Hard work alone is not enough to pass actuarial exams, says Charlie McAnea – you must also master your exam technique
Actuarial professional exams are very hard – particularly as we take on the unforgiving world of CPs, SPs and SAs. The content of these courses is far from straightforward, but the real challenge lies in the exams, which are unlike anything a budding young actuary will have encountered at school or college.
They pose questions that can leave you scratching your head over where to start, or wondering how a seemingly straightforward question can demand 20 marks – and that is before the often weird and wonderful scenarios present themselves.
You need two things to succeed: hard work and good exam technique. The former is non-negotiable – you must put in the work to give yourself a chance – but will not be enough on its own. The latter is key, but remains a mystery to many students. Remember: when it comes to exams you need a strategy.
Developing your exam technique requires practice, and lots of it. For any given exam, I used more than 20 past exam papers, giving the papers varying levels of scrutiny. I answered older ones in my head and checked the answers as I went along. I then completed more recent papers in full, but not under time constraints; and I took the previous couple of years’ papers under full exam conditions.
The most important process was using the mark scheme to understand what examiners wanted, and asking questions of myself from all angles – learning the rules.
What did the examiners give marks for and what did they not? Did I make valid points but fail to maximise my marks? If so, how could I have earned any extra marks per point? Did I miss the purpose of the question? Am I repeating mistakes?
The more past exam papers you cover, the clearer the answer becomes to each of these questions, as patterns start to appear. Keep track of the exam techniques you have unearthed using a list or a visual aid – this will give you your most potent weapon.
Even with a good understanding of what examiners are looking for, it is easy to abandon good practices when faced with an awkward question against the clock. Scribble out your visual aid at the beginning of the exam, or prepare one beforehand for online exams, so you have your list of rules at the ready. Refer to it for each question – this will help you focus on implementing the techniques you have learned. Below, I have summarised my own exam technique. This is by no means the only correct way of doing things, and it is vital you develop your own technique in order to fully understand how to use it.
- Your goal is not to write a unique answer or think up an advanced solution – it is about hitting as many half marks as possible
- Learn what scores and what doesn’t – if it scores, write it down; if it doesn’t, you’re wasting time
- Bullet points – make it easier for the marker to identify your half marks.
Go down the right path
- What is the question actually asking?
- Does your point answer the question being asked?
- Look at the command verb and answer appropriately
- Have you answered a similar question before?
- If a question has a series of similar parts, do not repeat yourself. Identify the differences between each part of the question.
- Go back to first principles
- What would your answer be if the question was only worth one, two or three marks?
- What chapter(s) is the solution from?
Maximise your marks
- Set up the point
- State the obvious
- Give a definition
- Give examples – but as an add-on to your point, not as the point itself
- Generate more marks per point. Ask yourself: Who? So what? Why? How? And? However?
- Draw from personal experience, if relevant
- Use the details or figures from the question – don’t be scared to restate these
- Consider practicalities
- Think of the big picture
- Think of indirect consequences of the scenario
- Usual suspects – tax, regulation, risks, etc.
Draft up your playbook and tackle the exams by developing your strategy and technique.
Charlie McAnea is a guest student editor