This FAQ article series is based on emails we’ve received from actuarial students. Whenever we receive a question that may be useful for other students, we’ll post our response as an article for everyone to read.
Question: How do you start studying for an exam?
1. Select your study materials
Before you can start studying, you need materials to study from.
There are a wide variety of materials (manuals, live seminars, video lessons, flashcards, etc.), but the study manual is the most fundamental one.
If you’re studying for your first exam, I recommend starting with just a study manual.
You can spend many hours comparing/contrasting all the additional materials, but you don’t want to feel overwhelmed before you even start.
Save yourself the headache (and cash) and just order a manual to take the first step. Most students choose between ACTEX and ASM, ordering through a site like Actuarial Bookstore.
As you work through the manual, you can assess whether you need additional materials such as video lessons or live seminars to help you learn the material. We didn’t personally use these resources, but many students find them valuable.
When you get closer to exam day, you should consider getting an ADAPT membership from Coaching Actuaries. ADAPT offers online practice tests, similar to the format of the actual exam. The difficulty of these practice tests adapts based on your knowledge of the material, and you “level up” as you score well on the exams. Reaching a certain “Earned Level” can be a big confidence booster going into the real exam.
2. Create your study schedule
A little planning up front goes a long way.
You want to break the daunting study manual into manageable chunks and strategize how to best spend your time.
You can view the planning process in two stages: macro and micro level planning.
Macro level schedule
You want to set a few key deadlines and chunk your study schedule into smaller pieces. I always made my study schedule by working backward from the exam day:
- Choose a date for your exam
- Block off the 2-3 weeks prior to the exam as a final review period (also think through your strategy for the final exam week prep)
- Block off the time between your start date and this final review period to finish the manual
- Set weekly goals for progressing through the manual (E.g. learn Sections 1-4 by the end of Week 1).
- Leave at least one rest day per week (more on the importance of rest periods)
- Spend the first study day familiarizing yourself with the exam syllabus before getting started
You can use the number of pages as a rough metric to set these weekly study goals – take the total pages of reading material and divide it by the number of weeks before your final review period. Use the number of pages per week to set your goal of how many sections to finish.
Micro level planning
The macro level planning was just the first step. You’ve strategized how to approach the exam at a high level, but now you need a strategy for approaching daily study sessions. You know that you need to finish Section 3 today, but what does that entail?
During this planning stage, I implement the main strategies from our book. For example, I think about self-testing, spaced review, and previewing the readings.
I end up with a 2-hour daily schedule that looks something like:
- 10 minutes – preview the reading
- 40 minutes – read the section (using the active reading strategies from our book)
- 5-minute break
- 40 minutes – do practice problems on the current reading (potentially using the Reading Method from our book)
- 5-minute break
- 5 minutes – refer back to the syllabus, and think about how the current section fits into the learning objectives
- 15 minutes – do practice problems on the reading from 1 week ago (spaced review)
- This step helps you review material throughout the entire study prep, not just during the final review period (more about the benefits of spacing in our sample chapter)
I assigned specific time intervals to my daily plan, but you should not view this as a rigid schedule. Each section will differ in difficulty and the time it takes to understand the material. Remember to prioritize understanding the material over time spent studying.
However, it’s useful to have this structure to guide yourself through the study session, making sure you spend time in the right areas (e.g. enough time spent on self-testing and spaced review).
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” -Dwight D. Eisenhower
The daily planning step is often neglected in discussions about study schedules. Students talk about how quickly to get through each section and how much time to leave for review (macro level planning), but they don’t always talk about how they approach daily studying.
The macro level plan will fail without solid execution, so strategizing your daily study approach is critical to success on your exams, especially if you are looking to cut down on study time.
Let us know if you have additional questions about studying. We’d love to answer you directly, or make another FAQ article to help other students with the same question.
Study Smart, Pass Fast, Live Life
Mike & Roy