How to Study for FSA exams

I’ve taken a lot of exams. I’ve been taking exams since ~2012, and I’ve sat for FSA exams 7 times now. Just memorizing notecards doesn’t work for me. I managed to get through Core/Advanced (now DP/FV) without really memorizing many lists, but Specialty seems to be kicking my butt. So I’ve been taking a step back and trying to reevaluate my study methods.

I’d love for more feedback from others, but here’s what I’ve found:

  • This book came out a while ago, but I never gave it a try. It’s $10 for a year’s access to the digital version, so I figured what the heck. I’ve purchased the book and have read through the first introductory chapters. Actuarial Exam Tactics: Learn More, Study Less. Here’s a link to a blog post about the authors: How I Passed my First FSA Exam with 176 Study Hours - Rethink Studying
  • YouTube recommended this video to me. I watched this super long video, and I’ve spent a few hours watching a lot of his other videos. What he says makes sense to me, and there were multiple times where it felt like he was talking specifically about my experience studying for FSA exams. He has a course that isn’t terribly expensive. I may try it (they help you create a custom study plan), but enrollment doesn’t open up for a month.

So that’s where I’m at. I’m motivated to study differently because I need to pass my last exam, and I can’t just do the same thing I tried the last two sittings (memorize memorize memorize). Anyone have any other resources they used to help them study more effectively?

Google learning how to learn uwaterloo. A prof did a series of videos on how to learn. Helped me a lot in my undergrad.

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I worked with the authors to provide feedback on the book. Most of my suggestions were incorporated (mostly related to identifying examples related to CAS Exams as well as SOA material).

In general, I agree with much of their material; but would point out that much of their system is better utilized from a comprehensive perspective: master the key topics on earlier Exams so that you don’t have to “relearn” them for later Exams (which is what will happen if your focus is “memorize the stuff to pass this Exam”).

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It’s been almost 15 years since I took an FSA exam, so my experience may be nearly invalid. However, I did pass 4 FSA-level exams in 5 attempts, so that may be a reasonable caveat. Here’s my first thoughts:

1. Primary sources are your best bet. I rarely relied on study notes or seminars, because those had been filtered from the original at least once, and were often tuned to what the study note creator or seminar presenter preferred. I can recall one time, studying for a prelim exam, when a coworker and I got in to a discussion about economics. He asked, “Where did you come up with that?” I pulled out the text and pointed to it. He said, “Well, that’s not the way we learned it in my college econ class.” Right, but the exam isn’t based on your college text, it’s based on this one right here that’s on the syllabus. I passed that exam first try, he passed on his third. Evidence? Maybe. Regardless, I like 90% of the time relied on primary sources only, and very rarely bought a study manual.

2. There are no shortcuts. Make a plan that includes plenty of flexible time for your study schedule to adapt to the world around you. The one failure I had was when my exam came only a couple of weeks after a major trip with the family. I thought I would get studying done. I didn’t. That exam also had a lot of lists to memorize. I generally don’t do well with general list memorization. I figured I would just have to go with it to get past that exam. So I did the following:

3. Create your own flashcards. Similar to #1 above, when you do this, you not only force yourself to understand the material, you understand it in a way that makes sense to you. For one FSA exam, I ended up with about 500 double-sided cards, some with mnemonics on one side and the definition on the other for various things I was trying to remember, some with various distillations of concepts that made sense to me and allowed me to solidify the topics through repetition.

4. Analyze the prior exams, not for the questions themselves, but the style of the questions that will be asked. Are there several questions about a particular subject? What are the weights of the subjects? Are there many questions about a particular case study? Is there a trend to ask higher-value, multi-part questions about a particular concept? Then compare that subject to the syllabus - what has not yet been asked? What gets asked every time?

5. Design your own exam. Use the learnings from your analysis to come up with potential questions, following whatever template you’ve identified in #4.

6. Be ready 2 weeks ahead of exam time. If you need a little extra flex time, either because of life stuff, you’ve got some margin. Then taper down and be mentally prepared for the stress of the day.

7. Take the day off work and go golfing (or some other relaxation activity) the day before. You likely won’t learn anything new on the very last day, you’re not going to forget anything in that one day, and you will significantly reduce your stress levels, which will allow your brain to function most effectively.

You’ve probably already done many of these things. If you’d like a face-to-face conversation, I’m happy to talk. My DMs are open.



Thanks for the thoughts, I appreciate it!

The ReThink book mentions points 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 of @Bro’s post as key parts of their process. Although point 5 would be better worded as "Design your own exam questions rather than designing an exam. :stuck_out_tongue:

It also says to do point 3 to supplement another source’s flashcard.

I would add that one thing to have before you sit for the exam is not only an exam strategy–what kind of question(s) or topic(s) to tackle first/second/etc.–but have practiced that strategy several times.


Also . . . something somethingsomething eat Thai food something or other . . .

Also: 2.5. Aim for an 8. Many students study to get a 6. There’s no margin, and since you’ll generally not perform as well as you hope during stressful situations, you’re setting yourself up to fail because your margin for error is so thin. Other students aim to get a 10. That, in my opinion, is overkill. You’ll be losing your own mind in the process of trying to learn everything, potentially sacrificing your health, your relationships, and even your career that you’re taking the exam for! Aiming for an 8 is the sweet spot: you have some room to breathe, giving yourself some grace during the exam period when you blank on a question because you are confident you’re nailing everything everything else. Again, very anecdotal, but all of my passing scores were 7 or 8 except for 1, which was a 6. My failure was a 4, I believe, indicative that I hadn’t done enough, probably because I was just trying to scrape by that time.

You can do it! I believe in you.


One thing that helped me was to consolidate my notes where multiple sources discussed similar topics. I did use pre-made notecards but I combined and expanded and categorized them for myself. I made huge lists on topics like “types of risk” and then noted how those risks affected various Group& Health products.

I also wrote my notes with colored scented markers. I read somewhere that getting as many senses involved as possible helped with memorizing. I also took my notecards to the gym while I walked on the treadmill. Glanced at one before I vacuumed a section of my house and recited it while vacuuming. Cleanest my floors have ever been before or since.

Another thing I read was that trying to recite the information before you think you have it down aids the memorization process, so I tried that a lot too. Basically I googled some stuff on memorization, and that along with doing my own summaries and lists got me through.

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Oh yeah, I don’t know if this is possible with current exam settings, but to the extent possible practice exam conditions. So if you’ll be typing answers for X hours, practice typing exam stuff for that many hours. For me it was writing and I was having a lot of literal pain in my neck. (from a long ago car wreck.) I went to my dr and discussed the situation and got steroids a couple weeks before the exam. Makes me laugh to remember, like an athlete getting performance enhancing drugs.

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Making your own note cards is a good strategy.

Just making the cards, or your own outlines, is a good way to organize the info in your head.

One strategy I used was to do the “what are the top takeaways” for each reading on the syllabus, and I also tried to come up with exam questions from the readings myself.

When you use study materials other people create, that’s fine (obviously – I used to do exam seminars myself – it’s a lot of work!), but by making your own cards, or even trying to extract one or two bullet points from a reading before going to an exam manual makes you engage in the material more actively.

Given you’ve passed other FSA exams before, I’m making the assumption that you understand exam day strategy (not spending too much time on questions you know really well, not skipping any questions… I mean, at least reading and seeing if there are at least some easy points you can get, etc.) and your issue is getting enough syllabus coverage into your brain long-term.

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And this is the key for “long-term memory” of the material (emphasis added).

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