Plan, Relax, Reward, Practice

Like many of you, my journey began with the first preliminary exam, Probability, and as luck, or rather, probability, would have it, I failed my first attempt. Unlike having to picturepainstakingly wait for that high school teacher who always takes an eternity to return graded papers, I found out the hard way that we get the privilege of instantly knowing whether we get to celebrate that evening or have to walk out of those dreadfully cold Prometric testing centers in sullen defeat (I have since learned to bring a light jacket with me). I think that moment was a brutal wake-up call to the difficult path that lie ahead. Sure, I had seen the not-so-inspiring failure rates and thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is hard;’ but that was inevitably followed by, ‘That won’t be me.’

Of course I resolved to take it again. But in the following few months, my confidence was slowly whittled away by constant thoughts of inadequacy. Am I meant to be on this path if I can’t even pass the first exam? What if I can’t do it my second time? What if I fail a third time? How many chances do I give myself before I accept that this is just not for me?

I had to remind myself that becoming an actuary was, and is, my goal. And it became clear to me that falling short of my expectations once doesn’t mean they were set impossibly high, and certainly it did not mean that they had to be lowered. I just needed to re-evaluate the steps I was taking taking to get there.

So I changed my study habits. I have since passed FM and MFE on my first try.

This is what has worked for me:

  • Set aside plenty of time to plan what needs to be read, which problems need to be done, what has to be practiced. And stick to it. I think consistency is important; I break everything down into baby steps and tackle it day by day. It becomes much more manageable.
  • Don’t make studying feel like a chore. I try not to spend too much time studying in the same spot. Some days I spend at the library, others at a café, my room, outside. Being comfortable in my study environment makes studying much more productive and relaxing (well, as relaxing as studying can be).
  • Reward yourself for progress. Maybe a difficult concept finally makes sense. Go get yourself an ice cream cone!
  • Spend a non-trivial amount of time working on your mistakes. I think it’s really easy to look at a solution afterwards and go, ‘Ohhhhh, that’s what I should have done; I’ll remember it for next time,’ and move on immediately. Work out the problem again anyways. Make sure you truly understand it now, or you might find yourself making the same mistake again later on.
  • Practice problems. Do lots of practice problems. And when you’re done doing practice problems, do some more practice problems. Personally, I learn more from practicing than I do from studying the text. Adapt is wonderful for this. Their problems are so similar to actual test questions that I never have to be fazed by unfamiliar wording or question types on the actual exam, which does wonders for keeping my nerves and test-anxiety in check.

Test-taking is a stressful process, and it’s easy to be discouraged or frustrated halfway through. I understand that as actuarial students we need to push ourselves hard, but we need to recognize when our efforts become counter-productive. Maybe there’s an idea that doesn’t make sense even after the fifth time re-reading the chapter. That’s okay!  You can come back to it later. In the mean time, do something that calms and relaxes you. For me, as a musician, working on music is comforting and refreshing, so I try to take short breaks doing that if I feel the pressure and stress pile up.

Don’t be afraid to trial-and-error different approaches to tackling these exams; I know it took me a while to figure out what works for me. Once you got it figured out, you’ll be passing in no time!