Understanding vs. Memorizing

Written by David Zheng:David Zheng Picture

When studying for the actuarial exams, I prefer to understand the material and how the formulas are derived, rather than only memorizing and applying formulas. There is nothing wrong with the latter method of studying if it is sufficient to pass the exam, but I have an overwhelming need to understand why these formulas work. Otherwise, I begin to feel anxious and unsure if I am applying the formulas correctly.

When I passed Exam P and Exam FM last year, I was confident throughout the exams. Even the week before each exam, I was bored doing practice problems because they no longer challenged my comprehension of the material. Although, there were a few that tricked me that I found interesting.

I do not create a definite study schedule but I try to allocate enough time to comfortably pass the exam. I give myself about two months until test day. I plan one month to finish the ASM study manual, one week to complete an Adapt subscription, and three weeks for extra time.

While reading the manual, I take time to understand the concepts and reasoning to derive and apply each formula. Sometimes, I would not completely understand a topic, but I would move on knowing I will either likely revisit the issue as I try to complete the odd number problems or the concept is not too important. Doing the problems help me find any issues in my understanding, and the repetition is helpful in memorizing formulas as I would hopefully devote a proportional amount of time depending on how often questions about each formula appear.

After going through the manual once, I focus on solving the odd-numbered problems I got incorrect the first time. It usually takes a few times until I can consistently solve them. Then, I take time to solve every problem at the end of the chapter, periodically revisiting the ones I got wrong. If I had to estimate, I probably spent 125-150 hours (eight to ten hours per day, every other day) for each Exam P and Exam FM. I did not make note cards or a formula sheet.

When I am finished with the book, I already feel fairly confident but I need to test myself under exam conditions so I purchase a one-week Adapt subscription. The exam conditions help me mange my time and also provide new problems that test my understanding. I eventually pass enough tests to have an Earned Level of 10. At this point, I take practice tests between levels six and eight (as I think the real exam should be slightly below this range) until I am bored or tired. Sometimes, I would make quizzes on a key concept, which I found very helpful.

After I completed my study schedule and I feel very confident of my understanding, I do practice problems or review the manual every two or three days until exam day. If I am on schedule, I need to wait three weeks. For Exam FM, I was one week behind. For Exam P, I actually missed the deadline to schedule the exam by one day because I wanted to feel confident before I scheduled my first exam. I had to wait a very long two months.