[I wrote this somewhat long response to a question on a mailing list. I'm sharing it here in case it will help anyone else.]
First, don't pick up a radio until you've passed your test. It will be a distraction that will keep you from studying. Plus, you are more
likely to become frustrated with an un-programmed radio with no idea what frequencies to check for activity. Amateur radio doesn't really
have channels to flip through.
As far as passing the test, two ends of the spectrum have been mentioned
so far, memorizing "flash cards" vs. reading the ARRL book cover to cover.
The first and second level exams are 35 question multiple-choice tests
covering a bit of rules/regulations, operations practice, and a little
bit of theory. The complete set of questions that your 35 will be
drawn from are published. The question pool changes every four years
and is freely available for download.
A fair number of the questions require memorization. For example
there are questions about what frequencies you can operate on.
Once the material starts to sink in there will be more stuff that
you just know because you understand it and not because you've memorized
it, but being able to remember the frequencies remains.
The best way to prepare for your test depends on your goals and how
you learn best. If you like to read and want to learn, then reading
the whole ARRL technician license guide (cover to cover) might be best
for you. Ideally, you want the most recent edition from 2014, that includes
the new technician question pool that went into effect July 1, 2014.
If you want something a little more condensed and/or free, several people
take the question pools and publish study guides with additional info
to help you prepare for the test. KB6NU makes his "No-Nonsense Study Guides"
available in PDF here: (Technician and General are free)
There are plenty of other resources including some audio podcasts that
review the material for the test. (There are probably lots of youtube
videos as well, I haven't looked.)
The site that was previously mentioned hamexam.org is a great free place to review "flash cards" for the entire pool or take practice tests. It will keep track of what questions you've answered correctly.
Go ahead, try some of the questions cold. If you are a good multiple choice test taker with a bit of a technology background you might get half the questions right without studying. The tests are not that
hard. You can get 9 questions wrong and still pass the 35 question test.
There are several places locally where you can take the test. There is a test session at Columbia University usually on the third Monday of every month. The next one is December 15th, which gives you plenty of time to study .
Many other test sessions can be found on the ARRL's site. (Note: there may be exams offered by organizations that aren't affiliated with the ARRL that won't be listed there, like one of the clubs in Brooklyn.)
Finally preparing for the test won't give you everything you need to know to be an effective radio operator. However it's an important hurdle to just get over. Once it's out of the way, there are plenty
of people who can help with all the practical "Radio 101" to fill in all the gaps.
Hope This Helps,