An Effective Exam-Taking Strategy to Pass the Actuarial Exams

When I left the exam room for my final actuarial exam, CAS Exam 9, I felt more confident about passing than I felt for any other upper-level CAS exam. I don’t think I’d learned the syllabus material that much better than any other exam, even though I had nailed down an effective strategy for studying. 

The key difference was that by the time I took Exam 9, I had a solid exam-taking strategy. 

You may have a solid understanding of the syllabus material for an actuarial exam, but not having a good exam-taking strategy can mean the difference between passing and failing.

Why you need an exam-taking strategy

To pass an actuarial exam, especially an upper-level CAS exam, studying hard and understanding the syllabus material isn’t enough. Even the most well-prepared can fail an exam due to poor exam-taking skills.

Ultimately whether you pass or fail boils down to your point score. Did you score at least as high as the pass mark? 

Understanding the syllabus is a prerequisite to scoring well on the exam. Your exam preparation effectively sets the maximum possible score you could get on an exam. Having a good exam-taking strategy allows you to get as close as possible to that ceiling on the exam given your level of preparation.

In the final weeks leading up to an exam, investing a few hours to focus on building an effective exam-taking strategy will be more impactful to whether you pass than studying an obscure topic that’s unlikely to be tested or re-working practice problems that you 100% know how to do.

Goals of an Exam-Taking Strategy

An exam-taking strategy serves two main purposes:

  • To make sure you get through the exam
  • To maximize your points on the exam problems you answer

Getting Through the Exam

The most common reason I hear for why someone failed an exam is that they ran out of time and left answers blank.  This is the worst thing to do on an exam. If you leave 10-20% of the exam blank to get 0 points, then you need to score close to perfect on the rest to pass, which is unlikely.

There may be a lot of reasons why you might run out of time on an exam, such as:

  • Taking too much time on the early problems and frantically rushing later in the exam
  • Spending too much time figuring out how to solve calculation problems and getting stuck
  • Writing too much or showing too much work for problems given their point values
  • Wasting too much time trying to figure out a tricky problem or one on an obscure topic

There will always be some questions you don’t know how to solve, but if you’re well-prepared you should know how to solve the majority of the problems. In order to pass, it’s important to maximize your points on the questions you know how to solve. 

Maximizing Your Points on Exam Questions Answered

An exam-taking strategy will help you do this by:

  • Making sure you answer the question that’s actually asked
  • Showing the right amount of work given a problem’s point-value 
  • Catching important details or twists to a problem that make it more challenging

An effective exam-taking strategy will help you with both of these goals so that you finish the exam and maximize your points.

An Effective Exam-Taking Strategy for the Actuarial Exams

Below are the strategies I used to pass the upper-level CAS exams and get my FCAS. I didn’t start doing all of these for my first actuarial exam (Exam P) or even my first upper-level CAS exam (Exam 5), but by my final exam, this was the system I used:

Strategy #1 – Start the exam by scanning through the questions and prompts

Back when the upper-level CAS actuarial exams were on paper, candidates had a 15-minute reading period to read through the exam before the exam started. This reading period was cut when the exams moved to a computer-based testing format.

Even though there’s no official reading period now, I recommend that you do your own mini-reading period to start the exam. 

Use the first 5-10 minutes to skim through the exam and get a rough idea of what questions lie ahead. This may sound like a waste of time and you’d rather jump into solving the first problem on the exam, but a quick scan through will help you to:

  • Get an idea of what exam topics are covered
  • Identify problems you know how to solve and challenging problems you don’t
  • Identify calculation vs. essay problems and which problems might be time-consuming
  • Prime your brain to start thinking about the topics that lie ahead
  • Reduce your overall anxiety since what’s on the exam is no longer a mystery
How to do a first scan through an actuarial exam

When you start the exam, take about 10 minutes to skim through the problems, and for each problem, do the following:

  • Quickly scan the data/information 
  • Read the question prompt (the last sentence for each problem part that tells you what the question is asking)
  • Notice the point-value
  • Notice if it’s a calculation or essay-type problem and if it’s a calculation problem, what problem type (e.g. Current Rate Level – Parallelogram Method)

Strategy #2 – Set a time budget and stay on pace

It’s critical that you set a time budget for yourself so that you don’t spend too much time on any particular problem which can put you in danger of running out of time and leaving questions at the end blank that you know how to solve. 

You might do this instinctively already, but by setting a clear time budget and sticking to it, you’ll lose the anxiety of worrying about whether you have enough time to get through the exam. This is a strategy I eventually figured out by the time I got to the FCAS exams, but it’s one that good exam-takers know to do (see Cal Newport’s book “How to Become a Straight-A Student” in the further reading section below).

What a time budget is

All of the CAS exams (MAS 1 through Exam 9) are 4 hours long. That gives you 240 minutes to answer all the questions with ideally some extra time to review. I would target using 3.5 hours (210 minutes) to get through the exam, which gives you a half-hour buffer for:

  • If you’re slow on a few problems and fall behind
  • To check your work, fix mistakes, and embellish your solutions
  • To spend more time on the tricky problems you got stuck on

For example, if your exam has 70 points,  that means to keep pace you should use no more than about 3 minutes per point to answer problems.  If the next problem is worth 2 points, you shouldn’t work more than about 6 minutes on it. If you get stuck and spend 12 minutes on it, that means you just lost about 2 points worth of exam time (6 minutes) that you could have used to answer another problem later on the exam you probably do know how to solve.

Note that if you’re taking a preliminary exam (like SOA Exam P or Exam FM), all the questions are worth one point and they’re almost all calculation problems. For your time budget, set a target minutes-per-problem pace so that you finish with a 20-30 minute buffer.

How to set and use a time budget

For each problem, write down the minute you start it and write down (or mentally note) what the target minute is to finish it given your time budget.

For example, if you start a 2-point problem at 1:23 (1hr 23min) into the exam, just write down (or type ) “23” in the corner or on scrap paper. If your time budget is 3 minutes per point, you know you need to move on to the next problem by time 1:29.

Hopefully, you can solve the problem by then, but if you see that the exam clock is at 1:29, it’s time to stop and move on or very quickly finish the calculation step or essay idea you’re doing right then. Don’t linger too long on any particular problem because you should have time during your review or next pass through the exam to see the problem with fresh eyes and finalize a solution.

This may sound like one more thing to worry about, but it will keep you on pace so that you finish the exam and avoid leaving blank answers unnecessarily. This is critical to giving yourself a decent shot at passing.

Strategy #3 – Triage problems and start with the easy/medium problems

I recommend taking 2-3 passes through the exam and starting with the easy and medium-difficulty problems you know how to solve. There’s no need to answer each problem completely in the order they’re given. 

If you start with the problems you know how to do, you can maximize your points on them and get them out of the way before having to tackle the more challenging problems. This will give you good momentum through the exam and lessen your stress compared to getting stuck on a tricky problem at the start, knowing that you still have the whole rest of the exam to do.

How to triage problems into multiple exam passes

First Pass Through 

After scanning through the problems and setting a time budget, take a first pass through the exam answering all the easy and medium problems you know how to do. If it’s not immediately obvious how to tackle a problem, skip it in the first pass. 

The goal of the first pass is to knock out all the problems you know how to solve and can answer within your time budget given the point value.

I would especially focus on calculation problems in the first pass. It’s more difficult to rush through calculation steps than typing out essay responses if you’re running out of time at the end of the exam.

Second and Third Pass Through

During the second (and possibly third) pass, it’s time to tackle the more challenging problems. Often, after skipping a problem on the first pass, you’ll realize a path forward on the second pass that you didn’t notice before. This is why it’s helpful to take multiple passes instead of grinding it out even if you’re stuck.

If you get truly stuck on a problem, just put down what you can for partial credit and move on so that you can get through all the problems and still have some review time.

Try to keep at least 10-15 minutes (hopefully more) at the end of the exam so that you can check your work and review it. This is often better than staring at a tricky problem that you can’t figure out how to solve or one where you don’t remember a key concept.

One other tip: The upper-level exams are generally ordered the same way as the syllabus content outline. For example, Exam 5 ratemaking problems usually make up the first half of the exam and reserving problems make up the second half. If you feel stronger about reserving, there’s no reason not to start with the second half of the exam first.

Strategy #4 – Give up on problems when you get stuck

The worst thing you can do on an actuarial exam is to get sucked into a time vortex trying to solve a challenging or time-consuming problem and blow past your time budget. You’re studying for the actuarial exams so you probably like the dopamine hit of solving a tricky problem, but this is the easiest way to sabotage yourself and run out of time on the exam.

Remember, the opportunity cost of wasting 5 more minutes on a tricky or low-point, but time-consuming problem, is that you could instead use that time answering another problem you know how to do.

When you’re studying, it’s worthwhile to struggle with a problem to figure it out. That’s incredibly helpful to improve your understanding and problem-solving ability. On an exam, this is a terrible idea. Your goal on an exam is to maximize your points and pass, not show the world (or yourself) that you can solve a particularly nasty problem.

I hereby give you permission to give up on challenging problems on the exam when you’re stuck. If you have time at the end of the exam after checking everything, that’s when you should try to figure it out or maximize partial credit.

When to give up on problems

If you get stuck on a problem and notice yourself spending more than a minute or two trying to remember a concept or figure out an approach, it’s best to just cut your losses and move on. You can always go back to the problem later or during your review period.

It’s more important that you maximize your points on easy- and medium-difficulty problems than it is to solve the one or two unreasonably complicated problems that everyone else is also struggling with. 

Strategy #5 – Show the right amount of work and give the answer the grader wants

Show the right amount of work for the point value of a problem 

For essay problems, a good rule of thumb is one unique idea for every 1/4 point on an upper-level exam. 

For calculation problems, show enough work that a fellow actuary can follow your work, but there’s no need to type out redundant formulas on a CBT exam if a grader can see the formulas in the spreadsheet cells.

Pay attention to the verbs and adverbs used in a prompt

The verbs and adverbs used in an exam question prompt aren’t random. They’re important indicators of:

  • What the problem is asking
  • How much work an acceptable solution should show

For example, you should answer an “Identify” or “Briefly describe” problem completely differently than a “Fully describe” problem, which requires a more substantial response. 

I highly recommend that you read the CAS exam post, “The Importance of Adverbs”.  The exam committee links to this specific post in most Examiners’ reports and there is even a link to it on the front page navigation of the CAS site.

State assumptions if not clear

Sometimes an exam writer might not have considered a required assumption in a problem or the problem might not be clear. In this case, it’s alway important to state the assumptions you use.

Double-check the question prompt to make sure that you actually answered the question

This sounds silly, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken practice problems or problems on an exam and my boxed solution didn’t actually answer what the problem asked for. This is true for both essay and calculation problems. 

For example, a problem might ask you to “calculate the IRR (profitability) of two lines of business and recommend which line of business the insurer should expand in.” If you’re rushed on an exam, you might correctly calculate the IRR for both Iines but forget to recommend that the insurer expand writing in the line of business with the higher IRR. That’s an easy 1/4-point mistake.

Note: For multiple choice exams like Exam P or  MAS 1, all that matters is getting the right solution, so this part isn’t relevant except for bullet #3, double-checking the question prompt.

Strategy #6 – Review your answers and fix any mistakes

If you do all the strategies above on the exam, you should have stuck to your time budget and completed 2-3 passes through the exam answering all the questions except for maybe one or two you couldn’t figure out. This should leave you with 10-20 minutes or so of exam time left.

Now it’s time to review your answers to eke out any final 1/4 points to maximize your score.

How to maximize points during review time

Go back through the exam from start to finish. For each problem, answer the following questions:

  • Did I actually answer what the problem is asking for?
    • Read the question prompt and make sure your final answer is what it’s asking for.
  • Did I miss any key information, assumptions, or problem twists?
    • Especially think about this for calculation problems that may be set up differently than past CAS problems
  • Is my work clear enough to follow?
  • Can I improve or flesh out my answer to an essay question?
    • Pay attention to question prompt verb/adverbs like “Fully describe” or “Analyze” which suggest more expansive answers
    • Pay attention to the one idea per 1/4 point rule of thumb
  • Why might my answer be wrong?
    • Scan through your solutions with a critical eye thinking about how you might dock points if you were a grader

This review should take up the rest of the exam time. If you have a few final minutes, this is a good time to go back to that one ridiculous problem and see if you can improve your solution or salvage partial credit.

Time’s Up!

If you were well-prepared ahead of time and used the exam strategy above, you should leave the exam feeling confident about how you did.

You can’t control what questions show up on the exam, but you can control your exam preparation and your approach to taking the exam. By focusing on what you can control, you will give yourself the best opportunity to pass.

How to practice your exam-taking strategy

During the final month before the exam, it’s important to practice your exam-taking strategy.

Start practicing on past CAS exam problems and practice problems

As you go through practice problems, do the following:

  • Work on time budgeting and paying attention to how much time you spend on a problem
    • Did you stick within your time budget for the problem? Or should you have moved on if it were a real exam?
  • Think about how you’d triage a problem
    • Would you tackle it on your first or second pass
  • If you get stuck on a problem, notice this and mentally note that now would be the time to move on during an exam.
    • Start building this awareness. Then of course try to figure out the problem since you’re still studying at this point.

By practicing this, you’ll get a good idea about which types of problems are time-consuming and which are faster.

Final two weeks – Practice the full system on practice exams 

First, try to take practice exams in an environment that’s as close to the real exam as possible. Also, take practice exams with a shorter time length like 3.5 hours for a 4-hour exam.

After you complete a practice exam and check your answers, think through how well you executed your exam strategy. Was there anything you could have done to improve your score from an exam-taking point of view? For instance:

  • Did you waste too much time on a problem when you should’ve given up on it? (Strategy #4)
  • Did you show way too much work (or too little) given a problem prompt’s verbs, adverbs, and point value? (Strategy #5)
  • Did you consistently overrun your time budget on problems and run out of time? (Strategy #2)

These questions will help you improve your exam-taking skills so that you get as close to your maximum possible score, given your level of exam preparation.

Improve your actuarial exam preparation before the exam

It’s important to note that great exam-taking skills won’t make up for poor exam preparation. 

There are many aspects to good exam preparation including:

Rising Fellow can help you with all of these exam-preparation aspects so that you’re well-prepared heading into the exam. We offer both comprehensive online courses and supplemental study material specifically for the upper-level CAS exams.

  • Our CAS Online Courses, together with the exam syllabus, are built to get you exam-ready from start to finish
  • The Exam Cookbooks & Problem Packs will teach you the step-by-step recipes to solve the calculation problems so that you don’t waste time thinking through how to solve a problem

Conclusion

Executing a good exam-taking strategy on exam day is critical so that you score as high as possible given your level of preparation. If you work on your exam-taking strategy and execute it during the exam, you should feel confident coming out of the exam room as long as you are well-prepared with the syllabus material ahead of time. 

This exam-taking strategy will work for any actuarial exam, preliminary or upper-level, but you may need to do some tweaking for the exam you’re taking.

If you have other good exam-taking strategies you use, please send me a note! I’d love to hear about it.

Further Reading

To learn more about improving your studying and exam-taking skills, read “How to become a straight-A student” by Cal Newport. Some of the exam-taking strategies above are adapted from that. Even though it’s geared towards college students, the tips are highly relevant to the actuarial exams.

CAS Exam-Taking Articles

Here are a few articles from the CAS and Future Fellows that will help improve your exam-taking skills:


Geoff Werner joining Rising Fellow for Spring 2024 Exam 5 Online Course »