Article first published on CoachingActuaries blog in May, 2014.

Having completed elementary and middle school in China, I’ve experienced what it takes to survive the exam driven (if not dominated) education system in China, which is also common in many other Asian countries, such as Japan and Korea. Because of that experience, preparing and taking actuarial exams in the U.S. is like meeting old friends, somewhat heart-warming.

Unlike in the U.S., high school education is not guaranteed in China – students have to take high school entrance exams to receive admission to high schools. And once you get into high school, students spend the next three years doing one thing – preparing for Gaokao, or Chinese college entrance exams. If you walk into a randomly selected bookstore in China, I can guarantee with a high confidence level that you will find a large section of exam prep materials, and the majority of them are sample exams and practice problems. “Practice makes perfect” is the golden key to success in the Chinese education system.

My perfect score on Exam P and a failing score on my first attempt of Exam FM made me strongly believe that this golden rule also applies to actuarial exams.

Exam P was my first actuarial exam, so I was both inspired and scared by what people said about how hard that exam is. After I finished studying for the exam material, I started doing Adapt practice exams. I was almost addicted to raising my Adapt level – I completed 13 Adapt practice exams within 15 days and reached an Earned Level of 9.2. As I did more practice exams, I got much more familiar with the exam question types and I could almost predict what a question was going to ask before I even completed reading the question prompt. That familiarity greatly increased my confidence and speed of problem solving: I completed Exam P when there were 50 minutes left. And I was not surprised by the score I received six weeks later: a 10.

Then I took Exam FM at the end of my freshman year summer – not a good idea in hindsight. I went to Rome for six weeks to study aboard that summer and did not have enough time to prepare: I looked through the FM manual, but didn’t do any practice exams, thinking knowing every single FM formula would be enough. But my score of 5 proved me wrong.

When I reflected back, I realized that the study manual only allowed me to understand the materials, but not how to effectively apply them to solve problems. What I did with my Exam FM first attempt is comparable to starting to drive a car right after passing the knowledge test, but without behind-the-wheel practice.

Practice makes perfect. Sounds cliché, but is definitely a golden rule in actuarial exam preparation. To drive well, remember to practice often after getting your permit! Adapt is definitely a great coach once you’re practicing “behind-the-wheel”.

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