Future Fellows - June 2001
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The Secret to Passing Exams
By By Shantelle Johnson, Student Liaison Committee

Got your attention, didn't I?   

In an attempt to help all exam candidates, I asked seven CAS Fellows who passed their exams fairly quickly   to share their tips for staying motivated, studying efficiently, and rewarding exam success. Some of their advice   is practical, some of it is obvious, and some of it is just plain weird. To protect those who supplied the weird advice,   I will keep them all anonymous. The Fellows I spoke with completed their exams within four to eight years of   entering the actuarial field full-time. Here's what they had to say.

Study Habits, Study Techniques, and Scheduling Advice

  • I would always schedule a week vacation about four or five weeks before the exam and not study for a whole week. This made it easier to get started early, knowing it would allow me to take some time off about the time I knew I would start to be sick to death of studying.

  • Practice past exam questions; pace yourself; don't worry about how others study.

  • I'm not a crammer like others, so I knew I had to start pretty early and keep to a schedule. Lots of late nights. I found I reverted back to a college schedule, staying up real late. Unlike college though, I actually had to get up in the morning.   

  • Notecards, notecards, and more notecards. It is also important to maintain a good diet and get some exercise.

  • Routine worked best for me. Just like exercising, or establishing some new habit, I needed to just set up a routine and not let myself deviate from it early on. While painful at first, I got used to going to the same place, the same time, and it didn't seem so hard to do after a while.   

  • Mountain Dew is key.

Tips or Tricks

  • In my case I did not own a TV while I took the exams, and this made it a lot easier to keep from spending time I couldn't afford watching TV.

  • I had just completed my MBA prior to entering the actuarial field and, honestly, that was a big advantage.

  • I found that getting rubber bands stuck in the fluorescent lights was a wonderful break time activity.

  • Don't waste time thinking about having to study or figuring out ways not to study. I did reward myself for studying—like getting up early and getting the time in so that I could play a little in the afternoon or evening. Find what time works best for you and just do it (to steal an overused phrase).

  • Studying in a place that's free of distraction is key. Home was not a good place for me to study—even ironing looked fun to do. Go where others are studying; you won't feel so alone.

What did you tell yourself to stay motivated?

  • Every time I had to study instead of spending time with my family or some other fun event, I would remind myself that it was only worth giving it up if I passed.

  • It's all worth it in the end.

  • I got really fired up—really telling myself I was going to nail this exam and just sort of feeling aggressive about it, rather than defeated.

  • Get these dang things done so you can go to as many football games as you want in the fall.

Pre- or Post-Exam Rituals

  • I would never get a haircut too close to the exams or shave the last couple of days before a test (in case my   brain ran out of storage space and the last minute cramming was absorbed in the hair follicles).

  • At the end of each test I would break the pencil I was using when time expired.

  • Pre-Exam: A trip to the driving range the day prior to the exam. During Exam: Same t-shirt and calculator every sitting.
    Post-Exam: A sacrificial burning of all study material.

  • Pre-Exam: Always tried to get a good night's rest.
    Post-Exam: Always involved going out!

  • Pre-Exam: I always listened to my Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville disks on the way to the exam.
    Post-Exam: Drink.

  • I took time off from May's exam until July 1 and from November's exam until January 1 and did nothing with exams. Many people would grade themselves to get a better idea of their chances for passing—not I. I put my books away and tried to put everything about studying off to the side.

Rewards for Passing an Exam or Attaining a Designation

  • A new set of golf clubs and a trip to the first two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament.

  • I sometimes took a vacation after exams.

  • I looked forward to the benefits that being part of the CAS brings—like getting to go to very nice places for conventions.

  • Going to college football games all fall.

The Best Part of Being Done

  • Being able to actually spend time with my family!—and finding out that they still like me.

  • Peace of mind.

  • No more exam seminars.

  • Knowing I accomplished something very significant on my own and getting my springs and falls back.

  • Being able to go to college football games all fall.

Some of this advice may not work for you, especially if you're not willing to give up your TV or postpone exams to get an MBA. I think there is one thing all candidates should take away from my interviews: contrary to popular belief, not one Fellow stated that the best part of being done with exams is "writing impossibly hard exam questions for the candidates who are left." The Fellows are too busy being with their families and watching football to worry about that.   

I can't wait.

Shantelle Johnson is an actuarial analyst at Allstate Insurance Company in Northbrook, Illinois. She was recognized as a new Associate at the CAS 2001 Spring Meeting in Miami Beach, Florida.


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