Navigating Exam Uncertainty During a Pandemic
By Abhishek Shrivastava
Actuary of the Future, March 2022
Passing actuarial exams during a pandemic might seem like a daunting task, but with a few adjustments, you might find yourself better prepared. I did manage to get my FSA during the pandemic, but I’ve had plenty of hiccups along the way. I failed an exam more than once, got COVID-19 weeks before an exam, and had multiple family members adversely impacted by the pandemic. I might not have the panacea for passing exams during a pandemic, but I have a laundry list of what might possibly help.
Tip #1: Embrace Uncertainty
Actuarial models are designed to account for uncertainty, but actuarial students might find it challenging tackling uncertain situations. I had a schedule, timeline, work and study plan all chalked out when the pandemic threw all sorts of unnerving situations my way. Exams were in-person at first, postponed and eventually conducted virtually. My designated study days were altered to account for changing workloads because of the pandemic. I also had numerous familial responsibilities to attend to. A plan helps us approach exams in a systematic and orderly fashion, but we must not reprimand ourselves if things do not go as per the plan. The key is to be adaptable and flexible in a dynamically changing environment.
Tip #2: Focus on Well-being
It is critical to take tangible actions to maintain our physical and mental health in these unprecedented times. To improve my mental health, I signed up for virtual therapy sessions, made a conscious attempt to reach out to friends and took a stab at complex board games. Even though I had nowhere to travel, I intentionally took time off from work and studying to do things I enjoy. I signed up for biking and hiking groups to ensure I remained physically active. An innumerable number of studies point toward improved physical and mental health as a contributing factor in improved productivity especially in an academic environment. Take care of yourself to give yourself the best chance of passing actuarial exams.
Tip #3: Build a Buffer Margin
Just as actuaries build a buffer margin in reserving models, we must build buffers in our study plan. Early on in my actuarial career, I came across the 10 percent rule. To overcome the overconfidence bias, we must increase the time allocated towards study and work tasks by 10 percent. The thrill of hitting our study targets within the allocated time overcomes the complacency that might be set in. Set the buffer too high and you might find yourself doom scrolling (act of spending an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of negative news). The 10 percent rule helped me account for unforeseen situations such as contracting COVID-19 and taking care of family during the pandemic.
Tip #4: Minimize the Probability of Distractions
Fear of robots and technology seems to be pervasive. What hurts even more, is the pernicious impact of social media, exacerbated by the pandemic. I could feel my productivity dwindling and my concentration wavering. I spent a significant amount of time browsing, instagramming and doom scrolling. I decided to develop a plan to gradually reduce my dependency on devices. I started putting my phone on silent, keeping devices farther away and consciously avoiding pop-up notifications. My screen time reduced by 28 percent (yes, I did track this) and I was able to concentrate on work and studying for longer periods of time. There are other distractions such as family members, kids and pets that might come our way, but it is imperative to give yourself the best opportunity to “get into the zone.”
Tip #5: Adapting to “Work and Study From Home”
The boundaries between work, study, and home have blurred. Pre-pandemic, I would routinely visit my nearest library to study. I would also participate in study groups, enabling me to discuss and solve problems collaboratively and stay motivated. I can ramble on about how the pandemic disrupted my study routine. However, I was quick to adapt by creating virtual study groups with fellow exam takers and frequently changing my study location to break the monotony. The virtual rooms allowed me to interact with a larger number of peers. I also saved an additional 80 mins of commute time that I could invest into studying. To ensure I was not replacing study time with work, I would block my calendar and mentally log off from work. The lack of separation between work and home has created numerous changes in our everyday, but we must try to leverage the changes to our benefit.
Tip #6: Understand the Testing Environment
Another helpful trick is to simulate the testing environment during practice tests. Ideally, you want to time yourself, replicate the exam surrounding and even wear a mask while writing practice tests. Considering the changing regulations, you might also want to be prepared for virtual proctoring of exams. A familiar environment will make you feel more confident while writing the actual exam.
My study tips are not meant to enlighten you but are meant to provide a different perspective. The best way to pass actuarial exams is to figure out your own personalized study formula (pun intended). If you love calendars, schedules and all things planning, build a comprehensive study plan, but if you prefer pulling all-nighters before an exam, go for it. The key is to find those idiosyncrasies and to trust your process. I would recommend using your past study style and adapting it to a changing, pandemic-driven environment. Candidates are also reminded to check the SOA’s COVID-19 page for Education and Exams for updates.
Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries, the newsletter editors, or the respective authors’ employers.