When I first started studying Exam P for the June 2013 sitting, there were a lot of things that I had to discover on my own about studying for actuarial exams. Back in 2018, I promised myself that, once I got my FCAS, I’d write out the most in-depth exam strategies content I could on what I used to fuel my own journey. So I could help others, and give back to the actuarial community. It’s now one year later, and I’m presenting 24 Proven Actuarial Exam Strategies – Part 1. The Strategizing.
These exam strategies, spread out over 6 articles, are ultimately what helped me obtain the FCAS credential at 24 years old. This happened after 3000+ studying hours spread out over 6 years, with feats including clearing:
- Exams 7 & 9 on second attempt (each) within 20 hours of each other (Spring 2019, scores of 7’s on each).
- Exams S & 5 on first attempt (each) within days of each other (Spring 2017, scores of 7’s on each).
- Exam 8 on first attempt with 9 weeks of studying (Fall 2018, score of 7).
- The exam strategies outlined are what worked for me – a non-audial learner. They may not work for everyone, and they are definitely not the only strategies that work. But they’re the ones I know best.
- Throughout the articles, whenever I mention quantities, please note that they are most likely arbitrarily-chosen. It is impossible to generalize quantities for all the exams given that they are all very distinct. However, sometimes I needed a quantity to reference in order to help illustrate my point, and as such, they are arbitarily-chosen.
- While I took the FCAS track, I am confident a lot of these exam strategies are transferrable to other actuarial tracks (e.g. FSA, FIA), and even non-actuarial routes (e.g. CPA, GMAT). These outlined strategies aim at the traditional 3-4 hour actuarial exams (e.g. excludes CAS online courses). As well, all exam strategies will assume one exam is taken per sitting.
- Lastly, I don’t recommend doubling up with two exams per sitting. Relative to studying for one actuarial exam at once, I found it extremely challenging to study for two full actuarial exams at once. If you are seriously considering doubling up, feel free to message me directly!
This article, volume 1 with #1-4 of the 24 exam strategies, will focus on Strategizing.
1. Pyramid Learning.
All the exams had one thing in common that the actuarial exam content could be divided into 4 compartments:
A. Recurring easy concepts – timeless concepts that appear on every sitting and are easy to learn.
B. Recurring hard concepts – timeless concepts that appear on every sitting, although they’re difficult to learn.
C. Rare concepts – concepts which are not tested every sitting. While I didn’t find these too common on preliminary exams, the FCAS exams definitely loved testing on concepts that hadn’t been tested on in literal years.
D. Non-tested concepts – concepts which have never been tested, mainly due to either being “edges of the syllabus”, or due to it belonging to new source papers added to the syllabus – a common theme in the fellowship exams.
I passed all my preliminary exams on the first attempt with a score of at least 7 (except exam 6US, score of 6) due to only focusing on A&B. I rationalized that C&D always made up such a small portion of the final exam. It wasn’t worth spending time on it versus spending more time mastering A&B. Thus, I always ignored D, and almost always ignored C.
HOWEVER, it is that same mindset that failed me when I took my first FCAS exams, and doubled up, on exams 7&9 for Spring 2018. I was destroyed with scores of 4&5 – primarily due to ignoring C&D. I then learned that for FCAS exams, it is VITAL to learn C AND D, even if the latter can feel like a needle-in-the-haystack endeavor.
Now, for studying, I always focused on first learning A thoroughly in the first ~100 hours. These concepts are the meat of the actuarial exam. You need to know them 100% inside-out, without a doubt. During the first 100 hours, I try to avoid B&C&D concepts as much as possible. I do take note on which concepts I still have to learn later on though.
Once I know A well, I start deep diving into B. I still spending time every now and then to maintain my knowledge from A. For preliminary exams, I found that mastering A&B was enough to comfortably pass the exam.
For fellowship exams, once A&B are mastered, I go onto C. If it’s been tested in the last few years, I know it inside out. Once I master C, I then do my best at learning D. I carefully gauge my marginal utility of spending one more hour mastering D vs spending one more hour mastering A/B/C.
In summary, I spend time learning one compartment at a time. For preliminary exams, I always passed comfortably by studying solely A&B. However, for fellowship exams, it was a requirement to learn C&D as well.
2. Focus on the Forest, not the Trees.
Let’s face it – the scope of actuarial exams is humongous. There is a very long list of concepts that we are required to master.
As such, for the first 50% of my studying time, I never focused on mastering any concept.
Instead, I always focused on going through the entire material, as many times as I could. I heavily prioritized learning the overall layout and structure of the exam – to set the overall foundation, and from the get-go, start learning all the material at once, instead of by sections.
I faced a major challenge with splitting my time by section (e.g. first 50 hours on section A, then 50 hours on section B, etc.). After “mastering” section A, by the time I finish and “master” section B as well, I would have forgotten the majority of section A already. Then, I would have to use more time to re-master section A – a very large time inefficiency. As well, eventually I’m going to have to spend time becoming comfortable with quickly switching from one section to another, as done in the actual exam.
My latest strategy, my favorite one by far, was to begin by spending a minimal amount of time on each section (e.g. first 10 hours on section A, then 10 hours on section B, etc.). I am not focusing on mastering anything – just focusing on getting the overall structure/layout down.
The mastering of the material will come after 150-200 hours of studying, once I’m able to appreciate and remember all the details and nuisances of the material because I understand the fundamentals well.
Thus, I always focused first on learning the overall layout and fundamentals of all the concepts. The mastering of the material shouldn’t happen until later on in the process.
3. Cheat the System.
I’m not referring to actually cheating on an actuarial exam. I’m suggesting to challenge the way you are told you should be studying. Don’t be afraid to go against the norm and do what works best for you.
If we were to aggregate all the source papers referenced in the syllabus, we would probably end up with hundreds of pages of material that we’re required to read and master
Source Materials for actuarial exams
I never read any of the source materials for any of the preliminary exams. Ok, maybe ~5 hours on exam 5 to clarify pricing relativities, and 1-2 hours on exam 6 to obtain additional information on a regulatory concept. But that’s literally it.
Now, as for study manuals, again, I didn’t spend too much time reading them for any of the preliminary exams. Exceptions were the first few actuarial exams solely due to not knowing how to study for actuarial exams. However, for fellowship exams, I would practically memorize the study manuals inside-out for any concept that’s on the syllabus.
As for seminar videos, I hardly ever touched them, unless I needed additional explanations for a past exam question. We’re not all audial learners. I know I definitely am not an audial learner. I can learn much faster by reading, than by having someone audially teaching it to me.
Ultimately, I found that I learned faster if I just took the final summary of equations found within the study manuals, and solved as many problems as possible from it. In the first 100 hours, I am literally just “plugging and chugging“. But after that, I start recognizing patterns, and begin to experience a very rapid understanding of the material. As well, the more difficult questions challenge me on my understanding, which then forces me to learn the equations inside-out.
Ultimately, I cut out A LOT of reading time of the source materials/study manuals, and gained A LOT more time for just practicing…which leads me to my next point.
4. Practice on the Battlefield.
Let’s say that your actuarial exam is the final battlefield, every question is a swordsman, and I, with my own sword, am supposed to successfully stay alive and kill as many of the 20-30 swordsmen as I can in 4 hours. Prior to this final battle, I have no prior skill in swordfighting, but all my enemies are expert swordfighters.
Now, let’s divide the 4 most common types of studying, into their own analogies:
- Reading the source material. Teaches theories and techniques on how to command a sword, as well as history of swords and battles in general.
- Reading the study manual material. Teaches and focuses on swordfighting techniques that will be the most useful and applicable for my upcoming battle.
- Doing study manual questions. This is equivalent to sparring with teammates at the training grounds.
- Doing past exam questions. These are equivalent to going out to past battlefields, and fighting with enemy swordsmen from past battles.
Now, although I never did #1, I used to start off with #2, move on to #3, and then finish off with #4. First, learn the techniques of swordsmanship, then sparr with teammates, and then do some practice in similar past battlefields.
However, starting with exam 6US, I eventually started by going straight to #4, and would stay there for the majority of the ~300 studying hours.
For myself, I found #1 to be fairly useless, as my goal is to survive in multiple swordfights, not to know general theories and techniques on HOW to swordfight. Whilst yes, it is important to learn theories and techniques, I believe the same can be argued for learning anything that is exam-related. It is important to learn everything possible, but time constraints renders that impossible. So, that forces me to focus on learning what produces the highest utility.
To me, the highest utility would be from spending the majority of my time actually doing past actuarial exam questions, over and over again. To go out onto the battlefield, every single day, and learn from my numerous failures, how to fight with the sword.
Over time, I tend to re-visit #2 when I find that I am not understanding how to counter an enemy, i.e. do a question. It helps refine my attacks.
As for #3, I would only visit it if I needed extra practice in a certain fighting style that was either rarely presented in the past, or has never been experienced yet. Or, perhaps I just want more practice in a certain fighting style in general.
Walking in with confidence
Ultimately, once the exam day comes, I walk into the battlefield with an amazing aura of confidence, as I’ve experienced nearly every single fighting style possible. I know the battlefield like the back of my hand, I know how different fighting conditions will affect the outcome, etc. No matter what swordsmen come my way in the final battle, my sheer experience on the battlefield is sufficient enough to defeat them soundly and quickly.
The best anecdote I have for this was with FCAS exam 7 in Spring 2019. Ultimately, I found the exam to be fair and testing a lot of similar questions as done in past exams. The majority of my preparation was spent just doing, re-doing, and re-doing past exams.
I finished that 4-hour actuarial exam in 3 hours and 20 minutes, corrected 2 small calculation errors in the remaining 40 minutes, and scored a 7. How?
This is why: I had trained in that same battlefield so many times during the studying process that, when the final battlefield came along, it was exactly what I had been practising and perfecting for literally hundreds of hours. I thus executed in an algorithmic fashion, drawing from my hundreds of hours spent primarily doing past exam questions which were very similar to the final exam.
The Boxer Analogy for your actuarial exams
In yet another analogy, for a boxing match, given that we have the following two boxers:
- Boxer A. Spent 300 hours in sparring matches against hundreds of opponents, with some of that time spent hitting a punching bag and being coached on techniques.
- Boxer B. Spent 200 hours hitting a punching bag and being coached on techniques, and 100 hours in sparring matches against a few dozen opponents.
I’d be willing to bet that boxer A would win in a boxing match, as they have significantly more experience in the ring. It’s like drifting a car – no matter how much time you spend reading a guide on how to drift a car, that will never replace actual time on the road spent actually trying to drift it.
Ultimately, I believe any studying plan is doomed to fail if the planning process hasn’t been given its due diligence. Regardless of what you do, make sure that you create a study schedule (the final 6.0 article has a free study schedule!), stick to it, AND KEEP IT FOR FUTURE REFERENCE.
When I passed exams 7&9 in Spring 2019, I had probably spent 10 entire hours creating its study schedule, and referenced my past study schedules from exams S&5, 6, 8, and Spring 2018’s 7&9 when I failed them both.
The failed 7&9 schedule was the most crucial, as I was able to easily identify which actuarial exam strategies led me to fail them both, and re-adjust accordingly. If I had no past schedule, how could I materially improve for the next sitting?
How would I be able to reassure myself that I don’t execute in a similar fashion that I did the prior time, if I don’t have a copy of that failed past schedule, which led me to failing?
This blog has been written by Carlo Lahura, FCAS. I thank him for writing such a great blog and giving us permission to post it here. I urge you to visit his Linkedin profile and share your views/ideas/comments/feedback with him. Thanks for reading.
And, this article has been published here by Shivang Gumber.