The easiest pathway to success on the oral portion of any check ride is to first thoroughly read and understand the FAA standard for certification. These are FREE online and fairly succinct. These standards represent the FAA required “rules of engagement” that your DPE must follow by regulation (check out this FAA guidance intended for DPEs for a peek behind the curtain). CFI and student should both know this document before even starting training but it becomes essential to understand in detail approaching the test. Unfortunately, this document is often missed and many applicants come totally unprepared; “that’s on the test?”
Many test applicants believe that FAA examiners can make up their own subjects/questions or that they use the commercially prepared test guide. (I recently had one applicant who was righteously wounded because I did not use the oral prep book for the test) Step one in preparation is thoroughly studying the correct book – the FAA ACS – and use this standard to decode and prepare for every area of operation and element. Carefully reading this and outlining the basic regs and requirements that create these standards will make your oral easy.
Step two requires a solid basis of knowledge to work from. A good ground school is necessary to become a solid, safe pilot and pass any flight test. A few “How to YouTubes” are not going to save you on an FAA oral. The FAA Knowledge Test is also not sufficient preparation. If you missed the ground school or only did a knowledge test prep, the Gleim Practical Test study guide provides a thorough outline format for preparation with knowledge components for each A/O and element. Either way, take the information from your studies (hopefully the PHAK and AFM) and apply these to each A/O and element in the ACS. The FAA books are the listed references in the ACS (Gleim and others curricula get their information from these primary sources) Familiarity with this core information will make your evaluation an easy discussion rather than a suffering slog. I know this sounds intensive but this thorough preparation is also an investment for the rest of your piloting career (you really do need to know this stuff to be safe). All future flying depends on the private level preparation and every A/O and element mastered here will merely be elaborated more deeply during your advanced training.
Step three requires actually discussing and verbalizing all this material with someone; hopefully your CFI but potentially even a pilot friend; this is HUGE. Just quietly studying “in your head” is not enough. It is vital to actually talk through the subject matter and hear yourself say all the answers. I have seen absolutely brilliant people thoroughly self-study and “know it all” internally, but choke on test day. Something about the stress and also the unique verbal experience will cause them to lock up and lose focus. As soon as they experience a few variations and surprises from scenarios and context it destroys their confidence. To build this confidence, it is essential to discuss and probe the subjects verbally with someone else. Also, you cannot really surprise yourself while studying, and you can’t always know what you don’t know.
Step four is to discover and improve your weak areas especially those on the knowledge test. It is required that the DPE review the missed knowledge test questions). Work harder on these to attain proficiency and outline them in extra depth. Though no oral evaluation is “failed” for one misstep or bobbled answer, a pattern of ignorance or many weak areas leads to a “pink slip.” For initial CFIs, this list from the ORL FSDO has some popular “common weak errors” on the oral.
Step five is almost the opposite of steps three and four. Instead of a hot focus on the specific problem areas, step five requires a wider focusing on the whole planned trip assigned by the examiner. Assemble all the pieces together into the bigger picture. Comprehensively “chair fly” the whole assigned cross-country and analyze your risks and mitigation strategies according to the P-A-V-E checklist. Per the ACS, judgment and risk management are critical pilot skills. A risk mitigation plan is required by the ACS. One good technique that adds your study items into the bigger picture, is to compare your own personal minimums against the FAA regulatory minimums (as in scary low 1 sm clear of clouds) and explain your margin of safety. All FAA testing is at the level of application and correlation (describe and explain). You need to demonstrate a comfortable command of the information and rote recitation is not sufficient.
Step six requires allowing enough time to take a day off before the scheduled evaluation and just organize all your documents and endorsements for the evaluation so your initial part meeting and “qualification” goes smoothly. First impressions count and you need to be organized and well-rested with a fully-functioning brain to do well. Use the list in the ACS and check each item (asking your CFI if you have any doubts). Double-check your endorsements (AC 61.65H) and remember every initial test needs a 61.39 signoff and all retests need a 61.49 version. Every CFI should have the SAFE CFI Toolkit App to make this easy and efficient. There is a dedicated Checkride Ready!™ section on the app specifically aimed at private, instrument and commercial.
These strategies are not just for test-taking are also valuable for analyzing any future flight operation: know the big picture, gather data and study/analyze the background; examine the components, rehearse and elaborate, then allow time to practice employing a changing focus from micro to macro. Finally, find and mitigate the risks and develop alternate plans. Fly SAFE out there (and often).
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