Study Strategies for a New Era

by Bailey Hescock, ACAS

I hope you all have been enjoying a well-deserved break and have been able to disconnect from exams over the past couple of weeks. While I respect that many of you probably aren’t quite ready to start thinking about the next exam, they are unfortunately just around the corner. That is why now is the perfect time for the Candidate Advocate Working Group (CAWG) to share a fresh new set of strategies to help you prepare for a productive sitting. The CAWG has published a number of articles around exam tips and tricks (see links at the end of this article), but I wanted to share a new list specific to passing exams in this new era. Below are a few recommendations I’ve pooled from several seasoned CBT experts that have helped me immensely.

I’ll start with the most obvious recommendation. One of the most common criticisms of taking exams with Pearson VUE Testing centers is the clear differences of their spreadsheet program from our beloved Excel. After practicing problems for hours in a program we are already very familiar with, it is frustrating to deal with a different spreadsheet program, especially on exam day when your nerves are on edge. So, what is the best way to prepare for four hours of navigating this unfamiliar interface? Well, the CAS has provided a full list of known function differences of the various spreadsheet programs and posted them to their website. While knowing the differences is helpful, what is even better is just to practice with the Pearson VUE Spreadsheet Program. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have entire practice exams in this program, but the CAS has been working to provide more sample questions. One recommendation is to have practice problems open in Excel on one screen, then work out the answers using the Pearson VUE spreadsheet on your other screen. I tried this out, and let me tell you, it was brilliant. While on exam day I still felt challenged by not having my usual set of keyboard shortcuts, I was at least conditioned to efficiently handle the difference in functionality.

Another less obvious option is to practice exams in a shorter timeframe. If you’re preparing for a 4-hour exam, practice it in 3 ½ hours, or better yet, practice it in 3 hours. Prioritize learning to answer questions quickly - this way, if something doesn’t go according to plan, you have time to fix it. If you make it through half of your exam before realizing ‘f4’ doesn’t lock your keys, you have time to revisit your completed questions to check your work. If you’re like me and the exam day stress makes you forget everything for the first 15 minutes, that’s ok because you have time to recover. Perhaps it seems unhelpful to be told “just be faster,” but the easiest way to decrease your test taking time is to master flashcards. Every exam has several standard questions requiring you to “share the advantages and disadvantages of abc” or “list the x number of problems with xyz.” If you can fly through all these types of flash cards before exam day, then you are likely going shave off some valuable time during your exam. Granted, this strategy doesn’t work for everyone, but it has been great for me and several of my peers. The general premise is to make your practice exams more stressful than exam day – this way exam day feels easy breezy … or maybe just slightly less intense.

This next one isn’t new, but this bit of advice has been revolutionary for me and will be relevant no matter the way the exam is administered - learn the material so well you can teach it. I used to think that I was ready for an exam when I could regurgitate all the facts and formulas, but that’s only part of what it takes to pass. The exam writers aren’t just interested in testing how much we can memorize; they want to see which candidates have a deep understanding of the material. Whether the exam is pencil and paper or CBT, the writers are always trying to create new, thought-provoking questions, which sometimes feels like they’re chucking curveballs. So how do you prepare for these questions? Gain that deep understanding so that you anticipate those curve balls before they are thrown. You may think I’m just telling you to learn the material better or to take more study hours, but no. I’m encouraging you to rethink the way you’re learning what’s on the syllabus. If you are consistently asking “why” and are trying to understand how things work, opposed to just memorizing the concepts, you’re going to be in a better position to tackle the Blooms questions. If you’re familiar enough with the topic that you could confidently go in front of your peers and teach them, then you’ll be knocking that exam out of the park.

Up next, I’ve accumulated a few tips for exam day. It’s always worth it to make sure your solutions are easy to follow. Ensure that the grader can identify your final answer along with each of the steps you took to calculate it. You don’t necessarily need to worry about formatting, but it’s worthwhile to label your steps, as it will help you maximize your partial credit. Also, check your cell references if you have time to check your work. You don’t want to miss valuable points because of such trivial errors.

This next one seems silly, but it is some of the best advice I can offer – bring a sweater. Many of us provided the feedback that the testing centers get cold, so dress accordingly. In general, try to plan ahead to make yourself as comfortable as possible during the exam.

My final piece of advice is to try not to stress about things that are out of your control, and if something doesn’t go according to plan, don’t panic (easier said than done, I know). Know that if something goes wrong, the CAS is actually standing behind you. Sometimes we feel disconnected from the CAS, so it is easy to assume they aren’t looking out for us. They really do read your survey responses and review all technical reports/issues. Although technical difficulties are uncommon, there are dedicated groups of volunteers who review every case and try their best to fix any unfair situations.

I recognize that many of us have different approaches to taking these exams and that what works well for me may not work for everyone, but I really hope that some of these recommendations will be useful to you. I also hope that you have a productive study season and dominate your next exam! Best of luck to all of you!

As promised, here are a few links to additional articles and the known spreadsheet function differences: