A Study Schedule that Works

Like everything with studying for an actuarial exam, it’s important to keep the main goal in mind.

Ultimately, your goal is to maximize the points on exam day. Your study schedule and how you study should reflect this goal.

Some study activities may feel like they’re important or worth your time, but they don’t move the needle much towards that goal. For example, spending a day trying to figure out a fringe topic that’s mentioned in a couple paragraphs in an appendix, reading a referenced paper for context that’s not on the syllabus, or working 10 problems in a row of a problem-type you’ve already mastered probably aren’t going to help that much.

Make sure your study efforts are in line with the goal of maximizing your points on exam day.

Levels of Understanding

When studying, there are two main levels of understanding the material.

The first level is being able to understand the paper and follow solutions and examples. This is important to develop in your first pass through the material.

The second level is to be able to read a question and knowledgeably answer the topic without any additional prompting. Obviously, this is the level of understanding you need for the exam. On the second pass through the material you begin to build this level of understanding through practice problems.

Study Schedule Framework

I think a lot of people start studying relatively soon after exam results are out, so that leaves about four months for studying. Most people will study between three and four months by exam day. Any less than that is pretty tight on time for an upper-level exam.

Assuming four months for studying and this is your first sitting, below is the framework I would suggest for a schedule:

Months 1 and 2: First Pass - Learning and Understanding

For your first pass, focus on learning and understanding the material. By the end of this stage, you should have a decent understanding of the material and be able to work problems using your notes and study manual.

What to study:

  • Read the syllabus as well as your study manual to help you learn the material better.
  • Work a few problems on the first pass, especially calculation problems. This will help you learn the methods better and you’ll waste less time re-learning later on.

Review as you go:

Do some staggered reviews as you go. Try to do this once a week. Look at a quick summary of a paper and do just a couple problems of papers that you covered in the prior weeks. This will save you from re-learning later.

Tight on time?

It probably wouldn’t hurt too much to skim (or even skip) the calculation-based papers and focus on your study manual for those. For papers where essay questions are more likely, I would recommend that you read the syllabus paper.

Month 3: Second Pass - Practice and Review

On your second pass through the material, focus on doing practice problems and reviewing the material. By the end of this stage, you should be able to work problems without  relying completely on your study guide or notes, but you probably don’t have the formulas or details for essay problems memorized, but they should be familiar.

What to study:

  • Re-read your study manual and notes
  • Work all the original practice problems for the paper and the past CAS problems (except from the past couple years that you want to save for practice exams)
  • Create flashcards if you haven’t already (or you might get these separately)

Final Month: Exam Strategy and Mastery

The goal of the final month is to master the material so that you can answer problems, including challenging problems and Blooms problems, from across the syllabus without reference to formulas or notes. The key is to rapidly see all the material by working problem sets and practice exams instead of focusing on the material paper-by-paper.

Just as important, you need to figure out and practice your exam strategy as you do practice exams. I think a lot of people overlook this. At this stage, setting aside an hour or two to work on your exam strategy will have a much bigger impact than working a few extra practice problems that you’ve already done.

What do I mean by an exam strategy?

An exam strategy is simply how you’ll approach the exam. I include the following as aspects of an exam strategy:

  • How to best use the reading period
  • What types of problems to skip on your first pass through the exam
  • How to manage the clock to make sure you don’t run out of time
  • How much detail to show for essay problems
  • How to show your work for calculation problems to maximize points but keep moving
  • Good exam habits
    • e.g. Checking that your answer actually answers the question (for instance, don’t give ultimate loss when the question asks for estimated reserve)

What to study:

Try to take your first practice exam early, ideally 4 weeks out, but 3 weeks would work too. Use your study manual for any formulas you haven’t memorized yet. You’ll fail this exam, but it will give you a good benchmark to see where you’re at and you’ll get to see ALL the material in one sitting. This will also give you a good idea of what areas to work on.

3-4 Weeks out:

  • Work lots of practice problems across the syllabus, both calculation and essay problems, including higher-level Blooms problems
  • Review the formulas and procedures for how to solve the calculation problems so that you don’t need to waste time thinking through your approach to a calculation problem on exam day
  • Start reviewing flashcards for essay problems
  • Re-read the sections of the syllabus where essay questions are most likely

1-2 Weeks out

  • Take a number of practice exams, and focus on practicing your exam strategy
  • Keep a list of the types of problems and topics that you’re uncomfortable with. Review and work practice problems to master these topics, focusing on what's most likely to show up on the exam
  • DON’T get too sidetracked trying to learn all the fringe topics
  • Review your flashcards and put aside the flashcards you’ve truly mastered
  • Re-read (or skim) the sections of the syllabus where essay questions are most likely
  • Review the procedures for calculation problems

How to Study with a Constrained Timetable

If you have less than four months to study, you can squeeze each of these stages a bit. For the final stage, you might only have 2-3 weeks.

One possible area to save time is to skim (or maybe even skip) the syllabus readings that are focused on calculation problems. Instead, just rely on a study guide that shows you the step-by-step procedures for solving the calculation problems.

But, I’d still try to read the papers and sections that are most likely to be the source of essay problems.