airport with your instructor, will provide a solid foundation to prepare you for the FAA tests and be a well-rounded and knowledgeable Private Pilot.
When it comes time to focus on the knowledge test towards the latter half of your training schedule, you’ll find a dedicated test preparation section in Sporty’s Learn to Fly Course. Here you can choose from one of several study modes and select categories of questions to get familiar with the test questions.
When you answer a question, the course provides instant feedback, a detailed topic explanation, and a link to specific FAA reference material for additional studying. This helps to make the study process a learning experience rather than just memorizing answers. You’ll also find lots of performance analytics after you start to build your study history, highlighting your strengths and weaknesses.
Another recent improvement in the course is that the 1,000+ questions in Sporty’s test question database were recently recategorized to align with the Areas of Operations and Tasks in the Private Pilot Airman Certification Standards. This allows you to use the course more consistently and study both video lessons and test prep sessions using the ACS as your guide.
After completing the video training, and when you feel comfortable with the questions from your study sessions, you can take a Practice Test in the course to gauge your readiness for the real thing. The practice tests are generated using the same combination of questions from each ACS Area of Operation as outlined in PSI’s Applicant Information Bulletin to make it as realistic as possible. After completing two practice tests with a minimum score of 80%, the course will generate your official endorsement to take the test.
The key takeaway from all of this is that the days of only studying sample test questions simply won’t work anymore. Because the FAA continues to add new questions without notice, it takes a more organized and comprehensive studying approach to ensure you’re truly ready for both the test and your everyday lessons.
By studying all of the lessons, videos, knowledge test prep, and checkride prep features in Sporty’s Learn to Fly Course, you’ll feel confident in your ability to ace all the tests and start on the right foot as a well-rounded Private Pilot after the checkride.
Ready to get started? Check out a demo of Sporty’s Learn to Fly Course here.