Exam Prep Tips from the Youngest FSA in the SOA, Roy Ju

Bill Marella: Hi everybody, welcome. My name is Bill Marella, I'm the CEO of Actex Learning, and today’s video is part one of a multi-part series on Actuarial Exam Prep. This part will be focused on the effectiveness of your learning. I'm very pleased to be joined by Roy Ju, who has been recognized by the SOA as the youngest FSA ever and is also the co-author of a book called Actuarial Exam Tactics. Welcome, Roy. 

Roy Ju: Thank you, Bill.

The Knowledge Tree

BM: It's a pleasure to have you here. We're going to jump right in. You wrote in Actuarial Exam Tactics about a knowledge tree? Why is that important?

RJ: I think one of the biggest challenges that folks realize pretty soon after starting the exam process is that repetition and practice problems are important, but ultimately when you sit for the exams the actual exam problems will have similarities, but certainly won't be identical to the practice problems. For that reason, I'm a little bit hesitant to support any approach that is purely repetition based. When we talk about the knowledge tree in the book, really I think the premise there is that understanding fundamentally what the concepts are will help to intuitively bring context to the formulas and the calculations. That one should actually aid memorization. But I think second, when you find yourself in a situation on exam day where the problems don't seem quite as familiar, or maybe the repetition of said practice problems has failed you, you can pull from some of that conceptual knowledge and work from more fundamental concepts to solve exam problems. I found that approach, at least in my particular situation, and a lot of others who I know, reduced the number of practice problems and hours of studying needed, as a result of focusing on truly understanding the subject matter at a deep level.

BM: When you're talking about those fundamental concepts, you discuss 3 steps. Do you want to walk the viewers through those?

RJ: I think in regard to the three steps, I want to take a step back and recognize that for study approaches we don't want to be overly prescriptive. So maybe a better way for me to summarize this is in terms of sequence of exam preparation. 

Step One

The first of three steps that I would start with is building a schedule and building a study framework that works within your work-life balance. Because forgetting about study tips or different ways to retain and learn information more effectively, I think first integrating it within your life–whether that is as a student who is balancing curricular obligations and classes, or whether it’s a graduate who is in the exam process while working–is really the first thing to call out there. Integrating a study approach that works with your life and within actual exam tactics. We really hit on the concept of having a more spaced study approach and studying more frequently, rather than the longer periods of time a lot of folks may be accustomed to–all nighters or studying for three, four, even five hour blocks. What I found anecdotally, and what we found from a research perspective, is that more spaced intervals, more frequent studying will actually reduce the total number of hours needed to study. That's probably the first thing. And maybe I'll call out that there is a lot of merit to just revisiting how you think about studying within your general life approach. 

Step Two

Now, from there, the other two steps I would outline is one: focusing on the effectiveness of studying. In the book we outline a lot of different ways to better understand the material. 

Step Three

And then from there, I think the last step is focusing more on the repetition, the recall, and I would argue the improvement of the effectiveness and efficiency of how you study. It's helpful for students and anybody taking exams to realize that it's a long journey. By focusing on the big picture and even being a little bit introspective about the different ways to be more effective and efficient in your study approach, you progress through exams while improving your study habits. That’s just as important as getting through the exams. Because only then can you truly identify your areas that need improvement to get more effective and more efficient for some of those later exams.

BM: An excellent answer. And I think you explained in more detail in the book about that focus on productive review sessions. What you call the “spacing effect” was another one of your concepts, and actually one of my favorite aspects of the book. Why you need these productive review sessions and why you need the spacing effect is the “forgetting curve”. Do you want to comment on that?

The Forgetting Curve

RJ: So the forgetting curve–and I can picture the visual since a lot of our readers have sent that curve to me many times–really revolves around how quickly you forget material you learn. The way I like to summarize this is you want to play as much defense as you're playing offense. So as you're learning the material, a lot of folks just kind of trudge from chapter to chapter and focus on getting to the end. What we've found, and certainly what I’ve seen in my own experience, is that if you're focusing on retaining the material that you just went through as you go–and reviewing previous sessions and previous chapters–what you'll find is when you actually get to the end of the study manual or through all the syllabus, you will actually be retaining a lot of those earlier sections a lot better. I think that also helps to build a little bit more intuition because you're starting to see how the different sections and concepts connect. So, long story short, what I try to preach is reviewing what you've learned before you get to the end. I know in academia we are kind of accustomed to taking a final at the end of the year and not reviewing anything until maybe that last week before finals. I think that's probably the wrong approach for exams that are as long and complex as actuarial exams. Again, I encourage folks to really integrate the spacing effect and really acknowledge the reality of the forgetting curve. Because information is tough to retain for long periods of time and so the frequency of said review as well as continuing to review previous material is paramount to being successful.

BM: When you read through the book, it's so obvious, but for most of us that's not the way we study. Your website is Rethink Studying because we have to unlearn these bad habits that we've learned in terms of how we study. So these tips are extremely helpful. Alright, we're going to pause here and go into part 2 of this series, which is focused on efficiency, how to study, and learning the material in less time. So thank you, don't go anywhere, and we'll be back to pick up in Part 2.

RJ: Sounds great!

To watch the interview with Roy Ju below: