Deciding Which Exam to Take and When

by Sarah Manuel, ACAS, MAAA

Which exam you should take and when can be a big decision to make. Because the CAS exams are numbered, it might at first glance seem like you have to take them in order and as fast as you can (see the CAS infographic for an example). While in general it's to your advantage to get through exams quickly, the order of the exams you take and even whether to take an exam at all during a given sitting can depend on many different factors. Every candidate's mental calculus will be different, and two actuaries given the same set of circumstances may make different choices. With that said, here are some common considerations when planning out your exam strategy.

Time commitment

This can be one of the biggest determinants of whether a candidate passes or fails an exam: Did they spend enough time studying for it? For new exam-takers and seasoned vets alike, this can be hard to figure out — especially when you're under pressure to get through exams quickly while also balancing other priorities. Here are some things that I wish someone had told me (or that I wish I had listened to when people did tell me) that might help guide your thinking:

  • Do you have a summer internship where there are lots of social events and attendance is "highly encouraged" (i.e., mandatory)? Social events for internships are almost never at libraries, so you probably won't have enough time to both study and get to know your new coworkers. It might be a good idea to focus on your internship over the summer and pick up studying once school starts again in the fall.
  • Are you close to getting your ACAS and wondering when to take Courses 1 and 2? You might consider studying for one of them during the eight-week period when CAS exams are being graded and you have time while you wait for your results. The online courses take significantly less study time than the upper-level exams, so it might make sense to take one in between sittings instead of missing a sitting for an upper-level exam.
  • Are you on a project at work that requires you to travel or spend long nights or weekends working? Is your study time often interrupted by conference calls and urgent client deadlines, so much so that by the end of it you feel like you've barely started? If so — and this is the most important part — will you spend the free time you do have studying? Being on a high burn rate project at work doesn't mean you can't pass your exam (I've done it and I've seen others do it too), it just means that you'll have to make sure that you learn what you need to learn in the time that you have. If you don't think you'll have the time to devote to studying, you might consider skipping a sitting (check your company's exam policy to see what you can do to avoid any potential penalties for this) or working with your team to make sure you can get some time to disconnect and focus on your exam.

Baseline comfort level with the material

Your level of familiarity with a subject works in conjunction with the amount of time you can devote to studying. If you do a lot of work on both pricing and reserving projects at your job, you might not need as much time to study for Exam 5 as someone who's new to both subjects. If you just took a college course that covers material for a specific exam, you might want to take that exam soon after finishing the course so that you don't have to spend as much time refreshing your memory later. Previous sittings for an exam also count — it might take you less time to study for your second attempt at an exam, depending on how close you were to passing it the first time. If you know you'll have a limited amount of time to devote to a particular sitting, you might consider taking an exam that covers material you're already familiar with as opposed to one that will be completely new for you.

Exam credit from other Societies

As of Spring 2019, preliminary exams P, FM and IFM are all accepted by both the CAS and the SOA, which makes them great exams to take first for candidates in the U.S. who aren't sure in which actuarial discipline they'll end up working. This also applies to VEEs, but you should check whether you can gain credit for VEEs through college classes first.

Longevity of the exam

This often comes into play when you're considering taking an exam that has been recently introduced or structurally changed. Some candidates prefer to wait to take exams until after they've been offered for a few sittings so that they can get a feel for what kinds of questions will be asked and in what format. For example, a candidate might have started taking online courses or upper-level exams instead of taking one of the first sittings of MAS-I and MAS-II. This all comes down to personal preference and comfort with varying levels of uncertainty, and there's no one right way to do it.

CAS meeting locations

When getting close to obtaining their ACAS or FCAS credentials, some candidates start to look at where the first CAS meeting will be held after they receive their credentials. If, for example, there is a CAS meeting scheduled for Hawaii, you might try to pass exams at a rate that would ensure that you can go to Hawaii for that meeting. If this is your approach, my personal recommendation is that you do this by choosing to take exams like online courses or the Course on Professionalism (at least for ACAS). You wouldn't want to try to delay passing an upper-level exam if you can avoid it since there are so few sittings, and you never know if you'll pass at the next sitting. Even after you've considered all the factors and picked your strategy, don't be surprised if that strategy has to change. Unexpected circumstances could pop up and derail your studying. You might fail an exam and have to retake it instead of moving on to the next one (this is totally normal by the way). So, my best advice is this: Reevaluate often, be honest with yourself about what you can and can't do in a given set of circumstances, and make the best of it when things change. Good luck!