Getting Real Studying Done the First Month

I followed a pretty standard pattern for almost all my exams:

Find out I passed my last exam, Woo Hoo!!! -> Celebrate passing! -> Print out the syllabus for the next exam and feel smugly accomplished -> Set an ambitious study schedule, telling myself that this time I’m going to start off studying strong.


I either completely procrastinate for days at a time or I stare at a syllabus paper and make almost zero progress.

Before I know it, the opportunity to set a solid foundation with that first month of studying is already gone and I’ve barely made a dent into the readings.

Why is it So Hard to Get Back Into a Consistent Study Schedule at the Start of a New Exam Season?

If this is January or July, then just a few months ago you were studying just about every free moment you could. Now, at the start of a new exam season you might be struggling to make it through a few pages of a paper or a study manual before feeling a sudden need to check Facebook or email.

I think the underlying issue is the sheer overwhelm when starting a new exam.

If you tell yourself you need to study 400 hours over the next four months and you’re staring at 750 pages of poorly-written syllabus papers, some of which look to be written on a typewriter, then getting started seems almost like a Herculean task. Suddenly, watching just one more Netflix episode of Parks and Rec seems like a pretty good idea!

For my last actuarial exam, I tried something different.

When I took Exam 9 in 2014, instead of thinking about how I needed to study 400 hours by exam day, I broke my overall goals down into more manageable pieces. When you start studying, exam day is so far away that there’s no sense of urgency and no time pressure to sit down and work through a study manual or practice problems.

Instead of focusing on overall study goals to hit by exam day, I set monthly goals to study _____ quality hours. I also tied a nice little reward to each monthly goal.

Each month, If I hit the number of planned study hours, I would get the reward. It was that simple!

For one of the months I set a reward of buying an espresso maker if I studied 100 hours. While studying, I tracked my daily progress towards that goal. Instead of being overwhelmed by the thought of how many hours I needed to study by exam day or how many papers I still needed to read, I had goals that were clear and actionable.

Long and short, I passed Exam 9 that sitting to get my FCAS and right now I’m enjoying a nice cappuccino from that same espresso maker!

The Impact of Milestone Study Goals

For most of my exams, I kept track of how many quality hours I studied. I used Excel for this (as any good actuary would!) and I still have those workbooks.

Below you can clearly see the improvement in the number of study hours for the first two months of Exam 9 compared to exams 6-8. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep track of study hours for Exam 5 for the first few months, so it’s not shown.

As you can see, when I took exam 9 I got a TON more studying done the first two months.

For exams 6-8 I averaged a total of 112 study hours for the first two months. For exam 9, I knocked out 200 study hours by the end of February. That’s almost 100 hours less that I needed to study in March and April.

Let me tell you, that was huge for me because having a good first month or two of studying sets you up so much better to pass the exam and not shrivel up into a tightly-wound ball of anxiety by exam day.

Below you can clearly see how the head start I had in January and February translated into crushing it on cumulative study hours by exam day.

In the final two months of studying for exams 6-8, I was overwhelmed and trying to frantically catch up. For Exam 9, there was no sense of overwhelm because I had built such a solid base of studying in January and February.

I ended up studying about the same number of hours in March and April as I did for the last two months of Exams 6-8, but it was definitely unnecessary. That’s the one exam I can truly say I overstudied for. I just really wanted to be done with exams forever! At final tally, I had studied 50-100 hours more by exam day than I had for my other upper level exams and with MUCH less stress.

Take Action

If you’re someone like me who struggles to make real study progress the first month or so for a new exam, then give this method a shot.

Right now, write down a reasonable study goal for the rest of this month. This could be either to study ____ quality hours or get through a certain amount of material.

Then, decide on a reward for yourself if you hit that goal (it doesn’t need to be big) and write it down on paper. Keep that with your study manual and instead of being overwhelmed by how much you still need to do by exam day, just make focus on making progress towards that month’s goal.

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