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So … You Want to Know How to Pass Actuarial Exams?

Advice from Krzys’ Ostaszewski

Being an actuary is probably the best profession to have in the United States. You can find information about the profession at the site:, and the web site of the Actuarial Program of Illinois State University: While this is a wonderful profession, candidates for it must pass a series of very challenging professional examinations. Most candidates find the experience of taking those examinations very frustrating and far more difficult than a typical university-level class. There are several important reasons for this situation, and if you want to pass actuarial examinations, you should consider them:

Follow the Money

Actuaries are responsible for massive amounts of other people’s money. Billions of dollars. It makes sense for actuarial examinations to have very high standards. And actuaries are paid very well, while having prestigious, comfortable jobs, with low stress levels, and no unemployment. There has to be a catch, and the catch is: it is hard, very hard, to become a fully qualified professional actuary.

You Have Global Competition

Despite massive spending on education in the United States, educational standards have been lowered over time. If you went to high school in the United States, chances are you did not study any physics or calculus while being there. Even at the university level, where the United States remains the world leader, low standards in mathematics and science are creeping in. You may have to face the reality that while massive amounts of your own, your parents’, and taxpayers’ money were spent on your education, you did not learn enough mathematics and science. If you want to be a respected actuarial professional, you must have the maturity to face your own weaknesses and overcome them. Learn to love studying mathematics and its business applications. Be hungry for knowledge. This hunger will serve you well not just on the exams, but on the job, as well.

Welcome to the Real Life

Once you pass actuarial examinations, you will find that the rewards of actuarial work are truly great and satisfying. There are other professions that offer great careers: medicine, law, engineering, accounting. People who study those other professions work very hard and pay a lot of money for their education. It takes far less money to become an actuary. But the process is equally, or maybe even more serious. If you want to become an actuary, you should never try to do the minimum amount of work needed just to pass. If your objective were to become a doctor, would you study medicine this way? If a doctor studied just barely enough to get a medical license, would you want that doctor to take care of your child? Becoming an actuary is not just about getting a job. This is a prominent, prestigious profession. Be very, very serious about it. The day you take an actuarial examination should be as real in your mind as if you were a quarterback playing in the Super Bowl, an athlete competing for a gold medal in the Olympics, a tennis player in the Wimbledon final, or the Yellow Jersey cyclist on the biggest mountain stage of Tour de France.

Many actuarial students ask for tricks and shortcuts to passing actuarial examinations. I firmly believe there is only one trick/shortcut:

The BTDT Rule: When you are taking an actuarial examination, you must be so well prepared that when you read every problem on the test you say to yourself: Been There Done That.

This means that when you are taking an actuarial examination and you read a problem, you will immediately know how to do it. You will not derive any formulas: because you have them all memorized, by having done hundreds of practice problems and having reviewed your list of formulas for memorization daily. You will not think about a good trick to solve a problem, because you have done all thinking during your preparation and you immediately know what to do. You will be a lean mean problem solving machine. You will prevail no matter how bad the exam is and no mater how bad of a day you have.

Here is some more advice on preparing for actuarial exams:

  • Ancient Greeks created this adage: Pathemata mathemata. Loosely translated it means: If you are not hurting, you are not learning. There are people out there promising you stress-free studying, easy path, shortcuts, to passing actuarial exams. Those do not exist. You must study things that are new and uncomfortable to you. If you are asking: “Why can’t I do this my way?”, then you want to fail the exam.
  • You must practice under same stress conditions as the real test. Take practice exams under exam-like conditions. Take hard exams, just about the hardest exams that can possibly happen. Do not give yourself any extra time. No snack breaks, no trips to the fridge for a Diet Mountain Dew.
  • Keep a diary of your study experience, not just the time spent studying, but what you studied and how it felt. Write down your feelings, including your frustrations and successes.
  • After you take a practice exam, study your failures in detail and understand fully why they happened. As if you were a sport team watching their last game, in which they ended up in a humiliating defeat. If the team studies the game in detail, do you think they are likely to repeat the debacle? I do not think so.
  • Most importantly: Exam is not a chore! It is a magnificent challenge, which is your ticket to a good job, steady and good paycheck, where they will pay you to make important decisions that will really help other people. And all you need to do is to solve mathematical puzzles. If it sounds too good to be true …, well, it is too good to be true, but it is true! Do those puzzles!

Please remember that you must have the background of three semesters of calculus (and preferably a semester of linear algebra) to start studying for the Course P/1 examination, two semesters of calculus to start studying for the Course FM/2 examination. If you think you can ignore these prerequisites, you did not understand my advice stated above.

I work very hard to teach students at Illinois State University following the ideas presented here. I believe our results (we are a Society of Actuaries Center of Actuarial Excellence, since 2009, the very beginning of that designation, and Gold Level in the Casualty Actuarial Society University Recognition Program) speak for themselves. Our university is also a Global Center for Insurance Excellence. If you want to become our student, please contact our Office of Admissions. 

I have also authored study manuals for four actuarial examinations, and have a YouTube channel with practice problems for actuarial examinations. Here is some information about study resources I produced and online seminars for actuarial exams P and FM that we offer at Illinois State University:

Dr. Krzysztof Ostaszewski’s video channels
Old Video Channel
New Video Channel
Course P/1 Examination: Probability
Course P/1 Seminar at Illinois State University
Purchase the BTDT Study Manual for the Course P/1 Examination by Krzysztof Ostaszewski
Course FM/2 Examination: Financial Mathematics
Course FM/2 Seminar at Illinois State University
Purchase the BTDT Study Manual for the Course FM/2 Examination by Krzysztof Ostaszewski

When you use these study manuals, it is very, very important that you do more than reading them, you should have paper and pen or pencil ready and reproduce all the work done in them and make certain you understand every detail. Every detail. You cannot skip anything. In case you ever forget: This is mathematics, and that means: every detail matters. You cannot leave any item without fully understanding it. Then you should take practice exams in them, under time constraint and conditions just like during a real exam. Typically, a score of 70% or better is what to need to pass. Once you are done with a practice exam, you should study its solutions very carefully. Work very, very hard to make certain that you understand everything. If you have questions about any of my manuals, you can e-mail me at:

All information contained here is, to our best knowledge, correct, but it is merely a representation, and should not be considered to be any form of professional advice. This electronic publication should not be misconstrued as the official position of Illinois State University, or its Department of Mathematics. We are glad to provide as much information as possible here, but we kindly ask that in any decision related to matters listed here you seek additional counsel and information. Comments on this Home Page are welcome and should be sent to Dr. Krzysztof Ostaszewski  at his e-mail address:

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