When You Hit a Roadblock [Failed an exam, two exams, more?]

When You Hit a Roadblock (Failed an exam, two exams, more?)


The rigorous, some would say arduous, CAS/SOA examination process is the salient feature of an actuarial education. The long series of demanding exams is intended to produce the best professionals. But rare is the candidate who progresses to Fellowship in a straight trajectory of success. Far more common is the "two steps forward, one step back" mode. Pass one exam, maybe two, but fail the next. Take it again, pass, then fail the next exam. Study harder, take it again, pass this time. And so on for a number of years.

Actuaries who have achieved Associateship or Fellowship clearly combine intelligence, tenacity and hard, hard work. But they've also discovered two other critical factors for success: the secret, at least for them, of studying for this particular series of exams and the value of support from someone who knows the exam process.

Ask for help

Linda Lankowski, who says she failed one exam five times and another four on the way to her Fellowship, gives senior actuaries at her company great credit for helping her through the tough times. "One vice president sent me personal notes to encourage me and another kept telling me he knew from the work I was doing that he was sure I could get through the exams. It helped a lot to hear that I wasn't a failure at more than exams."

Mark Kinzer, who says he took 11 years to achieve Fellowship, also credits an experienced actuary with helping him. Sam Gutterman, former president of the SOA and a Fellow at Kinzer's company, helped the candidate lay out a plan. The next time Kinzer sat for exams, he passed. "I now figured I knew what it took. I noticed that in each case as soon as I started enjoying the material, that signaled that I was going to pass."

Teach yourself how to study

Educators say every student has a different learning style. It follows that study style must also vary widely. Because the actuarial exams are so large and demanding, finding your own "study system" is key.

Bonnie Birns, who's been taking exams for 13 years and still needs to pass 7 and 8, says taking exams while working and parenting two children makes study technique critical. "My husband is an insurance agent and he understands what I'm going through completely. He lets me use his office on Saturdays to study. When I'm preparing for an exam, I spend every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at his office. It's quiet; I can take my lunch, spread out and no one bothers me."

Kinzer says his study routine was two hours of work time, first thing in the morning from 8–10 a.m. and two hours of his own time at the end of the day, studying at his desk from 4:30–6:30 p.m. "I took Tuesday evenings off for my bridge night," he says. "On weekends, my quota was a mere two hours. After every session, I recorded my study time, but I only counted the amount of time that was actually effective—daydreaming time wasn't counted. The total effective hours each week were about 14–18.

"By compartmentalizing my time, I enjoyed my evenings and weekends guilt free, and got in effective study time by splitting it up into manageable two–hour segments." Using this technique Kinzer passed his next three exam sittings with a 6, a 7, and a 6. He says when he cut back, he got a 5 on part 10.

Lankowski offers one hint to those who must take an exam multiple times. "I decided that I could not study for the same exam more than three times straight. I studied for one five times straight and that was a nightmare. When I passed Survival Models, I sat for it three times in a row, and then took a sitting off, during which I studied and passed another Fellowship exam. When I went back to it at the next sitting, it was much easier, and I spent less time studying for that particular piece than in the prior sittings, and passed with flying colors."

Steve Malerich, who achieved his FSA in 1988, used a rather radical approach to passing exams. He says that after "breezing through the Associate exams," he failed to pass any Fellowship exam in six consecutive sittings.

"I figured the best hope I had of getting things moving would be a speed–reading course. Fortunately, the one I found was only about half speed–reading. The other half focused on study techniques. While in that course, I realized I just didn't know how to study."

Malerich says it took him some time to master the techniques the class taught and while learning them he flunked Parts 6 and 7 each for the third time before finally passing 7 on the fourth try. A week before attempting Part 6 for the fourth time, Malerich started an executive development program that his company required for top managers. In that program, Malerich took a psychological exam and had an interview with a consulting psychologist.

"In that interview, the psychologist convinced me of a few things: that I was smarter than I thought I was, that I should be able to pass fellowship exams on the first sitting, that I wasn't spending enough time studying, and that I'd need to keep careful track of the time I spent studying," he says.

A week later, he failed Part 6 on the fourth attempt. But, using the study techniques he had developed over the previous two years and with the advice and encouragement of the psychologist, Malerich passed each of the next four exams.

Hang on like a terrier

"My advice to students is always to stick with it. It is frustrating but it gets better," writes Justin Struby, an ASA since 1998 who says he failed Exam 110 five times. "Studying for these exams is different than studying for exams in college, and once you figure out how to handle them and make the necessary adjustments, things fall into place."

"You just have to be goal–oriented," says Birns. "In my case, I did well on the early exams and I had a history of doing well in school. I was always the top student in my math class. That led to goofing off. Also, if you are fortunate enough to be at home, you should kill yourself to pass because when you work and study, it gets much harder and when you have kids, it's really tough."

Kinzer seconds that notion. "Since I had passed an exam, my company gave me study time at home. Big mistake. My apartment was always really clean and my stereo got a great workout, but my eight hours of time at home each week, taken each Wednesday, usually produced about two hours of effective studying."

Overall, Kinzer estimates he spent at least 3,000 hours studying over the years he took exams—1,000 hours for the Associate level and another 1,998 hours of "quality" study time for the Fellow level exams.