Beyond Actuarial Problems: Successful Exam Study After Graduation

by Othon Hamill, CAWG Candidate Representative

Of all the courses I took while at school, one class prepared me for exam taking more than the rest: the lowly, one-credit, Stat 372 class, “Actuarial Problems.” It focused primarily on sample problems and the test-taking skills necessary for students pass Exam P, rather than every item on the exam syllabus itself. That class was 1/120th of the credits I needed to graduate, but it was responsible for firmly planting me onto the actuarial path as I passed my first exam. I graduated two years ago but still find myself wishing with every new exam sitting I could take that class over and over again.

The transition to studying while working full-time after studying for exams while in college is difficult, but I’ve found my better sittings have been the ones where I tried my best to faithfully recreate the environment and teachings of that class.

So, keeping that class in mind, I’d like to point out for our soon-to-be and recent grads what lessons I’ve learned about how university students can transition more painlessly into studying for actuarial exams while employed full-time.

If you fail to plan …
The first day of Stat 370 was like the first day of any other class: You go through the syllabus. We had a brief outline of what we were going to learn: which days we’d cover, what material and how our time would be used during the hour-long class. The first time I studied for an exam after graduation, I skipped this step and paid for it. Unfortunately, Ben Franklin’s maxim held true for me: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Most exam courses available online offer a study plan generator, outlining your progression through the exam material. I’d highly recommend investing the time of your first day of studying to modify that plan to fit your needs. Consider days you know that you won’t be able to study. Set benchmarks for where you want to be at a given time. Decide when, where and how you’ll take your practice tests. A successful study plan starts on day one.

Studying as regularly scheduled programming
Although the actuarial problems class was essentially voluntary, it forced me to dedicate regular and consistent time to studying beyond what I was already doing on my own. I knew I was going to study for an exact amount of time, in a specific room, without distractions. Those same lessons apply to studying without the benefit of a scheduled class. I find myself with only so much energy in the day, and even small decisions about studying slowly eat up some of the energy I could’ve put into better studying.

To replicate that environment in the months before I took MAS-I, I solidified my study plan. I blocked my work calendar for 60 minutes on either side of my working day to prevent work from creeping into my study time. I decided beforehand where I’d study, and my coworkers knew I was out of reach. I made all the hard decisions before I even began to study, and that regular routine made those my most effective hours of study.

Space for learning
One of the things I missed the most about studying in college was my university’s library. After years at the same university, most students can remember their favorite nook of campus to study, and I was no different. My recommendation is to replicate your own favorite studying nook as best you can. Public libraries, shared spaces in your apartment building, a quiet room at home, a table at your favorite coffee shop or even a spare conference room at the office can make excellent substitutes for your familiar space. Do some exploring and research in the early days of exam preparation and stick to what you find works. There are enough facets of exam taking to worry about — where you study shouldn’t be one of them.

Paid study hours
One of the brightest spots of studying as a full-time employee are paid study hours. Most actuarial employers and many other employers will offer generous paid study to their employees, generally 120 hours or so for a first sitting, depending on the exam. This time is precious, so make the most of it and be aware of how much your company offers and other restrictions on this valuable time. I know some students who refer to use it for consecutive days before the exam, and some students who prefer to take an hour or two a day for months before the exam. Either way, if you’re lucky enough to have paid study hours, one of the first steps in your study plan should include a pointed conversation with your manager about how you’d like to carry out your study hours.

Question answering
As the first day of Stat 370 ended, both the professor and graduate student who managed the class made a point of emphasizing that we’d be learning by doing examples and demonstrating to our classmates how we had solved the day’s problems. Our study sessions began with first principles, then came applications where each of us would work on a problem, and finally students would work through some of the day’s problem on the whiteboard at the front of the class. Although nerve-wracking for some of us, after a few days we found this to be a method for us to engage with each other and ask more frequent questions, a practice that benefited both the student who asked the question and the student who explained an answer. Asking and answering questions is an effective way to solidify recently learned material but does require a group.

If you want to go far, go together
Arguably the biggest lesson of the class was how effective group-learning can be, both in learning the material and building a support system. The Stat 370 class was a half dozen students, so, as we worked our problems together, it was clear who had studied the section and who might need some help. Our constant exposure to each other kept us accountable. As a full-time employee you won’t be lucky enough to have study-mates assigned, but it’s not a terribly difficult situation to emulate. Most larger companies maintain communities for their actuarial employees to do just that. If your company doesn’t have enough employees, groups can be found through online forums or within purchased actuarial courses. These groups can be as complex as grouped study sessions or as simple as a group of people who reminds each other to meet certain benchmarks by a given date.

Whether your group system includes weekend check-ins or just a couple of problems during a lunch break with a colleague, the buoying effect of building a group of students around you can help lift you to a passing score.

A final word
My final piece of advice for new full-time employees is to not forget that you’re more than just an actuarial student.

Sure, your new occupation and the actuarial exams can take up a significant part of your life, but you are more than just your exam results. The transition from a university program to full-time employment can be joyful, boring, thrilling or sometimes downright disheartening, but that’s all okay. Brighter days are around the corner, and there’s no shame in asking for help from others or taking some time to yourself to figure out how to get to those brighter days quicker. If you find yourself in that situation, I’d recommend paying close attention to Future Fellows’ new series on mental health. If you’re not in that situation, be aware some of your coworkers and others around you may be. Offer help when you can.

As the most recent cohort of college graduates prepare for the full-time world outside university doors, may I be one of the first to wish you best of luck in all your endeavors, especially your exam sittings.