I’ve had a longstanding love/hate relationship with professional exams since starting my career. I’ve done CFA exams and actuarial exams (CFA are easier.. just). I’ve passed exams; I’ve failed exams. I’ve panicked in an exam and failed. I’ve cried after passing an exam. I was once so ashamed of myself after failing (fourth fail in 7 months) I couldn’t bear to talk to anyone and hid in a coffee shop for hours. And when I emerged I lied about the result!
I finally discovered how to really push myself to my limit in quantity and quality of preparation, working hard and working smart, and finally figuring it out. And failed again! I’ve wondered if I had what it takes a thousand times. But, in the end I kept getting better, smarter, stronger.
And I persevered. Here’s what I’ve learned.
There are three causes of failure on tests, in order of priority (I’ve done them all):
- Underpreparation (inexcusable)
- Panic/focus imbalance (both are necessary!)
- Poor comprehension (much less important than you think)
If you add together all testing in the world, I’d bet 90% of all unsuccessful attempts at any test (or any thing in life!) is due to poor preparation. In case you haven’t heard this Muhammad Ali quote:
The sad truth is that, I don’t care what we’re talking about, you probably aren’t working hard enough. Advice is useless unless you are deeply committed to the project you’re studying for. And if you aren’t why are you doing it anyway? Stop reading this, and go find something you love before coming back.
Ok, so with unlimited motivation, how do you manage psychology and maximize every brain cell you have?
The first step is controlling presence. Presence is this ridiculously useful concept my wife taught me from her acting days.
It means to be ‘in the moment’. In an acting context, you need to react to your environment ‘from your crotch’. Great actors believe what’s happening to them for pretend, even though they’re on a set, or in front of a blue screen, and have people and microphones and gadgets around. Now, that takes focus.
And, so does studying. You need to be completely consumed by the material you’re learning in THAT moment, not thinking about dinner, not thinking about your wife or boyfriend or kid or some TV show. Your mind cannot wander, particularly for difficult subjects, or you won’t actually learn anything. Recognizing when you are and are not focused is the first key. Next, is learning techniques for creating presence and retrieving it once it’s lost.
Now, add fear. For actuarial exams, if you do not give everything you have, you will fail. But, we live in a pampered world, so you’ve probably never been out of second gear. You literally don’t know what it feels like to be at your best. If you don’t know what that feels like, how do you know when you reach it? Be afraid.
Now, for some practical tips:
- Make your own cue cards. This means listen to an idea, understand the idea, then write an exam question with the idea in your own words and answer on the back. Then, quiz yourself. I’ve written thousands of cue cards (bittersweet throwing them out). Don’t just flick through them, either. READ them.
- Track your weak points with more focused notes. You’ll need to learn this stuff again and again, so multiple explanations are key. They need to be right, though, and in your own words, so don’t just blindly copy stuff down.
I’ve already repeated similar advice now, so let me simplify: THINK, THINK, THINK. Forget about the test for a minute: do you believe what you’re reading? Really? Like, REALLY? Isn’t it probably actually a little wrong? Why is it wrong? Human communication is terrible everywhere in life and this random textbook author got every single issue right? Give me a break. If you aren’t disagreeing with the material, you aren’t paying attention.
- Later in the process, you’ve probably memorized practice problems rather than grasped the material. So protect yourself from self deceit by saving practice exams for the end. You can’t unsee a naked 90 year old and the same goes for a good practice exam question. My exam plan works back from my exam date, doing one practice exam a day. So if the exam is on a Tuesday and I have 5 practice exams, I do one each day from Thursday through Monday. That means I need to be DONE studying without ever looking at those problems by the day before the practice exams start.
- Forgetting and relearning. Weird, I know, but the more times you learn something the more likely it is to stick forever. Know that you’re going to forget stuff and plan for it.
- Yes, plan. I’m repeating bullets again. Overestimate the time it takes to learn things. This is every mediocre student’s downfall. They procrastinate and try to crunch it all in at once. For god’s sake don’t cram!
- Grind it out. For my latest exam, I had a demanding job, three kids under five at home and a new house we were renovating. But I did about 90 minutes a day for 4 months straight on my commute. I still put my kids to bed every night, and work took priority as necessary. Consistency and duration of effort is incredibly powerful. We overestimate what we can do in a day but underestimate what we can do in a year.
- Sleep in a routine. Exercise in a routine. Don’t drink. Be a warrior monk.
- Change your location. Memory cues matter, and you’re going to be testing in an unfamiliar location, so having diverse environments lowers your chance of a grade-killing blank memory when you sit down.
- Persevere. I’ve had all kinds of opportunity for excuses. I had to push an exam date back a week when my first kid was born. During Hurricane Sandy, I had to evacuate and find a town with an exam center, an open hotel, that took dogs, and moved in with my three month old waiting for the exam center to open again. I spent the weekend in a hospital before another. Had a family member move down to NYC for cancer treatment during the last few weeks of yet another one. Got the flu right before one. The list of hardships goes on and on. Of the stories above, some I passed, and some I failed. Don’t give up.
- Always remember that learning is HARD. Learning is PAINFUL. Actuaries tend to cultivate a reputation for being smart, but the irony is that they spend most of their time feeling stupid. They always start off not understanding something, and it’s their job to figure out the puzzle.
I’ve sworn to myself I’d never do another exam a few times. These things are cataclysmic events in my life. But I keep coming back.
The reason is that the feeling of pushing yourself to your limit, once you figure it out, is addictive. The feeling of mastery is addictive. The feeling of taking on an unreasonable challenge, and overcoming it is addictive. It’s very hard to find that kind of thing anywhere else in life. It’s why I understand when professional athletes don’t want to retire. They’re the best, and they need to give that up in their 20s and 30s? That must be so hard.
For the rest of us though, being awesome is completely achievable. Over and over again. Go do it!