This is the sixth and final article in a 6-article series of 24 studying strategies for Actuarial exam that I used to obtain the FCAS credential at 24 years old.
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 actuarial exam given due to their own complexities and different syllabus. However, sometimes I needed a quantity to reference in order to help illustrate my point, and as such, they are arbitarily-chosen.
This article, volume 6.0 with 21-24 of the 24 strategies, will focus on Actuarial exam-day Execution. The link to the previous articles in the series is given at the last.
21. Pre-Exam Boost
Recognizing that I probably won’t learn anything new in the last 10 minutes prior to the Actuarial exam, I realized that these last few minutes are best served with raising my morale and kick starting the adrenaline process.
Although I have a variety of motivational videos I will use to accomplish this, below is my absolute favorite one to watch right before the exam.
I believe confidence can either make or break an exam. I need to believe it, before I can execute it.
Furthermore, I never have studied for an actuarial exam with caffeine. Ever.
I always relied on exercising and adequate sleep to provide me with the natural energy needed to fuel my studying sessions. Why am I mentioning this?
Simply because, I was studying without caffeine.
Doing practice questions without caffeine.
Taking past exams without caffeine.
All the while, still aiming to study enough to be able to pass the exam…WITHOUT caffeine.
Actuarial Exam Day Strategy
Now, once exam day comes along and I intake caffeine for the first time in very large amounts (in the form of caffeine pills so there is no washroom need!). I am practically super-enhancing my performance relative to how I was studying.
I already studied to a level sufficient enough to pass the exam without caffeine. Once the caffeine hits me and I’m able to think faster, more critically, and more efficiently…I am practically taking the exam with a whole new edge that I had never exposed myself to during the studying process for my Actuarial exams.
It’s like training for a marathon while carrying a 10kg bag for every single practice run, and taking off the bag once race day comes.
22. Every Point Counts.
Evidently enough, all it takes is one small point to be the difference between passing and failing. At any given time in the Actuarial exam, I might be locking in my pass/fail with just a single pencil stroke. Or calculator mistake. Etc.
With this in mind, I mentally motivate myself with another Al Pacino speech from “Any Given Sunday” (hint: replace “inch’ with “point”):
On this team, we fight for that inch
On this team, we tear ourselves, and everyone around us
to pieces for that inch.
We CLAW with our finger nails for that inch.
Cause we know
when we add up all those inches
that’s going to make the f****** difference
between WINNING and LOSING.
Ultimately, I think the actual exam day is a mind game. It can be frightening, having your final execution decide whether you will pass…or fail and be locked in to spend literal hundreds of hours more to re-study.
With that in mind, strategies #21 and #22 really are structured to get my mind into a “kill-or-be-killed” state. To visualize the Actuarial exam as much as I can as a life-or-death scenario, and performing as such with the new adrenaline and confidence I’ve gained.
23. Let it Go.
Not only are curveballs on the exam guaranteed, but also my own imperfect reactions towards them.
When such questions came about, I would always immediately skip the question if I wasn’t able to concretely follow it through within the first 20-30 seconds. Sometimes, I would skip it within the first 5 seconds if it touches upon a concept that I had voluntarily skipped during my studying.
Although it can feel very uncomfortable to intentionally leave points on the table, it is crucial to not spend a disproportionate amount of time going down a rabbit hole, and ultimately running out of time to answer easy questions elsewhere.
Let’s look at some personal anecdotes:
- Fall 2018, Exam 8 – 10 minutes left on the clock, and I had the last 3 questions left. I skimmed through the 3 questions, and decided that Q16 was the most challenging one as I simply didn’t understand what it was asking. I ended up knocking out the other two questions and left Q16 unanswered. Not only did I end up passing with a 7, but Q16 was also deemed defective. Dodged a large bullet.
- Spring 2017, Exam 5 – This was the most time-restrained exam I’ve ever taken. Not only that, but it also tested concepts that I was shaky on. As such, I literally left 10% of the exam unanswered. Seven weeks later, and I found out that I passed with a 7. It’s not only about how much you can answer, but as well, how accurate your answers are, and not letting your confidence shake if you are (reasonably) skipping questions.
- Fall 2017, Exam 6- US-CAS requires each question to be answered on its own piece of paper. I accidentally wrote two answers for two different questions on the same piece of paper. I was forced to spend 6 minutes re-writing the second answer on a different paper, and trying to not kick myself over this waste of time. Passed it with a 6.
- Fall 2018, Exam 8 – This exam was just full of surprises. The number of points allocated for its first two questions (IQ’s) suggested that they should take 42 minutes and 44 minutes each. I spent a full 65 minutes on the first question, and I didn’t even finish all of it! I refused to let my confidence shake, and I moved on. Surprisingly enough, the rest of the exam was noticeably easier, and I was able to make up for the lost time. Scored a 7.
It is very important to not have the momentum break throughout the exam from scenarios such as the ones above. If I had let my confidence shake when any of the above happened, the outcome could’ve been very different. I’m sure every actuary has their own fair share of horror stories.
This might just be the most obvious strategy. But how is this actuarial exam strategy actually implemented?
Here are the best 3 habits I used for speed:
- Logical Steps. Sometimes, it may not be clear on how to construct the entire answer. There wasn’t many upper-level exam questions for which I knew 100% of all the steps required to solve it from the first read through. In such scenarios, I would immediately write down all the steps I knew would be required, and I usually would be able to figure it out along the way. If not, I would skip it and come back to it later on with a fresh perspective.
- Conciseness. It is extremely important to be able to write concise answers. The easiest way to do this is to have spent prior studying time in this mode. For every single practice question I do while studying, I always try to think of ways I could have skipped steps/written less and have it still be enough for graders to follow, whilst not putting myself at a higher risk of doing a calculator mistake. There definitely are ways to shorten answers down. I find the examiner’s reports to usually have concise answers.
- 15-Minute Reading Period Strategy. For CAS written-answer exams, we are granted a 15-minute reading period prior to the start of the exam. During this period, I like to mentally work through the questions in a chronological order – understand what’s being asked, and decide on what technique I will use to answer it. Once the 15 minutes are up, I immediately go on auto-pilot for those questions and knock them out. This helps me immediately gain a large time buffer which becomes useful in the later part of the Actuarial exam.
Tips and Tricks
For #3 above, I find that it has its highest utility on the Integrative Questions (IQ’s), currently present in the FCAS exams. IQ’s are an interesting concept – they take up such a large amount of points, for relatively little writing. A larger portion of its points are rewarded for critical thinking, not for writing stuff down.
Thus, I believe the reading period is best used for formulating a plan of attack. This helps wrap one’s mind around the question, and effectively answer quickly. This is because you already did the required critical thinking during the reading period.
I figured it’d be a shame to not share what I’ve learned throughout this 6-year process. As well, perhaps I’ll need this one day…who knows!
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.
For the previous articles in the series click here.