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Exam Success Strategies: Beyond the Material

By Rehan Siddique posted 10-14-2019 09:19


Exam season is almost upon us. Set down your calculator, take a deep breath, and check out a few tips that will help you get through this stressful time.


  • Get good sleep multiple nights before exam: We tend to think that just getting a full night of sleep the night before the exam is enough, but plenty of studies indicate multiple nights of good sleep will help much more. Working out will improve blood flow as well as ensure you get a good night’s sleep (and improve overall health!).
  • Eat healthy foods: We’ve all been in the situation where it’s easier to just order delivery instead of worrying about cooking while you’re cramming, but you should at least try to eat healthy foods! I know this will read like an ad, but services like Freshly and Hello Fresh are incredibly convenient for healthy meals to eat in the days before your exam. I’m sure you can find some coupon codes with some googling to really subsidize the purchase. 
  • Change up your study locations: For some final cramming, it may be a good idea to change your study spots to help retain info. According the New York Times “The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, […], regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious.” 
  • Try a practice exam under exam conditions: Working through a practice exam is an obvious thing to do, but holding yourself to exam conditions is also extremely beneficial. Set a 15 minute timer and give yourself the reading period, deduct extra time from your 4 hours if you use the restroom to account for signing out/in during the exam, wake up early and start the exam process at 8:30 am, wear similar clothes to what you will wear during the exam, and eat the snacks/drinks you want to bring in the exam. All of these are important for you to isolate what may be uncomfortable/distracting for you. After years of trial and error, sweatpants and a t-shirt are still my primary exam taking attire and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
  • Stay positive and try to not be stressed: This is more of a mental tip but panicking and inducing anxiety won’t help you pass. You need to tell yourself that your hard work will pay off and visualize your success. My personal tradition is to get a massage the day before to maximize relaxation (highly recommend).


Exam Day

  • Bring quiet snacks and water into the exam: 4 hours is a long time and munching on something during the exam is a great way to relax and take a breather. Also, try to stay hydrated during the exam! We all know how difficult it is to finish within the 4 hours, so figure out what works for you in terms of liquid consumption during the exam and restroom breaks. I believe that the time it takes to use the restroom won’t materially affect your chances of passing, but that is something I came to after trial and error during my practice exams. I always bring a granola bar and an iced coffee into the exam and no one’s yelled at me (yet).
  • Use the reading period efficiently: Don’t start by trying to solve problems in your head, as tempting as it may be. Do fold the edges of the exam to mark questions you should skip. You aren’t allowed to use pencil/calculator during this time, so folding the paper is really the only thing you can do. Some people also like removing the staple from the exam questions packet and re-ordering the questions. If you do this, please make sure to keep track of what question you are working on! If you have left over time, you can start thinking through some of your answers to get through them quicker.
  • Be disciplined enough to skip problems: This seems like an obvious tip, but it can be surprisingly difficult to completely skip an exam problem. As actuaries, we tend to like solving difficult problems, or work things from principal concepts. On the CAS exams, if you aren’t immediately aware of how to work a problem it is best to skip it and return at the end because you want to maximize points on questions you know how to do. The absolute worst-case scenario is to waste your time on a question you don’t know how to solve and rush through easy problems (or skip them entirely) because you don’t have enough time.
  • On second pass through, always write something down (Upper Level Exams): Once you have gone through the exam and skipped certain problems, go back and write anything down. Even if you don’t know how to solve the problem, try to put down any relevant formulas or concepts you know. There is no guessing penalty on upper exams, and you want to try and squeeze out as many partial credit points as possible. As shocking as it may sound, the graders don’t want to fail us.



  • Write down any problems you think may have been flawed: Defective questions are more common than they should be, so be sure to go through the defective question process and report anything you think may be defective. HOWEVER, just because a question was hard doesn’t mean it was defective. You need real evidence and must prove that a question wasn’t fair. I recommend writing down a few notes about potentially flawed questions, so you have perspective about the exam once the examiner’s report is released. The exam survey is currently the only method to give feedback on an exam, so you should take advantage of it as much as possible.
  • Don’t stress over the exam: The exam is done, and you deserve a break! Go on vacation, read a book, play video games, etc. Detoxing and de-stressing are a very important part of the exam life cycle and you should take full advantage them.

Hopefully you found something here that will help as we come into the home stretch!

1 comment


10-14-2019 14:35

Great article

Rehan, great tips here! Working out, reading/engaging your mind in a challenge outside of CAS study, and ordering from Freshly are A1 any time of the year--even more so during exam crunch time. I would add that one should ideally take practice exams for at least two weeks before the real deal--between 5 and 7 seems like a reasonable number.