Future Fellows - March 2008
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Preparing For Your First-Upper Level Exam
By Fiona So, Candidate Representative to the Candidate Liaison Committee

If the title of this article has caught your eye, congratulations on passing at least some of the preliminary exams and welcome to the world of upper-level exams. The completion of your preliminary exams is a significant milestone in your journey towards Fellowship. To be fully prepared for the differences in exam structure and exam rules that you will soon face, it is important to recognize and make the best out of the new challenges associated with writing the five upper-level exams.

   Goodbye multiple-choice answers, hello short answers. Now that each question can be worth 0.25 (with increments of 0.25) to as many as 6 or more points, exam day is no longer a race to calculate all the questions you know first, followed by the more challenging questions. It will likely still feel like a race of sorts all the same. Should you start with the questions that are worth the most, the least, or the ones that you know the best? There are many different strategies and if you ask around, your colleagues will probably tell you different methods that may work for themselves but may not necessarily work for you.   

In addition to the four-hour writing period, you will have an extra fifteen minutes for reading over the exam. Those of you who wrote SOA Exam M or Exams MFE and MLC will be experiencing the fifteen-minute reading period for the first time. How should you make the best use of these fifteen minutes? It is VERY IMPORTANT to check that your exam has all pages since it is your responsibility to ensure that you do not have a defective exam booklet. Aside from checking the exam booklet, other things to do include reviewing reference material, reading over most questions (you may not get to read every question), taking note in your head of questions that are worth a lot of points and allowing yourself some extra time to think about the more difficult questions. You can even fold pages or rearrange them in the order you choose. By the end of the fifteen minutes, you should have a general idea of the exam and a formulated game plan for writing the exam. A fellow candidate once suggested to me, “Invest in a speed-reading course!” For some, the reading period sounds too stressful—if this is you, use the time for deep, thought-clearing breaths.

Also, when composing your answer, always keep in mind the number of points the answer is worth and the words used by the question writer. You don’t want to tire your wrist by scribbling point after point on a question worth half a mark, while you really should be spending more time on the four-pointers. Also, “identify” indicates that a single item or list should suffice; “briefly explain” indicates that a sentence or two is requested; “explain” or “solve and show all work” means that you will need to write a few sentences or a short paragraph. On computational questions, it is critical to state any assumptions you make and lay out your steps. If you fail to do so, you may lose credit, even if you get the “correct” answer. (See the December 2007 issue of Future Fellows for an article on these instructive words.) As a consequence of spending too much time on questions worth fewer points, you may end up submitting non-legible chicken scratch on the questions worth many more points, or worse yet, blanks pages. Try not to completely abandon a question no matter how difficult it may seem. It would be unfortunate to lose points on a question of which you knew the answer only because the marker could not read your answer, you ran out of time, or you were simply too tired to write. Many candidates complain about achy wrists when writing upper-level exams. By knowing how much to write and writing only as much as a question requires, you can lessen your fatigue and prevent serious discomfort.

   Since you are allowed to eat during the Exams 5-9, what foods should you bring? Stay away from caffeine unless you don’t mind sacrificing valuable time for restroom breaks. Be mindful of your neighbors, who will not appreciate listening to you chew on foods or open food wrappers that crackle and pop. You want to choose foods that will refuel you for the four-hour marathon such as granola bars, nuts (already out of the shell!), and chocolate bars, which can be unwrapped and brought into the exam room in zip lock bags. Bananas are very quiet and a good source of carbohydrates needed for a quick energy boost.

   Aside from preparing for the changes to the exam format and exam rules, remember that upper-level exams are only offered once a year, as opposed to twice a year for the preliminary exams or up to five times a year for computer-based tests. It is even more important now to be fully prepared to give it your best shot on your first try. In the end, that achy wrist will prove to be rewarding.   


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