Lessons Learned From Writing Exams During the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Tiana Zhao
Actuary of the Future, March 2022
This article explores the challenges of writing exams during the COVID-19 pandemic and lessons learned. Candidates may also check the SOA’s COVID-19 page for Education and Exams for updates.
Lesson 1: Be Flexible
I was planning to write exam SRM in May 2020, but because of COVID, my sitting was cancelled, and I had to write during the next sitting, which was in September. If exams are delayed or there are no spots available, the first suggestion I always give to people is that they should redesign their study schedule to make sure they are not over-studying to the extent that they suffer from burnout, or under-studying. I would suggest not studying for a couple of months, depending on your progress, then go back to studying maybe a month before your sitting to review the materials and do practice exams. Doing that really helped me avoid burnout and I ended up passing the exam with a high mark. I would also recommend thinking about taking a module instead of writing an exam given that modules wouldn’t be cancelled since they are online.
Lesson 2: COVID Protocols at Testing Sites Were Great
I was also planning to write exam LTAM in October 2020. Initially, I really hoped to write it in April, but I had finals and projects because it was also the end of the term. Because the April sitting got delayed to July, everything suddenly worked out for me, and I was able to write during that sitting. My experience at the test center was great—everyone followed the protocols, and I wasn’t worried about getting exposed to COVID. It was a written exam and I ended up writing it in a hotel’s meeting room. The proctor was wearing a mask and he made sure not to touch any of my items and instead asked me to show him my ID, that I cleared the memory of my calculator and that I did not put anything in my pockets. There was also hand sanitizer at the test center, so I could sanitize my hands whenever I touched something that was not mine. My experience at a Prometric center was also similar. The staff also followed COVID protocols. There was hand sanitizer, and everyone was wearing masks. Again, no one touched any of my items and the staff made sure to sanitize everything—the workstations, pencils, etc. We were also seated at least two meters away from other candidates. Adding on to that, we were not allowed to enter the test center if we were experiencing any COVID symptoms, so I felt very safe during my exam.
Lesson 3: Importance of Finding Ways to De-stress
Aside from exam SRM, which I wrote in September, I also wrote Exam PA in December 2020. Right before my exam, I heard from friends who registered for Exam PA that their exams got cancelled. It was already stressful for me since I only had three weeks to study for the project and I was working at the same time, and that just added to the stress. To decrease the stress, I started taking walks every day after work, then came back home and had dinner before studying. That made sure that I had some time to relax every day and my brain had some time to rest between working and studying. I would also contact my Prometric center and ask them if there were any updates on my sitting. I found it very helpful to contact my Prometric center whenever COVID got worse or if I just had questions on their COVID policies. The staff was generally very helpful, and it gave me peace of mind so that I could focus on studying for my exam.
Lesson 4: Finding a Backup Proctor in Case of Cancellation
In spring 2021, I wrote two FSA exams in the same sitting—Exam CFEFD on April 27 and Exam ERM on May 5. I registered a couple of days after registration opened and was struggling to find a spot. I had been studying for a while at that time, so I didn’t want to simply get refunded. In April, I got an email from the SOA saying that I would need to find someone to proctor my exams because there were no other spots available, due to COVID capacity issues and local restrictions. The first thing I did was to contact people I knew from work and people who had experience with proctoring, for example, university professors. Then I asked my friends if they knew anyone who satisfied the requirements to be a proctor. I found that people were generally very open to help because they had been through the same process, and they understood how difficult and stressful it was to write an exam.
Lesson 5: Saying No to Social Events and Staying Safe and Healthy
I wrote another FSA exam in October 2021—Exam SDM. This time, again, I was worried about the government issuing new restrictions because there was the Delta surge, and I had to register for the exam as soon as registration was open to make sure I got a spot. The general advice I’d give to others is that if you are sure that you want to write an exam, then register as soon as possible to secure a spot that is not too far away from where you live. Also, take care of yourself and make sure you don’t get sick. I tend to get sick before my exam because of the stress, so I was extra careful about wearing a mask, getting my vitamins, etc., to make sure I didn’t get sick. I also had to say no to all sorts of events and my friends’ invites that were close to the exam just in case someone in the room had COVID, which was unfortunate because I missed out on a couple of things, but it was what I had to do.
My experience on writing exams during COVID has really taught me how to manage stress. Obviously, it was stressful to write an exam, especially given this environment. So I developed all sorts of strategies, for example, walking after work, to help me reduce stress and balance work, studying, and my personal life.
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.
Tiana Zhao, ASA, CERA, will be joining Sun Life as an actuarial analyst in August 2022. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: A guide to exams and updates can be found here—https://www.soa.org/education/general-info/default/. Please contact the SOA’s Customer Service Center at https://help.soa.org/ if you have any questions about the exams.