What does it take to pass an FSA exam? (Part 2)

In January 2019, we surveyed our FSA exam customers to identify patterns in study habits during the fall 2018 sitting. You can read the results of that survey here.

We repeated this same survey in July 2019 targeting exam candidates who took an FSA level exam during the spring 2019 sitting. We received over 440 responses to the spring 2019 survey, up from the 350 responses we received in the fall 2018 survey. However, we found very similar patterns, which are described below.

As with the original survey, we looked at both quantitative results (e.g. time spent studying) and behavioral patterns (e.g. strategies employed while studying) suggested by the survey. Of the two, we still believe that understanding the behavioral patterns of successful candidates has the most value. In other words, we believe quality of study time is a bigger driver of success than quantity. 

Exams Included In the Survey

The survey was sent to customers who used a TIA course for one of the following exams. Because of the greater number of 5-hour exams, the majority of responses fell into that category.

  • 2-hour exams included: ILA LRM, G&H Specialty, QFI IRM
  • 4-hour exam included: ERM
  • 5-hour exams included: ILA LP, ILA LFV-U, ILA LFV-C, G&H Core, G&H Advanced, QFI Quant, QFI Advanced

Aggregate Study Time

We are often asked how much time our customers spend studying in total. As one might expect, the survey data once again show that candidates spend more time studying as the length of the exam increases.

Aggregate study time spring2019

How Study Time Varied for Those Who Passed vs. Failed

In total, 73% of spring 2019 survey respondents reported passing. In the previous survey (fall 2018), we did not observe a significant difference in study time between people who passed and those who failed the 2-hour exams and 4-hour ERM exam.

However, the spring 2019 results showed a clear tendency for 2-hour exam passers to be in the 200–400 hour range, while people who failed tended to concentrate more in the 300 hour or less range. The return on additional study time beyond the 400-hour mark also diminishes greatly for 2-hour exams.

2hr exam study time spring2019

As with the fall 2018 survey, however, the 4-hour ERM responses did not show a meaningful difference in study time. However, we’re hesitant to assign much credibility to the failing population of ERM candidates in our survey because 86% of ERM respondents reported passing. In other words, we had too few failing respondents to analyze for ERM.

At any rate, as with the previous survey, we believe that for the 2-hour and 4-hour exams, quality of study time remains the biggest driver of success. 

For the 5-hour exams, the amount of study time was more skewed left for people who did not pass the exam. The spring 2019 results were similar to the fall 2018 results in this regard, but we observed a higher concentration of passing candidates in the 300–400 hour range for spring 2019. 

5hr exam study time spring2019

As with the previous survey, we also looked at the cumulative distribution of only people who passed 5-hour exams:

5hr exam study time cumulative spring2019

The distribution above is very similar to the fall 2018 version. For spring 2019, roughly 77% of those who passed a 5-hour exam spent at least 300–400 hours studying, after which there is a subtle inflection toward the 400–500 group. This suggests a slight diminishing of returns on study time after 400 hours for 5-hour exams and continues to debunk the old “100 study hours per exam hour” rule of thumb since virtually all passers spent less than 500 hours studying. However, we think it’s reasonable to recommend being on the upper end of the 300–400 range to increase the chances of passing 5-hour exams. 

Analysis of Study Habits

As with the previous survey, we asked respondents to share their general strategy and/or any tips that worked for them. We received nearly 100 written responses from people who passed. The common themes we identified remained unchanged from the last survey.

These themes did not appear in the responses from people who failed. Therefore, we think these points are the most important of all the information provided by the survey and get at the importance of study time quality versus quantity.

  • Embrace active learning. This was the single biggest recurring theme. The vast majority of those who passed say they took an active approach to studying. Examples included:
    • Writing notes on lesson handouts while watching video lessons
    • Writing notes on TIA flashcards and condensed/summary outlines
    • Some people rewrote our flashcards or made their own flashcards and/or outlines for review as they learned the material
  • Use of flashcards for review. Although some successful candidates mentioned that they did not use flashcards at all, the vast majority used flashcards in some fashion to review/memorize material. However, no one relied solely on flashcards for studying. Rather, people either started on flashcards while doing the video lessons and/or reviewed flashcards heavily on the final weeks before the exam. Overall, the use of flashcards is extremely diverse, and person-specific.
  • Multiple iterations over the entire syllabus. Many people who passed said they made multiple passes over the entire syllabus. Many watched the video lessons multiple times at varying speeds (1.5x, 2x, etc.). Some explicitly recommended not trying to guess what will be on the exam and instead trying to cover the whole syllabus. No one who passed said they used past exams to “predict” what would be on future exams in an effort to reduce what they had to study.
  • Work past SOA exams and practice problems. Many people worked past SOA exam problems and other practice questions, mainly in the final month before the exam.
  • Stay on schedule. Several successful candidates recommended sticking to a study schedule.

Based on the responses, we concluded that most successful candidates spent the majority of their study time consuming lessons and graded from a “learning phase” during their first pass over the material to more of a “review phase” in the weeks leading up to the exam and took more of an active approach throughout.

Other Miscellaneous Observations and Notes

  • 100% of respondents used a TIA online course for their exam (as would be expected since the survey only went to TIA customers)
  • A minority of people supplemented their TIA course with non-TIA materials, but once again, we did not see a meaningful pattern in pass rates between that group and the others
  • Once again, we were surprised to see that neither total study time or pass rates varied by exam attempt. People attempting their exam for the second, third, and even fourth time spent the same total amount of time studying as people on their first attempt, and pass rates were similar. Some noted in their comments that even though they had taken the exam before, they were using TIA for the first time. This may explain why performance was similar to those taking the exam for the first time.
  • As noted earlier, the aggregate weighted average pass rate in the spring 2019 survey population was 73% for spring 2019. For reference, the weighted average pass rate reported by the SOA was 48%. This average is based only on the exams included in this survey and is weighted by the number of responses we received by exam in our survey. 


As stated earlier, we believe quality of study time is a bigger driver of success than quantity. This is true of all exams, but even more true on the smaller exams where the passing and failing populations of students follow a very similar study time distribution. We hope that the study habits outlined above will help guide future candidates, and we especially endorse an active learning approach. If you have any questions at all about your upcoming exam, please reach out to our instructors anytime. 

If you are new to FSA exams and want to understand how FSA exams differ from the prelims, check out this video.