Test-taking Strategies (Actuarial Edition)

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As I prepare for my next actuarial exam, I want to be as ready as possible. I know the generic test-taking strategies from my ACT-taking days such as: if you don’t know the answer, guess C (or a different letter, as long as it’s the same for all questions you guess on) and make sure to put something down for every question provided as there is no penalty for guessing. But, I have never thought about how my strategy should change, and improve, for the actuarial exams. In the interest of passing, I did some research on the subject. Here are some of the most valuable suggestions I found:

Practice, practice, practice! Do as many problems as you have time for. You’ll start to learn what types of questions you’ll likely see on Exam Day. Take plenty of timed practice exams; this will help you get used to the time limitations of the exam. Even just setting time limitations on quizzes (on Coaching Actuaries, for instance!) isn’t enough. Remember, exams are a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll be tested on many different topics and need the endurance to make it 3-4 hours without getting up!

When memorizing formulas, try to learn and be able to replicate their derivations. Not only will this help with your comprehension of the concepts, but also could prove helpful if you forget the formula under the stress of the exam. Don’t memorize special cases of general formulas unless necessary, even if the study materials you’re using present them separately. This just takes up valuable time and memory.

Use the same calculator throughout your studying that you will use on the exam. I’ve made this mistake before. I’m so much more comfortable with my graphing calculator but of course can’t use it on the exam. Instead of putting the time into getting used to a different one, I fall into the trap of just using it when I’m studying. I end up taking the exam with a calculator that I’m not 100% comfortable with and used to. I have found this very frazzling.

Don’t skip the most difficult sections. We’re all guilty of hitting a difficult topic and telling ourselves it’s too hard and won’t be on the exam. Trust me, it will be, and it will be what differentiates the students that pass and fail.

Before the exam, calculate how many minutes you can spend on each question. Make a first pass through the exam and solve all straightforward questions. If you are properly prepared, you should be able to answer most of the questions on this first pass in less than the allotted time per question. When you hit a question that has taken the apportioned time, resist the urge to finish it at all costs. Come back to it later if you have time. On your scratch paper, clearly number each page so you can quickly come back to a certain problem and resume.

In addition, prior to exam day make a strategy for which questions to mark versus simply leaving them unanswered as you work your way through the test. Think about what will work for you. Perhaps you mark questions you are close to solving and leave the most difficult questions unanswered. Or, maybe you mark questions that you believe you can solve but know will be more time consuming. Whatever you decide, it is a huge time saver to have a systematic approach planned out ahead of time.

Throughout the exam, look for the quickest way possible to find the correct answer. For example, develop shortcuts for eliminating impossible answers by checking boundary conditions or substituting numerical values.

I hope you find these suggestions as helpful as I did. I welcome your comments with some of your favorite strategies!

Thank you to my two major sources: “SOA Candidate Connect” Issue 2 and Making the Grade by Nicholas Mocciolo.