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My Techniques for Passing SOA FSA Exams July 2015

First, a bit of background on myself I attended University of Waterloo (98-02) and spent a year working
in Toronto before returning home. I got my ASA in 2006..and then took a break from exams (which was
a really bad idea) until 2014 when I resumed the FSA exams (its really, really difficult to start back
exams, once youve stopped). I used the excuse that I wanted to get some more experience first. That is
a BS excuse. Dont use it. Do the exams.
Now, just to give some credibility to what I am writing - I have never failed an actuarial exam that I have
studied for (and I averaged about a 7.5 grade). So, I think my methods have worked very well for me, and
there is a chance they may work for you too. At the very least, it cant hurt to read them.
At this point, I want to put in a couple caveats. Students have been successful with these exams using a
wide range of techniques, and methods that work for one person dont necessarily work for another. Each
individual has to determine what works best for them. Im just sharing what has worked for me.
Now, I dont think Im overly smart. While Ive generally done well, it is more as a result of effort, and
method, than any natural ability. I say this so that you do not think that you have to be some superintelligent dude to get through these exams. These exams are very passable, once you are willing to put
the effort in.
Now, onto my techniques

Effort and Sacrifice


For me, I only wanted to write these exams once, and I was willing to give up my life for a short period, in
order to get them done. I want to elaborate on this, as I do not think many people have a real
understanding of what I mean by this. There are 24 hours in each day. Every single hour is important that
is be utilized as efficiently as possible. The goal for me was that each hour be spent either studying, or
preparing your brain for studying. The following is the rough goal of each study day for me.
4 am 12 pm Study (with ~two 15 minutes naps)
12 pm 1:30 pm Break
1:30 pm 9 pm Study (with ~two 15 minutes naps)
9 pm 9:30 pm Break
9:30 11:30 pm Study
11:30 pm 4:00 am - Sleep
If it was a work day, I would get in 4 am 8 am, and then take a break after work from 4 to 5:30 pm and
then study till 9 pm.
Basically, if it was a work day I used to aim to get in around 8 hours of studying, and otherwise, I would
aim to get in around 16 hours. I didnt keep track of hours otherwise, but that didnt matter to me, once I
was putting in maximum effort.
Now, let me be clear - this was the goal of each day but this was not always achievable, as we are not
machines, but that doesnt mean you cant strive for it. Goals should be achievablebut just barely, in
order to get the most out of each day. Olympic athletes train to get the most out of their body; you are
training to get the most out of your brain. I think it requires a similar mental mindset.
Also, this is not achievable overnight, but I think the stronger your determination to pass these exams is,
the easier the sacrifice becomes.

Study Days
Hopefully you work for a company that has a study policy, and allows you a reasonable amount of study
time for these exams. For me, knowing that I have a whole day ahead of me that I could dedicate to
studying without any disruptions or distractions is very important.
In addition to this free study time, most people limit themselves to evenings and weekends. Most people
do not study Friday evenings and for sure most people do not use up their vacations to study. This is a
huge amount of additional time which most people do not utilize.and your goal on the exams, is simply
to do better than most people.

Sleep
I always thought I needed 7 hours of sleep, but I found I could make do with less than 5, along with a
short nap(s) (generally 15 minutes unless I required more) in the morning and afternoon sessions. I think
sleep is extremely important, and finding that right amount is critical. Getting 5 hours on a night, and an
hour and a half or so spaced out through the day, worked well for me. I took what I needed, but no more.

Breaks
In my lunch break, I got into a nice routine. I did a circuit of paddle boarding, swimming, running and
diving at the nearby beach basically some activity to break a sweat, get in a work out, and help my brain
rest and recover. The key here is to determine what activity helps your brain to recover the fastest. I think
the gym probably is the answer for most people.
For me, any activity where I was staring at a screen (e.g. internet, tv) did not help my brain rest, and was
not an efficient use of time. It can wait until after the exams.
There were times over the course of the study that it may be necessary to take a longer break, when your
brain can not take any more, and you are not doing yourself any favours by trying to force yourself to
study. These can be difficult to recognize, as sometimes you can push through them, and still get an
effective study day in. Other times, it is best to take the day off entirely and do something fun. In fact,
about a month before LP, I got sick for a week. I could not study, but having that mental break allowed
my batteries to recharge, and I had a very strong last month of studying.

Obstacles
Basically remove obstacles that get in the way of studying, and put obstacles in front of all distractions.
Some things I did were to remove access to my smart phone, and internet (unless I was utilizing an online
forum or online seminar). Basically anything you know that provides a distraction, you can make it more
difficult to pursue that activity.

Where are you studying?


Im lucky. I was able to utilize a spare office at my work place. It was air-conditioned, away from the
distractions of home, and I could store all of my study material there. I put a pillow below the desk for
naps, and pretty much made it my home away from home. It is pretty essential to have some place
where you can concentrate, where you will not get any distractions. Having a lot of desk space where you
can spread everything out is also a plus.

Life Happens
Life events can happen and get in the way of your studying. Sometimes, these can be blessings in
disguise, even though it might not seem so at the time, as it allows your brain time to rest and recover.
Butin order to afford this time off, you need to put in the additional time otherwise.
This is your time
This is your time to be selfish and learn to say No, I have to study to people. When they tell you, what
about after you are finished studying, you can tell them, Sure, June/December sounds fine. Basically,
the world really does have to revolve around you at this time. If people do not understand, it is because

they are thinking primarily of themselves and their needs. If your best friend really wanted you at their
wedding, they would have planned it to be in June/December, after your exam. ;-)

Support System
Your friends and family need to understand that the studying required for these exams is intense. They
are there to provide you with food and encouragement when you require it. They should try their best not
to get married, or expire, during this time of study. ;-)

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind


Try to eat smart, reasonably healthy meals, and get sufficient sleep and exercise. This is most important,
as you are pushing your body to the maxiimum and you do not want it breaking down on you.
Preparation, before the study period
Preparing mentally before the period of study is essential. Each person may prepare differently, but for
me it was basically steeling my mindset for the fact that my life was going to change significantly for the
next few months. It is also important to get chores out of the way, so you have minimal interruptions. E.g.
getting your car serviced, or loading your freezer up with easy to prepare microwavable meals.

Researching the available study guides


Research the study guides by studying their sample material, and the different types of study materials
that are offered. Initially, I spent a lot of time researching the study guides. It was essential for me to have
trust in the study guide, and believe that it was taking me down the right road.
There is also no rule saying that you can only get 1 guide. I like having 2 study guides.in fact, I love
having 2 study guides. Getting another perspective can be very useful at times. I used PAK for LP, PAK &
TIA for LFV and PAK for LRM (no TIA was available for LRM at the time). While I passed LP on the first
try, I really regret not using TIA as well as PAK for it. (Eddies videos are simply awesome!). If I had to do
it over again, I would have gotten PAK & TIA for each exam, and possibly skipped on the source material.
More on study guides later.

Order the source material


Order the textbooks and the online readings. Print the readings, and organize them in binders, labelling
them for easy access.
While I did not utilize the source material much, having them organized does improve efficiency in the odd
time that I did refer to them. Source material is a last resort for me, but I liked to know that I had all
options open to me. Even though on reflection, I could certainly have done without it, psychologically I
think it was good for me knowing I had it available just in case.

But the source material is not essential


For LP, I spent the first month and a half reading the source material, in conjunction with the study
manual. On looking back, this was a complete and utter waste of time for me. I only ended up completing
2/3 of the syllabus, and it did not assist me in understanding the material. The only way I can see
benefiting from the source material is from reading it after I have a really good knowledge of the syllabus
already, and I am looking to expand on that.like after the exam. So to summarize, Source Material =
Waste of Time Again, I did have it available for each exam, but if you need to cut costs, this is the first
thing I would eliminate. (Disclaimer: I should just add that this is my view, and it is somewhat harsh others have found the source material to be useful)

Begin as early as possible


Begin as early as possible i.e. when the syllabus is released, which gives you about 5 1/2 months of
study time.
I found this was most critical for my first FSA exam, as it took me a month to figure out how I was going to

study, and basically attack the material. For my remaining exams, I was waiting on results before
studying, so there was less time available.

Study Guides I think both PAK and TIA produce very good study guides, and ideally, I would be
using both of these. I did not use ACE, but many people do comment positively about them as well.
I have mentioned earlier that I would choose 2 study guides, over choosing 1 study guide & source
material/texts. The study guides do tend to offer a disclaimer saying that they are not a replacement for
the source material, and while initially this was a concern of mine, I did not find it to be an issue in the
end.
Specifically, I found the instructors Eddie Smith (TIA) and Garry Capko (PAK) spectacular. They are
amazing instructors and teachers. They really took the time out to help you via email, on their respective
forums, and put huge amounts of effort into their material. Their online seminars are excellent, and I really
could not choose one over the other. I also benefited greatly from, Eddy (PAK) and Francis (PAK), as
well.
Both TIA and PAK put out a number of study aids e.g. study guides, flash cards, online seminars,
condensed study guides, mock exams and practice questions.
I found that there was not enough time to use all of these, but it is good to have many options to choose
from. Figure out which ones work best for you, and spend your time on those.
In the end, I would recommend using both of the TIA and PAK study guides, as well as their online
seminars. I also found the mock exams and practice questions that both of them produce, extremely
valuable. PAK marks their mock exam and provides valuable comments back to you. I got 70-80% in
these mock exams, and I found they did a great job of testing the syllabus with solid exam questions. I
wish the actual exams were more like these, than the bloodbath which they really are.

Making your study notes


While I found that both TIA and PAK had very good study guides, for me, none of them was perfect. I
found that TIA gave a really solid summary of the source material, in an intuitive order.but I wanted
more white space in the layout. PAK used a bit more white space but was overly detailed in many
places and sometimes it was difficult to distinguish what was a nice to know versus a need to know. I
also preferred a more intuitive order to the notes, and PAKs notes tended to be in the same order as the
syllabus lists them. (I should just say that these guys are making constant improvements to their material,
so my comments can only apply to the material I used at the time)
In the end I came to the conclusion that I wanted to make my own notes, but making your own notes,
based on someone elses notes, is much, much easier than making notes based on the source material. I
would not have attempted that.
Now, making your own notes is extremely tedious, but at the end of the day, you actually learn so much in
the process of making them, and you have a set of notes that you believe 100% in.
I ended up using Excel, and made the notes in a branch diagram format. I found this structure helped
me to keep a good perspective on everything, and shows how different topics and lists were related,
without losing sight of the overall picture.
In order to speed these notes up, I spliced picture images of the PAK/TIA notes into my notes using
screen grabs to capture the image and paint to crop it, wherever possible. This made my spreadsheet
much larger, but the time savings made it worthwhile.
I only listened to the online seminars really once, but I included relevant information from them into my
notes. There was a lot of pausing and rewinding to make sure I really understood the relevant points. A
hour lesson could take me over 2 hours to get through. I found they were really helpful at understanding
what topics and concepts were really important. Also, you tend to get a lot more background information

on the topic, and get a feel for how important the topic is, and how it relates to other topics. This type of
information is not generally given in the more formal study notes, but I found invaluable.
I then used a landscape layout, printing on 8.5 x 11 off-white cards, often using scotch tape to combine
2 or 3 cards.
The brilliant thing with using cards in this way is that when you have the same topic covered by different
source readings, you can reorder your cards so that you have the same concepts in the same place. In
fact, I tried where possible to combine concepts where there was overlap. This occurred a lot with LP,
where I ended up organizing all the mortality assumption notes together, for example.
I will attach a small sample of these notes so that you see what I mean. Unfortunately I cannot provide
the entire notes, as some of the notes would be copyrighted, and at any rate the syllabus changes
reduces the usefulness of them.
The below shows my Contents tab, which has a link to each topic, and I add things like the no. of past
questions on the topic, and page count, along with a valuable X showing if I have completed the topic.

Below, shows a part of a page, showing the branch structure that I use to make the notes.

Making your condensed study notes


Making your own study notes, as above, is the first step. Once I have those, I no longer refer to the
source material, the purchased study guides, or the online seminars, as I have combined all the pieces of
information that I think I need. I simply go over and over these. As you become more familiar with the
material, you start to realize that there is stuff you absolutely need to know, and there is stuff that isnt
important. You also realize there is still a lot of overlap between topics, and overlap of many different
memorization lists.
e.g. What are the reasons for lapses? In LP there are numerous lists covering this topic, coming from
different source materials. I found it best to combine these and make one list. The only issue with this is if
a question referenced a particular readingbut at least with a combined list you should hit some of the
points they are looking for, and at the very least the marker will know that you have a good understanding
of the topic.
PAK provides a nice formulae book with the formulae they think you need to know for the exam. While I
didnt agree always agree with the formulae they included, and I also added some they left off, I think the
concept of having a book that contained the critical information is a must have, and this provided a good
basic start. I made a spiral binder of this formula book, and also added a bunch of blank 8.5 x 11 cards,
which I added each list and formula which I needed to memorize. Often this simply meant printing
sections of my notes, and cutting out the particular list, and sticking it in the bible as I referred to it. Over
the weeks it got larger and larger, as I continuously added the most critical information.
I used to look at this at least once daily. Often time, I spent of each day going through this. As it got
closer to the exam, this is all I really looked at. This is basically the same concept as making your own
cue cards, or very similar to the condensed study guides which PAK/TIA provide. However, somehow by
making it myself, I had full confidence that I wasnt omitting anything that I thought was useful, or
including anything I thought was a waste of time to learn.
Below is a snap shot of one of the pages, showing the spliced in notes from my original notes, as well as
my awful handwriting in places. The guillotine was of great help with this process. The spiral binding also
made it easy to insert pages in the middle of the book.

Even though this condensed study note has lost the branch structure of the original study note, it was no
longer necessary as at this point, I have a good understanding of the structure, and I am more focused on
memorization. The below also shows where the tables are from the purchased study notes, but I have
either highlighted a section of the table to save time, and added my own points as well. I also used
coloured stickies on pages that I needed more work on.

Study Schedule
I found the provided ones from PAK/TIA helpful, as they listed all the topics, and had a page count to give
an approximation of how much time each topic required..but I did not stick to a study schedule. As long
as I was maximizing the amount of hours I was studying each day, a study schedule was not that
important. I reasoned that I could not do more than I was already doing anyway.

Order of Study
LP only started to click for me when I organized my notes by like topic. E.g. all mortality related stuff
was put together. TIA provides a suggested order of study which I found very useful, as this is difficult to
do yourself unless you know the material already. PAK Online Seminar (Garry) also provides this with the
online seminar.

Building a foundation of knowledge


For me, studying is about repetition, repetition, repetition.I do not go through the syllabus from A to Z. I
go through it from A to C, then from A to F, then A to H, etcwhenever I started to feel shaky about what
I know, I start back from the beginning. This both re-enforces my knowledge, plus gives me confidence.
CONFIDENCE IS KEY..that is one of my mantras for these exams.

Attack the syllabus from many angles All of the repetition is bound to make you sick of
studying.I doing the same thing, over and over However, the syllabus is often broken up into 4 or
more major categories.Study what you feel like studying. Dont force yourself into studying something
you are not in the mood for.

Im not going to finish the syllabus


Dont sweat it if you dont finish the syllabus. I didnt. I got maybe 2/3 of it done for LP, and 80% of it done
for LFV. Theres not enough time in the exam to answer all of the questions fully anyway! Dont get me
wrong. It is really nice to be able to finish the entire syllabus, but I think it is far better to know 80% of it
really well, than be mediocre on 100% of it.
If that question on the topic that you did not study comes on the exam, it gives you that much more time
to spend on the other questions covering the topics you know well!
However, while I do say I only covered 2/3 of the LP syllabus, I did cover it in the order such that this
represented 85% of past questions.

I dont understand this topic


I ranked all topics by importance, both based on number of past questions, as well as efficiency (no. of
past questions to page count ratio). This is not fool proof, but it tended to show me topics that were
considered more important. I generally found that I never really understood a topic until I was able to do
some past questions on it. If no past questions existed, and it was a hard topic, chances are I would not
do too well on it anyway, especially if the first time I was seeing a question on it was in the actual exam.
Time is precious, so these topics got less attention from me. There were also some topics that I found so
ridiculously complicated..that it did not make sense wasting any time on them.
Also, there are some entire sections that I found very hard (e.g. anything written by my old professor Mary
Hardy) or really tedious e.g. LP Canadian Taxation of Life Insurance. I skipped this section entirely. Im
not going to waste precious time on a topic that I am just not getting, and there is no guarantee it will
come.

Think like a question writer


When you are going through a topic, continually think about how this topic/concept might be tested.

Answering exam questions


Normally, with straightforward questions, I would always say to read the question carefully, underline key
points, and make sure you are answering what the question is looking for. By studying well, you should
build up a suitable knowledge base for answering most of these types of questions. Unfortunately, these
tend to make up a small proportion of the questions on the exam.
Many exam questions are crappy. Some contain mistakes. And others are just so hard that most people
dont have a clue how to answer them. In reading through the model solutions provided, I am sometimes
really surprised at what people get marks for. So, while you leave these hard questions for last, put down
any knowledge you may have, even vaguely related to the topic .whether it is answering the question or
not. Anything is better than a blank paper. Even a topic you do not have a clue about, if you can put down
some sort of basic first principles logic.its better than nothing. However, always remember that time
management is key, and do the easier questions before spending too much time on these.
I tend to mark the questions as I go through the paper, so I know which ones to come back to, and in
which order. Basically either with a tick meaning I am happy with my answer, with an X meaning I
probably dont have anything worthwhile down, and a ~ meaning I have something written down, but its
incomplete.

15 minute read through time I like to compare each question to a fruit that you are squeezing.
You are trying to maximize the amount of juice (marks) that you get from each question. In the read
through time, you try to determine which questions are ripe fruit and easy to squeeze, and which ones
are rock hard and just cause you wasted time and anguish. I think in my LFV exam I was partially
successful because I recognized the ripe fruit were to the back of the paper, and maximized marks while
others were struggling on the earlier questions (some rocks) which were time consuming, and hard to
extract marks from. Im not saying to skip to the back, but just make sure you are not spending too much
time on questions that you will not be rewarded for.

Exams are hard The FSA exams are nightmares. I felt physically sick and emotionally drained
after each one. There is no getting around that. For each exam, I had a moment during the 15 minute
read through time when I thought, there is no way I am passing this examBut.I still want to do as
well as I can possibly do.and somehow that still turned into a passing grade each time.
Do your absolutely utmost during the exam to transfer the knowledge in your brain, down to the paper. Do
not give up at any point. If you are still writing when time runs out, you have done well! I ran out of
knowledge with a hour to go with LP, but still tried my hardest to put down something for questions I
didnt have a clue about. Fight it out until the last second.
Feel free to pm me with any questions you might haveand good luck!!!