Study Tips and Tricks

by Chip McCLeary, ACAS

As candidates try to prepare for each upcoming exam, one of the most common questions asked is, "How should I go about getting ready?" Entry-level candidates know what's worked for them in high school and college; however, actuarial exams are quite different. Mid-level candidates know what worked for preliminary exams but written-answer exams require a different approach. In the end, everyone is looking for ways to make the studying process both efficient and effective.

Here are some ideas I've been given over time for how to pass exams. Even if I didn't — and still don't — use all of them, perhaps you'll find some of them helpful for getting to the level necessary to achieve a passing score:

  • Figure out how much time you think you need to get ready. The oft-mentioned rule of thumb of "100 study hours per hour of exam time" is a good starting point, but you know from prior experience whether you need more time or less. Start with that rule of thumb and adjust accordingly based on your history until you hit a number that you feel comfortable with.
  • Set a realistic study schedule. This sounds easy enough. Know the date you're taking your exam, pick a date to start and fill in the space between with study hours. Whether you plan on taking 24 weeks to get ready or just 10, plan that out for each day while accounting for events you know are happening along the way. If you know you're going to have days where something is going on and you're not going to study, that's okay. Take that into account when planning your hours. Don't put yourself down for four hours on a weekend you're going to a wedding or for 10 hours in a week you'll be on vacation, unless you're really going to take time out of those days to study. Make the time you say you're going to spend studying match up with the time you really will study.
  • Keep track of your study time. If you don't track what you're doing, it can be difficult to know when you are off track and how to adjust. I have a spreadsheet where I log family or personal events that are going on, how long I said I was going to study, how much I did study and what I worked on for a given day as well as what I plan to work on in upcoming days. At a glance, I can see whether I'm ahead or behind of schedule and whether I need to adjust my schedule. That spreadsheet gets updated frequently depending on what's going on around me and how it might impact the studying I had planned to do (or maybe not do), but I can always see where I am relative to where I want to be. Being able to review if things are going better or worse than expected and knowing what your schedule looks like in the near future shows how things are going, in case you need to make changes to stay on pace to be ready for the exam.
  • Make studying a priority. You don't need to drop everything going on around you to study all the time. Instead, identify activities you can do without while you study. You probably shouldn't skip family events to study, nor should you spend that time physically present but studying instead of giving your family your full attention. You should probably put aside activities that clearly don't help with exam prep aside, especially those that consume time and make you think, "I could be doing something more productive."
  • Use the study style that works for you. There is no "one size fits all" way to go about getting ready for exams; everyone has their own individual way of learning. Your method might be using note cards, doing problems, watching videos or some combination of these or other methods. Do what provides the most benefit for you, not what worked for a coworker or someone on the Actuarial Outpost.
  • Don't get discouraged. It's easy to hit a topic and say, "I don't understand it," and let that bog down everything you're trying to do. If you get stuck on a topic, don't be afraid to move on to another topic. Once you achieve some positive momentum, then go back to the topics you're struggling with.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help. There are many resources available to ask questions and get answers. These include other candidates taking the exam, co-workers who've taken the exam, or maybe even your manager or other actuarial department members. Work study groups or online forums is another appropriate avenue for assistance. If you don't understand a topic, reach out and see if someone else who does can help you understand. Sometimes, just getting another person's explanation can help things click.
  • Where numerical problems are asked, create your own examples. This is a fantastic way to learn some topics and can help tie concepts together where the explanation from a syllabus reading may not be clear. Open an Excel file, recreate a problem and set up the solution as it's described in the syllabus reading or from an exam question. Then, re-do the problem by randomizing the inputs. Once you understand how the pieces come together, changing the inputs gives you a new problem that helps you understand the steps without simply memorizing the answers.
  • Look to the Knowledge Statements for guidance on what to study. While they may not detail everything that could show up on the exam, syllabus Knowledge Statements should serve as a good guide to determine what you need to know. From there, you can supplement with other items that are in syllabus readings and have shown up on prior exams but are perhaps not specifically mentioned in a Knowledge Statement.
  • Focus on where the points are. No matter how well you plan out your study schedule, you may still not have enough time to know every topic inside and out. Be most familiar with the subjects that received the most weight on the syllabus and in prior exams, but also try to be familiar enough with other areas that you can receive at least some partial credit on upper-level exams. There's nothing wrong with trying to know everything that will be on the exam but remember that you don't need to be the best-performing candidate to pass the exam. You just need to be at least as good as the minimally qualified candidate.

Most importantly, make sure you still leave time for you. It can be easy to combine work and studying and the rest of life's demands and say, "I don't have time for anything else." There's a balance you need to strike there between "need to study" and "no fun at all." Don't make yourself miserable trying to get ready for an exam; find time to stay connected with friends and family and do the things you enjoy doing, while still getting yourself ready to pass the exam you're studying for.

Preparing for an exam is quite a challenge. Much of how to get ready is individual to each test taker. Consider these ideas and see which of them works best for you. As you learn the best plan for your study habits you will be able to continue to refine the plan as you pass more exams. Best of luck in all your studying!