How to Get the Most out of Practice Exams

To give yourself the best chance of seeing your number on the pass list in a couple months, you need to get the most out of the practice exams you take. Fundamentally, the only real reason for taking practice exams is to maximize the points you get on the real exam. Keeping that in mind, below are some of the key benefits of practice exams that I focused on as I went through the exams. Getting the most out of these benefits had a clear impact on my ability to pass exams.

Benefit #1 - Practice Your Exam Taking Strategy

Knowing all the material well enough to host your own exam seminar is NOT enough to make sure you’ll pass an exam. Knowledge, understanding and problem-solving skills only get you so far. Unfortunately, we all know many people (and perhaps even ourselves) who could recite the syllabus backwards, but still fell short with a 5.

To maximize your points on the exam, you need an Exam Taking Strategy. By an exam taking strategy, I mean you need to know (and should practice on your practice exams) the following:

  • How you plan to use the reading period so that you can take the exam most effectively
  • How you decide what questions to do on the first pass and which to tackle at the end if you have time
  • How to decide to move on from a problem that is more complicated than you thought to avoid wasting time
  • How best to show your work on calculation problems
  • How much you should answer on a “Briefly Explain” question vs. a “Fully Discuss” question
  • What to do if you have 5 questions left with 15 minutes left? Or...
  • What to do if you finish the exam and have 20 minutes left?

These are all questions that you’ll make decisions on when you take the exam. But, instead of winging it on the exam, you should figure out your strategy beforehand while you work through practice exams so that your personal Exam Taking Strategy is one that will maximize your points on exam day.

Benefit #2 - Practice Writing Problems for Multiple Hours

My guess is that preparing for an actuarial exam is sort of like preparing for a marathon (once I actually run one I’ll be able to confirm if that’s the case!). As you get closer to the exam you should be doing problems for longer periods of time.

When you learn the material you might do a few practice problems after each section to gauge understanding. BUT, when there are just a handful of weeks until Exam Day, you need to be building up your capacity to physically just sit in a chair and crank out problems for an extended amount of time. Taking practice exams helps you work on that so that when exam day comes, you’ll be able to stay focused the whole time and maximize your opportunity to answer problems.

Frankly, it’s a pain to sit down for 4 straight hours completely focused and scribbling down work on paper as fast as possible. BUT, that's what you need to do to get through an exam and by the time you get through your Practice Exams you should be at least relatively comfortable sitting down and getting through a whole exam without your hand cramping up too much or your mind wandering.

Benefit #3 - Practice Exam Time Management

Time management on an exam falls under your Exam Taking Strategy, but I think it's worth pointing out specifically because so many people fail because they couldn’t finish the exam. To avoid this fate, you need a strategy for managing the few hours you have to take the exam so that you’re able to maximize your points.

When you're working on practice exams, don't just go through them as if they are a bunch of problems and ignore the clock. Pay attention to the clock as you go, problem by problem. Work on paying attention to how much time you spend on each problem and how much time is left compared to points left on blank questions.

When I took a practice exam (and even on exam day) I kept track of what time I started a problem and what time I got to the next one (e.g. I would write a quick note in the margin like: 4:35-4:42). That way at the end I could go back and see how much time I spent for each type of problem and where I was too slow given the point value for some questions. Doing this can give you a clue of what type of problems to skip on the first pass simply because you can't get through them fast enough.

Time on Practice Exams:

To force the time management issue, I suggest giving yourself a time limit of 75% of whatever the time is for the exam. If it's a 4 hour exam, I would only allow 3 hours for the practice exam. When I did a practice exam I would spend the first 3 hours as if it was the exam, then for the last hour, I switched to a different color pen and continued until I hit the 100% of the time for the exam.

Why do this? I noticed that I would be able to get through practice exams in about 3hr, when I was about ready for the real exam. Then, on exam day, I would take 3:30 to 3:50 and maybe only have a bit of time left over, not the hour I would've thought from my practice exam experience. At least for me, the real exam (at least on upper levels) always took longer than practice exams so it helped to prepare to have that buffer on exam day.

Benefit #4 - Prepare for the Exam Environment

When you do a practice exam, you’ll probably be tempted to do it while listening to some music or maybe out someplace like a coffee shop so that it can seem like you have some semblance of a social life as you work through problems on a Friday night.  I used to do this for earlier exams, but now I think it's a bad idea.

Why do I think it’s a bad idea?

Remember our premise about the whole purpose of taking practice exams: The purpose of taking practice exams is to maximize points on exam day and pass the exam.

Taking practice exams might be more bearable by while in a comfortable environment, but if your goal is to maximize your points on exam day, think of it as a rehearsal for the real exam. To do that, you should take practice exams in an environment that is as close as possible to how you’ll take the actual exam.

When exam day comes, everything is familiar and it almost feels like you’re taking another practice exam and you don’t become a useless blob of exam anxiety. You want to go into the exam not dreading it as “Exam Day," but almost as if it’s just another practice exam. This should be one of your main objectives for taking practice exams.

It's similar to practicing a tennis serve over and over. When it's match time you just hit the ball smoothly and don't even have to think about it because it's just natural at that point.

So, try to make the environment around you feel as close to a real exam as possible. I totally understand that it'll be incredibly boring to spend your Saturday morning doing problems for 4 hours with no music. But, you don't get to listen to music on exam day either.

Here are some practical ideas for how to better structure your environment for practice exams:

  • Take the exam in a quiet area with no interruptions
  • Better yet: If you take the actual exam at the office, see if you can go in on the weekend and use the same room
  • Use a clear desk free of notes and anything else except for what you’ll have on exam day
  • Write solutions out with one answer per page, just like on the exam
  • Use the same pen/pencils and calculator you plan to use
  • Use a watch or clock to track the time

Lastly, for bonus points, try to do it at the same time in the day as you will for the actual test. I was not a morning person the whole time I went through taking exams, but I tried to make myself do practice exams at the same time I was planning to do the exam. Again, it's all about making the real exam feel like just another practice exam.

Benefit #5 - Learn to Think Like the Grader when Scoring Your Exam

Finally, you made it through a practice exam and you feel like you crushed it (or maybe you had a bit of a wake up call). Now, it’s time to grab a beverage of choice and start grading your exam.

For a multiple choice test this is nice and easy. If you're taking an upper level, the whole subjectivity thing comes into play and it's a lot more difficult to gauge how well you did. When I scored myself for the upper-level exams, I took out a red pen and tried to put myself into the mindset of what I would imagine a fair, but harsh grader to be. You know, that grumpy co-worker that's been an actuary for 30 years and keeps talking about how the exams are too easy these days? Yes, that guy.

Grading Essay Questions:

For essay questions, check to see if you wrote the same essential key words and ideas as shown in one of the example answers from the examiners report. If so, give a high mark for the answer. If not, just mark it as a zero or very partial credit unless you can find a clear section in the syllabus reading that corroborates your answer.

Grading Calculation Questions:

First, check if your answer lines up with the solution. If your answer is correct, then make sure you showed the same amount of work and subtract off a quarter point or so for each type of calculation you didn't show or messed up. If your answer was wrong, then grade harshly unless you mostly got it right. Obviously there is a lot of leeway in this. It’s best to err on the side of expecting less, not more, leniency from the graders.

Finally, after already grading conservatively, you can also calculate a second grade for each question that represents a 'worst scenario’ grade. This is the grade the question would get if that same co-worker mentioned above was grading it. Basically, just take off another quarter point or even half point off of questions where there might be more subjectivity in the grading. With this more conservative score, there might only be a couple questions that truly have full credit.

So, now you've got two scores for each question and it’s time to add them all up and it's time to see how you did!

Hopefully, you are above the pass mark on the first score you calculated. The real goal is that by your last practice exam you will also exceed the pass mark with the second score (and maybe even have a buffer of a couple points). In a nutshell, that was my approach for grading my own practice exams.

That's what I did for my practice exams on the upper-level exams. All of the ideas above I worked out as I went through exams 5-9 and if I had to take exam 5 over again, this is the approach I would use. I know other people have different approaches that work for them such as doing a practice exam in different sittings. There’s definitely no right way, so if what you’re doing works, then stick with it, but this is the approach that worked for me.