Actuarial examinations are considered very difficult to pass and the pass rates generally vary from 20% - 40% but not more. Also most exam takers are also working full-time, so managing the workload and simultaneously passing the exams can pose a real challenge. Having been through the same situation, I am putting down some study tips that I hope will be useful for readers. These are based on my own personal experiences and experiences of my colleagues and friends.
KNOW YOUR CONCEPTS
This is a well-known fact! You can never pass an actuarial examination until you are thoroughly familiar with the actuarial concepts. Only if one has understood the concepts clearly, can one apply them to a numerical problem.
Understanding concepts right from the first exam is very necessary as several examinations of later series build on concepts covered in earlier exams so it is important to have clarity of concepts right from the beginning.
KNOW HOW TO APPLY THE CONCEPTS
It is important to recognize that the actuarial examinations are not testing one’s knowledge of actuarial concepts presented in the study material; but they are testing one’s ability to apply those actuarial concepts in practical situations. They achieve this by testing students on numerical problems and case studies. To that extent, these examinations can be classified as application exams rather than theoretical exams.
So as application based exams, you have to know how to apply the concepts to numerical problems. The best way to do this is by doing lots of practice problems. Solve problems from all available past exams or from reference textbooks. Don’t glance through the problems but actually solve them - this helps improve speed of solving problems and helps clarify concepts further.
SEE THE BIG PICTURE
As students, it is very easy to remains focused only on the numerical details of the problems in the exam or on the specific formula to be learned without looking at the big picture. I used an effective method as follows: When you tackle a new concept, take a few minutes to think about what is the logic behind the concept, how does it co-exist with other concepts that you have learned about covered in the same or prior exams, have you faced this concept at work or heard any of your senior colleagues talk about it. Taking some time to dwell on this helps put things into perspective.
Many students feel that it is not very necessary to do this, learning the formula or method to solve a problem by rote is mostly sufficient – but incorporating this method into your studying helps you retain this information longer and apply it with ease in the examination.
It is impossible to start studying at the last minute and pass an exam unless the exam concepts have been studied in a prior exam, or course in college. Actuarial concepts can be complicated and take time to seep in. Start early and give yourself enough time so that there is no panic learning at the last minute which invariably fails to serve its purpose.
LIVE AND BREATHE FOR THE EXAM
Live and breathe for the exam atleast four months before the exam date. Make it an integral part of your life and daily routine (be it half an hour or one hour a day).
Assign a specific part of the day for studies or accept that any free time available (be it half an hour at lunch or one hour in the morning before office) will be used to study. Don’t make excuses that they environment is not right or the time is not right. The less excuses you have, the more time you will have.
This way the concepts and exam material will slowly filter into your brain and over the time period of four months, things will be clear and in perspective.
Start a study-group at work – discuss with your colleagues who have already taken the exam, post questions on discussion forums and blogs, take second opinions of your understanding of concepts. Don’t try and be a lone warrior!
- Keep the last two weeks before the exam only for revising concepts and doing old exam problems. Don’t try to cram any material at the last minute. Your brain will not accept it and may only muddle it up with other concepts learned.
- If you don’t have time to cover all concepts in the study material, be thorough with what you have already covered; Don’t try and learn all of it in a hurry at the last minute since it will not help anyway.
- Relax your brain one day before the exam – it deserves the rest if it has to function at it’s best on the exam day.
WHILE WRITING THE EXAM
- Spare a few minutes at the very beginning to read through the examination. While reading, underline the important parts of the problems. This gives you a good idea of what is contained in the exam, what is your comfort level with problems and which are the ones you know best. This will help you intelligently tackle the exam by doing the problems you know best first.
- Divide the total time available for the examination as follows:
- Keep aside 10 minutes for final review and another 10 minutes for emergency reworking of problems
- Keep in mind that the balance amount of time has to be divided among the total problems to be worked out
- Learn to keep a track of time while doing the practice examinations itself. You will not be able to suddenly incorporate this method into your examination.
- Always keep a track of the time. Don’t waste too much time on any one particular problem. Move on to the other problems and come back to it later as time permits.
- Tackle the problems with the concepts you know best first so that you have guaranteed yourself some points right at the beginning.
- Before you finalize an answer to a long numerical problem, take a few seconds to think about the reasonability of the answer. This method has helped me identify silly mistakes in my problem working several times. Start incorporating this method into your working while doing the practice problems; so by the time you reach the point of taking the actual exam, you’ve tuned yourself into judging the reasonability of answers as a natural reflex. Co-workers of mine who have used this method have almost always passed an exam consistently.
- If the type of examination is one in which partial credit is given for part working of the problem, make sure you quickly write out the formulae for the problem first- even if your numerical working is wrong, atleast some points are guaranteed for the formulae that you put down.
- Don’t panic! Stay cool! You are prone to making more mistakes in a state of anxiety. Invariably students that generally pass the exams are those who go into the exam with a cool, collected and positive attitude.
Please be realistic – The exams are difficult and accept that they are. Also be thankful that they are difficult to pass and that is why a qualified actuary gets the deserved respect and recognition. Keep a positive attitude.
Know that it is a time commitment and be prepared to commit that amount of time, energy and grey cells to the cause. The sense of satisfaction, achievement and fulfillment on passing an exam as tough as the actuarial exams is immense. Nothing in life comes for free in life and neither does the pass mark in an actuarial examination.
About the author
The author Teja Ranade-Gadhoke is a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries of USA. She has worked at a premier actuarial consulting firm in U.S.A before moving to India to set up her own consulting company Ranadey Professional Services Pvt. Ltd. based out of Pune. Ranadey Professional Services provides actuarial consulting services in the field of employee benefits to clients in USA and India.