If someone told you one could study less and learn better, would you believe them? Would you be willing to know how this might be possible? Roy Ju, the youngest FSA in SOA history, and Mike Jennings, FSA claim to have the answer. They co-wrote the book Actuarial Exam Tactics: Learn More, Study Less where they explain their study methods. They also explain the most common mistakes actuarial students make and how their study habits can be improved.
Future Fellows: Please tell us a bit about yourselves
Mike Jennings: I’m originally from Lockport, IL, and graduated from Drake University in 2015 with an actuarial science degree. While at Drake, I was a co-founder of the Gamma Iota Sigma chapter (actuarial science and risk management fraternity) as well as the Weight Lifting Club. I started working at Principal Financial Group in 2015, first working with group disability insurance and now with our international retirement business. Hobbies: reading, weight lifting, nutrition.
Roy Ju: I work in a director-level actuarial role at Nationwide in Columbus, Ohio. I grew up in Iowa and have lived there most of my life. I enjoy reading nonfiction; my favorite topics include: financial markets, investments, economics, international business, and cryptocurrencies. My hobbies include playing tennis, golf, and soccer. My friends would characterize me as an avid Chipotle fan with a strong dry humor and big appetite.
Future Fellows: Why did you decide to write this book? What was your idea behind it? What would you like to achieve?
M. J.: Just like most actuarial students, I went through the painful process of failing an exam. I struggled with Exam MLC, and there’s nothing worse than spending hundreds of hours studying only to find out you must start all over again. Then I met Roy, who earned his FSA at age 20 with very unconventional study habits. He studied much less than other students, and I wanted to see if his results were replicable. After learning and testing his study strategies, I was thrilled with my exam progress – I finished my last two preliminary exams, FAP modules, Fellowship modules, and three Fellowship exams in the following 2.5-year period. Many students reached out to Roy asking how he was able to pass the exams so quickly; I was excited to help him share his strategies with other students, so they could experience the same transformation that I did.
We wrote this book so students don’t have to waste hundreds of hours studying for actuarial exams. We want to share the strategies that allowed us to finish the exams without sacrificing our free time.
My main goal: help students realize they don’t need to be constrained by conventional study advice (such as the “100 hour rule”). Most students are left to their own devices trying to figure out a study method that works – we want to expedite that process by giving everyone an effective starting point. We hope students push the boundaries to continue finding and sharing better ways to quickly learn actuarial material.
R. J.: After the SOA informed me and announced that I became the youngest FSA in the world, I received hundreds of emails. I was appreciative to receive many kind and congratulatory messages. Many of those who emailed me also inquired about study advice; a few asked me if I would consider writing a book. It wasn’t until Mike found transformational benefits from these study strategies that we both realized that we could help a larger audience save a substantial amount of study time. We both were able to finish the exam process while still staying heavily involved with other commitments and hobbies, so we hope that we can potentially help others to also improve their study/life/work balance.
Future Fellows: Actuarial students already have tons of material to read. Why do you think taking the time to read your book is relevant to them?
This was one of our main considerations in writing the book – students’ time is limited. We trimmed down our original manuscript to include only the most beneficial strategies, and our final version is around 70 pages.
The couple hours it takes to read the book will save you much more time when it comes to exam prep. Over the course of your exam career, you could save hundreds of hours with this simple upfront investment (not to mention the financial benefits from passing exams more quickly).
More importantly than the actuarial exams, the learning strategies in this book can be applied to any skill – on-the-job learning, side projects, hobbies, etc. We’ve used these strategies when learning how to cook, learning to make a website, and simply retaining more information from non-fiction books that we read. Even if you don’t continue on the actuarial career, this book will provide insights you can take with you whenever you need to quickly learn a new skill.
Future Fellows: Everyone has different study styles. Why do you think your approach is well suited for everyone?
Every student has different study tools that work for them – flash cards, practice problems, group study sessions, etc. – but successful review tools all have one thing in common: self-testing. We liken this to professional baseball: every player has a different batting stance that works for them, but there are underlying principles they all share (drive with the hips, eye on the ball, follow through, etc.)
We don’t try to prescribe one tool for every student to use. Instead we focus on these underlying principles that are common across different study tools. If students understand these principles, they have a framework to succeed with the flexibility to choose which tools work for their personal style.
Future Fellows: What do you think are the most common errors students make and what solutions do you propose?
We feel that some exam writers dive into studying and try to accumulate as many hours as possible without taking time to assess how their study methods are working. While this can work, spending time to improve study skills has a lot of long-term implications that can save a lot of time and frustration.
One specific example we write about in the book is finding a balance between learning the material and “practicing” for the exam. Some students may practice through thousands of problems but feel frustrated when the exam tests many problems that don’t seem to resemble the problems that were practiced. We feel that students can benefit from emphasizing concepts and understanding how different aspects of the syllabus connect together. By doing this, they can develop a more versatile problem-solving approach to address a wide variety of problems that may potentially show up on the exam, even those problems that do not directly resemble practice problems.
Future Fellows: What are the key points of the book?
It’s not enough to work hard – you must channel your efforts in the right direction
You can view studying in two ways: effectiveness (being able to pass the exam) and efficiency (reducing your number of study hours)
Effectiveness is the primary focus – there’s no sense becoming more efficient at a failing strategy
You need to be effective in your first read-through of the material (active reading strategies) as well as your review (self-testing and spacing effect)
To be efficient, you should shift your focus from number of study hours to how well you understand the material
Quality study hours = number of hours x quality of focus. Focus declines over long study sessions, so you can increase your quality study hours by using short, intense study sessions
Push the limits of your efficiency – use Parkinson’s law, time constraints, the “Reading Method” and “Reverse Reading Method” for new ways of stretching your study skills
Future Fellows: You emphasize spaced reviews and self-testing as the most important principles to improve learning. Could you explain a bit about your idea?
These concepts are well-researched ways to improve your retention of material, and they are the key to effective review sessions. For long-term retention, studying one hour today and one hour tomorrow is superior to two hours today. You have the same total study time, but better memory of what you’ve learned. Many students make the mistake of dividing their studying into two distinct chunks: read the material, then review during the last few weeks. By spacing out this review while reading through the manual, they can save themselves many hours of having to relearn what they’ve read.
On the exam, you need to recall information without the use of notes. When reviewing, you should practice this same concept (self-testing) rather than re-reading or other passive review methods. Self-testing results in better long-term memory, and it keeps you honest with which areas you need more review.
Future Fellows: Is anything else provided with the book purchase? Are there any other resources provided to students?
We provide students with a 4-page cheat sheet summary of the book. This was something I (Mike) developed for myself during my study process – I found it useful to refer to this checklist to keep myself on track with my daily study routine.
We also write articles with more study advice that didn’t make it into the book. You can find all of our articles at www.rethinkstudying.com/articles.
Future Fellows: Do you have any other comments or suggestions that you would like to share with students?
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln
Don’t underestimate the importance of proper strategy before starting the study process. You can save yourself a lot of headache down the road if you use the right study approach.
To look at reviews from other students, actuarial professors, and credentialed actuaries, visit:
www.amazon.com (search Actuarial Exam Tactics)
Please log in to leave your comments or questions. Are you eager to try Mike and Roy's methods? Do you plan to purchase the book to learn more about them? What other study strategies have you used and found to be the most valuable?